Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us is a breezy, heartfelt, sprawling (if sometimes disjointed) examination of the times when singer-songwriters held sway over the airwaves. The focus is on three specific enormously talented women: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon.
The book winds from the fifties to the near past but the focus is on the seventies…a time when sensitive singer-songwriters were in vogue…when sex and drugs mingled effortlessly with rock and roll…when passion was intense and somewhat fleeting…and everybody loved James Taylor (despite the fact…or maybe, the book sometimes implies, because of the fact… that he was a junkie in addition to being an incredibly talented singer-songwriter.)
Weller, clearly an unabashed fan of the three ladies (Mitchell especially), writes this gossipy book with a sometimes breathless style and the narrative occasionally makes such abrupt shifts that you find yourself looking to see if you somehow skipped a page or two (at one point, for example, Mitchell is “in love” with David Crosby and then a page later she is “in love” with Graham Nash.)
She also suffers from a fan’s myopic “her early work was the best” syndrome…as much as she lionizes the nakedly confessional artistry of Joni Mitchell’s earlier albums, for example, she is mostly dismissive of Mitchell’s output after 1975’s Hejira (when Mitchell followed her muse wherever it took her with forays into jazz and other sounds.)
The book explores the musical significance of the women…especially during their commercial and critical heydays during the 70’s (the later days, especially after their commercial peaks, are given short shrift)…but it spends at least as much time exploring the…oh let’s say colorful…love lives of the ladies (Weller gets to name drop like crazy…Kris Kristofferson, David Crosby, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, Mick Jagger, and, of course, James Taylor being among the notable names who spent intense emotional time with one or more of the featured women…and she does so with gusto.)
Carly Simon is the only one of the three who was interviewed by the author (Mitchell refused not wanting to be lumped in with two other artists and King agreed at first but then thought better of it and asked her friends not to cooperate) so the narrative is informed by interviews with others (ex-husbands, ex-lovers, family members, childhood friends, adulthood friends, fellow musicians, etc.) as well as quotes from previously published articles and books.
For all of its flaws, Girls Like Us (subtitled “Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation”) is an entertaining page-turner (even at 500+ pages) and it makes for good summer reading.
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MKW Writing Stuff (including three pieces inspired by reading this book):