Books: The Soundtrack of Our Lives
Women of a certain age will recall the famous “click” moment, identified and immortalized in 1971 by Jane O’Reilly in the preview issue of Ms. magazine—that nano-second in which a woman becomes a feminist, invariably as a reaction to a stinging sexist insult. But perhaps less clearly remembered was an earlier rash of clicks, marking the moment when each in a generation of young women began to question, among other things, the price of sexual innocence. These clicks may have been harder to hear as they often were triggered by (and, thus, drowned out by) a particularly stirring moment in a song, quite probably written by one of the three autobiographical songwriters whose lives are chronicled in a new book, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation. Written by Sheila Weller and published by Simon & Schuster just last week, Girls Like Us… has already secured a spot on The New York Times Hardback Non-Fiction Bestseller List (#7, with, as they say in Billboard, a bullet), Weller’s third book to do so. Girls Like Us… is a hybrid: a triple biography, a page-turner, and a fascinating and painstakingly wrought work of social history. Weller and her husband, the writer John Kelly, author of The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, live and write part-time in Berkshire County.
Rural Intelligence: In your book, you use the biographies—and the autobiographical lyrics—of three singer/songwriters to make sense of a period in American feminist history that is not easy to explain: the messy, compass-less transition from traditional values, through sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, to liberation, or whatever you choose to call the relatively tidy accommodation we’ve reached today. Please describe the process of coming up with this complex idea?
Sheila Weller: I just always wanted to write this book! Certainly ever since I read Sara Davidson’s nail-on-the-head Loose Change, I first thought, Why didn’t I think of this? and then: I’ll do something like this later…when more time has passed.
Perhaps every generation is solipsistic, but there was something about having gone through the unique wind tunnel of the ‘60s—where so many of us went, overnight, from being luncheon-suited, teased-hair girls-who-were-going-to-get-engaged-right-after-college to…well, to People Who Could Never Run For President—that was instantly one of those One-day-I-HAVE-to-write-about-this experiences. And, indeed, the more years that passed since those halcyon days we were a little too stupid to know we might NOT have survived (there’s a Tangier jail cell out there somewhere with my name on it that by some fluke of luck I just missed inhabiting….), the more you do see, as you so well put it, the “tidy accommodations” that you made.
As the years rolled on, I kept waiting nervously for the book in that once-familiar genre (that started with Mary McCarthy’s The Group and ended, by my count, with Barbara Raskin’s Hot Flashes—and had Loose Change and Alice Adams’s Superior Women in between—that expressed ‘60s women in early middle age (a horrible term that we only freely use now since we’re actually past it ). Luckily, it didn’t come out. People seemed to have forgotten about that three-or-four-women-going-through-time convention. (Maybe “Sex and the City” used up all the air.)
At the same time, I started noticing that younger people had the era all wrong. I remember, for example, that Renee Zellwegger movie [Down With Love] where she went from being a Doris Day, headbanded early ‘60s type to a power-suit feminist. I thought, Whoa! People are missing a whole era—when girls turned into chicks (term worn proudly, not as insult). In 2000 I started working among young women, at Self and then Glamour magazine. My sister, a lawyer (and a compatriot during the great crazy years), also worked among younger women, and we noticed a tantalizing difference—they were instantly “together:” (to use the old term), demanding and making good money, married to nice, sensible guys (no crazy drug dealer boyfriends…), albeit with discreet tattoos, etc. Even the hippest—most purple-haired—of them got…engaged! with a…ring! and bridesmaids! It was illuminating to see the quirks and landmarks of our own generation (female-wing) against the bas relief of this other one we were thrust among.
I wrote other books..true crimes [Marrying the Hangman, Raging Heart, Saint of Circumstance], a memoir [Dancing at Ciro’s]...but I kept thinking of this one. And of course the music and personae of Carole, Joni and Carly were the soundtrack of those thoughts. They were middle class girls, too. There were aspects of each of their lives which we all knew about, and of course their music, that resonated as a counterpart-across-the-celebrity-divide to ours.
One day—this is true; the Berkshires part!—in early 2002..it was winter—I took a walk down Beech Plain Road in Sandisfield, and it literally just came to me. To write an intertwined biography of these three women but more in the manner of The Group and Loose Change than a standard music biography. I came back to the house and called my sister—Liz Weller is her name. And I said, What do you think? And she said: That’s IT. It took me a full year to write and rewrite the proposal to convince my agent, Ellen Levine (from airy conception to concrete proposal is a long journey, as every writer knows) but once she was convinced, oh, man!, was she convinced.
I sold the book at a kind of mini-auction in May 2003. I’d already started doing interviews, but now I carpet-bombed the territory, looking for interviews. So it took six years from conception, five from contract. And a house re-mortgaging in between!
