As the musical based on her life and songs, Beautiful, opens in Sydney (watch out for the superb Chloe Zuel in a couple of roles), a jump back to a reissue of Carole King’s career-redefining 1971 album and some musings on what it meant for boys and girls.
Tapestry: Legacy Edition (Sony BMG)
The Female Eunuch was trying too hard while The Happy Hooker was not trying at all, Joni Mitchell’s Blue was getting there but Tapestry was pretty spot on.
An urban tale from the 1970s and '80s had it that one sure way for any not-quite-as-sensitive-as-he-should-be male to fake hidden emotional depths was to have a copy of Carole King's 1971 album visible when he brought home a date.
Given I was still failing to get Cecilia Chapman to even talk to me after school, I can't speak to its effectiveness, but the story does beg the question that Tapestry spoke to women in a way that men could never understand, or would want to. This was only half true then and less so now.
Though soon enough the introspection devolved into self-centredness and individuality morphed into individualism, the L.A. singer-songwriter movement of the early '70s reflected a genuine cultural signpost. The likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor (who would thrive with King’s You've Got A Friend), Jackson Browne and even that contrary curmudgeon Neil Young broadly reflected a generation of middle-class Westerners who thanks to education, financial and political comfort had the time and wherewithal to contemplate not just their place in the world but their own growth and development.
Carole King was in some ways better placed than most to reflect this. She was a Brooklyn Jewish girl who from 1959 provided the musical voice for scores of black pop groups (like the Shirelles), white beat groups (like the Beatles), soul singers American (like Aretha Franklin) and English (like Dusty Springfield) and even Donny Osmond.
But she spent most of that first decade finding her voice (literally, as her few attempts at recording her songs were hesitant and unsuccessful, and figuratively, as her then husband Gerry Goffin was the principal lyricist while she wrote and arranged the music) and her self-confidence.
By the time she recorded Tapestry, the now LA-based 28-year-old had already released one unsuccessful solo album but rather than defeat she found friends, support and faith in herself. And while she had never lost her great melodic gift, the crucial element this time was she had written most of the lyrics.
Although Tapestry contains songs written across her career, including 1961’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow and 1967's Natural Woman, it is thematically and tonally consistent. The yearning for security is balanced by the knowledge of failure, the bruises of relationships foundering and lives uprooted (“doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” she asked) sat alongside the promise of something different, something better.
King's lyrics are not as complex or insightful as Mitchell's, her songwriting was not as consistent (there are six unambiguous classics here but also two maybe three songs which are carried by their neighbours), nor her voice as strong or pure. But as you can hear in the live performances from 1973 and 1976 on the extra disc, what her songs had beneath those wonderful melodies was genuineness and intimacy.
The personal was very much universal here, for men or women.