Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: A Natural Woman: a Memoir by Carole King

I may have told this story on another blog, about the Christmas I was to receive my first "grown-up" stereo. I had asked for one that year, and gladly informed my parents that I required no more gifts other than the stereo if money was a deciding factor in whether or not I got it. Right now, I couldn't tell you the brand - it might have been Panasonic or any other name that's since been eclipsed by Apple - but it came with a built-in tape deck and turntable, and AM/FM tuner. If you're under twenty and reading this, you're probably wondering what the hell I'm talking about. In truth, I'm surprised you're reading this at all.

Getting off track here. Of course, with the stereo I required actual records and tape to play on it. I was long ready to graduate from the cast-off 45s from my parents' record collection (lots of Elvis and doo-wop groups) and crank up the music I wanted to hear. I was pleased to find in my stocking that year three wrapped cassettes to go with the stereo. I'd asked for Joan Jett's I Love Rock and Roll. I got ABBA's Waterloo (okay, I liked that one song), The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (acceptable), and Carole King's Tapestry.


Who? asked the eleven-year-old for whom popular music didn't exist until the late seventies, and even then there was no Carole King on the radar. Not wanting to insult the gift givers (partly, perhaps because I feared I'd lose the stereo), I gave Tapestry an obligatory listen. Now, you'll probably expect the next sentence to explain how the music blew me away and changed my life forever, but actually what happened is I sat there listening to this mellow-70s schlock staring at some barefoot hippie chick and grousing that she neither looked or sang as cool as Joan Jett did.

The life-changing moment didn't happen for years - not until college when my appreciation for music broadened and Tapestry became a voluntary choice on my hit parade. I eventually played that cassette until King's voice warbled and stretched and the tape spilled from its casing, so badly I couldn't loop it back in. If you're under twenty and still with me you may not understand that last sentence, but there is a chance you're familiar with King's work.  As one of the most prolific songwriters of the rock era (over 100 Billboard Hot 100 hits to her credit or co-credit), her songs have been recorded from The Beatles to Amy Winehouse. If you watched Gilmore Girls, you know her music through the show's theme; if you've seen The Simpsons episode where Lisa sings "Jazzman," you know her music. If you watched Antenna TV's recent Monkees marathon...you get the idea.

I looked forward to reading A Natural Woman as a sort of companion to another book that similarly covered the early to mid rock era, The Wrecking Crew. Where that book chronicled the history of the musicians who supported some of the biggest acts of the 50s-70s in the studio, King - alone and with various partners, including then-husband Gerry Goffin - handled the writing aspect of the business for artists who required it. King recounts rather quickly the circumstances that brought her from a childhood in New York City with aspirations to act to a position as songwriter for some of the top hit-makers in the country. Reading it, King makes it look so simple - you walk into an office with an appointment, show off a few demos, and you're handed a contract. Everything in life should happen so easily.

Years slip with great speed through A Natural Woman - there's marriage and kids, success in the early 60s like "Loco-Motion" and "One Fine Day," (through much of the book I'd blink and say, "I didn't know she wrote that one!") and professional growing pains. The threat of the British invasion - in particular bands who write their own material - is countered with King's association with Don Kirscher and a lucrative turn writing for The Monkees. I was a bit disappointed to see this era relegated to such a short chapter, as I've read in other books of tensions between Mike Nesmith and various songwriters. What valleys in her career and personal life King does share are done rather quickly.

The transition from cubicle songwriter to singer-songwriter and the classic Tapestry reads fast as well. It should be noted that King acknowledges in the beginning of her book that memory isn't as constant a companion as it used to be - indeed, her book reads like a chronological vignettes in short chapters. She jams with these artists, she meets James Taylor, she meets John and Yoko, etc. These bits of fascinating history weave into a (and please forgive this) tapestry of words and song lyrics.

I did come away from A Natural Woman with a greater appreciation of King's music, for others and her own work. I am reminded, too, that it's time to replace that worn cassette and add Tapestry to my iTunes roster. I did hope for more stories of the early part of King's career, but I did find this book a reference to a period of music history worth remembering.

Rating: B+


Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.