From left, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Joel Brodsky/Corbis; Henry Diltz/Corbis
From Today's NY Times:
Has any pop song evoked a generation’s romantic self-infatuation more hauntingly than Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”?
Sheila Weller, in her book “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation” (Atria Books), which weaves the biographies of these singer-songwriters into a post-feminist history, writes: “It was the first line of the chorus — ‘We are stardust, we are golden’ ” — that “conveyed the impression of hundreds of thousands of people speaking as one.”
Stardust-sprinkled, golden children determined to save the world was one way of describing the youth culture’s heady self-image. The generational axiom that all you need is love persisted into the 1970s during the so-called cooling of America, when soft-rock singer-songwriters like Ms. Mitchell, Ms. King and Ms. Simon and male equivalents like James Taylor, Jackson Browne and John Denver personalized the communal conversation.
As Ms. Weller astutely emphasizes, the three singers in her biography belonged to the first generation of women to come of age with the pill. The belief in love as the answer coincided with the women’s liberation movement. An unvoiced question suggested by the book that has persisted through these women’s lives and their music is whether romantic love and promiscuity are compatible.
As fiercely as the rock counterculture rejected its parents’ tastes in music, all three women are revealed here as heavily indebted to traditional pop and its quasi-religious faith in romantic love. For Ms. Mitchell, an early epiphany was the swooningly beautiful 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which she discovered in the movie “The Story of Three Loves” and visited a record store to play repeatedly. Another early idol was Édith Piaf, the French voice of female suffering and resilience. The song choices and lush arrangements on some of Ms. Mitchell’s later records pay homage to her favorite Billie Holiday torch songs.
Ms. Simon grew up in a privileged household listening to classical music and to Richard Rodgers and the Gershwins. Her career-making hit, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” is an art song with a semiclassical melody in the style of Gabriel Fauré. But she had to wait until the early 1980s to begin recording popular standards with an orchestra.
Ms. King, who idolized Rodgers and Hammerstein, translated their aesthetic into a less flowery, Brill Building style of soul-flavored teenage pop with optimistic messages in the cheerleading spirit of Hammerstein. What is “You’ve Got a Friend” but a plainer, demystified echo of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”?
For years these women, consciously or not, suppressed their attachment to the supposedly square music of the past, the better to be current. They concentrated on folk-rock and light pop-gospel, styles that were deemed more authentic than anything to come from Broadway or Tin Pan Alley.
But if medical science allowed them to be sexual pioneers, they were still gripped by fairy-tale mythology. Even as they pursued serial relationships in and out of marriage, they embraced the credo expressed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s quintessential postwar romantic sermon, “Some Enchanted Evening,” which imagined that true love could ignite in the eye contact of strangers across a crowded room.
In the early years of the sexual revolution, there was widespread belief by men and women alike that romantic sex was the most important thing in life, the key to happiness and a pathway to world peace. The dictum “Make love, not war” was taken seriously. It is also easy to forget that in the ’60s and ’70s, music was the rock generation’s primary mode of communication with itself, in much the same way that computers are today. In the communal, post-hippie fantasy that evaporated as the ’70s wore on, rock stars were exalted as a new hip aristocracy.
Drugs fortified the mystique. Marijuana and LSD were embraced as pathways toward a higher consciousness. Various forms of speed were easy to obtain and carried little stigma. At hip Hollywood parties jars of pills were passed around with scarcely a second thought, and cocaine became epidemic: anything to deny a steadily mounting realization that the imminent revolutions in human consciousness, politics and erotic pleasure were dreams that would not come true.
“Girls Like Us” chronicles the singer-songwriters’ lives from birth in the early and mid-1940s (born before 1946, they are technically not baby boomers, though their names are synonymous with boomer musical tastes) to the present. The pathway for personal true stories, performed by those who lived them, was paved by the established literary vogue for confessional poetry.
For those who are still curious, “Girls Like Us” is a gossipmonger’s feast that names many of the lovers and husbands referred to in the women’s lyrics. Of the three, only Ms. Simon talked to Ms. Weller. Information about Ms. Mitchell’s and Ms. King’s personal lives was compiled from extensive interviews with former husbands, close friends and relatives. The one man common to all three was James Taylor, a prince with a heroin habit (since kicked); he was Ms. King’s sometime musical partner (but not her lover), Ms. Mitchell’s lover and later Ms. Simon’s husband in a turbulent marriage that ended in divorce.
Especially in Ms. Mitchell’s songs through the late-’70s, almost every reference is explicitly autobiographical. Aside from a series of intense, tumultuous love affairs and a short-lived early marriage to a fellow folk singer, the central drama of her life, Ms. Weller says, was her early pregnancy and giving up of a baby daughter, with whom she reunited three decades later. The overriding subject of her songs through the ’70s is fervent erotic love. The passion is obsessive, tortured and combative and yields diminishing ecstatic returns as the years pass.
Ms. Simon’s notorious hit, “You’re So Vain,” Ms. Weller reports, reflected her “belle of the ball year and a half,” during which she “had belt-notched” Cat Stevens, Kris Kristofferson, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger. Along with Mr. Taylor, they are the most famous names in a life of ceaseless erotic adventure pursued by a self-described romantic.
Many of Ms. King’s later songs evoke her headlong infatuations with two rugged cowboy-woodsmen who became her third and fourth husbands, for whom she forsook Los Angeles to live in the wilds of Idaho, milk goats and become an environmental advocate. Of the three, Ms. King gave up the most to live out her fantasies.
Only in retrospect is it clear that the ultimate demise of traditional pop romanticism actually began later than is commonly thought. Today’s erotic pop ethos of cold heat didn’t begin to coalesce until the emergence of Madonna. Desire without passion and celebration of the body as a machine engaged in sexual competition replaced rapturous surrender in love songs. As melody, the primary vehicle for love songs, has diminished in importance, so have the number and intensity of those songs.
Having lived out your fantasies until “the heyday in the blood is tame” (to quote Shakespeare), what remains? In Ms. Mitchell’s newest album, “Shine” (Hear Music), love is barely mentioned. The stardust has turned to ash, and the gold has tarnished. As she surveys the ravaged planet, this disenchanted, 60-something ex-romantic throws up her hands and declares, “If I had a heart, I’d cry.” Passion has curdled into bitterness.