April 27, 2012
What’s not to like? She has written some of the best pop and rock songs of the past five decades, she has a record of social responsibility, and she’s a nice person.
In a way, her memoir, A Natural Woman, is similar: What’s not to like? It’s a conversational account of a remarkable American life; in some ways, it would be hard to believe if one didn’t already know that it’s true. King (Carol Klein) is a Brooklyn native who found herself in awkward straits in school because her mother enrolled her early, and then she skipped a grade — so she was perennially younger than her classmates and felt out of place.
She showed early signs of a bent for entertaining, and she was writing songs in her teens. In fact, she was only 18 when she and her husband, Gerry Goffin, wrote “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles. She also became a mother for the first of four times at around the same time. Among the songs she has written since then, either on her own or with a collaborator, are “Where You Lead, I Will follow”; “I’m Into Something Good”; “It’s Too Late, Baby”; “The Loco-Motion”; “Take Good Care of My Baby”; “Go Away, Little Girl”; “I Feel the Earth Move;” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Natural Woman.’’
For a long time, King saw herself as a writer and “sideman” — that is, one of the musicians playing and even singing behind a lead performer. By King’s account, James Taylor changed that single-handedly. It occurred in 1970 while Taylor was touring to promote his album “Sweet Baby James.” King was to play piano for Taylor at a performance at Queens College, which was her alma mater. As the show was about to begin, Taylor told King he wanted her to sing lead that night on “Up on the Roof,” a song she had written with Goffin and a favorite of Taylor’s (and mine, not that it matters).
King writes that she was taken aback by this request but had no time to talk Taylor out of it. When that spot in the set came around, Taylor introduced King to the audience as an alumna of the college and a co-writer of the song and, without rehearsal, she took her first turn as a lead singer. In time, of course, she become a good enough lead that her album Tapestry become one of the best selling collections of all time.
King devotes a lot of space in this book to a personal life that is difficult for an outsider to fully understand. She married Goffin when she was 17, and the pair, barely more than children, settled into suburban life in West Orange. But Gerry got restless, he fooled around with drugs, he eventually plunged into serious depression. The marriage ended, but King and Goffin continued to be friends and collaborators. King had three more marriages, none of which, based on her own accounts, seem to have been well thought out. Two ended in divorce and one ended when her husband — who she says struck her on several occasions — died as a result of a drug overdose.
King emphasizes in this book that she didn’t like touring and that she didn’t seek stardom because of the baggage that came with it. She had a yen for a simple life, particularly as compared to life in the New York City and Los Angeles areas. From both a cultural and environmental point of view, she carried that quest to its logical extreme by buying a ranch in Idaho. Before she picked the spot, in fact, she and her fourth husband, Rick Sorensen, and her two youngest children lived for three years in a cabin that had no electricity, running water, or heat.
When King first decided to make Idaho her principal residence, her oldest child, Louise, then 17, declined to make the move, and she stayed behind in Los Angeles. Eventually, all of King’s children would wind up in California. All of those children apparently have had fruitful lives, but King’s priorities are still a little hard to grasp.
I found it disconcerting, too, that she devoted a chapter to her decision to practice yoga, remarking that the discipline helped her find her “center.” She presents this as a life-shaping event, but she never explains what she means by finding her center, and except for one glancing reference, she never mentions yoga again.
Perhaps because she is such a nice person, King chooses her words carefully when she’s describing her interactions with other people, even the husband who brutalized her. While it wouldn’t necessarily be useful for her to share any rancor she might be harboring, her approach is tentative enough to make a reader wonder what else she chose to withhold.
King mentions an editor in the acknowledgments, but I was happy to find that it seemed as if this book was largely King’s own work. It has the feel of a kitchen-table conversation. Apparently it is as much as King wanted to share, so it will have to do for now.