Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Carole, Joni, and Carly in Context

(Reflections on GIRLS LIKE US: CAROLE KING, JONI MITCHELL, CARLY SIMON, AND THE JOURNEY OF A GENERATION by Sheila Weller, paperback published by Washington Square Press, 2008.)

Discussing the cover of Carly Simon's 1972 album No Secrets, Sheila Weller notes that the photo portrays the singer-songwriter as "the epitome of the 1970s educated woman," shown "in errand-doing, lunch-date-going motion in velour jeans, tote bag swinging."  In eighth grade, I picked up on all that subliminally.   More significantly, I took for granted in 1972 that women would have lives and careers of their own, unmarried. Weller does also note  a couple of details that did grab my conscious attention back then, "discreetly visible" under Simon's "tight jersey."

Weller in GIRLS LIKE US presents parallel biographies of Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell.   It's about three parts relationships, one part songwriting, and one part social history. 

About social history, Weller is so right matching her subjects' albums to the zeitgeist of that era that I take her word for the parts of the story that I was too young to understand.   She fits their work into a bigger picture of immense cultural change, and she does so without idealizing that era. For example, she writes that Carole King, a teenager unmarried and pregnant in 1959 had therefore married and boarded "the elevator" (of adulthood) "when young adult life had meant responsibility and sober idealism.  Now [in 1967] it meant playfulness, politics, and sensuality" (189). 

Weller observes that Sixties social movements seemed to happen overnight, but she describes how they had been a long time in preparation.   We can see some of this in the family backgrounds of these three women:  Carole King's working-class parents and their divorce;  Joni Mitchell's escape to Bohemian life, immediately marred by pregnancy and the anguished choice between giving up either the career or the baby (haunted for decades after by her choice to give up the baby);  Carly Simon's wealthy, educated parents' cocktail parties with New York cultural figures and their "no secrets" lives with live-in employees who were also their lovers.  The sexual revolution didn't begin in 1967, it just went public.   Weller doesn't idealize any of this:
In hindsight, the last three years of the 1960s were like some self-wrought mini-Messianic Age plunked in the middle of the twentieth century.  Hubristic prophets spouted melodramatic rhetoric...; believers found revelations in holy texts (Weather Underground manifestoes, acid visions, Dylan or Beatles lyrics); [and Students for Democratic Action espoused] "fraternity and honesty."  But they devolved into tableaux both satirically grandiose and improbable...  (256)
Citing Wolfe, she describes Black Panthers sharing cocktails with Leonard Bernstein.  What she calls "the triumphalist chaos of late 60s rock, the radicals' political opera, the psychedelic madness" all "seemed to have backfired" by 1971:  assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin King, massacre at My Lai, and shootings of protesters at Kent State, not to mention high-profile drug-related deaths of counter-culture icons Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, all seemed to be signalling that 1971 was the time to try living out Bobby Kennedy's statement, "We're here to make gentle the life of this world" (321). We were ready for songs that asked, Ain't it good to know, you've got a friend?

About artistry, Weller confirms what I've divined since my days of squinting at LP inner liners' lyrics and composition credits:  Carly and Carole have the AABA form from Broadway in their blood, and all three women respect craft to an extent that bothered some of their peers and critics, for whom anything unspontaneous smacks of inauthenticity. King's lyricist-husband Gerry Goffin had wanted to write his own West Side Story with Carole, and their song "Up on the Roof," with strings added, was a nod in that direction.  Joni had jazz chords and the sounds of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in mind long before she got the guitar and the folk label, longer still before her jazz albums of the 70s bombed.    

For this poisonous ideal of "authenticity," Weller credits the faux-vagabond Bob Dylan with spreading the notion that craft reeked of dishonesty.  In his encounters with these women and with the Beatles, his example and charisma gave them license to indulge in allusions to personal experiences that no one could divine.   Weller calls it "deep" songwriting that does more than find ways to say "I love you."  At one point in the mid-sixties, Joni Mitchell realizes, "Oh!  You can write about anything!"

All of that is very interesting, but the stuff about who did what in bed (or the bathroom!) with James Taylor (or Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, or Mama Cass Elliot's brother-in-law Russ Kunkel), about marriages brutal and sad, and about flings with Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, and others -- just didn't interest me much.  Weller quotes many more women friends than I could keep track of dishing about the artist's relationships. 

All three women had long spells of self-doubt and critical indifference in the 80s and 90s, and all have come through with some acceptance that their audience will remain those of us whose notions of relationship were shaped by "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," "You've Got a Friend," and "Both Sides Now."

[Read my re-discovery of Joni Mitchell here.]

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