Customer Reviews: Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--and the Journey of a Generation
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HALL OF FAMEon April 24, 2008
Everything in GIRLS LIKE US will be amazingly familiar to those of us born in the bay boom, and yet Sheila Weller, a talented if erratic prose stylist, brings us to emotional places that will be new to all but those most intimate with the trio of songwriters whose lives, she declares, form a "journey of a generation." I don't know if I'd go that far, but I'm not a woman, and Weller's argument is that King, Simon, and Mitchell pushes back the barriers for women specifically, "one song at a time."

The cryptic one remains Carole King, whom Weller just can't illuminate in any meaningful way. Her life was amazing--up to a point, then it stopped being of any interest at all, which is a shame. We hear again and again how she wrote all those Brill Building masterpieces before she was 21, and broke down under the strain of a troubled marriage to a high-stakes husband and lyricist, Gerry Goffin, coming out the other end with an LP. Tapestry, that everyone loved. Then what happened? Bad men galore, attracted to her wealth. She once estimated that every time she divorced a man, it cost her a million dollars. Weller gives us all the facts ad nauseam but we always wonder, why did King do this to herself?

Carly Simon, on the other hand, who cooperated with Weller extensively or so it seems, comes off as nearly normal. Of the upper, upper middle class, Simon was to the manor born and the icy, plangent chords of her first song, "That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be," gave notice that the old New Yorker fiction writers of the 40s and 50s hadn't died, they had just rolled over and told Carly Simon the news. Though obviously spoiled and cosseted by her own wealth, Simon doesn't seem spoiled; her reactions throughout, even meeting and marrying the drug-zombie James Taylor, are always understandable and sympathetic.

Joni Mitchell isn't sympathetic per se, but she has the integrated personality of the genius totally in love with herself and obsessed with her own reflection, so she's great in a special way. Weller pokes amused fun at Mitchell's vanity and enormous self-esteem, but we get the picture that, in her opinion at any rate, Mitchell actually is pretty f--ing amazing. Does our society have it in for women who want to be artists? Mitchell's encounter with the aged, reclusive Georgia O'Keeffe seems like a emblem of a certain baton-passing, as is Carly Simon's relationship with former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Weller is OK about male-female relationships, but in this book at any rate she's more interested in the ways women deal with each other.

It's nearly a biography of five people, not just three, as there is so much about James Taylor you will never need to read another word about him if you have this book on your shelf; and for some reason there's tons of material about Judy Collins. I wonder if Weller proposed a book with King, Mitchell, Simon, and Collins, and some editorial board nixed the addition of Collins--but there was so much good material about Collins, Weller kept it in anyhow. She is the Vanity Fair writer supreme, whose motto is that no sentence is complete without some action and punch, and the best way to get that is to string along many words with hyphens to invent new forms of adjectival excitement. You won't be able to read for more than a few minutes without being hit on the head by Weller's mad stylings--here's a typical hyphenfilled sentence about the Eagles: "Their at-home-in-Death-Valley image and bleating-lost-boy-in-expensive-boots sound had become era-definingly successful." (Ten hyphens in a mere 20 words! Sheila Weller is era-definingly successful at inventing a new form of writing--like the classic circus act when a small VW would pull up to center ring and then clown after clown would prance out. Then more clowns--then still more. She's pretty amazing and GIRLS LIKE US is a book that, for all its flaws, convinces us roundly in its larger arguments and dazzles with its wide-ranging portraits of artistic life in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
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My immediate thought when I read this comprehensive three-fold biography was Allison Anders' evocative but episodic 1996 Grace of My Heart, a fictionalized biopic of Carole King's career in the 1960's. Similar to the approach taken with the movie, author Sheila Weller covers more than the music of the times but also the constraining era in which they all came of age. When King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon were growing up (they were born within four years of each other), women were either placed in traditional homemaker roles or relegated to a cultural abyss if they dared to pursue artistic professions. In an often dishy but nonetheless enlightening book, Weller does an admirable job surveying the times when these three singer-songwriters first emerged and crossed paths on their way to popular mainstream success.

Their backgrounds could not be more different. King was a middle-class Brooklyn native who grew up listening to classical music and Broadway show tunes, while Mitchell was a dyed-in-the-wool bohemian poet who moved from the Canadian prairies to Greenwich Village and later Laurel Canyon. Born in privilege to a family ensconced in publishing (Simon & Schuster), Simon was a rich girl who went the folk singer route with her older sister Lucy. Even though each persevered against the going mindset and managed professional success on a measured level (and in King's case, quite a portfolio of Brill Building hits co-written with first husband Gerry Goffin), each ultimately created a work that provided a turning point in their careers. King had 1971's mega-selling Tapestry, Mitchell had 1971's intensely personal Blue, and Simon had 1972's No Secrets featuring her signature song about a former lover, "You're So Vain". The author documents all this with relish and delves into the inspirations for their music.

