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

05/21/2008 08:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 1971 and 1972 if you walked down the corridors of almost any woman's dorm (yes, Virginia, there were still single sex dorms in the 1970s) you would certainly hear snatches of (a record, or possibly an 8 track), I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling or My life has been a tapestry of rich and golden hues or That's the way I've always heard it should be. You were either getting ready to go on the road yourself, or worrying about leaving your friends or boyfriend, or in some cases, thinking about whether the boy (s?) you had been sleeping with were ever going to be able to settle down with just one girl. You had long, (hopefully) straight, hair and wore jeans that were artfully frayed, you carried a macramé bag and didn't wear a bra. Much of the time, you were either stoned or sleepy from too much life (protesting and sex) and not enough school.

You were different from your mother who had been repressed about sex, hadn't worked outside the home, believed in marrying the boyfriend she had first slept with, had spotty birth control and whose resentment at the constricted options available to her was just beginning to surface, but you weren't hatched yet, a pod person who might mirror your mother, but not exactly.

But by listening to Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon, you began to understand your own restlessness and capricious sexuality and feel that you were connected to these women who were older than you but who seemed to be living the life you felt you deserved. They made you believe falling in and out of love and even being hurt was the most romantic thing possible; that giving your heart away, even if it was going to be stomped on, might have an upside; it would give you the material you needed to make your mark on the world. And that you had choices, even if you were sometimes stupid about them, you would have a second, and third and maybe even fourth chance to make your mark but that you would indeed make it.

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Simon & Schuster/Atria Publicity

Sheila Weller has written about these three women not only as muses in their own circles, but also as muses to the rest of us in Girls Like Us. It's a remarkable feat. The book starts out somewhat tamely as three biographies and ends up being, like Wack, the recent art show about women artists at MOCA and PS 1, the history of an entire generation, so much greater than the sum of its talented, neurotic parts. Everything about a certain kind of smart woman and the way she dealt with men is contained therein. I was swept away by the breadth of Weller's research and how wide a net she cast; but the spoonfuls go down easy and her own insights are really very deft.

In a 1961 Life Magazine article about Southern California Weller unearthed, surfer girls were still said to be decorating the shallows. One of the popular song forms at the time, Call and Response which was used extensively in Motown (which Carly and James used later with Mockingbird) was spot-on about how it worked with males initiating and women answering.

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Sure there are others who were influential in turning the tide from can-you-dance-to-it: Joan/Janis/Dusty/Aretha contributed political, romantic, and feminist efforts that were important and Weller makes a heroic effort to be inclusive, to link the various musical worlds not only by six degrees but by six chords. But the slippage between professional and personal, between public and private came with Joni, Carole and Carly. The tortured relationships that these girls had with their men produced some of the most inspired, insightful, sexual limned lyrics and sing-along-with-it tunes.

How these three fed off folk musicians and Piaf (Joni), black musicians and Broadway (Carole) and pop musicians and Broadway (Carly) is in itself a fascinating history. Just ten years later some of the least shallow, most poetic, heartfelt and hard earned music had collected young women acolytes all over the country. Guys liked to listen to Joni/Carole/Carly every once in a while, but the anthems they confected spoke really to a certain coterie and class of women who were launching themselves into the world too.

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Some say the generation of singer songwriters that came after--Madonna, etc were talented in a different more commercial way, and that today's girls: Jem, Bjork, Feist, Norah, Amy are equally as talented and are just are speaking to a different generation.

Yes, girls like Madonna are better at controlling their destinies, musical and otherwise; they are in charge in a way Joni, Carole and Carly were not. The book resists comparisons and so will I. But it can't help but be partisan in face of the tremendous, decades long dedication to their work and it's hard not to come away thinking Carole and Joni and to a lesser degree, Carly, had more talent in their little pinkies than all the subsequent girls combined. They were extremely bright, had large hearts, were willing to get down and pick themselves up again, and were autodidactic sponges when it came to music, learning at the feet of some of the best male musicians who also, wisely, credit them as being muses and inspirations on their own.

