Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct. Carole King is the product of outer-borough, middle-class New York City; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of the Manhattan intellectual upper crust. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, a great swath of American girls who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic sixties generation—female version—but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way, far from cliché. The history of the women of that generation has never been written—until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.
Filled with the voices of many dozens of these women's intimates, who are speaking in these pages for the first time, this alternating biography reads like a novel—except it’s all true, and the heroines are famous and beloved. Sheila Weller captures the character of each woman and gives a balanced portrayal enriched by a wealth of new information.
Girls Like Us is an epic treatment of midcentury women who dared to break tradition and become what none had been before them—confessors in song, rock superstars, and adventurers of heart and soul.
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three women, three moments, one journey
spring 1956: naming herself*
One day after school, fourteen-year-old Carole Klein sat on the edge of her bed in a room wallpapered with pictures of movie stars and the singers who played Alan Freed's rock 'n' roll shows at the Brooklyn Paramount. She was poised to make a decision of grand importance.
Camille Cacciatore, also fourteen, was there to help her. The girls had done many creative things in this tiny room: composed plays, written songs, and practiced signing their names with fl orid capital C's and curlicuing final e's readying themselves for stardom. But today's enterprise was larger. Camille inched Carole's desk chair over to the bed so both could read the small print on the tissue-thin pages of the cardboard-bound volume resting on the bedspread between them. Carole was going to find herself a new last name, and she was going to find it the best way she knew how: in the Brooklyn phone book.
Camille Cacciatore envied her best friend. "Cacciatore is much worse than Klein! I wanna change my name, too!" Camille had wailed gratuitously, since both girls knew Camille's father would blow his stack if his daughter came home with a new appellation. Mr. Cacciatore, a transit authority draftsman, was stricter than Mr. Klein, a New York City fireman who, having retired on disability, now sold insurance.
Not that Sidney Klein still lived with Carole and her schoolteacher mother, Eugenia, whom everyone called Genie, in the downstairs apartment of the small two-story brick house at 2466 East Twenty-fourth Street, between Avenues X and Y, in Sheepshead Bay. Carole's parents had recently divorced a virtual first in the neighborhood but Sidney came around frequently, and Carole's friends suspected that her parents still loved each other.
So Carole alone could change her name, just as Carole alone was allowed to attend those magical Alan Freed shows (Camille's parents disapproved of "that jungle music"), often making the pilgrimage to the Paramount both weekend nights to soak up the plaintive doo-wop of the Platters, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and Queens's very own Cleftones, as well as the dazzling piano banging of Jerry Lee Lewis. Freed had coined the term "rock 'n' roll" three years earlier, when, as a white Ohio deejay affecting a Negro style and calling himself Moondog, he was spinning discs after midnight for a black audience that grew to include a swelling tide of white teenagers starved for the powerful honesty of "race music." Now, in his Brooklyn mecca, Freed drew hordes of fans and fans destined to be heirs. Carole was among the latter.
The two girls hunched over the phone book and paged past the front matter the sketch of the long-distance operator, in her tight perm and headset, ready to connect a Brooklynite to Detroit or St. Louis or even San Francisco; the Warning! that it was a misdemeanor to fail to relinquish a party line in an emergency. They fl attened the book at page 694: where the J section turned into the K section. Carole wanted a name that sounded like Klein: K, one syllable. "We were very systematic," Camille recalls. Line by line, column by column, they looked and considered and eliminated.
Kahn...Kalb...Kamp...: Somewhere between Kearns Funeral Home and Krasilovsky Trucking, there had to be the perfect name (or, failing that, an okay one that didn't sound ethnic) to transport the young tunesmith to her longed-for destiny.
Best friends for two years now, Carole and Camille had walked the four blocks to Shellbank Junior High every day. Now they made the longer trek to James Madison High School, where the sons and daughters of lower-middle-class Jews (Italian families like Camille's were a distinct minority) roiled with creative energy. So did the kids from Madison's rival, Lincoln High, and those from another nearby high school, Erasmus Hall. The cramped houses from which these students tumbled each morning were the fi fty-years-later counterparts of the tenements of the Lower East Side, where hardworking parents had sacrificed to give their offspring the tools to make culture musical culture, especially. In fact, so alike were the two generations that, today, Camille Cacciatore Savitz's most lasting impression of the interiors of those small houses "Every house had a piano! To not have a piano...it was like not having a bed in those houses!" she marvels uncannily echoing what a Lower East Side settlement-house worker wrote in a 1906 report: "There is not a house, no matter how poor it be, where there is not...a piano or a violin, and where the hope of the whole family is not pinned on one of the younger set as a future genius."
But there was a difference: those young Lower East Side pianist-songwriters had romanticized high-society top-hatters and New England white Christmases. Their World War II-born Brooklyn counterparts, Carole and her peers with their opposite sense of romance would soon be extolling the humanity found within the very kinds of tenements those earlier songwriters had struggled to escape.
The piano in the small Klein living room was always in use, by Carole. The commercial tunes that sprang from her fingers combined the rigor of the classical music she'd studied with the wondrous Negro sounds she was absorbing at the Freed shows and on the radio. Carole's father helped her record them onto "demos," but aiding his daughter's career dream didn't make him any less proprietary toward her. Carole was expected to steer a clear path from high school to college, where she would stay four years, obtain her teaching credential, and get married no crazy surprises. In civil-service Jewish families, people were menschen: substantial, sensible.
