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Book Review

The leading ladies of the soft-rock '70s

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Steve Morse
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2008

Girls Like Us: Carole King,
Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon
- and the Journey of a Generation

By Sheila Weller
Atria Books, 584 pp., $27.95

Talk about adventurous lives. Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon may have starred in the soft-rock movement of the '70s, but there was nothing mellow about their journeys. They led enormously rich and complex lives that made them magnets for famous men while ushering in a new feminism in music and society. They filled gossip pages, but it was their songs that fueled a generation hungry for change.

Sheila Weller's new book "Girls Like Us" is a page-turner of the first order. Weller stretches ambitiously to create three overlapping biographies of these pop stars. She succeeds by sheer force of will and by inner-circle access that helps her to interview seemingly the friends, colleagues, and family members who knew them.

The three leading ladies are hardly average "girls," and Weller gets a bit stressed in trying to cite parallels with the Everywomen of their time. But for an exhilarating look at three of the most creative talents of their era, this book is a must read. Also impressive is that these women didn't interact much with each other (though Simon and Mitchell both fell hard for James Taylor, who also enlisted King as his pianist), but you almost feel as if they could be sisters by the end.

The artists came from vastly different circumstances. King was raised middle-class in Brooklyn, striving to better herself by listening to classical music and Rodgers & Hammerstein showtunes. Mitchell grew up in the Canadian prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan, an only child who became a bohemian rebel and poet, moving to Greenwich Village and later Laurel Canyon. And Simon was bred with a silver spoon (her father helped to found the Simon & Schuster publishing firm), though she had to fight through her rich-girl stereotype - and battle some acute male chauvinism from both a music manager and a studio engineer seeking to exchange favors for sex.

The author, who also wrote "Dancing at Ciro's," does a laudable job of discussing their music, quoting songs and telling who or what inspired them (usually a love interest). And she is wonderfully detailed about the adventures that befell them: how King (whose "Tapestry" album was the best-selling record by a female for many years) moved to Idaho to marry a backwoodsman nicknamed Teepee Rick; how Mitchell went to live in a cave in Crete and drove alone across the United States; and how a young Simon took off with a Harvard novelist to live briefly in a remote village in southern France.

Unfortunately, heartbreak was never far away for these women, despite their success. King had four marriages ("Every time I divorce another husband, it costs me a million dollars," she said). Mitchell anguished and gave up her biological child for adoption because she feared her career would be compromised, and then had reported romantic ups and downs with Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Taylor, and Sam Shepard. And Simon's personal life reportedly included Taylor (father of her two children), Jack Nicholson, Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stevens, film directors Terence Malick and Bob Rafelson, as well as mysterious flirtations with Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty. (Beatty comes off as the cad of the book, since he also reportedly chased Mitchell and King.)

One almost needs a scorecard to keep their private lives straight. But the author contends that these women were pioneers who broke the old rules of dating (they grew up in an era when even dispensing birth control to married women was a crime in some states), and they boldly filled their songs with what they learned.

As Simon's friend Mia Farrow says, "Even though [Carly] was riddled with phobias . . . she's also fearless with love and life."

It's probably no secret, then, that growing older has been hard on them. They're all in their early to mid-'60s now. King's record sales dropped off, and she retreated to being an environmental activist in Idaho. Mitchell's sales also lagged as she became more musically esoteric. In one later song, "Taming the Tiger," she ripped radio for embracing "formula music, girly guile, generic junk food for juveniles." Simon has perhaps adapted the best by recording stylish albums of pop and jazz standards, writing children's books, and composing songs for movies.

"Girls Like Us" is an anything-goes look at the arc of their careers, and is a special tribute to the boomer culture that spawned them. Although the book should have wide appeal, the author shows her true colors by dedicating it this way: "To the women of the 1960s generation -- were we not the best?"

Steve Morse is a Cambridge-based freelance writer who can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

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