R.I.: Did you ever consider anyone other than Carole, Carly and Joni? If so, who, and why didn’t she make the cut?
S.W.: Actually, I did. I considered Linda Ronstadt for about two days. A, she provided geographical (Southwest) and some ethnic (she’s half Hispanic) diversity (and, by the way: yes, the white-girl-ness of the book did bother me; my sense was that the African American experience was so much more momentous during that span of years, it was another order of significance from my little-white-girls); she Was There. (I remember loving “Different Drum” in summer ‘67); she was key in the Lucy’s El Adobe L.A. social scene, the Troubadour bar scene…and she had interesting lovers. (Jerry Brown…Albert Brooks…George Lucas. In fact, she, more than the others “dated”—to use a crass word - “up,” as women were supposed to do.) But Linda didn’t write her own songs, she only sang others’ songs. And four women were just too many. She also didn’t have quite the…pathos and complexity, nor nearly the significance of the others.
Writ large over the book, also, is Laura Nyro, who was evanescent, extraordinary. For a lot of reasons I didn’t consider her (there was already a biography, her life was too private, etc.), but SHE was the one whose music I felt the most kinship with, back then.
R.I.: I always thought it was Janis Joplin who closed the deal. Girls heard her sing, “Piece of My Heart,” and promptly changed their mailing addresses to their boyfriends’ fraternity houses.
S.W.: Interesting. I would have said Grace Slick. I remember girls wanting to be like Grace but not like Janis. Also, Janis was more extreme. I wasn’t choosing extreme girls; I was going for girls you could have turned to in a Bloomingdale’s fitting room and said, “how does this look?”
R.I.: When you were growing up in Beverly Hills were you aware that just a few miles east in Laurel Canyon there was a creative/social zeitgeist occurring among rock musicians comparable to the between-the-wars Paris of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast?
S.W.: I’d already left BH for NYC by the time that was going on but my sister lived there and I visited and, yes, we were, envying, aware. When I was growing up in LA, Laurel Canyon was, indeed, always a bohemian place.
R.I.: “Grim and dour” is how you describe the household in which Joni Mitchell’s illegitimate daughter grew up. But didn’t Joni herself grow up in just such a household, feeling every bit as alienated from her birth parents as her child did from the couple who adopted her? Isn’t that how the household of every rebellious child feels; “grim and dour”?
S.W.: Oh, dear, if I said that (via a source) that was probably a little mean. Kilauren’s adoptive parents were bookish and not at all charismatic. And, yes, it matches a bit the relationship that Joni had with her extremely proper parents. In fact, Kilauren was SO much Joni’s daughter—down to the modeling, down to the loving of clothes—it does show you the impact of genes. I don’t know if every rebellious child feels she’s from a grim and dour family. (The rebellious girls I grew up with in BH would say their parents were materialistic and had “plastic” values, but weren’t necessarily grim.) but that’s certainly a good backdrop to rebel against.
R.I.: What if Brad MacMath hadn’t dumped pregnant Joni? Wouldn’t she have been forced to face the same dilemma—the demands and constraints of motherhood vs giving vent to her immense narcissism-fueled creativity?
S.W.: That’s a great question. I think she would have dumped him. She was never madly in love with him, according to my sources. They may have married, quickly—because Myrtle [Joni’s mother] was the biggest stumbling block; her disapproval would have been seismic—but it wouldn’t have lasted. One way or another, she would have ended up with a green card and in NY. “Narcissism-fueled creativity”: well put!
R.I.: Joni is the one whose actions are the most mysterious to me; the hardest one to like. Do you agree? If so, do you think it’s because she is the greatest artist of the three? Does genius like hers get in the way of like-ability? Do we care when the genius is a man if he’s likeable or even good to his kids?
S.W.: Hmmm… I got so into her I felt I “knew” her, you know? The reflexive need to bolt, to relinquish, while knowing it was considered aberrant…all the pain at her damned idiosyncracy that “River” expresses. But, yes, she’s not only objectively at a higher level of artistry than the other two (though they have equal, compensating merits—there is one Joni album, “Court and Spark”...oh, and maybe a couple of cuts from “Hejira,” that I would ever listen to driving around in the car; it isn’t bouyant, elegiac music…) , but, just as important, she quite obviously considered herself an artist so early on, a self-definition that intensified with time. Despite living in, of all places, Bel Air, she is the one who is avant garde. Genius and likeability…again, interesting. I think many fans like her because they want to like her—they love her and respect her so very much, they over-champion her, and every wound she feels, they feel, too. And there’s something superficially very pleasing about Joni—her femininity, the cornsilk hair. But her ego is..whoa! And, indeed, we take it for granted that a brilliant male musician or artist has a big fat obnoxious ego. (BTW, people who’ve recorded with her—like Russ Kunkel—say she is a pleasure to work with. “Humble.”)