This was 1956. Mr. and Mrs. Ricky Ricardo had separate beds on I Love Lucy. Dissemination of information about birth control to married women was a crime in some states. Every word of Seventeen magazine was vetted by a pastor. In garment factories, union inspectors checked skirt lengths before job lots were shipped to department stores. Elvis may have been singing, Jack Kerouac writing, and James Dean's movies still being shown even after his fatal car accident, but there were few female analogues. Doris Day pluckily kept wolves at bay; the Chordettes crooned like estrogened Perry Comos. The 1920s had their flappers; the 1930s, their fox-stole-draped society aviatrixes, cheerfully trundling off to Reno for divorces; the 1940s had Rosie the Riveter. But the deep middle of the 1950s had both the most constricted images of women and (until just recently) the worst popular music of all the previous four decades: a double punch that could be considered a privation or a springboard.
In 1956 girls weren't agents of their sexuality, much less gamblers with it. No girl would have dared sing about how she'd weighed the physical and emotional (not the moral) drawbacks of sex getting pregnant, feeling used against the greater pull of the act's transcendent pleasure, or how she'd wondered, in the midst of sex, if the boy would drop her afterward. You couldn't get such a song on the radio, even if one existed. In a few years, however, Carole would write that song, based on events in her own life, and the resulting record would be the casual opening salvo of a revolution.
Karl...Kass...Katz...: Carole and Camille were getting hungry. That meant a trip to Camille's house on Twenty-sixth Street. Genie Klein didn't cook much; sometimes she just laid out a jar of borscht and an entrée of "dairy" (cottage cheese, sour cream, cucumbers, scallions) with rye bread and shav, a bitter drink that made Camille almost puke when she tasted it. Mary Cacciatore, on the other hand, cooked like Mario Lanza sang: passionately. Carole would raid the Cacciatores' icebox for peppers and onions or spaghetti and meatballs.
One bond between Camille and Carole was their self-perceived beauty deficiency. Although she had fetchingly upturned eyes, Carole's narrow face was unremarkable; she rued her too-curly hair, and, as Camille says, "she really didn't like her nose." Carole may have suspected that the boys at Madison did not regard her as a beauty. "She was a plain-looking girl with messy hair and ordinary clothes," says then Madison High upper classman Al Kasha, who also became a songwriter. "But at the piano, in the music room, playing Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, she was a different person she came alive." She had an internal compass, and she hung her self-esteem squarely on her talent.
Though this would be hard to imagine in 1956, when standards of feminine beauty were at their most unforgiving, in fifteen years Carole would represent an inclusive new model of female sensuality: the young "natural" woman, the "earth mother." The album that would afford her this status would, five years after its release, stand as the biggest-selling album in the history of the record industry; would settle out as one of the biggest-selling albums of the 1970s; and then and for years after, would remain the biggest-selling album written and recorded by a woman. It would singularly define its several-years-slice of the young American experience.
Carole's album's historic success would raise the stock of other singer-songwriters (a concept she would help establish) who were women, and it would constitute a Cinderella story with a moral: a behind-the-scenes songwriter and simple borough girl becomes a pop star without changing herself in the slightest. She would have come a long way from those grim negotiations with her teenage mirror. Yet her success was so enormous and early that every subsequent effort would be measured negatively against it. The unpretty girl who'd earned her fortune through hard work and talent would, ironically, find her fate mimicking that of the too-pretty girl who'd dined out a bit too long on early-peaking beauty.
Kaye...Kean...Kehl...: Maybe this weekend the girls would catch a fl ick at the Sheepshead Bay theater: Carole with Joel Zwick, Camille with Lenny Pullman. Then they'd hit Cookie's, near the Avenue H train station. The luncheonette's booths would brim with talk of who'd cruised Kings Highway in whose souped-up car the night before (and made out in Dubrow's Cafeteria afterward), and who was lucky enough to have gotten on Ted Steele's Bandstand, New York's local precursor to American Bandstand. Stanzas of mock-Broadway-songs-inprogress would be excitedly test-marketed for Madison's SING! competition, which pitted the freshmen against the sophomores and the juniors against the seniors and was as big a deal as the school's football games.
Kehm...Kern...Kerr...: From the vantage point of 1956, it might seem that Carole would never leave Brooklyn, so deeply enmeshed was she in its provincial vibrance. Her future seemed preordained. In the eras before Carole and her peers reached young adulthood, middle-class women had one man in their lives one husband (and an "appropriate" one), or in the case of his premature death or the rare divorce, two. A woman's life was set within the grid of that one early life decision; there was little room for movement. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new idea evolved: A woman is entitled to an experiential quest yes, even a crazy one; it is part of her nature to seek one. She could Live Large. She had many verses in the song of her life, and a different partner for each one of them.
Carole would end up marrying four times each marriage a different hidden melodrama underlying her seemingly pragmatic, work-focused life. "The people she loved, she loved deeply," says a female friend who knew her just before and through the height of her fame. Carole's last two marriages would spring from her infatuation with a mythical type of man, a regional subculture, and a way of life as foreign to the streets and stoops of Brooklyn, and the boys therein, as any that existed in America yet she would sing of it, "And with all I'm blessed with I am certain: I'm where I belong." "Carole has lived at least three lives," her friend Danny Kortchmar says. In fact, she wasn't unusual: many midlife women Carole's age would end up so far off their birthright paths, it was as if they'd gone looking for Alice's rabbit hole to tumble down. Which is exactly what many of them had done.
Ultimately, Carole would settle down for a while, anyway not atypically, with the man who, as her friends put it, she "should have been with" in the first place. But as any woman in her generation would know: without that long detour into the dangerous and the forbidden, such a choice would have been an unimaginative capitulation, not a happy ending.
Kick...Kiel...Kilp...King: "Hey, what do you think about King?" Carole asked.
Camille said, "I don't know anybody named King."
"Me neither," Carole admitted.
