I was about 20 pages into Carole King's new memoir, A Natural Woman, when it hit me that I've harbored a wrong impression of her all these years, dating back to the spring of 1971, when at age 13 I first saw her signature LP Tapestry on a record-store rack. I hadn't heard "It's Too Late" or any of the other songs on the album, which would go on to sell 25 million copies. But I immediately was smitten with the cover photo of the wavy-haired, barefoot, serene-countenanced hippie chick, perched on the sun-drenched windowsill of her Laurel Canyon home with a plump kitty for company. Carole King was like a rock goddess descending from a magical faraway realm where everybody was just too cool for words.
But now, I belatedly discover that my adolescent fantasy was not who King was at all. Beneath that calm gaze and mysterious, wistful smile, the person who made one of the most successful and influential albums in the history of popular music actually was a divorced mom with two young daughters, someone struggling to make ends meet and to find her place in the world. She was full of insecurities, painful memories and self-doubts.
Far from being a hippie goddess, King was a naif from a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, old-fashioned in her values and maybe even a little square. She didn't even want to be a rock star -- the idea of performing in front of an audience terrified her so much that friend James Taylor practically had to force her to do it. The glamorous LA music scene was so discomforting to her that King chucked it all to run off to rural Idaho, where she lived for a while in a shack without electricity and learned to milk goats. She had several husbands, including one who was seriously mentally ill and another who beat her up and eventually died of a cocaine overdose.
Somehow, though, knowing all this makes me an even bigger fan because the revelations in A Natural Woman really get to the essence of why King's music still resonates so powerfully. In addition to her own stardom, King co-wrote more than 100 hit singles, including such standards as The Shirelles' 1960 hit "Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1968, which gives King's memoir its title. But she's more than just a skillful composer of pop melodies, or a singer who makes up for her lack of vocal virtuosity with unaffected soulfulness. Emotionally and spiritually, she manages to seem like one of us -- an ordinary person trying to get through life, who has to remind herself not to dwell on the sadness and to appreciate the beauty of everyday existence.
As a prose writer, it turns out that she's as graceful as she is in composing a score, self-deprecatingly funny in spots and painfully honest in others. There's none of the self-congratulatory bravado, posturing and Vaseline-on-the-lens distortion that makes most rock-star bios so forgettable. Instead, you get the sense in these pages that King's still trying to figure life out, and that her songs and writing a memoir have been part of that quest.
As promised, here are a few things you probably didn't know about Carole King:
1. She started her career early -- really early. The daughter of a New York City firefighter and a piano teacher, King began learning to play piano by ear as a preschooler. At 8, her mother took her and a school friend to auditions for a TV show, The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour. The pair sang and played "If I Knew You Were Comin,' I'd Have Baked A Cake," accompanied by King on the ukulele. They made it onto the show.
2. She started with Ahmet and Jerry. In 1957, at 15, King showed up at the offices of Atlantic Records, without an appointment, and asked if anyone was available to listen to her songs. Amazingly, instead of being shown the door, she was ushered into the inner office of Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, two legendary figures in the history of American popular music. After listening to King play, Ertegun said, "Come back and see us when you got more songs." That gave her the courage to try out for another label, ABC-Paramount, which signed her to write songs for its acts for $25 apiece.
3. She was a real-life contemporary of Mad Men's Peggy. There's an eerie parallel between King and the fictional secretary-turned-copywriter portrayed by Elisabeth Moss in the hit TV series. They're approximately the same age, both grew up in the boroughs in working-class families, and both hung out on the periphery of the late 1950s/early 1960s Greenwich Village beatnik scene. Both struggled to become professional successes in a world in which they were expected to be deferential to men and do the chores as well as their work.
4. She grew up with famous classmates. At Queens College, where King enrolled in 1958, her freshman class included Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon. She was later shocked to open a music magazine and see their pictures, with a caption identifying them as Tom and Jerry, singers of a then-hit single, "Hey Schoolgirl." King and Simon eventually became friends, and briefly formed a duo, The Cousins.
5. She avoided Mick-and-Keith-style rivalry. Throughout A Natural Woman, King lavishes praise upon former husband Gerry Goffin, the lyrical half of their storied songwriting team, even though the couple suffered through a painful marital breakup exacerbated by Goffin's struggle with mental illness. "Gerry had a gift for tapping into what teenage listeners were feeling," she says. In a section describing how the pair wrote "Natural Woman" for Aretha Franklin, she marvels: "I was blown away by his lyrical imagery. A soul in the lost-and-found, a lover with a claim check...how did Gerry come up with these things?" We all should be so kind.
6. John Lennon envied her. When she got a chance to meet the Beatles in 1965, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were all friendly, but John Lennon was oddly brusque. Years later, after she ran into Yoko Ono in a movie theater ladies' room and was invited over to the Dakota, a now-friendly Lennon explained that the rudeness had been an act because he felt intimidated by meeting half of the famous King-Goffin songwriting team that he had dreamed of emulating. For her part, King returns the favor, citing Lennon's "Imagine" as a guide for how to live.
7. Touring was torture to her. King reluctantly became a performer at the urging of her friend James Taylor, and only because his tour of college campuses allowed her to return to Los Angeles frequently to be with her kids. Even after she got over her fear of being onstage, as a habitual early riser, she never could get used to the nocturnal rock-star lifestyle.
8. She blends in really well. In the 1980s, King once stopped by a Greenwich Village cafe to hear a guitarist friend play a late-night set, and got up on stage with him, unannounced, to play a rendition of "Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow." To her amusement, most of the audience, apparently not recognizing her, talked loudly through the performance.
9. She's accident-prone. In 1991, after joining the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson at his California studio for a songwriting session, King went for a hike and fell off a cliff, breaking her foot so severely that she required six months of intense physical therapy before she would walk again normally. A few years later, she was descending the stairs after playing and singing backup for Bob Dylan in Dublin and had a similar mishap, this time injuring her hand.
10. She's an inveterate working-class New Yorker. Whenever she's in the city, King spurns limos and insists on taking the subway to get around. In part, it's because likes to study the other riders and deduce details of their lives.
11. She digs playing guitar. It's not the instrument she's associated with, and she's humble about her abilities compared to the piano. But all the same, King writes about being pleased that she could figure out how to play REM's "Losing My Religion" on the guitar.
12. While living in rural Idaho, King home-schooled two of her four children. Apparently, she did a pretty good job of it, too. She notes with obvious pride that her daughter Molly went on to graduate cum laude from Columbia University, and son Levi eventually earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas.
13. The cat on the cover of Tapestry has an interesting story. The cat's name, as it turns out, was Telemachus, after the son of Odysseus and Penelope in Homer's The Odyssey. In the footnotes, King informs readers: "Upon accepting his Grammy in 1972 for the Biggest Domestic Cat Ever to Appear on an Album Cover, Telemachus was so overcome with emotion that he could only say, "Meow."