Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller

Before I can get on with this book review, I’ve got to give you all a little background on my love and appreciation for music and musicians.

My mother is a self taught musician. She can’t read music, but if she’s heard the song, or can listen to it a few times, she’ll pick it out on the piano without too much delay… and maybe a curse word or two, haha. My whole life, for as long as I can remember, is punctuated with memories of my mom playing on her piano, or her bass or acoustic guitar, or her drums. And if she wasn’t playing, she was singing- in the car, in the house cleaning, on stage at the yearly volunteer fire-station fundraiser. There were also times where her friends would come over and jam, or visa versa, and she even played in a gospel band for a little bit. She played whatever fit the mood- classic country (Patsy Cline was a favorite), classic rock (Hotel California, a fave warm-up), and current country and pop. In summary, my mom made me love music.

Now, the sad thing is, I’m hopelessly tone deaf and the only place I really allow myself to sing is in the car- alone- or at concerts where everyone really can’t hear me. That, I get from my father. But dad taught me something else- how to appreciate music. Obviously, he’s my mom’s #1 fan, but he’s also a huge classic rock fan- and he’ll oblige with some country or folk music. So growing up, he made this game, ‘Who sings it?’ And it didn’t matter where we were, whenever we had the tunes on, we’d play the guessing game. I’ll be the first to admit, we were not very good at it, haha. Most of the answers from us kids were Bruce Springsteen or Eddie Money, because we knew those were two of dad’s favorite artists- which is both embarrassing and hilarious in retrospect when the songs were really by The Rolling Stones or Def Leppard. But after years of learning, us kids got really good at knowing who sang it, even before the first words were sung. And then, as we all started developing our own tastes in music, we’d talk about what we liked about newly discovered songs and artists. As the bookie in me tends to, I also started looking into the history of the songs, artists, and surrounding time periods. Their stories always fascinated me.

So, that’s why when I saw Girls Like Us on a local thrift shop shelf, it immediately caught my attention. I had found a treasure- a book about three of the leading ladies in songwriting- Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. In the book, there are alternating segments for each woman, and they include biographies, histories of their musical developments, and stories about the time period that these women lived in.

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Carole King, born Carole Klein, grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and at an early age decided to change her last name to King (using a phone book for inspiration) and started her career composing music with a group of fans. As her talent grew, she ended up writing songs for Aldon Music, a publishing company that influenced the Brill Building 1960’s pop sound. She married fellow songwriter Gerry Goffin at seventeen, and at eighteen, she a six-month old baby and one most significant history-breaking songs of the time- a 1958 hit called “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, sung by the Shirelles, an all black girl group. At the time, segregation was still ongoing and that affected the marketing of music as well. Also, women’s rights were at beginning to come to the forefront. So, for a white Jewish female songwriter to write a hit song for an all black female group was groundbreaking. Soon, she was hammering out hit after hit on her piano, writing for the latest artists, and crafting her signature style of using simple melodies with a classical twist, and pairing them with soulful R&B rhythm. This is what kicked off Carole’s career, but it was only the beginning.

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Roberta Joan Mitchell, known as Joni Mitchell, grew up in  Alberta and Saskatoon, Canada, before making her way to debut in Yorkville Village in Toronto. Weller recalls that her grandmothers were both musical and yet stuck in the traditional rolls of being a housewife, and she was determined to turn her talent into stardom for both them and herself. As a kid, Joni was always in the spotlight- acting out circuses and performing for family and friends. But tragedy struck during the Canadian polio epidemic, where Joni was hospitalized to fight the disease at age nine. Determined, she fought to walk and return to her normal life. Raised by her strict mother, Joni started to slightly rebel (maintaining a dual persona of good girl and bad girl) by following her artistic and bohemian side. She attended an liberal arts school, and though she loved to paint, she decided to follow her true calling- performing. She started working in a coffee shop and was given the opportunity to sing- and despite mixed reviews from the owners, she was booked as the shop’s back up performer and well received by the local audience. Then, another obstacle- an accidental pregnancy. Living in an era where abortion was risky (and illegal), and being unmarried and pregnant was absolute blasphemy, Joni was in an impossible position. She didn’t want to live the lives her grandmothers chose, full of resentment and resignation of their lost potential, so she made the choice to have the baby but give it up for adoption so that she could pursue the career she desperately sought. But she didn’t hide her past- instead, she turned her heartache into lyrics and sang them like an intimate confession to her audience.

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Carly Simon, from the Bronx in New York, had a different upbringing from the other two girls in this story. Her parents lived a more luxurious lifestyle than Joni’s or Carole’s. Carly grew up in a house full of women, with the exception of a brother and her father, and she was surrounded with privilege and modern female nurturing. Yet, as the youngest daughter, she was also rather insecure, comparing herself to her beautiful and glamorous older sisters. As the odd woman out, especially in the eyes of her father, devoted much of her time to cultivating a relationship with him by sharing his interest in baseball, and beginning to perform. Then, her father became fatally ill, and Carly felt lost after he passed away, left with a lack of closure on their relationships. This spilled into other relationships as Carly stepped into the dating pool. She ‘played house’ with a man whose career came first in the relationship, and Carly realized that she wanted to perform, not hold court. Teaming up with her sister Lucy in a sister act, they started touring but struggled to get exposure even after their demo song hit the top 100. After another failed romance and the sister act failing, Carly was alone. Trying again, she took her guitar and with the help of two men, made her way back into songwriting, and didn’t look back.

As each woman’s story is revealed, the reader also meets the people that were important influences and supporters of their music and careers. From their family members, to their friends, to their coworkers, to their lovers, each woman had dozens of colorful characters working beside them. Almost interview style, memories and details of defining moments were shared about these ‘supporting characters’, as well as their own personal backgrounds and how each story wove into the grand scheme of supreme songwriting. At times this is also overwhelming- the saying “what a tangled web we weave” comes to mind. Married last names, stage names, nicknames for the same people… it tripped me up a time or two. Weller even makes an apologetic footnote for the confusion.

Learning about each woman and how they made history in their own way was deeply fascinating. In a time where women were fighting to gain a voice of their own, these three girls were a part of, witnessing, and writing about these issues. Weller gives the reader vast insight on her subjects, from historical background to personal quotes and intimate details. The reader gets to understand and truly know the artists through the page. I’ll admit, it took me a long time to read the 500- plus pages, and not because Girls Like Us wasn’t a page turner, but because each page was laden with so much information to take in.

The biggest take away is that these women started out just like you and I, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, each navigating the turbulent world they lived in. They persevered and found themselves in the spotlight, following their dreams and their passions. If you enjoy nonfiction, love music history, and are interested in feminism or women’s history, than this book is a must read and must own… and bonus points if you listen to their music.

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