"Well there's a lot of them," Camille said, pointing to page 731: a half page...then a full page...another full page...another half page three whole pages of Kings.
King. The K and the n, same as Klein. The exclamatory, percussive sound. The tried-and-true stage-name quality. What was not to like?
And thus Carole Klein of Sheepshead Bay became Carole King of America. As casually and proactively as she did everything, she chose the name she would live under for the rest of her life. Then, with that first big decision out of the way, she went off with Camille to concentrate on a second one. So, spaghetti and meatballs? Or peppers and onions?
october 21, 1964: exposing herself
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Half Beat," the young man greeted the tables of patrons, their faces strobed by candle flames spouting from Chianti bottles. There were more than a dozen coffeehouses like this one in Yorkville Village, Toronto's folk music quarter. On any given night the mournful Scottish and English ballads, rousing work songs, and angry protest anthems (courtesy of the Dylan imitators) soared from the lungs of young performers who were hoping to get their breaks and hoping to purge themselves of the bourgeois primness of their parents in the provinces. These were the years when folk music was providing the rebellion and authenticity commercial rock 'n' roll had stopped supplying. One of these "folkies" was the delicate-featured, high-cheekboned twenty-year-old in the wings, with feather-banged blond hair curled up in a flip just past her ears and long legs terminating in go-go boots. A Gibson guitar was strapped over her miniskirt, but she also carried a small, mandolin-type instrument, the tiple (tee-pleh).
"Tonight we have for your entertainment...Joni Anderson!" the emcee announced.
Joni had loved pop music before it had gotten so bubblegum. One of her favorite songs from high school indeed, for decades to come, she would call it her favorite song of all time was the Shirelles hit of four years before, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." It was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, a married couple who were among a group of barely-out-of-their-teens New York songwriters who mixed a deep infatuation with Negro church music and R&B with a Broadway songwriting style, and turned the results into Top 40 radio. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" had been the first pop song to address the risks of sex in a woman's life which was now, as she stood in the wings of the Half Beat, precisely Joni Anderson's dilemma. Carole King had solved the dilemma the way girls always had she married the boy who had gotten her pregnant in a big traditional wedding. Joni Anderson was dealing with her pregnancy in a brand-new way: unmarried and alone. She was extremely afraid her parents would find out about her pregnancy, yet she refused to let it stop her life or curb her dreams.
"Joni's been appearing here for the last two weeks and will be for the next three weeks," the emcee continued. "Starting next Monday, we have her under contract. We hope she'll stay here. We hope you'll enjoy her as much as we have."
Yorkville was Canada's version of Greenwich Village and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where six years earlier, three Boston University coeds, in spontaneous protest, had thrown off their freshman beanies and had become best friends and soul mates. The three a Boston Brahmin named Betsy; a Staten Island lawyer's daughter named Debbie; and a California physicist's kid named Joanie were one of any number of cliques of folkie girls then asserting their nonconformist sensibility, playing English ballads on their Gibsons and Martins and reinforcing in each other an adventurousness that was otherwise hard for girls to pull off; guys could at least pretend to be romantic wanderers, while rebel girls could just get pregnant. ("There were tears over boys, and a harrowing trip to a doctor who was supposed to be able to 'fix' things," the Betsy of the threesome Betsy Minot Siggins says today. "It felt like we were both the initiators of and the victims of the sexual revolution.") But this clique turned out to be the clique: the one that advanced the narrative. The Joanie of the threesome, Joan Baez, didn't just achieve stardom; her stardom constituted the first time in the United States that an arcane musical genre was lofted to commercial popularity on the strength of a female performer. Now, four years after her rise to fame and two years after she graced the cover of Time magazine, Joan Baez remained the gold-standard embodiment of the sensitive girl curled over her guitar. It was Baez's bell-clear soprano that Joni Anderson was emulating.
"Let's give her a little bit of a welcome now Miss Joni Anderson!"
Through a round of applause, Joni strode to the chair, sat down, and, in a breathless, Canadian schoolgirl's voice, said: "It's sure refreshing to have a mic to work with for a change" a giggle "after some of the places I've been in." Sympathetic laughter from the audience. What they (and she) didn't know was that this moment would be one of her last singing songs meant to sound like traditional ballads. In less than a year, she'd begin to offer audiences the original songs of vulnerability, wit, wonderment and only retroactively understood sadness that she was starting to write. On the heels of those first compositions of hers would come a new wave of songs that, as she put it, were "beginning to reveal feminine insecurities, doubts, and recognition that the old order was falling apart" songs that "depicted my times." With that eventual torrent, in six years she would set the bar for emotional self-exposure "confessional" songwriting just about as high as it would ever be set by anyone. But tonight her self-exposure concerns were literal: She was single and at slightly over five months, visibly pregnant. Already, the small tiple was much easier to manipulate than the guitar.
"The first song I'd like to do is a song about when a man becomes so involved in almighty liquor that he begins to think of it as a woman," she said, with a smile in her voice. "And he calls his bottle 'Nancy Whiskey.'"
Her real name was Roberta Joan Anderson, and her family hailed most recently from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, eighteen hundred miles north of the North Dakota border. She had come to Toronto several months earlier, taking the train across the prairie with her art school boyfriend. Then he'd split, leaving her a painting of a moon as a goodbye-and-sorry-I-got-you-pregnant gift. She had recently moved to a room-with-shared-bath in a rooming house on Huron Street. It was from this extremely modest base that she was trying to make her way as a folksinger, without money or connections and in deep secrecy about her pregnancy.
