Grand Central £20
A Natural Woman, By Carole King
Independence and hard work are the threads of this life's rich tapestry
Sunday 08 April 2012
Musicians' autobiographies are typically crammed with the classic signifiers of stardom: sexual encounters, drugs and alcohol-fuelled hi-jinks, followed by remorse and redemption. Not Carole King's. The singer-songwriter whose album Tapestry spent six years in the US charts and sold 25 million copies, is a hard worker who drinks in moderation, doesn't touch drugs and likes to be in bed early and get her full eight hours. Any decadence detailed in her memoir is other people's, and even then she is unfailingly discreet.
That is not to suggest that A Natural Woman is dull. On the contrary, King, who began her career at 15 when she got her first publishing deal at Aldon, a songwriting hothouse in New York, has crammed an epic amount into her 70 years. Her life story, from her Brooklyn childhood and early career as a writer-for-hire to her time on the Laurel Canyon hippie scene and her subsequent self-sufficiency in the mountains of Idaho, is one of resourcefulness, ambition and unfathomable strength. It brims with larger-than-life characters, from mercurial label bosses and visionary musicians to wayward husbands and loyal friends. Amid the chaos and permissiveness of the Sixties, and throughout four marriages, King is frequently buffeted but never loses her moorings, anchored by her children, the first of whom she had at 17, and her dedication to her craft.
King's resistance to the mind-altering substances ingested by her friends and fellow musicians also makes this one of the more reliable accounts of the era. As well as chronicling her own path to success, King eloquently and evocatively describes the political and social changes that took place in the Fifties and Sixties.
When it came to female emancipation, King played her part – even if she didn't know it at the time – by contravening the prevailing stereotype of the stay-at-home mother to earn a living as a songwriter while raising her children. In the pre-Beatles era, alongside her first husband Gerry Goffin, she co-wrote a host of standards including "The Loco-Motion" (made famous by Little Eva, then King's babysitter), "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" and, most famously, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman".
It wasn't until the early Seventies that, with the encouragement of the label boss Lou Adler, she embarked on a solo career and enjoyed unprecedented success with the Grammy-festooned Tapestry. King insists she had no idea of the album's significance to women: "I wasn't consciously trying to write about feminism as a political issue. I was simply writing about my life." Later on she would strike another blow for feminism, by seeking help and standing up to an abusive husband who later died from a drug overdose.
For the most part, King conveys the impression of an artist operating in isolation, impervious to the music world's extra-curricular activities and forever out of step with the cool kids. This was brought home when she missed both the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. It's with amused resignation that she notes: "Every time someone asked me where I'd been for both events I was obliged to confirm, yet again, that I had been on the wrong coast each time." In fact, being in the wrong place at the wrong time has served King well, her independence and fierce protection of her values giving her the space to blaze a trail all of her own.
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