Review: Book Traces Three Trailblazing Songwriters of the '60S

Article excerpt

A triple biography can prove challenging for a writer and her readers. But Sheila Weller's candid "Girls Like Us" -- about the lives and work of Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell -- is surprisingly stellar. Unlike far too many celebrity bios, "Girls Like Us" never settles for simple sensationalism.

Sure, Weller gossips, but how could she not? She's dealing with stars who were regaled for their romantic entanglements with equally famous men, sometimes even sharing the same one (James Taylor). They wrote honestly about these encounters, and Weller would be remiss to gloss over them.

But Weller rises above innuendo to discuss the music, including such interesting facts as Mitchell's childhood bout with polio, which affected the way she plays guitar, a factor that pushed her work closer to jazz than folk.

Even better, Weller insightfully places these trailblazers into their proper context during one of the most turbulent times in U.S. history: the late '60s and early '70s.

These women, all born in the 1940s, spoke directly to, and influenced the behavior of, a generation of women (and some men, of course) who were in search of empowering figureheads they could recognize and seek comfort in.

"Carole King's, Joni Mitchell's and Carly Simon's songs were born of and were narrating that transition -- a course of self- discovery, change and unhappy confrontation with the 'limits' of change, which they, and their female listeners, had been riding," she writes.

No one at Simon's label wanted "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" to become her first single, Weller writes. With such emotionally complicated lyrics -- "You say we'll soar like two birds through the clouds / But soon you'll cage me on your shelf / I'll never learn to be just me first / By myself" -- and coming just months after such simple tunes as "Venus," "ABC" and "War" topped the charts, Simon's song had a ridiculously long title. Worse, Elektra Records staffers feared that its content was "too complex ... too stuffed with emotional activity -- the parents' bad marriage; the friends' unhappy lives; the boyfriend's enthusiasm for marriage but controlling nature; the woman's initial resistance and ultimate capitulation -- to be released as a single. …