Unfettered and alive

Leslie Brody is writing a biography of Jessica Mitford.

Sisterhood -- in the family and body politic -- can be a beautiful abstraction and a real pain in the neck. It's an evanescent ideal that sometimes takes shape in historic movements. And it's the cosmic force behind Sheila Weller as she tries to link the lives of three very different artists to "the rich composite story of a whole generation of women born middle-class in the early to mid 1940s and coming of age in the middle to late 1960s."

It's brave of Weller, in defining "us," to include the amorphous, perhaps even nostalgic, notion of class in America. Now as in the past, the phrase "middle class" contains so many worlds of meaning that nobody really knows what it means. Middle-class-ness might be imagined in Carole King's life as a young wife and mother and in the drab orthodoxy that hung like a pall above Joni Mitchell's childhood home. Then too, it was the generalized, enigmatic epithet epitomizing all that was phony, "bougie," a slur tossed at the uptown Simon for not being sufficiently street smart. Given that being middle-class contravened being hip, the first order of business for a self-respecting, self-liberating young woman was to un-class oneself. (If somebody in your consciousness-raising group called you middle-class, you'd probably think that wasn't very sisterly.)

King is Weller's "everywoman." Coming of age in Brooklyn, inspired and influenced by black musicianship, King makes her way by dint of talent into the Brill Building, center of top-40 hit-makers. She and her partner, then-husband Gerry Goffin, chalk up a string of successful records before she turns 21. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" hits the charts as birth control pills are "reaching their first customers," Weller points out, allowing a young, single woman to declare herself "an emotional and sexually independent and responsible person."

Mitchell emerges as bubble gum becomes not just the stuff tough girls crack but also an epithet meaning crass or commercial. The Canadian singer-songwriter became for Weller "the It girl and anthropologist of her newly coined female archetype, a rusticated American version of Left Bank femininity."

That Mitchell's inward-looking material drew so many acolytes is a tribute to her talent and good fortune to have entered the slipstream when she did. Her best songs reflect confessional trends in '60s-era literature, the poems of Anne Sexton, the novels of Erica Jong, the new journalism of Joan Didion. The work of Anais Nin and Doris Lessing had already spawned a sisterhood of dedicated diarists, which meant that few young women left home without their journal. During Mitchell's time in Laurel Canyon, she became a rock aristocrat in a Rubik's cube of celebrity love affairs. Then, like swarms of young women, she "split" for Europe in the early 1970s. Though unlike us, she didn't need to buy a Eurail Pass.

Simon, whose father co-founded the Simon & Schuster publishing house, came of age in an affluent intellectual society, and it "was from this talk-rich world that Carly's song had percolated," Weller writes. Her public persona was that of a sexually uninhibited freethinker. In the New York of her early songs, young women cavort like drunken dryads with chignons. She's a jet-set star who hangs out with Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis, marries and divorces James Taylor. Like us? Not so much.

Weller nevertheless holds fast to her premise and keeps up a crackling pace. All three life stories are like tops let loose at the same speed, each running down at its own pace. Although the author's scene setting is admirable, sometimes she compresses history with a steamroller, making very different events seem to carry equal weight. Here's her take on the late '60s:

"Hubristic prophets spouted melodramatic rhetoric in contemporary versions of the Temple squares (the campus, the TV screen, the FM radio, the rock concert, the newspaper headlines); believers found revelations in holy texts (Weather Underground manifestos, acid visions, Dylan or Beatles lyrics); witnesses watched the heavens heave both frogs (dollar bills fluttering from Wall Street balconies; the naming of a pig as a candidate for the Democratic nomination; Jimi Hendrix immolating his guitar) and thunder (the Vietnam war dead, the political assassinations)."

Weller conscientiously tracks King's and Simon's survival of drug-addled marriages. In a moving coda, Mitchell's recurring sorrow is dispelled when she's reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption. All three women endure their audiences' occasional lack of appreciation. They leave their corporate backers, try working on their own, then return to the fold. But no tears need be shed, according to this narrative -- all three became famous and rich when very young and lived according to their own lights.

Weller makes the necessary connections -- artist to artist and artist to audience. She also hints at a legacy that, had it been developed further, might have endowed "Girls Like Us" with the interpretive power it lacks. Although she tells us that Georgia O'Keeffe "ploughed the grain that had eased Joni's journey," she neglects to tell us what Mitchell and the 90-year-old O'Keeffe said to each other about art and music when they met at O'Keeffe's New Mexico studio. (Instead, we get sketchy quotes from Weller's interview with Mitchell's traveling companion, who stayed in the car and played his congas.)

Weller also assumes that the next generation's "queens of the airwaves" (Rickie Lee Jones, Deborah Harry, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett) had easier journeys thanks to their female predecessors. It's nice to think so, but why and how? Given the inscrutability of art, luck, timing, style and economics, such an interesting thread would have benefited from further explanation.

Why is there no mention of Mitchell's appearance at New York's Fez club in 1995, where in a bizarre show of punk devotion, Hynde punctuated Mitchell's performance with loud and appreciative yells. Simon, who was also in the audience, asked the obstreperous Pretenders singer "to be a little quieter." What happened next looked to some observers like an assault, but Simon says Hynde told her, "You're great too, Carly . . . you need to do this too," while choking her "in a loving way." Mitchell played on, and the indomitable Simon subsequently moved her seat.

Barring epidemics, whole generations rarely arrive at the same destination at the same time. There are a lot of stations along the way. We girls grew up, changed, wanted different things (like, could you call us something else, please?), but the music of our youth remains a fortress of innocence. The same cultural, economic and cosmic currents drove young women to resist the threat of a thwarted life and -- in an inspired convergence of art, literature, music and political awareness -- brought many of us to see that sisterhood is a powerful and complicated thing. *

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World