Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rise of the Singer Songwriters

I'm reading Sheila Weller's braided biography, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carley Simon–and the Journey of a Generation. It's a fun read, and showcases the best-known of the women singer/songwriters, starting with King in the late 1950s, picking up Mitchell and Simon along the way through the sixties and seventies. 

They are much alike, but just as much different, these three. At eighteen, King was, with her first husband, a drone at the Brill Building, churning out hits for doo-wop rock groups in the late fifties and early sixties. This continued until the British Invasion changed the music scene in America.

At various times, they all had chart toppers on their own. Aside from the hits-for-money, King's Tapestry was the best-selling album by a woman for years, and still might be. 

Mitchell's mostly-autobiographical songs, often covered by others, include "Both Sides Now," and "Woodstock," and "Big Yellow Taxi."

Simon's "You're So Vain," had everybody wondering who she was singing about, and there was a long list from which to choose. In what she calls her "belle of the ball year and a half," she had affairs with Cat Stevens, Kris Kristofferson, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and Mick Jagger, before she hooked up with James Taylor. Former lovers allow that they'd never been with anybody who enjoyed sex as much as she did. (And for the record, none of the men listed above are the so-vain character in her song; according to most sources, he is a blend of several different guys.)

Mitchell came out of Canada and the folk scene. Simon's parents were well-off–the surname come from the book company, Simon & Schuster. While King married early and frequently, Mitchell and Simon were less frequently monogamous.

All were connected to James Taylor, one of the first male singer/songwriters. King was in  a working relationship with him; Mitchell was his lover for a time; and Simon had a short-lived, stormy marriage to Taylor, who was in and out of rehab for heroin addiction from an early age.

Weller points out that the three came of age with The Pill, and how that affected their behavior, along with a generation of women. There is a focus on the post-feminist aspect of their lives, and the turbulent times, and this is interesting, if now and then a tad overmuch in the "Right on, Sisters!" department. 

It's gossipy, name-dropping, and full of little tidbits that give you the flavor of what it was like for a woman to come up in the music business in those days. Weller tells a story about how Carly Simon came to be associated with Albert Grossman, a club-owner who became a high-end manager early in the folk music days, with a stable that included Peter, Paul & Mary, the Band, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin. (An aggressive fellow who did things his way, Grossman made Noel Stookey change his name to "Paul," and forbade Mary Travers from exposing her skin to the sun, so as to keep that pale white look. Would they have done as well being called Peter, Noel, & Mary? If Mary had gotten a tan, would that have killed the trio?)

According to Simon, Grossman, a pudgy fellow and married, waved at the casting couch and "...  offered me his body in exchange for worldly success. Sadly, his body was not the kind you would easily sell yourself for."

She declined, she said, and he didn't hold it against her, but worked to get her star aloft ...

I'm still in the middle of it, just leading into Woodstock, so the best is yet to come ...

Editor's Note:

While you have to admire this trio for their musical accomplishments, their personal lives took big beatings along the way. What love they seemed to find was in bits and pieces, and  they were all much married and divorced (or in one case, widowed, due to a heroin OD) and none of them found anybody they could keep a relationship going with, least not when this book was finished a couple years back.  Maybe that's what drove the engines of their talent, that lack of partner continuity. 

Big price to pay, that. 

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