But if she was self-conscious, she hid it, as she strummed her tiple and gaily sang the traditional Scottish song
Whiskey, whiskey, Nancy Whiskey The more I kissed her, the more I loved her
After the audience applauded her final bars of "Nancy Whiskey," Joni announced: "In 1961 a man named Ewan MacColl wrote a song and entered it into a song contest in England. It wasn't much of a surprise to anybody when it won." What's significant is that she would choose of all songs, now this violent faux-Child Ballad about the anticipation, birth, and loss of a baby. "It has very, very dramatic lyrics," she warned as she began singing the song.
Joni's neighbor across the hall at her rooming house was a young poet from the Ojibway tribe named Duke Redbird. They'd squeeze past each other in the hall Duke with his long black braids, Joni with her fl axen hair. He could see that she was pregnant, but he sensed from her attitude not to mention it. "Joni had a stoicism that reminded me of the Indian women I grew up with," Redbird recalls. "When we'd walk by each other's open doors, she never acknowledged her difficulties." Inside her small room, pungent with incense, she showed him her scrapbook, proudly turning the pages and explaining the newspaper clips of her performances at coffeehouses in Calgary, a few in Edmonton, and her real-live TV debut, singing on a Saskatchewan hunting and fishing show.
Still, Duke Redbird worried about his neighbor, who was living on pizza and donuts. He mentioned his concern to his brother so much that one day his brother arrived at Duke's door with a bag of apples and said, "Let's give them to that pregnant girl." The two young men knocked on Joni's door and held out the fruit. "They're root, from nature; good for you now," Redbird's brother said awkwardly. Joni gratefully and hungrily took the bag. There were other signs of her vulnerability. "Late at night," Redbird says, "when Joni's door was closed, I'd hear her playing her guitar and singing: not words, just sounds, like she was using her voice to meditate. I was struck by her melancholy."
That same melancholy was in her voice now as she continued to sing what she had identified as the MacColl song (it was actually written by Sydney Carter) to the Half Beat patrons:
Rock-a-bye, baby, the white and the black Somebody's baby is not comin' back...
After covering a Woody Guthrie number, among other songs, Joni packed up her instruments and exited the club, perhaps stopping to jam at the crash pad of her friend Vicky Taylor, with whom she would soon form a duo. Then it was back to the Huron Street room and her meditative strumming and vocal yodeling. Listening from the hall one such night maybe it was even this night Redbird was moved to pick up a pen and write a poem, which, though never published, he has kept to this day: A "woman with the cornsilk hair and sweetgrass [incense] in her hand" is on a water journey, navigating a river's "invisible shoals" and "silent rapids" the poem was explicitly about Joni's pregnancy, her circumstances. Redbird understood both the risk (those "shoals" and "rapids") and the lack of acknowledgment of and respect for that risk: its "silent," "invisible" nature. Indeed; male folksingers might boast of riding the rails, but few of the young ones, including Dylan, ever did. (Dylan hadn't even hitchhiked to New York he was given a ride by a friend.) For girls, the tougher though completely unacknowledged and unsung rite of passage was being pregnant, alone, penniless, and courting scorn in a rented room far from a home that you couldn't return to. Sometimes Duke Redbird would knock on Joni Anderson's door and ask if she was all right. She never said she wasn't.
Over the next three years, Joni's life would be typical of many North American women's when the early to mid-1960s that Jack-and-Jackie-influenced era of glamorized traditional marriage slowly turned into the later 1960s, and a new culture was spawned, both by the neo-Edwardian style of the English groups and by the softer offshoots of psychedelia. Just as some of Joni's counterparts attending college would marry young professors, Joni would marry a man eight years her senior who was already living the life she thought she wanted. But as she pulled ahead of her husband in talent and ambition, she would realize as other girls would that young marriage to a sophisticated man was not the start of Real Life but, rather, an impediment to it. She would write her prematurely wise song about the cycles of age in part to lambaste Esquire's claim, during those years, that, as she put it, "a woman was all washed up after 21," and she would move to New York in 1967, just when single women were starting to live in cities in a new way: eschewing the old regulating supports roommates, day jobs for solitary, emotion-driven, night-based experience. Sex was then newly immediate an innocent generosity, a basic communication but romance was rough and ready laissez-faire capitalism, the only rules of the game being men's rules. Joni's cactus tree metaphor would be a secret playbook and shared record for the relatively few young women who lived in that then vulnerable manner.
Joni would leave for L.A. when California dreaming was becoming a reality, and she would become both the It Girl and anthropologist of her newly coined female archetype, a rusticated American version of Left Bank femininity. She would write the haunting national anthem of her generation's most emblematic gathering, and she would play Wendy to three choirboy-voiced Lost Boys powwowed from equal tribes, and with one of them she would legitimize the gallantry of a new kind of intimacy. She would leave this ideal love to set off as a vagabond, living in a cave with a self-made outlaw who "kept [her] camera to sell." Young women who liked "clean white linen and fancy French cologne" had never toured Europe like this before. In 1970 it was the only way many of them would want to do so.
Throughout the next decades, the 1970s through mid-1990s years when young women would push the limits of independence, ambition, and self-fulfillment as never before Joni would compose the bumpy epic poem of that exploration. She would choose the title of the signal album Hejira because she liberally interpreted the Arabic word to mean "to run away, but honorably," something that women were starting to do: even when the After was no better than the Before, when the destination was worse than the starting point.
Those songs would echo Joni's own life journey: solitary cross-country road trips and even more solitary months in the woods; a fan-shearing turn to jazz; an almost unceasing, night-crawling workaholism, yielding twenty-one original albums and a "crop rotation" of paintings, as well as a self-assured choice of long-term lovers. These were men who since they "mirrored [her] back simplifi ed" and were far less wealthy and celebrated than she stood in almost intentionally pointed contrast to her male friends, who were the most successful and glamorous men in Hollywood. In all of this she would turn a new twist on an old type, the "dame," the tough, cranky, boastful woman living for her craft. But where previous versions (Lillian Hellman, Gertrude Stein) were masculinized, she would remain, illuminatively, feminine.