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One was a Riverdale, upper middle class half Jewish girl (not the Bronx), one a lower middle class Brooklyn Jewish girl and one a Nordic princess from Canada. On the surface, nothing in common.

But about their dedication to their music and their men: uncannily on the same page.

Two had fairly conventional, repressed forties/fifties families (Carole/Joni); one had a family that put sex right out there on the table, to be consumed with the literary life in equally messy doses (Carly). One had a father capital F (Carly)whose withholding nature created a lifetime of serial monogamy with some pretty amazing guys ( in no particular order: James/Mick/Warren/Cat/Kris-- you get the drift) that mirrored another's run (Joni) with some pretty amazing guys (Graham/James/Leonard) One (Carole) was married four times. James is the river who ran through them all.

And the babies. One had a baby by 18 (Carole) and became an instant, good mother who was able to multi task her way through her whole career. One had a baby at 21 (Joni) and gave it up, knowing she couldn't multi task and never got over it. One had a baby at 32 (Carly), and he ended up (this convolution typical) dating one of his mother's subsequent boyfriends ex girlfriends! Weller sagely reminds of, "the need for complete control in one's maternal life and the complete loss of control in affairs of the heart"; though it's groovy to be a single, unwed mother today, in 1965 it was absolutely the least chic thing you could do.

I felt like saying go Girl to all of them at one stage or another, as the men were passing them, and they the men, around, like particularly good pot. But you gave away the things you loved and one of them was me wrote a Carly who had been jilted, yet again. (The drugs were rampant of course; Weller details much more about the male users than whether or how much J/C/C were indulging.) Someone would say oo this stuff is great you have to try it and then you would and then eventually it was just too strong and you got paranoid and freaked out. Keeping it light, being cool, not being emotional, living for today, believing in being here now (Ram Dass a/ka/ a smart Jewish boy named Richard Alpert who cleverly packaged eastern religion to get girls into bed) these were the challenges that faced women (all of us/them) who were not designed to be cool and unemotional. You weren't allowed to be jealous, or possessive--and as far as I can tell, the whole time period worked really, really well for guys and their DNA and not nearly so well for the biology of girls. Weller confirms, "all over the country, young women were trying to shoehorn their personalities into that fashionable archetype: talkative girls got stoned and talked slower; unaesthetic girls took to wearing dangly jewelry, pragmatic girls started reading their horoscopes, verbal, argumentative girls pretended to be anti-intellectual and serene (as Joni sang, I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and I'm sad).

In an effort to be as terminally hip as possible, in the summer of 1969 as I hitched around the west, I shared a single towel in a group home with a lot of guys in Boulder and a diet of half cantaloupes with others in Berkeley; I picked oranges and baked bread and dug irrigation ditches in the middle of the night on an organic farm in Chino and ate granola and yogurt by the poundful with a friend who had dropped out of school and was living with a drug dealer/musician in Laurel Canyon.

Though I'm almost a decade younger than Carole and Joni and Carly, their music later infused memories of that unsettling time; I can't not listen to Joni without remembering what it was like to be a "free man in Paris", where I too fled the insistency of being a stoned cold princess with a steady boyfriend. Weller called these quests, the "eternal balance between love and freedom". Carly wrote, So don't mind if I fall apart/There's more room in a broken heart". It was confusing in the sixties and seventies --power and sex were even more mixed up than they are now because the power, when these three started out, was definitely one sided.

Lumping them together (Carole and Joni did not want to be lumped; Carly was seemingly happy to be lumped) was risky but Weller clearly demarcates and they should be very pleased that they still seem like goddesses, warts and all.

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Simon & Schuster/Atria Publicity

Carole (ne Klein) was not a beauty--"she had an internal compass, and she hung her self esteem squarely on her talent"; outside the studio she was insecure, self-effacing in the extreme. Carole channeled the black experience and revered its music and its culture the way most of us did from Motown all the way through Aretha. R and B spoke to you even if your rhythm was far outweighed by your blues. She may have written Tapestry and You've got a friend but she also wrote the Loco Motion. Girls today are still worried about if a guy will still love them tomorrow, whether they can find what they're dreaming of Up on the Roof, or if they are into something good.

