I read the last paragraph of Tender Is the Night, closed the book, and stretched — disturbing Meredith who had been cozily tucked beside me as I had been unmoving and engrossed in Fitzgerald. The story had held my attention, and I loved revisited a book years later to see how I sometimes felt differently about it, but perhaps even more enjoyable than that was the nice change of pace — to sit still for an hour or two in the midst of a busy week. The Teen Choice Awards, writing new music, the VMAs coming up, tomorrow night Chicago, the next week the West Coast; my every day was full to the brim. As much as I would always love the intimacy of the smaller arena shows, I cherished these days off that the stadium shows afforded me. And I knew Meredith liked having me chill out with her. I kissed her little head and gave her a quick cuddle before standing.
I walked over to my bookshelf to place the Fitzgerald in its rightful spot. Not under “F.” My shelving system was a little bit … well, quirky (and infuriating to some!). I put the books in the order that I’d read them; I’d been doing it since as far back as I could remember. So this copy of Tender Is the Night would find a home next to Gone Girl and Beautiful Ruins. Keeping my books in this order meant that just glancing at my shelf would take me back to when I’d read a particular book. I could not only remember the stories and worlds and characters I’d met inside their pages, but what had been going on in my life as I’d read them. I trailed my fingers back over the spines, moving backwards in time volume after volume, and stopped on the colorful spine of Girls Like Us.
I plucked it from the shelf. I could hardly believe that I had sung with Carly Simon, that she had been so keen to join me on stage to do a duet of “You’re So Vain.” It felt like she was giving me her blessing, like I was now an official descendent of her generation of singer-songwriters. I flipped open the book, and a paragraph near the beginning, about Carole King, caught my eye.
Carole’s album’s historic success would raise the stock of other singer-songwriters (a concept she would help establish) who were women, and it would constitute a Cinderella story with a moral: a behind-the-scenes songwriter and simple borough girl becomes a pop star without changing herself in the slightest. . . . Yet her success was so enormous and early that every subsequent effort would be measured negatively against it...
But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new idea evolved: A woman is entitled to an experiential quest — yes, even a crazy one; it is part of her nature to seek one. She could Live Large. She had many verses in the song of her life, and a different partner for each one of them.
I smiled knowingly. It hadn’t been all that long ago that I’d read Girls Like Us, but even just re-reading that tiny bit made me realize I’d grown and changed, that I got it in a different way that I had even a year ago when I was a little greener, a little more naïve, and just first starting to fear that my story of fortune and fame could have less than a fairytale ending if I didn’t decide to write it myself.
* * *
I adore Australia, I thought to myself, but this jet lag will be the death of me. I lay awake staring at the ceiling in the darkened hotel room. I’d had a beautiful, magical day, capped off by a night boat tour of the Sydney harbor. Wind in my hair, the tour family jovial at my side, lights flickering and shining, everything glorious and full of promise. As I’d leaned on the railing to look down at the swirling dark water, I’d had a strangely obvious epiphany: I was on a world tour. My dreams had come true, and I shivered with the magnitude of it all. I had pulled the sleeves of my cream sweater down, yanked the cuffs down over my hands, to warm up against the chill of dread that followed that magnificent feeling: What happens next?
And now, lying awake, that was all I could think about. Right now everything was golden and glittering (in my career, anyway), but the fears crept in. How would my story end? There was no shortage of cautionary tales in the music industry or Hollywood, and I didn’t want to wind up alone, misunderstood, caught up in something that wasn’t me. For the fun and magic, for the pride in working so hard, to turn into me stuck churning out the same song album after album. To be surrounded by people, yet feel utterly alone.
I felt for my iPhone on my bedside table to turn on some music, to distract me from my circling thoughts. The light hurt my eyes, but I cued up Blue. My favorite Joni album, perhaps my favorite album of all time. As Joni began to sing — I am on a lonely road and I am traveling… — I couldn’t help but think of her story. Sure, she’d started life as Roberta Joan Anderson and the world came to know her as Joni Mitchell, but she’d never stopped being authentically herself. No matter how raw. She had released this album that explored and exposed her soul so deeply, the things that haunted her, her pains and secrets, regrets and doubts, and her words and voice had connected to millions of people around the world. And when she’d needed to cut and run to stay true to herself, she took her dignity and got the hell out of town.
Will I be brave enough to make the same choice if the time comes? Will I always write songs that are authentic to me, critics be damned? Another shiver ran through me. I knew I was blessed to have so much success: other people worked just as hard as me for it and it just never pans out. I was grateful that I’d been the lucky one. But sometimes, on nights like this, it felt like I had a glimpse of a future that just might lie ahead of me, that could be mine, and I didn’t feel like the lucky one.
I hit pause. There was something there in that phrase — something that connected my fears to Joni’s story. Since sleep isn’t happening anyway, I thought, as I kicked off the covers, might as well get a song out of this insomnia.
The song took shape in my mind, and I knew I didn’t want it to be literally or obviously Joni’s life in verse, but a tale that evoked her courageous choice of art and life over commercial demands or fakery. I flicked on the light and grabbed my journal:
New in town with a made-up name
in the angel’s city chasing fortune and fame…
* * *
I slid Girls Like Us back onto the shelf, wondering if the movie would ever actually be made, wondering what Joni would think if I actually did get the chance to play her, wondering if I would have the guts to actually do it.
I turned from my shelves to my vinyl collection, and flipped past Blue to pull another Joni record from its sleeve. The needle scratched a bit as I set it down to play the title track of For the Roses. As the guitar began and her voice sang out, I sprawled out on the floor near the speakers to listen, eyes closed, lost in the song.
As Joni finished up the second verse, I opened my eyes — unable not to sing along to this part,
Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you’re seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
They toss around your latest golden egg
Speculation well who’s to know
If the next one in the nest
Will glitter for them so
I guess I seem ungrateful
With my teeth sunk in the hand
That brings me things
I really can’t give up just yet…
Meredith mewed to join me and Joni, and I broke into a fit of giggles at her effort.
Blue would forever and always be my favorite Joni album, but there was something about “For the Roses” that spoke to me. It felt like a warning, a caution, and one I was every day careful to heed. Spotting a real “lucky one” wasn’t nearly as easy as I’d once thought — it wasn’t necessarily the blonde at the top of the charts, or the smiling cover girl. It was the girl who knew what made her happy, and thought she just might know how to make the most of her time on this earth, so she didn’t waste a minute trying to be someone else’s idea of who she should be. And luck? I'd learned luck had very little to do with it.
Except, of course, when it came to the number 13.
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