In 1980, Joni would do something familiar to single women then turning forty women wearying of the historically unprecedented time they'd logged as battle-scarred free agents, at the same moment that mating shibboleths were loosening: She would meet a wholesome younger man who was awed to be her lover, and she would marry him, with the male becoming the nurturer of the couple. Then, after a ten-year run, she'd end the marriage with I am who I am; I am not changing. Here was the cactus tree, a quarter century later.
Over these last twenty years her puzzling-out of her life and career would feature the same hurt, anger, and heightened self-regard shared by female age mates whose elevated expectations had left them unwilling to be pushed aside in the same "due course" of life that had bound earlier generations of women. Her "An angry man is just an angry man [but] an angry woman? 'Bitch!'" sung in a lifetime chain-smoker's raspy alto would be a back page of the well-shared hymnal she wrote, whose psalms to ice cream castles in the air had been chorused in trilling soprano.
But all of this would come years in the future.
Meanwhile, in late 1964, Joni Anderson scraped by in Yorkville. She would perform a few weeks longer; then, in increasing desperation, she'd move into Vicky Taylor's crash pad and later to the closet-sized attic room of a male platonic friend, in a building marked for demolition. Finally, when her labor pains started, two weeks past her due date, she would check herself into the charity ward of Toronto General Hospital and there confront what she was singing about tonight: she was having a baby she could not keep and would not keep.
Hundreds of accidentally pregnant girls made that decision every day, for the sake of the baby's well-being, their reputations or their parents', and their own desired freedom. But how could they experience the decision without guilt or fail to internalize society's judgment of their relinquishment as selfi shness? The burden of both judgments, the internal one and the societal one, would resonate incalculably over two-thirds of Joni's lifetime. As a close confidante of Joni's says, "Everything in Joni's emotional life has been about the baby."
During their time on Huron Street, neither Joni Anderson nor Duke Redbird could have any idea that, thirty years later, by multiple coincidences, he would be the one to lead Joni's long-relinquished grown daughter to her.
But that was decades down the road. So much of life would be lived in the interim.
april 6, 1971: daring herself
When Steve Harris knocked on the door of Carly Simon's Hyatt Continental House room, he wasn't surprised at the fear he saw in her face. Harris, an A&R man at Elektra Records, had spent two months cajoling Carly, an unknown who had extreme stage fright, into consenting to a live concert, so necessary to promote the single, "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," from her self-titled debut album. The record had sold only 2,000 copies, but it had ignited water-cooler talk among the special group of record company secretaries and receptionists that Elektra president Jac Holzman had sent it to; word-of-mouth had started, and Holzman was determined to maximize it.
Carly and Steve had flown out to L.A. the other day, on one of those brand-new 747s, their mutual fear of flying blunted by old-fashioneds and Valium in the first-class cabin. They were determined to have fun and forget that the Big Night was looming. Since landing, Carly an unreconstructed East Coast girl had been playing the enchanted naïf. Despite her highly sophisticated upbringing (her father, Richard Simon, was the cofounder of Simon & Schuster), she had never been to California before, a poor-little-rich-girl-ism that amazed her. In between dates with Michael Crichton (she and Steve had nicknamed the very tall doctor-novelist "Big Boy"), she'd been marveling at the tropical L.A. colors, at the hotel's rooftop pool, and at the platform beds in their rooms Steve's had a crown over it! She kept repeating the mantra "I can't get nervous because this is a foreign country; I'll be performing to foreigners." In fact, though, she would be performing opening for Cat Stevens at the Troubadour not to foreigners but to L.A.'s music elite. And here was her fun-loving chaperone, Steve, come to deliver her to her Waterloo.
Carly collapsed on Steve's chest, "shaking and trembling, like a scared puppy," Steve recalls. She was also stuttering; her long-extinguished childhood tic had resurfaced.
She was a tall, once chubby, now slim, leggy young woman in her mid-twenties wearing a fl oppy hat, a diaphanous skirt, and high boots. Her strong features very full lips in prognathic face, low-bridged nose, sloe eyes all cushioned in the remnants of baby fat, gave her a startling sensuality and made her ethnicity an enigma. (Her father was Jewish; her mother was half-German, part-Spanish, and, so the cherished family story went, part black.) As they got in the elevator, Carly told Steve that, as a child, she'd made up a special language to overcome her stammer. If only she could remember it!
That childhood of hers had been straight out of The New Yorker. Luminaries were guests in the Simons' living room. Carly and her siblings had attended the nearby private schools favored by wealthy, intellectual families, and the second generation replicated the first one. One of Carly's best friends, Ellen Wise Salvadori, was studying to be a Jungian therapist, while her husband was poised for deanship of a college art department. Her other best friend, Jessica Hoffmann Davis, was becoming a cognitive developmental psychologist. Carly's oldest sister, Joey, was an opera singer; middle sister Lucy married a psychiatrist. It was from this talk-rich world that Carly's song had percolated.
Rendered in her emotional contralto, the elegant ballad she'd written with her friend, Esquire writer Jake Brackman, presented a sophisticated woman struggling with a decision. She is in her thirties, but even though her friends have settled down, she's in no hurry to do so. Her boyfriend is the sentimental idealist about marriage; she's the hesitating cynic: "But soon you'll cage me on your shelf." This song was the first anti-marriage pop ballad written and sung by a woman.
