A Conversation with Sheila Weller

by Richard Flynn
JoniMitchell.com
February 24, 2011

JoniMitchell.com interview with Sheila Weller, author of Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--and the Journey of a Generation published in hardcover by Atria Books (an imprint of Simon and Schuster) and in paperback by Atria's paperback imprint Washington Square Press.

Interviewed by Richard Flynn, Professor of Literature, Georgia Southern University.

I conducted the following interview with Sheila Weller via email after an initial phone conversation late in 2010. Because we both have busy schedules, we were finally able to make time for the interview in February, 2011. I prepared a set of questions and, after receiving Sheila's lively, provocative, and detailed answers, I edited the email transcript, asked a few follow-up questions in the margins, and returned it to Sheila for her comments and revisions.

In Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller treats the lives, careers, and music of her three subjects in the context of their times, arguing that they are emblematic figures for a generation of women coming of age in the sixties and seventies. It is notable for containing much new information about all three artists, and is particularly revealing about the very earliest years of Joni's career, in which she gave up her daughter for adoption (an event that Weller argues inspired her to write original songs) and made her way in the male-dominated world of the "star maker machinery of the popular song," claiming her place in the pantheon of great singer-songwriters. Not content to rest on her laurels (or to be circumscribed by the Laurel Canyon scene of the late-sixties and early seventies, of which she and King were members) Joni's subsequent career, as surely readers of jonimitchell.com know well, has been marked by trail-blazing experimentation, both lyrically and musically. The interview focuses on Joni's enduring legacy and cultural significance.

RF: One of the things that impressed me most about Girls Like Us was the way you discuss cultural and social history in your accounts of the personal histories of the artists. Would you care to reflect on the enduring legacy of Joni Mitchell's music in our culture?

SW: Joni's legacy is enormous and enduring in many respects.

First of all, as the foremost musical artist of her times, I think most people would that say that she is on a par with Bob Dylan. I often say I think she exceeded Dylan, and for this reason: Life experience counts with me. She lived the songs she wrote, and she paid a price. Bob Dylan - great as he is - did not. Joni Anderson in the rooming house in Yorkville in late 1964 - alone, virtually penniless, pregnant, and terrified her parents would find out - was determined to play and sing in clubs despite her growing pregnancy. Living on stale donuts and donated apples, in love with the music she was beginning to understand she was destined to make, she went through a far braver, more spiritually testing rite of passage than Bobby Zimmerman getting a ride from Minnesota to New York with a buddy, living with generous friends until he found a supportive girlfriend, and finding his musical material from archival newspapers at the NY Public Library. So, she paid a price for the beautiful, iconic music she found within her; she earned it, and the songs reveal the personal wisdom.

Second, her music was a form of sociology, of social history. You can read many of the cultural changes of the '60s generation in her songs. In "Woodstock" she described the milestone event of her generation, in poetry (the noun/adjective asymmetry in "We are stardust / we are golden" has made it subtly heart-stopping through three generations) that at least one critic, Camille Paglia, likened to Shakespeare. In "Ladies of the Canyon" she represented, named and romanticized a new way of being a young American female, which women all over the country aspired to. "Cactus Tree" (one of my favorites, and so overlooked): She wrote a primer, for women in 1967 - when sexual liberation and the psychedelic movement were freeing up women but there were absolutely no supports or protection at a time when only guys were allowed to be freewheeling lovers. "Cactus Tree" explores how women might protect themselves emotionally in that new situation.

RF. I also love "Cactus Tree" because the singer is explicit about the price the woman in the song has to pay for her freedom. (Joni's decision to use third person narration is significant, I think.) Freedom makes one paradoxically "full and hollow." While the woman is so busy being free what is she missing?

SW: And "Big Yellow Taxi" was a kind of anthem for the new ecology movement, expressing young people's disdain for what we used to call "plastic" and now consider anti-"green." In "My Old Man" she expressed her generation's idealistic eschewal of marriage -- but with the primness and rectitude that made the scuttling of that convention so respectable, living together at least before or sometimes instead of marriage has become the norm today in polite society. You can literally "read" the era in which she came of age through her songs - and yet the songs are timeless.

