In a pinch, I could be characterized as a woman of obsessions — obsessions I love to share. Take yoga: I can give you the scoop on every yoga studio within a five-mile vicinity of my house, and if you want to take just one class, I recommend Nicole, Saturday morning at Fitness First. Or Melanie’s Sunday morning class at 02 in Somerville. Or… but wait, you’re not looking for a yoga class in my neighborhood. You might be looking for dark chocolate, though, in which case I can again put my obsession to your service: Taza is divine; Scharffen Berger has lost its mojo since they were bought out by Hershey; Lindt is fine for baking, Callebaut is better, Valrhona is best.
Then there are books. I have read everything Ayelet Waldman has ever written, and you really don’t need to, though the Mommy-Track Mysteries were entertaining when I was at that stage of my maternal life. I return to the poems of Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert again and again; take my word for it, you should check them out. Rock chick biographies and memoirs? Let’s just say I could write the book.
Actually, Alice Echols wrote The Book. Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin is, bar none, the best rock chick biography around and one of my two favorite biographies ever (the other is Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, about which I’ll just say: kidney stone operation in 1658, no anesthesia — go read it now!). In Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin, Echols tells the story of the ugly girl who was determined to sing the blues and the woman who wanted to be a rock star, not just fuck rock stars. Echols also fully contextualizes that story in 1950s Texas suburban conformity, San Francisco from the end of the Beats to the rise of rock and roll, and the women’s liberation movement. In other words, she fleshes out the life, the times, and their connections, which is my standard for the best biographies.
But does that sound too serious? If you prefer rock star celebrity gossip to cultural history, try Pamela Des Barres’s I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie (think Frank Zappa, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Gram Parsons).
More interested in London than California? Pattie Boyd’s Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me is a delight, but feel free to avoid Miss O’Dell: My Hard Days and Long Nights with The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Women They Loved.
New York and the turn from folk to rock? You can’t go wrong with Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina or A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (by Suze Rotolo, the girl on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan).
New York and the origins of punk? Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her years in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe, is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read this year, a powerful meditation on love and art.
Have I proven my obsession yet? Have you found anything you want to read? Do I still need to persuade you that these books are worth reading?
I always thought my interest in rock chick books — and I use the term “rock chick” advisedly, to mean both the women who made the music and the women who hung out with the men who made the music — stemmed from my personal connection to (and fascination with) the music and the times. My early childhood was all about Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who led straight to Bob Dylan. I can still see the covers of my mother’s Joan Baez records. My sister and I played dancing school to Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow. I went to more Grateful Dead concerts in high school than I can remember. When my high school boyfriend broke up with me, I put on Carole King’s Tapestry and cried for hours. This is the music of my youth.
Still, I don’t read rock books; I read rock chick books. Why? I came up with another answer recently, as I read Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–And the Journey of a Generation. Girls Like Us is a loopy, hyperbolic, engaging narrative that stages the lives and songs of its protagonists against the backdrop of the changes in white middle-class women’s lives in the ’60s and ’70s, and I was struck, as I read, by the dominant threads of sex, pregnancy, and children.
At 17, Carole King got pregnant and married her boyfriend and songwriting partner, Gerry Coffin. A year later, she was a married mom with her first #1 hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” In the following two decades, she had three more children (two with her second husband), became a top Brill Building songwriter, and put out the record-breaking best-selling album, Tapestry.
In 1965, at the age of 21, an unmarried Joni Mitchell gave her baby up for adoption so she could follow her folksinging dreams (Patti Smith gave her daughter up for adoption around the same time). By 1967, she was a New York star, but her daughter (with whom she reunited in the mid-’90s) had already begun to haunt her music, in the song “Little Green” which she wrote that year.
Carly Simon had a lot of sex with a lot of men you’ve heard of before settling down with James Taylor, in what seemed like one of the great rock romances, but in reality became the disjunctive union of a distant junkie and a devoted mom.
It’s a truism that the ’60s and ’70s were a fundamental dividing line for women. But regardless of post-feminism, abortion politics, the return of the idealized stay-at-home mom, and the emergence of the baby as celebrity accessory, it’s still true. King and Mitchell’s motherhood experiences seem almost as far away from mine as those of the nineteenth-century mothers who gave birth to a dozen babies they might lose to illness at any moment.
And yet today we still struggle with so many of the issues these women faced, whether they were belting out tunes in front of an all-male band, like Joplin, or trying to figure out how to create their own art in another artist’s shadow, like Suze Rotolo. We’re still working through the fallout of changes in women’s roles: how to carve out an identity apart from timeworn iconographies of sexuality and motherhood, how to negotiate the realities of parenting and work, how to balance the economic needs of our families with our own creative impulses, how to assert ourselves in rooms full of men while still remaining ourselves.
As I live these issues, which might be termed the true obsessions of my life at this moment, the cultural, political, and sexual ferment of the rock chick world in the ’60s and ’70s is still close enough to resonate directly, but also sufficiently far away to give me a welcome break from my own experiences. Worth reading? I’d say so. And I’m looking forward to books about the rock chicks of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, to see how the story continues.