Real-life personifications of the song young women criticizing marriage, ending their marriages, and writing about it were popping up all over New York now. Women's liberation had been the work of female civil rights and antiwar activists in collectives in Berkeley, Boston, New York, and elsewhere, for three years, but now it was fully entrenched in the young mainstream intelligentsia. Women in the media, arts, and academe Carly's crowd had come to view society and their personal histories through this powerful new lens that was supplanting all others. The movement relied on the intimate sharing of experiences: "consciousness raising." As they pooled their stories about, among other facets of their lives, love (with a new, tough analysis replacing yesterday's commiseration), women came to view men's put-up-or-shut-up rules of romance in the same way that newly unionized nineteenth-century factory workers viewed "If you don't come in Sunday, then don't come in Monday" signs: Two can play that game, baby.
This movement was about to get its own national publication. Right at this moment, as Carly and Steve Harris were stepping onto the curb at Santa Monica and Doheny, back in New York, a memo marked "Confidential: Some notes on a new magazine" was being circulated among New York magazine writer Gloria Steinem and a half-dozen other women; for its title, Sister and Everywoman vied with the odd-sounding Ms. And in law firms around the country, handfuls of attorneys were reframing as offensive and unjust practices that just a year before were regarded as unremarkably normal: separate newspaper job listings for men and women, rape victims' need for corroborating witnesses, banks' refusal to give women credit cards.
This new idea that was taking hold in the media and being argued in the courts that young women had integrity was having its echo in music. Carole King and Joni Mitchell had just arrived at the pinnacles of their careers, at twenty-nine and twenty-seven years of age, respectively. They were months away from achieving, for the former, commercial success unequaled in the recording industry; for the latter, respect unparalleled among her musician peers by way of very different albums, Tapestry and Blue, that had this in common: neither had one false note in it. These triumphs would be clouded with pain. Carole's marriage to the one husband her friends would later wistfully call "the normal one" would end, leading her to a next marriage, in which the consequences of her husband's insecurity were infinitely more destructive. As for Joni, her "living on nerves and feelings," as she'd later describe in a lyric on Court and Spark, would lead to a bottoming out, in the course of which she would issue a self-harming cry for help (she has referred to it as a "suicide attempt") after being rejected by a famous boyfriend.
Carole and Joni were in many ways opposites. Carole was Everywoman; Joni, the Bohemian. Carole was a craftsman, a tunesmith; Joni, a poet, an artist. Carole was a comforting, accessible friend; Joni, the object of women's awe and men's infatuation. Carole (now pregnant with her third child) was maternal; she lived by adding. Joni was solitary; she lived by relinquishing. Carole's songs celebrated easyto-grasp feelings in an optimistic spirit by way of clear, infectiously rhythmic expression. Joni's songs described complex needs and emotional states; they did not skirt pessimism; and like the astonishingly original Laura Nyro, the only other female singer-songwriter Joni respected she had begun to use her voice like a jazz instrument, with abrupt shifts of tempo, octave, mood, and volume.
But Carole and Joni were also alike: both were raised in lower-middle-class households. Neither was a sister (Joni, literally; Carole, functionally), and neither had a sister; the idea of confiding in women that brand-new coin of the realm was not second nature to them, nor was the inclination (Joni's "exposed nerve endings" and confessional songs notwithstanding) to bare their souls to friends. They shared a vague distrust of the chattering classes' "talking cure" and, in different ways, were self-directed. Both were instilled with traditional morality and had paid the price for defying it: Carole, bearing her first child at barely past seventeen; Joni, giving up a baby at twenty-one. Both were naturally ambitious; neither had sought to submerge her talent in a traditional female role.
As if each of these three women's lives represented one-third of a larger story each, so to speak, a single-hued transparent gel, which when super-imposed resulted in a full-color picture Carly Simon's experience and work filled in the breaches of Joni's and Carole's, for she represented vulnerabilities the other two did not have. When woven together, the strands of their three separate lives, identities, and songs tell the rich composite story of a whole generation of women born middle-class in the early to middle 1940s and coming of age in the middle to late 1960s.
Unlike Carole and Joni, Carly came from a big family awash in estrogen. Carly, her two older sisters, and their sometimes-sisterlike mother (Andrea Simon loved not just to gossip with her daughters but also to flirt with their boyfriends) filled the house with grandiose female dramas and set up Carly's lifetime comfort with and appreciation of female friends. "More than Joni and Carole, Carly is a woman's woman the notes and gifts, the concern, the phone calls," says Betsy Asher, then wife of James Taylor's manager, Peter Asher, and a woman who was the chief hostess (and secret keeper) to L.A.'s rock world. But the solicitousness wasn't mere etiquette. A lifelong analysand in a therapy-worshiping subculture, Carly believed in the value of intimate confession (and she listened raptly as others poured their hearts out), and she confided with great, incautious gusto. "Carly doesn't have a privacy barometer it all comes out," says Jessica Hoffmann Davis. "Carly doesn't bring her defenses forward from one moment to the next; she doesn't give herself that buffer, that solace," Mia Farrow agrees. Ellen Wise Questel (Carly's friend who in 1971 was Ellen Wise Salvadori now goes by her remarried name, Questel) explains, "A mystic once said, 'You have two eyes; one says yes to the world, the other says no. You need to see with both of them.' Carly sees more with the eye that says yes, and that makes her so vulnerable. She belongs in another century, the era of grand feelings and penned love letters. Carly would be perfect in a Tolstoy novel." Stuck in New York (eight months pregnant) on the night of Carly's Troubadour opening, Ellen mentally replayed a defining moment from their teen years: "Carly's sitting on the school steps with her guitar, playing 'When I Fall in Love,' and she's singing the '...it will be for-ev-er...' with such passion." Neither Carly nor Ellen could know that, through an introduction tonight, the prophecy of that lyric the inability to stop loving someone even after one can and wants to would be set in motion in Carly's life.