R.I.: Of all the troubling behavior you describe in this book, you seem most perplexed by Carole King’s choice to live for several years under relatively primitive conditions in the wilds of Idaho with a succession of (by any measure) unsuitable men. Is it possible that she suffered the men just to get that life? It has its virtues: Idaho is, after all, very beautiful, and the nice thing about having goats to milk, etc, is you always know exactly what is expected of you next.
S.W.: Eventually she took great pleasure in the life. Cynthia Weil says, “Carole was always a hippie at heart,” but close friends say she was very depressed during those years, and she herself has said she was hiding…that the city (and the reviewers) had become the frightening creatures in the woods, while the woods became safe.
I loved the adventurousness and unexpectedness of Carole’s choices in those two husbands. They were the biggest stretch that any of the women made. And if you listen to Carole’s beautiful and completely underrated “Welcome Home” (the song, not the album), you hear the beauty in her finding herself in a life so different than the one she was born in.
R.I.: There’s a thread that runs through all three of these women’s stories, and his name is James Taylor. Did you know from the outset that he had played a vital role in each of these women’s lives—lover of two, colleague of all three, his own wife, perhaps most ambivalently, since he never really respected her work? (Nor did he take pains to hide the fact; Sweet Baby James, indeed!) Do you know what his objections were to her work? Does he address it in his own autobiography?
S.W.: I definitely knew he had been with Joni and, yes, I knew that he and Carole were such close musical friends (I didn’t realize the whole nexus at the beginning). Why didn’t he respect Carly’s work? He probably thought it slick, or standards-based. Also, he was, especially during his drug taking years (and there was a long stretch of them), so narcissistic, he wasn’t going to take much interest in her work. He didn’t write an autobiography; Timothy White wrote an authorized biography, Long Ago and Far Away. It was not very illuminating, overall.
R.I.: All three of these women have had more romantic opportunities deeper into middle age than most women do yet today all three of them, grandmothers in their 60s, live alone. Do you think this is a coincidence? If not, do you have a theory as to why?
S.W.: Yes, all three live alone. Indeed. And, yes, they had more opportunities longer than other women; fame and charisma extend opportunities for women. I think Joni would have definitely ended up alone. She is solitary and quirky. Carly was very unhappy when her second marriage really finally ended (and she has a boyfriend now). Carole, I think probably is the example of someone who was so richly domestic for so long—four kids, starting very young—that she is happy to live alone, with abundant family around her.
R.I.: You’ve said that Carly Simon was the only one of the three who cooperated with you. But in the end, I think you’ve done a great service to all three of these women; if nothing else, by offering an objective description to their children of the circumstances that led their mothers to make some of the pain-inducing choices they did. Have you heard from any of them? Do you hope/expect to?
S.W.: THANK YOU, Marilyn! I have not heard from the other two. Carly loves the book and has been very supportive, but I know enough about Carole to know that anything written about her personal life she will automatically not like. However, I am enormously gratified by a review that’s coming up Sunday in the Times Book Review. Stephanie Zacharek gave me a nice mixed review (started off, like Maslin did, with the girding-herself-against-Baby-Boom-corniness but then relaxed and was relieved) that then veered into an almost couldn’t-help-herself, full-throated paean to the significance and brilliance of Carole. That gratifies because, at the very beginning of the process, I sat with Carole’s close and protective manager and told her I wanted to do this book partly because young women don’t know enough about Carole King, don’t know how important she was/is. The manager agreed and that is why initial blessing for the book (rescinded after they found out I was asking questions other than just about music) was given. Well, this review—by a young (42 is young to me) woman, with its ecstatic singling out of Carole—was the completion of my promise.
As for Joni, she is notoriously prickly and has been known to find a negative in even worshipful reviews of her. That said, she also hates bullshit. She recently said she wanted to be viewed at eye level. I think I did that. And as I was writing the chapter (seven, I think…) of her and her jazz drummer boyfriends, and meeting Georgia O’Keefe and driving across the country in the red wig and fake name…I thought: Something tells me that, as much as she might try to hate this book, she will, when she reads that chapter, have to admit: “She got me.”
R.I.: Where in the Berkshires do you live? How long have you lived here? What do you like about it?
S.W.: We live in Sandisfield, the most rustic part…geographically huge, only about 750 people. Bought the house in October 1995. Love it. The difficult winters (brings out the macho in you), the satisfaction in beating back the forest and clearing a hard-fought half acre at a time, the unique characters in our ‘hood’ (come see the famous fence made of old mattress springs on Bob Never-Left-the-Nineteenth-Century Minery’s property), the great neighbors, the nice guys at Terranova (it’s more deli than general store—that’s the vibe—even though it’s in the woods), Monterey Beach in August, the white clapboard Congregationalist churches and the proud history of abolitionism. The anti-Hampton-ness. Everything.