More often than not, rock biographies are the “drugs and booze and on-the-road turmoil” stories of male stars. The women in these bios and autobios are in the background: the girls on the bus, the wives and girlfriends, the nonessential players.
What makes Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller so wonderful is that the women—and their talent—are front and center. The stories of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King’s musical careers would be enough for three books, but Weller seamlessly blends their overlapping stories into a fascinating look at the women’s lives, music, and early careers that explains so much about what it was like to be a woman in the male-dominated world of ’60’s and ’70’s rock ’n’ roll, and how each of them carved out a unique place in the pantheon.
I am a huge Joni Mitchell fan, and while I could hum some Carly Simon and Carole King songs, I knew pretty much nothing about them, so I was fascinated to find out how they came to be musicians and how much their careers and lives overlapped. And what a big part James Taylor played in each of their lives.
Weller tells stories in alternating chapters that cover the women’s early lives, their beginning forays into making music, their complicated love and family lives, and their evolving successes. Each of them had to deal with issues that many woman in their generation faced, and some that were unique to them: Carole being a teenage wife and mother; Joni facing the reality of being an unwed mother in conservative Saskatchewan and a free spirit in liberal California; and Carly balancing children, career, and an uneven marriage with a heroin addict and fellow superstar.
Their stories span decades of huge change for women—in society and in the music business—and Weller follows their careers and lives, interviewing people who knew and worked with them to reconstruct what each of them faced and overcame to create their art.
It is an eye-opening story, and after reading it you realize what Joni said is true: “Songs are like tattoos.” These women’s songs are tattooed with their lives.