My favorite songs of Carole's are the ones she wrote (with her husband Gerry Goffin) because my father loved Tapestry which came later and he used to put on It's too late baby all the time when he and my mother were getting divorced.

And there was no way I was going to share a song with my FATHER!

I think if someone like Shelby Lynne, who just released an album of Dusty Springfield covers were to get a hold of the early Carole King hits they would surely go gold.

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Simon & Schuster/Atria Publicity

Joni (ne Roberta Anderson wrote some of her early songs in response to the Esquire cover that asked the question: is it over for women by 21?

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Cover for Esquire magazine, Issue no. 399, February 1967
Offset lithography, 12 5/8 x 9 7/8"

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer.

The list of male boldface who hung around her is still impressive: imagine how sure of yourself you had to be to attract men like these? Unlike Carly, Joni never showed her fear, though she was seemingly filled with it, it fueled her music instead of shutting her down; she says of herself, " she's a confronter by nature" But men were absolutely in awe of her too, "She was the whole orchestra in one guitar" said one.

I must confess to a predilection for Joni's work--her longing felt like it belonged to me. She had been to Paris (so had I) to Ibiza (well almost) to NY and to LA and in all those places she was a free spirit who was actually going crazy inside. Weller expands on this theme, painting a portrait of an artist "whose greatest bond with her public lay in how radiantly her internal life reflected their own."

Joni and Joni's work has become classic, well covered a whole album of covers, including one by the Counting Crows, Big Yellow Taxi that is the most infectious dance to it top ten hit.), and adulated also as a person--there was a PBS documentary about her l. She seems to have survived the messy stories about the baby she gave up and then lurchingly reconnected with.

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Simon & Schuster/Atria Publicity

Carly, one of three talented sisters from an upscale literary family, who made guessing the subject of a song a national pastime (You're so vain--but it turns out to be Warren, according to Weller, not Mick, who actually sang back up vocals), struggled more to be taken seriously than the other two, but then she used her sexuality more than they did--and we all know how that can land. Though mightily terrified of performing on stage, she was not so in the bedroom. The pre-Monica photo of Hillary and Bill with his arm around Carly's slender, voluptuous body says as much about her as it does our studly ex Prez. (A woman may be running for president, but she is still in thrall to her husband in a way that makes all the talk about the glass ceiling make one wonder about the last time she may have been looking up at the ceiling from a more intimate perspective.)

Though they were often frustrated with their professional trajectories and by their personal woes, they don't come off as victims, these three multi-millionaires who parlayed their personal angst into a national pastime and then got it to pay the bills too. Men may have ruled in the macro, but in the micro of these three lives, they were often evenly matched. It 's flattering to be the object of longing, or even obsessive love, that is, until it turns sour, which it unfailingly did: these one sided relationships did not have longevity as a calling card.

In the way of many female driven conversations--I want it but I don't want it (motherhood, men, marriage, high paying jobs)-- J/C/C have whined about it, been angry about it, laughed at it, joined hands over it, run away from it, and made millions from it. Weller didn't call it Girls Like Us for nothing: we're not exactly the cutting edge feminists, yet we're independent and successful, we're not exactly cutting -edge political yet our hearts are in the right place, we're not exactly free of how men perceive us but we are free-spirited.

All have had rugged going as they have aged, and the comparison to how their male peers are doing (Taylor, Jagger, Dylan, Stones, McCartney etc) is somewhat depressing.

But if I am any barometer, their work comes back into my life when I am feeling displaced, or ornery, or wounded.

Which is often!

If the book brings attention back to the achievements of these three artists, inspires a new generation of songwriters to revisit their work and not incidentally remind us that the journey with men is always prickly, complicated, oftentimes agonizing, but infinitely rewarding, it will have done its job.