Monday, April 21, 2008

Happy Camper

The weather here went right from early spring to August-like, but I'm not complaining. I instead look at early warmth as the one good thing about global warming (well, that and the fact that New Jersey will be underwater, making my house beachfront property). For the past week, when I haven't been working or gardening, I've been lying on my porch reading Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us. Weller entwines the biographies of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon, discussing their lives and music within the context of 60s and 70s sexual politics. At least that's what Weller believes her book is about. The music and the lives are in there, and some sexual politics as well, but I'd say about 70% of the book is just good gossip. Weller indefatigably chronicles each and every affair of all three women which, in Joni Mitchell's case in particular, turns out to be no small feat.

If you're interested in learning about these three lives, or about who slept with James Taylor when, then it's definitely a good summer read, perfect for a chaise lounge on a warm day. My main take-away from the book was that it brought back fond memories of Jew Camp.

What, you've never heard of Jew Camp? It's ostensibly a place where campers celebrate their Jewish heritage or some such thing but where the real lessons had to do with backrubs, boating, and learning how to turn up the collar of your Izod shirt. Just ask any Jewish person you know who grew up in the the NYC/Philly corridor and its environs and they'll tell you all about Jew Camp.

When Joni, Carole, and Carly were writing and recording their milestone albums I was busy listening to the Jackson 5, so I was a late convert to their music, but I have Jew Camp to thank for my introduction to the mellow. As a young teenager I spent time at one particular camp on youth group retreats - two weeks in the summer, one week in the winter. This camp had a radio station (from what I can gather all Jew Camps had radio stations, as well as newspapers and yearbooks - I guess they were teaching us how to control the media), and we'd get dressed mornings accompanied by James Taylor, Loggins and Messina, Carole King. During the downtime before dinner the older boys would give the older girls backrubs while "Loving You Is the Right Thing to Do" played softly in the background. After dinner guitars would be broken out and everyone would join in a rendition of "Been to Canaan." The first rule of Jew Camp was that there was no hard rock at Jew Camp.

I'm not talking about the early 70s here. During the time I'm talking about, that music was already something of the past. When I bought Tapestry in 1978 it appealed to me not just because the songs were soulful but also because it sounded to me then, as it does to this day, like an artifact from a hippie past, from a recent time that was already gone. Thanks to Jew Camp I learned to love the singer-songwriters, but in the rest of my life I was learning to love a different kind of music. In 1978 I'd listen to Tapestry in my yellow bedroom, followed by some Fleetwood Mac, finished off with Horses, in a sense inadvertently charting the course of women in rock through the 70s with one evening of music.

By my last couple of years in high school I'd moved on completely, not only from Jew Camp and backrubs but also from songs you couldn't dance to, if by "dance" you mean throw your body around a room as violently as possible. I've now moved on from that as well, and from the yellow bedroom and my Sony turntable, but I have Weller's book to thank for taking me back, temporarily, to all of it.

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