Third, as a woman, she expressed a stubborn, risk-taking independence; a willingness to turn her back on easy (even appropriate, healthy) comforts, in search of difficulty, challenge, and often isolation. "River," to me expresses this well; she knows she is a "leave"-er of the easy life: "so selfish and sad." She leaves an adoring lover, just as earlier she had given up her baby (a decision that seems to have plagued her for many years, even though it seems to have been the right one for her); she goes and lives alone in Canada; she drives across the country in a red wig and under a fake name; she bolts from fame to spend time on a Greek island without plumbing, happily jived around by a sandal maker who charmed her by insulting her. She left the music she was adored for...for difficult, fan-base-alienating jazz: these were Joni's limit-pushing adventures in the '70s, a stand-in for other women who pushed their fate and luck, not wanting to stay safe.

Hejira - especially the magnificent "Amelia" (I love the insistent, repeated and arresting but slightly imprecise reference of a "false alarm") - is perhaps her most concentrated expression of that principled impulse: to choose the difficult, despite the risk. The cactus tree motel in the burning dessert is the equivalent of Earhart's transatlantic sky.

RF: Do you remember the circumstances under which you first heard Joni Mitchell's music?

SW: That's a great question! I have several answers. First of all, when Judy Collins's hit version of "Both Sides Now" came out in 1968 - my God! It was to sensitive college educated hippie chicks (we didn't call ourselves "hippies" but at this distance that's a shorthand that's so accepted, I accede to it) what Frank Sinatra's "My Way" was to middle-aged male bar hounds. It spoke from your heart. "I've looked at life from both sides now" - we wanted to be musing, world-weary adventurers, to proudly gain experience the hard way. And that wonderful clanging-classical-harpsichord arrangement was profoundly feminine. I didn't know Joni had written it (I may not yet have known who Joni was), but...that song! That was us!

Also, at around that same time, I became aware of "The Circle Game," another song of hers that I absolutely love (and which people have forgotten the wonderfulness, and soulfulness, of). I was aware of it - whether from Buffy Sainte-Marie's 1967 version, or Tom Rush's 1968 version, I don't recall. But it had a gentle, pondering quality that I associate (because songs, after all, are like tattoos... of an era of one's life) with the families who were my neighbors on the block I first lived on in New York - in 1967-68. (Like Joan Didion, who used to peer into Upper East Side home windows when she first moved to the sophisticated metropolis from Sacramento, I was fascinated that families could live real lives here in this crowded, exotic city. And there was a certain kind of mid-'60s Greenwich Village family for whom "The Circle Game" became a natural soundtrack. Whenever I hear the song, in any version - including Joni's recent ones, where she is positively baritone-hoarse - I think of my magical exploring days as a Californian in New York.)

But my clearest "first Joni" remembrance isn't so much about her music as her image. I was a Laura Nyro girl in 1969 - I lived and breathed her; I felt I was her. My sister Liz, who'd been living in Laurel Canyon, came to New York in Oct. '69 and took over my Greenwich Village apt. while I went to Ibiza. Liz arrived with large dog, long long long center-parted hair, long skirt and shawl. She -- who had been the Baez-modeled folksinger when we were in high school (while I used to play Aretha, Ray, and Reverend James Cleveland, and would drive myself to black churches on Sunday) - she was enamored of this singer who lived near her in the canyon. I remember a sentence fragment, "And she calls him Willy" - said so endearingly. She was talking about Joni and Graham. And who Joni was - in her totality: as a musician, a woman, a style icon, a stand-in for my sister and for so many -- was so irresistibly identifiable to my sister, I still remember that line.

RF: If you could choose two or three of Joni's songs to list as your favorites, which songs would they be, and why?

SW: Oh, so hard!

OK - "Circle Game" -- for aforementioned reasons; it's so sentimental to me, and so wise.

Also, "Little Green," because it's about the baby Joni gave up for adoption, an act - a decision, a painful relinquishment - which, in my view (and research), made her a songwriter. Because it is an achingly beautiful song, so eloquently descriptive and yet so opaque, so coded, so deftly subtle, that Timothy Ferris, then a reviewer for Rolling Stone and now - as his website puts it - "an emeritus professor of astronomy, English, history, journalism, and philosophy - at four universities" - was frustrated that it "passeth all understanding." A professor who's plumbed the mysteries of the heavens, the entire human record, and the planet's greatest thinkers -- didn't get the secret that Joni was writing so beautifully yet secretly about in "Little Green."

