Half collective biography, half music-industry dish about three singer-songwriters who represented a generation of women on “a course of self-discovery, change, and unhappy confrontation with the limits of change.”
Vanity Fair and Glamour contributor Weller (Dancing at Ciro’s: A Family’s Love, Loss, and Scandal on the Sunset Strip, 2003, etc.) doesn’t veer from the traditional image of her subjects. Carole King is the Brill Building tunesmith whose vinyl warmth reflected earth-mother instincts; Joni Mitchell, the Canadian prairie-born poet/artist whose yearning for love and commitment conflicted with the need for freedom (and its concomitant loneliness) that fueled her greatest songs; and Carly Simon, the neurotic, alarmingly candid and sexy Manhattan chanteuse. The author has pored over numerous documents concerning these three and interviewed scores of current or former lovers, friends, colleagues and relatives. Reflecting this prodigious legwork, many pages are crammed with the longest parentheses this side of Faulkner. Weller’s prose frequently falls into cliché (Mitchell’s “exorcising of demons”), and although she dutifully proclaims her subjects’ stories to be tales of feminine empowerment, she more often sounds like Gossip Girl. The narrative frequently becomes a roundelay of ecstasy, insensitivity, drugs, madness, betrayal and loss at the hands of the men that got away, including James Taylor, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen and Gerry Goffin (King’s first husband and collaborator). Weller neglects the musicianship behind some of the memorable songs of the last half-century: You’d never know, for instance, that Mitchell’s open style of tuning landed her on a Rolling Stone list of the 100 greatest guitarists in rock history. Yet the author’s research has unearthed so much little-known material (including King’s “Rick One/Rick Two period”: successive marriages to Idaho mountain men) that her account is essential for understanding how three female superstars survived male chauvinism, romantic disaster and late-career neglect by the music industry to become icons.
Definitely a guilty pleasure, but still a solid contribution to the story of 20th-century popular music.