The dishier parts of the book deal with the women's checkered love lives. King married four times, while Mitchell and Simon each went through a succession of liaisons that obviously shaped many of their compositions. Aside from the tawdry impact of Warren Beatty's legendary womanizing, James Taylor appears to be the common intersection as he befriended King (and turned her epochal song, "You've Got a Friend" into a Grammy Award-winning hit), had an extended affair with Mitchell and eventually married Simon for eleven turbulent, drug-filled years. However, all three have weathered the storm of their personal lives and the ever-changing tastes of the public to become grandmothers and songsmiths for another generation. Weller writes in true baby boomer fashion with an alternating sense of reverence and ribaldry about three icons deserving of such a tribute.
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on April 12, 2008
" Girls Like Us" seems to be striking a chord with those who lived through the turbulent, yet enlightening, times of the late 60s/early 70s. The stories of these three women seem ripe for regaling the generation who laughed, cried, and, most importantly, identified with the art produced by the subjects Shelia Weller explores. In my case, some of it happens to intrigue a Gen Xer who grew up listening to these women through my own discovery..... no college dorm room sing-alongs brought me to the alter of Joni Mitchell ( my favorite of the three), nor the undeniable talent of Carole King and Carly Simon. I sought them on my own, as an indivdual, not part of a movement.

Having said this, the status of being removed from the zeitgeist of the Boomers gives me an advantage and, perhaps, a disadvantage. I feel I can look at these artists with a more objective view than those who moved through life with them. On the flip, there is a definite disconnect between my understanding of the times, as I was not there, and the visceral knowledge brought to the book by the target audience.

Weller does a fantastic job of providing a historical backdrop for each story she tells. Motives, blow by blow accounts, tidbits that have escaped the pop culture pantheon, even though two out of three of these women ( Mitchell and Simon) have been turned inside out by the media, one of them courting it ( Simon) while the other one has avoided it at all costs ( Mitchell). New details are revealed, especially with the story of Carole King, a figure who has always generously shared her talent, yet remained detached from the media machine that is usually necessary for promoting one's work. Weiler obviously did her homework, uncovering elements of the stories we have not yet heard, although there is a fair amount of rehashing tales long ago plumbed by different outlets.

The real question, though , is not whether Weller did a good job in compiling a historical, documentary style book explaining these three women, their art and their personas. The answer to this question is, for the most part, yes. However, the bigger question is when will the public ever be able to separate their interest in the art from a fascination with the artist, seemingly needing to know the intimate details of their lives? It is interesting, I admit, to know who inspired what songs, what circumstances sparked the creation of a certain piece. Still, two of the three women explored here ( Mitchell and King) may take issue with some of the information that is now available for public consumption. I fear we cease to respect our artists when we have such voracious appetites for knowing every aspect of their personal lives. I am guilty of partaking, it's just a thought for us to consider as we devour the joys and tragedies of the talents we claim to honor.
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on May 23, 2014
"Girls Like Us" reads like a very long "Vanity Fair" celebrity profile. Author Sheila Weller dishes wheelbarrows full of gossip while ambitiously striving to place and evaluate her subjects--popular signer-songwriters Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon--in the broader cultural context of the fast-changing roles of American women who came of age in the 1960s. I remembered listening to King's "It's Too Late," Simon's "You're So Vain," and Mitchell's "Help Me" on my little transistor radio as a kid. When I heard about "Girls Like Us," I knew I would read it. Once I picked it up, I had no desire to put it down.

Other reviewers have induced gales of laughter calling out Weller's stylistic idiosyncrasies. While she maintains a zippy pace and sometimes has good insights, she writes many long sentences filled with hyphen-linked-adjective-chain descriptions (and parenthetical asides), and *footnote references into which she drops yet more names that she couldn't quite figure out how to shoehorn into the main text, which can leave a was-that-really-necessary taste in the reader's mouth (and speaking of taste, one of Carly's favorite restaurants was Elaine's, where she would lunch with Mia Farrow, who lost touch with Carly when she stated dating Woody Allen). Moving on . . .

