Long before Adele reintroduced heartfelt, raw tunes about love to the top of the pop charts, Carole King articulated our greatest heartbreaks in a voice earthy, warm, imperfect and real. She wrote and sang about self and about budding relationships -- and the painful realization that they seldom work: It's too late, baby, now it's too late/Though we really did try to make it. She championed the simple, life-affirming comfort of friendship in her straightforward You've Got a Friend. James Taylor recognized the song's value and forever altered the course of King's career when he forced his sideman to get out from behind her piano and perform as the headliner she was destined to become.
King, now 70, has finally published a memoir. A Natural Woman is written with the same friendly, chatty, warm and open tone with which she stitched her album Tapestry. Her voice comes through as clearly in text as it does on her recordings. A Natural Woman helps fans find a new appreciation and better understanding of how close to home her confessional songs -- It's Too Late; That's How Things Go Down; You Go Your Way, I'll Go Mine -- really were.
But A Natural Woman isn't merely a recounting of who inspired her most personal songs, and King isn't content to settle for celebrity dish even if some of her friends are famous. While her best material helped listeners transition out of the tumult of the 1960s and to find their own expression in an era ripe with change and opportunity for women, there's much more to King's life than music.
The book's most fascinating chapters detail a period when the reluctant pop star would chuck the conveniences of city life while in the midst of solo pop stardom in the mid-'70s to move to a survivalist cabin in Idaho with three of her children and the man who would become her third husband. She happily milked goats at 4 a.m., lived without electricity and indoor plumbing and essentially became a version of the frontier woman she celebrated in her 1982 song, Goat Annie. King also spent almost a decade fighting the local government for property rights when Custer County declared that a road that ran through her ranch and past her front door was public. The Idaho Supreme Court eventually ruled in King's favor but the stress of the fight would help undo yet another marriage, this time to a mountain man nicknamed Teepee Rick.
A Natural Woman takes its name from one of the myriad hits King has helped compose. She has earned the distinction of being the most successful female pop songwriter in history. Before John Lennon and Paul McCartney had the confidence to write a full album of their own music, the Beatles covered Carole King.
Born Carol Joan Klein in Manhattan, she was raised in Brooklyn by a firefighter father and music teacher mother (who, as Eugenia Gingold, would teach others stage craft in South Florida.) King was just 3 when she asked her mother to teach her music notes so she could transpose the tunes in her head to the piano keyboard that still towered above her.
A staff songwriting job at Aldon Music, with a fellow Queens College student, Gerry Goffin, led to Goffin and King's lucrative songwriting partnership and a less successful marriage. The two wed when she was only 17. Within a year she had her first child of four (two with Goffin; two with second husband Charles Larkey). King might have felt like a natural woman in the swinging '60s, but the demands of motherhood and a husband experimenting with LSD and afflicted with mental illness left her no time to partake in the revelry.
"In 1964 I was somewhat aware of current events, but I was more concerned about my husband's declared desire to expand his mind. I had no interest in doing that. Someone in our family needed to keep enough brain cells functioning to run our household," King writes. "One of us needed to at least pretend to be an adult. I could do that by writing melodies to Gerry's increasingly socially conscious lyrics. After that, all I could do was hope those songs would be hits."
A Natural Woman may be a solid, accessible guidebook on music theory and pop music history from a songwriter who helped frame it, but its stories also offer rare insight into a woman who has steadfastly guarded her privacy. King writes with chilling candor about third husband Rick Evers, a wannabe musician and cocaine casualty who infiltrated King's Simple Things and Welcome Home album sessions. Worse, he was an abuser.
"In hindsight, I probably should have asked Rick these two questions: "Why are you living in a van?' and "Are you by any chance psychotic?' But he was so handsome and interesting, and he was going to lead me to people and places I would have never encountered without him," she explains.
He also beat her repeatedly and without warning during a two-year period: "This is even more difficult to write. I stayed." King's gutsy decision to write of this painful period is intended to empower other abused women; she includes contact information for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Even with a book this lengthy, several tales remain untold, including an accounting of her environmental advocacy, as well as details on her recent successful tour with James Taylor.
"Because there wasn't enough room in this memoir for me to give the 2010 Troubadour Reunion Tour the depth and reflection it deserves, please be assured that it's a subsequent tale that I want very much to tell," she writes at the close, thus raising hopes for a second volume.