Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Girls Like Us
by Sheila Weller

A local steakhouse - a real Midwestern steakhouse where there're 4H pictures on the wall and the only options for sides to the beef are a choice between a baked potato or fries, salad and veggies non-negotiable - used to have an offering on the menu they've since changed: a 12 oz. steak they called "the cowgirl." The other steak options were either what dieticians recommend: something the size of a deck of cards (and if you're at a steakhouse in the first place, this is a self-canceling item ... it's only on the menu to keep food Nazis from bothering the waitresses); or the 20 oz. monster, called the "ranch hand", which no one but fat guys order, and even they don't finish it. Everyone orders the 12 oz. Back when it was still called "the cowgirl", you could see the pain etched across every male face when they were ordering, even if they just pointed at the item on the menu. I don't know if the waitresses eventually were no longer amused at the discomfort of their male patrons, or if a regular begged for it to be changed, but now it's just the 12 oz. steak.

Carrying around a rather large hardbound book with "Girls Like Us" blazoned across the front brought similar discomfort to ordering "the cowgirl". For books that I simply don't want to have to explain to anyone, I'll resort to the ole' college paper grocery bag book cover trick, but this one was just on the edge of embarrassing but not really - and I knew I wouldn't be carting it around long enough to bother.

See, it was a stinker in terms of the writing. Gad, what a slough. See for yourself.

It was like reading a textbook. How you can take the lives of three very interesting women in rock/pop/folk music, two of which had/have sex lives that rival any of the Hollywood bad boys, and make it so darned dull is beyond me. Granted, I've just read the To Kill a Mockingbird of rock biographies - U2 at the End of the World by Bill Flanagan, so perhaps my calibrations are a bit off.

I read it because I really wanted to know more about Carole King, how she went from Brill Building hotshot to making one of the best selling albums of all time, and then seemingly fell of the radar after a few more hits. Answer: She met a nutball "back to nature/into the wild" kinda guy and holed up in Idaho for years until she finally divorced him.

I mostly knew the stories of Joni Mitchell and Carley Simon (except I didn't realize to what extent she was a sexual omnivore - wow).

The biggest disappointment is how it drops the threads of all their stories somewhere in the 80s. (Which is kinda like the old Woody Allen joke where one woman complains how bad the food is and her companion answers with "yes, and such small portions.") All of these women have had major life events and albums since, and surely there could have been at least a paragraph or two on them. I wanted to know about the backstory of Joni's Night Ride Home, one of my favorite albums of hers. I wanted to know why Carole King started showing up on David Letterman and started touring again. Etc. You'll not find any of that here.

The feminism angle initially grated, but it became evident that trying to write about these women in that time and not talk about feminism is to try to completely describe popcorn and never mention salt.

Did get some trivia out of it, though:
- The cover photo Joni Mitchell's Blue was taken by Tim Considine who as a child actor was on the TV show "My Three Sons" (cue that clarinet starting up in your head), and the song "Little Green" on that album is explicitly about the daughter she gave up for adoption.

- The reason Gerry Goffin and Carole King broke up is he went full goose batshit crazy, with the foaming at the mouth and the funny jacket with the poorly tailored arms, and the screaming and the flailing, glaven. Though he got better, and eventually wrote "Saving All My Love for You", the ubiquitous Whitney Houston hit.

- These people appear to have fucked each other, everyone else worth fucking, and a few more beyond that, back in the day:
* Joni Mitchell
* Carley Simon
* James Taylor
* Jackson Browne
* J.D. Souther
* Warren Beatty
* Jack Nicholson
* Mick Jagger
* Linda Ronstadt
* Don Henley

I'm sure the list is longer than that, but these are the names that have bubbled up in every Laurel Canyon-centered bio I've read. (I'm up to four, I think, and I'll probably read Heaven and Hell by Don Felder.)

- Warren Beatty even begged Carole King to screw him when she was near term because he said he'd never fucked a pregnant woman and wanted to know what it felt like. She declined (she was married and she seems to have morals).

- Carley Simon didn't (doesn't) like to sleep alone, and, according to her, never did in those days. She had VD once, too.

- Two of the biggest egomaniacal pricks in the biz are Don Henley and Stephen Stills, according to everyone. James Taylor is a bit of a narcissistic prick, too.

One of the of things I've been having to avoid due to reading these tell-all bios is disliking the music of some of these folks (especially the earnest stuff) now that I know what the person who wrote them is like in real life. But - you read it everywhere - most people who ascend to the top of the various worlds - music, movies, politics, TV, etc. - usually have ego issues and exaggerated personality flaws; it's one of the reasons they rose to the top.

Paradoxically, the other effect is I keep wanting to listen to these songs now that I know the story behind them. I have a buddy (who reads this blog) who would always get obsessed with a band after he'd seen them in concert. For the whole month after the show, their songs would be in his top rotation. It always puzzled me, even though it makes logical sense, because many music lovers consider an artist's live shows to be as important as what they lay down in the studio. However, I understand it a little better since reading about the artists is doing the same thing to me.

I recommend the music of these three fine ladies, but skip the book.


TarBabyJim said...

Very informative review. Thank you.

A more interesting Bio would be one on Melanie Safka. Why do authors ignore such a great artist and crazy lady? I have been a Melanie fan for 38 years and her story has NEVER been told.

Thanks again for the read.
James Baldwin
Spokane WA
LetHerIn dot org

Yahmdallah said...

I agree. I still spin up "Brand New Key" and "Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)" regularly.

Why don't you do it? Put together an article and free-lance it. From your shrine, er, website, it appears you have the info already. Maybe she's agree to an interview if she knew what you were doing.

For instance, the one on Gail Garnett ("We'll Sing in the Sunshine") that M. Blowhard linked to is an excellent example:

TarBabyJim said...

Good idea Yahmdallah but, I just don't know if I could handle such a project. I'm a poor writer and my spelling and grammer are horrible!

As for getting an interview from Melanie, I doubt she would give one to me. From what I hear, she is pissed off with me because of my "god-woman" page I put up on my site. She called me a "a predjustice bigot". What can I say?

Yahmdallah said...

Oh. Yes, that would be problematic.