A Natural Woman: A Memoir, By Carole King

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The Independent Culture

Here's a first – a rock memoir with footnotes and index. And what a memoir: intelligent, honest, self-effacing, well-written, even though Carole King claims to be not much cop when it comes to words; which, during the course of her 54-year career, have been supplied by the likes of Gerry Goffin and James Taylor. Still, she knows a thing or two about a melody: "Will you still love me tomorrow?"; "You've got a friend" and "(You make me feel like) A natural woman" are but three numbers in a songbag bulging with hits.

King also demonstrates a real understanding of the recording process, as well as pop history and its intersection with civil rights, taking the reader into the control booth to show how much has changed since the Shirelles gave Goffin and King their first number one in 1960 with "Will you still love me tomorrow?". It was an audacious lyric for its day and all the more remarkable for being written by a man – by then her husband. Lennon and McCartney's stated ambition was to be Britain's answer to Goffin and King.

All three songs were recorded by King on her second album, Tapestry (1971), one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful of all time. (The sleeve's feline star was named Telemachus.) But King was a reluctant recording artist with no hankering for the spotlight. It was Taylor, with whom she would famously play LA's Troubadour, who coaxed her on stage, first as a sideman.

The first child of a New York City fireman and an English major turned homemaker, King grew up in Brooklyn and Queens. Her Polish-Russian Jewish roots are proudly sketched, the memories largely happy. From the get-go, the piano – on which her mother taught neighbourhood kids for 50 cents a time – was an object of desire. Aged four, she sat down for her first proper lesson, perched atop the Brooklyn and Manhattan phone directories. Music poured from the radio, and soon King was playing along and singing harmony. After a grounding in the classics, it was the rock'n'roll presented by Alan Freed at the Brooklyn Paramount that made her think she could write songs. By 16, she had signed a contract. Then she met Gerry.

From "The locomotion", written for their babysitter, to "Natural woman", for Aretha Franklin, the Goffin-King oeuvre matured but, personally and professionally, the partnership came asunder as Goffin experimented with drugs and was diagnosed bipolar. King – a good Jewish girl whose highs came from music and family - relocated to California with their daughters, becoming part of the Laurel Canyon set. There were three more attempts at marriage, one to a user and abuser (who would physically attack her), and more children. Two she home-schooled while living the hippy life on an Idaho ranch, where the running water came from hot springs.

Politically and socially engaged, she has jammed and gigged with the greats, among them Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton; acted on Broadway (Blood Brothers) and in Dublin (Brighton Beach Memoirs); written film; taught yoga. And she still rides the New York subway.