Love and loss between the grooves

The stories of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon.

Atria Books 584 pp. $27.95

As an avid music reader, sometime reviewer, and teen of the ’60s myself, I was sure I knew just about everything there was to know about Carole, Joni, and Carly – three of the biggest singer/songwriter stars in the ’60s and ’70s.

Carole King was the precocious Brooklyn high schooler who boarded the subway immediately after her last class and shot up to the famed Brill Building to write hit songs for the Drifters, Bobby Vee, and the Shirelles before she was out of her teens. She went on to pen Aretha Franklin’s soul-sister anthem “A Natural Woman” and her 1971 “Tapestry” is one of the most beloved albums of all time.

Joni Mitchell’s roots are in the plains of rural Saskatchewan, from which she fled to make her name as a folksinger in Toronto. Soon her beauty, heavenly voice, and astoundingly mature songwriting enchanted the world and spawned an entire generation of “confessional” singer/songwriters.

Carly Simon emerged as the uninhibited New York City rich girl whose racy album covers and songs “You’re So Vain” and “Anticipation” signaled a bold, new attitude for female songwriters. Her very public marriage to James Taylor and their onstage duets made them the darlings of ’70s soft rock.

But Girls Like Us, an ambitious collective biography by six-time author and magazine journalist Sheila Weller, showed me exactly how much I didn’t know.

Weller centers her study of all three women on their romantic relationships. By the trio’s own admissions, their artistic temperaments – “neurotic,” “needy,” and “confrontational” – made them difficult to love. But their enormous talents have also demonstrated remarkable longevity, with each still writing and recording well into her 60s.

Weller relies on the recollections of former spouses, lovers, friends, and mentors to paint portraits of these three women whose private love affairs, heartbreak, and tumultuous relationships profoundly informed their public art.

This absorbing, well-reported book chronicles a time when women in all walks of life were exercising new-found freedom. And as icons of that era, nobody did it better.

John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director.

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