"Coyote." I love that song and I don't know a woman who doesn't. It's feminist heresy - "he pins me in a corner and he won't take no"...ha! He's got all these other women "but" - flattered, breathless, bemused, self-surprised--"he seems to want me anyway." It's so stunned, subversive, and politically incorrect. Poetry and character description - fabulous: "He picks up my scent on his fingers as he watches the waitress's legs": a whole portrait in one compound sentence. Great, great first line/hook" "No, regrets, Coyote / we just come from such different sets of circumstance." As with so many Joni songs, it's a whole little movie-- you see the "white lines," the hitcher, the two people from different worlds.

Do I get a fourth? "Amelia." And a fifth? "A Case Of You." If you want me, I'll be --- well, you know.

RF: Everybody is excited about the prospect of the Girls Like Us movie, and I am particularly excited because I'm a fan of John Sayles. We're all aware that authors don't generally have control over film adaptations of their books, but could you tell us your wishes for the movie?

SW: Thank you. I am thrilled that it is John Sayles. He has integrity, principals, an amazingly prodigious track record as a writer and esteemed auteur; he has feeling, he knows the era and has written and filmed about it. He has status. He loved the book.

My wishes? That it get made, and made well. Sony really, really believes in this, at the highest levels, which is great. The producer-director Katie Jacobs (showrunner, executive producer, and award-winning producer-director of the highly successful and award-winning TV series House) has been determined to do this from the minute the book came out, and her energy, commitment, perfectionism and vision are fabulous. (By the way, she heard about the book from her sister Professor Meg Jacobs, an MIT history professor.) Jacobs's producing partner, Lorenzo diBonventura, is one of the most accomplished, respected and tasteful producers in Hollywood.

So, the team is great - and their intentions and taste level are highest quality.

I just need everything to go smoothly and for the women themselves to understand that this is honoring them, their music, their contribution to culture, and their legacy.

Casting will be the fun part. But holding my breath until we get to that.

RF: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I detect in the trajectory of your story a narrative of progress, particularly concerning women's empowerment and other gender issues. Now, I know Joni refuses the feminist label, but she's started writing feminist music right on the first album and has continued to do so throughout her career. And it's ambitious music. Now, the sexism with which she was portrayed in Rolling Stone was awful. But she stood up to it. When I look around me today, I tend to see backlash more than progress. Certainly it appears that women's rights are being rolled back. And Joni herself has criticized a certain coarseness in contemporary popular music as threatening rather than empowering. Do you want to elaborate on these issues?

SW: Joni saying "I'm not a feminist" is endearingly funny to me! (Although, to be fair, I think she said that a long time ago.) Actions speak louder than words - she was one of the major feminist role models of her time.

Rolling Stone and that "old lady" list from the end of the '60? Who cares? Ancient history. RS was so clueless in so many ways. They may have called her "Old Lady of the Year" (a term which, by the way, back then, was actually not an insult), but she was being totally adulated by the male Canyon musicians - Crosby, Nash, Kunkel, Kortchmar, Taylor, and those based in other cities - Kristofferson, Rush, Leonard Cohen - for her musicianship, not for her romantic capabilities. (Though most of them were besotted with her, as well.) They couldn't keep up with her as an artist and they knew it and even admitted it. ( Kristofferson--a Rhodes Scholar--presaging Camille Paglia, compared her to Shakespeare.)

Joni was always a feminist. She gave up a baby for creative work - long before such a decision was anything but a shameful, verboten thing to even imagine. She produced her own albums, from the first. (Nobody did that, not even in the loosey-goosey late '60s!) First Crosby and then Henry Lewy were her producing "beards." She made every decision, for better and worse, even though their names were on the albums. (And some of her decisions were worse. Those first albums - before her masterpiece Blue - were limpid, unadorned, closed in, and sad -- perhaps that's why many people loved them.) So, that Rolling Stone late-'60s remark's impact is overblown, dopey, flat-footed but harmless - and, at this distance, meaningless.

