Sunday, April 27, 2008

NYTimes Review of "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon"

By Sheila Weller.

Illustrated. 584 pp. Atria Books. $27.95.

How you feel about Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation” may depend on how you respond to Weller’s dedication, which reads: “To the women of the 1960s generation. (Were we not the best?)” If that’s the sort of thing that gets you all hepped up to pour a glass of chardonnay and order some gauzy embroidered tunics and Clarks sandals from the Soft Surroundings catalog, then you go, girl! If, on the other hand, the nakedly self-congratulatory quality of that dedication makes you want to play a record by the Slits or Hole or Sleater-Kinney, really loud, you may be in a different category, or just a different age group — not the “best” one.

Full disclosure: I was 4 in 1965, and because one of my older sisters had come home with a 45 of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the only serious question on my mind was which Beatle I was going to marry. I wasn’t, as Carole King was at the time, a very young married mother of two, balancing a career as a hit songwriter with the more traditional challenges of caring for babies and dealing with a difficult but gifted husband. I wasn’t, as Joni Mitchell was, an unhappily pregnant — and unmarried — aspiring folk singer from Saskatchewan, trying to square her desperate straits with her exceedingly proper upbringing. And I wasn’t Carly Simon, a privileged but somewhat troubled free-spirit-in-training, reveling in the grooviness of early 1960s Sarah Lawrence. Still, I’m not sure having lived through a particular era, no matter what challenges that era presented, necessarily confers greatness. When I began writing pop music criticism, in the 1990s, I was grateful that Ellen Willis, Janet Maslin and Ariel Swartley, among others, had paved the way before me. But their legacy actually gave me less patience for old hippies’ gassing on. I didn’t — and still don’t — care much for finger wagging on the part of my elders.

The grating self-aggrandizement of that dedication aside, the reality — and the relief — of this book is that it doesn’t set out to scold us. Weller, a journalist whose other books include the 2003 memoir “Dancing at Ciro’s,” is more interested in exploring how these three distinct yet dovetailing artists bucked the expectations that had been laid out for them by previous generations and blazed a new path for women to follow. She’s only partly successful: the book unintentionally makes the case that two of these women changed things for themselves more than for anyone else.

Then again, even self-determination has value, and much of “Girls Like Us” is entertaining and intelligent, thanks to Weller’s skills as a storyteller and her understanding of the musical traditions that inspired each of her subjects (particularly, in Mitchell’s case, the Child ballads from England and Scotland). She’s also perceptive about the social milieus that, kicking and screaming, these women had to bust out of.

More at


TarBabyJim said...

You're funny, I like the way you write.

I hear good things about this book, I think I'll get a copy and check it out.

I like Melanie best though.

Thanks for the review.
Jim Baldwin
Spokane WA
My website:

Zazous Project said...

I read the story in VF last month on these three. It was very insightful to see how the three of them honed their craft and how guys like James Taylor floated among them...