In contrast to Carole's and especially Joni's family, Carly's was extremely modern about sex. Sex was a wonderful thing, Andrea Simon made clear sometimes a bit too abundantly. But if sex had not carried for Carly the price it had for Carole or the consequences represented in Joni's youth, the conflict Carly felt between love and ambition (which Carole and Joni did not share) was equally limiting. There was also the matter of her charismatic older sisters; they were the ones who were supposed to be stars, not she. This single of hers, this solo album, this Troubadour gig: if something came of it, it would destroy the God-given hierarchy in Carly's family.
The Troubadour busboys were setting a red rose in a bud vase on every table a gift from Carly to her audience. Tonight she'd be wooing the L.A. rock community (many, recently transplanted New Yorkers), which was like the cool kids' table in the school cafeteria. Carole and Joni were the popular girls on that bench, and here she was, the interloper: about to wander over with her tray in her hands to see if she could join them. "Carly was completely unnerved when we got to the dressing room, like, 'How can I get out of this?'" Steve Harris recalls. He was getting a crash introduction to her intense neuroticism, which made even those who loved her describe her as a little "crazy."
Carly asked Steve if she could take a short walk in the alley to clear her head. He wouldn't let her go by herself, so down the stairs they loped together. Carly would have to dare herself to get on that stage. But she was good that way, always daring her heart to be broken to pieces; rarely shirking from the sexually exhibitionist gesture other women wouldn't think of undertaking. As they circled the block, Steve saw the huge effort Carly was making to calm herself. He vowed to think of some reward once the show was over.
Carole King and Joni Mitchell had someone in common: James Taylor. Taylor was now, officially (courtesy of last month's Time magazine cover), the biggest male rock hero in the country and the touted culture-changing avatar of a new intimate, thoughtful ballad style that was muscling loud rock offstage. James was a deeply close musical friend of Carole and, until recently, Joni's lover.
Everyone thought Joni and James had split up. But here they were, gliding into the Troubadour together. Carly loved James's music. In a bit of faux diva-ness intended to stanch this feared engagement, she'd insisted that Steve find her a drummer who sounded "just like" Taylor's drummer, Russ Kunkel, or else she wouldn't perform. (Steve booked in-demand Kunkel himself so she'd have no out.) Now Russ walked into Carly's dressing room, excitedly reporting that James Taylor would be watching her. "Why'd you have to tell me that?" Carly wailed.
But when she took the stage, the microphone saved her. It kept sliding. Her constant need to steady it as she sang made her forget her terror, and she delivered, as the critics would rave, a star-is-born performance.
After Cat Stevens fi nished his set, Steve Harris strode over to James the two had met before, and James looked like he'd enjoyed the show and invited him "to come up and say hello to Carly." James, who'd played the Troub, had been in its dressing room before, scoring his preperformance hit of smack (encased in knotted balloons, in case you had to swallow it) from a young dealer who happened to be a Beverly Hills doctor's son and who always had the best stuff. Joni came along, close by James's side. In a bit of quick thinking, Steve said to Joni: "Cat's over there," steering Joni to Stevens's dressing room as James entered Carly's "looking like a country boy," Steve recalls. "Carly could barely contain her excitement."
When Steve left the room, Carly was seated on the couch; James, at her feet on the floor with his legs crossed. "They were deep in conversation," Steve recalls. "I could see the intensity between them."
Over the next eight months Carly Simon would spin off on romances with an array of rock and movie stars, while writing and recording two hit albums, the second delivering a monster hit that is generally considered the first, and most defiant, feminist rock song of the mainstream second-wave feminist era. (The song also sparked a still-in-play guessing game about who its subject was.) But through that whirlwind, the face of the man she met that night would beckon, as if the old saying A woman loves only one man in her life had crankily invaded her psyche to thwart the enormous distance she and other young women were hurtling from it. As Timothy White put it in Rolling Stone: "Carly was the brainy beauty, the ultimate catch. But while everyone was chasing [her], she was running after the one guy who just kept on walking."
Carly's marriage to James Taylor in November 1972, and the family they would create, would be a kind of skeptical urban woman's test case. At a moment in time when marriage was grandly suspect and wanting a baby was something smart women were embarrassed to admit, Carly would be among those who, in doing both, bore the burden to not be backsliding. But, having married in an era when the tortured boy was the only one worth having, yet before codependency entered the lexicon, Carly would learn the diffi culty of making a family man of an addict. And, like countless women crowding suddenly numerous female therapists' offi ces, she would, against her better judgment, feel the need to downplay her success around her husband. In that season of feminism's deepest, most glamorous reach, Carly's next three album covers demure pregnant glow; soft-porn heat; writhing sensuality would reassure her wary cohort that domesticity could be reinvented (well, sort of...), even beyond her own family's secretly decadent model. Her marriage would wind down during a stridently idealistic time when a movie starring her Sarah Lawrence classmate Jill Clayburgh would complete the thought her own first song had helped push into the zeitgeist eight years earlier: Escaping a flawed marriage = liberation. But Carly and others would learn that it wasn't that simple. If only feminist fortune cookie sentences could, as ordered, change the heart. They couldn't.
Carly would "come around again," marrying a man whose solicitude corrected his predecessor's distance, only to face serial monogamy's irony: behind every solved problem lies a fresh one you hadn't anticipated. Crises would come to this woman of the charmed childhood. In the wake of her unique mother's death, she would write a universal song about the mother-daughter bond, reemploying her favored symbol of femaleness the river which also inspired Joni. She would become one of the one in eight American women to be diagnosed each year with breast cancer; she'd undergo a mastectomy. Depression would leave her challenged to learn to trim the sails of her neediness, "to travel alone and lightly." She would encounter, with Joni and Carole, the loophole in the Constitution of their egalitarian generation: Women get "older"; men are "ageless."