In spite of the inconsistent writing, I think most women of a certain age will find "Girls Like Us" as much fun to read as I did, at least until the end. Weller brings her subjects' childhoods to life and carries them along the road to fame, reporting in sometimes excruciating detail their bad choices in men and their resultant heartbreaks. I am no expert but Weller also seems to know enough about music that, without too much technical detail, she can explain to the lay reader why the songs worked as well as they did. You come to feel like you know Mitchell and Simon. King is more enigmatic as a person but gets involved in some interesting environmental activism.

These women were all pioneers in claiming creative and personal autonomy among male contemporaries who had been brought up expecting women to be old-school and who called wives and girlfriends their "old ladies." They achieved dizzying levels of professional respect and material success. But among them they have eight failed marriages, and today their music is relegated to oldies stations. Maybe they are more content than Weller lets on. But you will find no happy denouement to lives lived in the brave, crazy fast lane in "Girls Like Us."
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on April 14, 2013
Overall I really enjoyed reading about these amazing artists...especially since I grew up with these musical milestones and everything associated. Learning about their lives...their individual journies is great. The writer's style is not my favorite.

It grew on me eventually because it's so well reserched and she gives such wonderful inside information. At certain points it seems like overblown namedropping, but on the whole it's such a rich contextual history that I can assume this is her original intent- to weave together a quilt...or in Ms. king's word- a 'tapestry' of the many influential, intersecting and colliding souls who were instrumental in developing this exciting time in musical creativity. She could literally be a fly on the wall...if it's all true. If not...then it still draws you in and keeps you turning the page. So all in all a good read.
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on August 21, 2015
I liked this book, but it's very wordy. It reads almost like a textbook and that kind of turned me off. I skipped the first chapter altogether, because of this. I did appreciate she was trying to give us complete information, but this went just a little too are in details. That said, I did like reading about these women and hadn't realized their lives were tied together
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on October 24, 2014
Loved this journalistic look at the careers and lives of three great American musicians. Each brought humanity, charm, determination and pure womanhood to their efforts. Their stories are filled with people I hadn't heard of but am thrilled to know about. My itunes account got very expensive while reading this entertaining book.
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on December 6, 2014
Difficult to follow, but once in the groove, it works. I loved being
transported back in time to a great musical period. The Carole
King parts did not deliver much for me, but the Joni and Carly
parts resonate.
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on December 29, 2014
I was a big fan of these ladies, but knew very little about them as human beings. As a youth I tended to idealize musicians and thought they must know all the answers, and therefore, lived wonderful, happy lives while I slogged through life as another enthusiastic, but boring consumer. Reading this reminded me that while perhaps being able to artfully reflect our time, they are humans-not gods. I enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone whose life was lived to the sound track provided by these ladies.
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on July 28, 2008
If you're old enough to have been singing along with the "Girls Like Us" - Carole King, Joni Mitchell & Carly Simon - , then you are probably old enough to remember the TV program *Sing Along with Mitch* (Miller and his gang.) In that TV program, probably a precursor of karaoke, there were words printed on your TV screen and you would "follow the bouncing ball" that bounced merrily along on top of the words as each was being sung.

Sheila Weeler's book on the "girls" needs a bouncing ball to keep track of where she is, and which "girl" is doing what with which boy (often men were serialized through the gambit of the "girls.")

Loosely chronologically organized by "girl"- e.g. a beginning chapter on each, then "Carole: 1961 - 1964," "Joni: 1961 - Early 1965," Carly 1961 - Late 1965," then Coming Around Again to "Carole: 1964 - Early 1969," "Joni: March 1965 - December 1967," Carly 1965 - 1969" etc.etc., the book chronicles the saga of these singer/songwriters in the context of the times - sometimes to great length - almost ad nauseum, and sometimes to short shrift. Weller is at her worst when she pretends to be a music critic and starts opining her own (often odd) meaning to the now-interwoven-tapestry-of-our-own-lives words "the girls" wrote and sang.

Over-all the book is informative, sometimes to too-oft repeated choruses due to Weller's "organization*" of the material, and sometimes downright mystifying - as when the reader is told that James Taylor thought Carly was messin' around with Mick because of Jagger's guest appearance "adding his unmistakable cracking voice" on the "Don't you? Don't you?"s in the recording of *You're So Vain.* This reviewer has gone back and relistened to YSV repeatedly, & I can't find Mick! Maybe because my Momma was right and listening to all that loud music really *DID* ruin my hearing?
;-) /TundraVision, Amazon Reviewer

* There is no bouncing ball, but there is a poorly organized index in the back.
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