Perhaps I'm provincial, being a New Yorker, but, actually, I don't see a backlash today. Here's what I see/think: Feminism is pretty much in the society's bloodstream. You had to live as a little girl in the 1950s to know, perhaps, how insane things were and how different they are now.

RF: I'd love to be a New Yorker, but here in Red State rural Georgia, sexism, homophobia, racism, and anti-intellectualism are alive and well. On the other hand, I've seen progress in all of these areas in the 23 years I've spent as an exile from the nation's capital.

SW: Yes. We had a woman run for president (Hillary) and almost win the nomination; another (shudder! - you know who I mean) threatening to run; three women Secretaries of State. Two of the the three network anchors are female; women are dying on the front lines or virtual front lines of war. More than half the lawyers and almost half the doctors in this country are female. Women out-perform men in college and grad school.

Etc. Etc. Etc. (See Hanna Rosin's Atlantic piece, "The End of Men')

RF: I read "The End of Men" in The Atlantic and found it utterly convincing. Later on I watched Hanna's lecture on TED. The virulence of the anti-feminist attacks in the comments tells me that sexism is alive and well today. Coincidentally, Hanna Rosin's mother-in-law, Judith Plotz was (and is) my mentor since she directed my dissertation many years ago. At a recent tribute to her at which I was a speaker, it was pointed out that she was one of the first women ever to be tenured in English at George Washington University, where she taught from 1965 through 2010.

SW: That is quite a coincidence. And of course, I don't mean to suggest that the music industry today is not sexist. Look at the "ageless" men: McCartney! (25 year olds scream-singing "Hey Jude" with him!). Sting. Clapton. James Taylor. Springsteen. $7 million book deal Keith and, of course, Mick. And Dylan, Dylan, Dylan - kudos and books. The women? My Girls? Not so much. People love them - gratifyingly, I learned that from my book. They contributed so much. They were more revolutionary for the generation - if "revolutionary" means turning the cultural tables, working harder from a harder place to create and soar, and signifying a larger change - than the men. And yet the staying power afforded their aforementioned male counterparts has somehow eluded them.

RF: I love Carole King. She has written songs that we know will last forever and I like some of Carly Simon's music, though not nearly as much (just so you know where I'm coming from). But I think Joni sees herself as different class of artist altogether. Among women, she once mentioned Laura Nyro as a possible peer. I know you talk some in the book about what she herself called her "great big ego." Could you comment on Joni in relation to other female artists - today's as well as those in the past?

SW: When I went around seeking interviews for my book, a certain number of people (echoed in the Amazon and other reviews) thought Joni was on a different level than the other two, Carole and Carly. I disagree. I grouped these women together by their sociological impact, their mirroring of their female peers, and their representation of the different life experiences they shared with their non-celebrity peers and the "stages," if you will, of evolution - in style, dress, concerns, cultural-glass-ceiling-smashing, etc. - that they represented. By their personal narratives.

I know Joni wasn't happy being in a triple biography with two other women, but I saw and continue to see the merit in that approach, telling the three life and musical journeys intertwined, as three strands of a whole. And I love the music - and lives - of Carole and Carly. What has been so gratifying is how equally adored these three women are. I had an instinct that that was the case when I started and it's borne fruit.

As for Laura Nyro - she was magical, she was stunning, she was dropped out of the sky of soul. ("Oh, I belong to Timer, he changed my face"'; "There'll be lots of time and wine...": doesn't get more economically, soulfully American than that.) Joni was right to respect her and to see her as a peer. I'm so sorry she faded away and then died her untimely death, long after her brief moment had passed. For a number of reasons I didn't include Laura as a principal, but younger generations need to know about her, and I hope that somebody out there is taking her extraordinary - and so-New York-loving! - music and making it into a Broadway revue.

RF: Do you have any comments about the enduring appeal of Joni Mitchell's music for boys like me?

SW: That's a great question, Richard, but you should answer it! Please do!

RF: It would be a very long answer! This is your interview. Thank you very much for your book, your time, and your insights.


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