But she was good at dares. She would have one of her biggest-selling albums in late middle age, a feat simultaneously shared by Carole in the wake of a season of veneration for Joni (with one music executive declaring, "Joni Mitchell is simply one of the most important and infl uential songwriters in the history of popular music"). Carly would now be taking her cues from her "wise woman at the end of the bar," and all three would by now have coursed along the winding, glamorous, but, as Carole had put it, definitely "rutted" road of the prime of their lives. And in the process because, yes, songs are like tattoos they would write, in music, a history of how that life really was, for them and so many girls like them.
After James Taylor left Carly Simon's dressing room (and exited the club with girlfriend Joni), Carly walked onto the Troubadour fire escape with her guitar and serenaded the fans who'd gathered on the sidewalk. A stone's throw northeast, up the hill in Laurel Canyon, Carole was at home with her husband and children on Appian Way, near Joni's place on Lookout Mountain. This year, 1971, the media would soon essentially declare, was both the Year of the Woman and the Year of Women in Music. Under those banner headlines stood a generation of females who'd been little girls in one America a frantically conventional, security-mad postwar nation, without rock 'n' roll or civil rights, and with an anxiously propagandized, stultifying image of women and who'd created their own Dionysian counter-reality, which was now yielding an even more revolutionary chapter.
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.
Here is the story of their lives, and of that journey, from the beginning. Copyright © 2008 by Kellwell Inc.
Reading Group Guide
Carly Simon, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct, in both her individual vocal style and in her singular transformation of American music history. Carole King is the product of an ethnically diverse Brooklyn neighborhood; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of New York intelligentsia. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, every girl who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic sixties generation -- female version -- but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way that altogether avoids cliché. The history of the women of that generation has never been written -- until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.
Filled with the voices of many dozens of these women's intimates, who are speaking in these pages for the first time, this alternating biography reads like a novel -- except it's all true, and the three heroines are famous and beloved. In Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller captures the character of each woman, giving a balanced portrayal enriched by a wealth of new information.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. "Women's liberation had been the work of female civil rights and antiwar activists in collectives in Berkeley, Boston, New York, and elsewhere...but now [in 1971] it was fully entrenched in the mainstream intelligentsia." To what extent do the early careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon seem animated by the spirit of the women's liberation movement? In what respects does their music seem to address the theme of the role of women in a world largely dominated by men? How did the words of their songs -- and their personal and professional lives -- embody a new spirit of young women being as adventurous as young men had always been?
2. How did Carole King's marriage at seventeen and subsequent early motherhood affect her development as an artist? To what extent could her marriage with Gerry Goffin be considered a partnership of equals? Why did their phenomenally successful pop-soul-plus-Broadway compositions seem less impressive by the time the Beatles and Dylan became popular, and how did that public perception affect Carole's own transformation as a musician in midcareer?
3. What does Joni Mitchell's decision to bear a child out of wedlock (and to refuse to hide in a home for unwed mothers) at a time when pregnant, unmarried women were considered scandalous in Canada reveal about her strength of character and her personal beliefs? How did her decision to give the child up for adoption play out in her music, and -- much later -- in her own history? How might such a difficult decision have reflected a kind of centuries-later version of the theme of the Child Ballads?
4. How did Carly Simon's complicated family life -- her father's open love for a much older woman, her mother's semi-secret affair with a much younger man living in their home -- factor into her own feelings about relationships and love? To what extent did her involvement with psychotherapy enable her to come to terms with her discomfort with being in the public eye? How might her insecurity as a professional musician be connected to her own feelings of inferiority in her eminent family?
5. How did Carole King's separation from her husband and collaborator, Gerry Goffin, in 1967, alter the course of her career? How did her move with her two daughters from suburban New Jersey to Los Angeles, a freer, cutting-edge city largely unfamiliar to her, affect her music? How significant was that move to her emergence for the first time as a truly independent woman?
6. In her song "Cactus Tree," Joni Mitchell writes that women should keep their hearts "full and hollow, like a cactus tree." How does that line resonate with Mitchell's own life in terms of her romantic and professional choices? How would you characterize the influence of fellow artists Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, and David Crosby on the musical career of Joni Mitchell?
7. "Too much freedom doesn't help you artistically." To what extent did Carly Simon's musical career bloom in the wake of her marriage to fellow musician James Taylor, and how do you reconcile this fact with her having to juggle the responsibilities of musician, wife, and mother? How did Simon's marriage to Taylor allow her to publicly air her decidedly feminist take on gender politics?
8. "Though this would be hard to imagine in 1956, when standards of feminine beauty were at their most unforgiving, in fifteen years Carole would represent an inclusive new model of female sensuality: the young 'natural' woman, the 'earth mother.'" What role did physical beauty play in the musical successes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon? To what extent did physical beauty serve as a barrier of sorts for up-and-coming musicians in the sixties, and how do you think their experiences compare to those of female musicians today?
9. How have the contours of fame changed for Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon as they enter their more mature decades? As they've transitioned from young stars to legends, how has their music changed? How would you characterize their musical preoccupations at this point in their lives?
10. Of the many details about the careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, which did you find most fascinating and why? How did the author's inclusion of political, social, and historical facts from the era in which these musicians were establishing themselves heighten your appreciation of their accomplishments? To what extent were you surprised by the intersection of their musical careers, given their distinct styles and their different backgrounds?