As much the earth mother in person as on her records, Carole King placed a firm-but-fair hand on my knee, smiled and shook her curls when I asked one too many questions about her private life while interviewing her in 2009.
I’d just read Sheila Weller’s excellent triple biography of King and her contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. Girls Like Us explored the challenges faced by women who put their emotions in the spotlight in the Sixties and Seventies. The eldest of the three – married and a mother by the age of 18 – King emerged from Weller’s book as the artist most caught between her longing for family life and her drive to create and perform.
I wanted to know if her success had come at the cost of her four marriages. I’d read that her first husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin – with whom she’d written era-defining hits including Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Up on the Roof and Natural Woman – had cheated on her. And that King had helped pay for a home for one of his mistresses. “Honey,” she said, “I’m not going to talk about my husbands now. You’ll have to wait for the book.”
And now the book is here. But, alas for those of us wanting the whole skinny, it’s as gently protective of the fascinating, but often destructive, people in King’s life as I suspected it would be.
In straightforward prose, King tells the story of Carol Klein, the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. Her educated and artistically inclined mother and firefighting father gave her confidence in her early years. Things started to go wrong when her younger brother Richard was diagnosed as profoundly deaf and “severely retarded” in 1951 and placed in “a facility suitable for his needs”.
Little Carol put all her effort into becoming daughter and son to her parents, striving for excellence in everything. Unwilling to add to their pain by talking about what she felt, she turned to her piano. She spent the rest of her life trying to recreate the happy family of her early years.
“When I look back at my relationships with men, I see a pattern,” she writes. “As a child my strong will was juxtaposed with wanting to please my father” and “because my father had been so effective in… making things happen I grew to believe that it was easier to take strong, steady action toward a goal with a man to help me get there.”
Goffin’s perfectly crafted lyrics certainly helped develop her tunes into the zeitgeist. He could write Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow the year the Pill became available. But counterculture attractions sat uncomfortably with suburban family life. King doesn’t mention infidelity, but she does – briefly – describe the LSD use and mental illness that played a part in the break up of their marriage.
Charley Larkey – King’s second husband – led her to a love of jamming and to James Taylor, who encouraged her to become a solo performer. Her third marriage, however, gave her nothing but bruises. As Rick Evers is dead and as she hopes her honesty can help other victims of domestic abuse, King is frank about this violent relationship.
In intense passages, King describes her shock and fear at becoming a punch bag. She had no idea how disturbed Evers was until she heard him describing his survivalist plans to John Lennon. But, she did not leave him until she found he had been injecting cocaine in the house as her children slept.
Still, she forgives him and describes her happiest memories of him – the blue sky of Idaho reflected in his eyes – in a series of snapshots. Her fourth marriage expands her love of the wilderness, but her need to travel, make music and be with her children pull her away from “Teepee Rick”. It leaves you wondering what drew this “good girl” – the one who hardly inhaled while almost all about her were shooting up – to such troubled men.
Her children (two by Goffin and two by Larkey) are cherished throughout these relationships, but she has no doubt they wish she had made different choices.
Along the way, fans are treated to celebrity vignettes: Joni Mitchell sketching King’s daughters; David Crosby on his motorbike with his purple cloak flowing out behind him; Bob Dylan calling her in hospital and passing the phone to Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. Relentlessly empathetic, King hasn’t a bad word to say about anybody.
Still touring, she writes that the woman who sought to find a “home” has learnt it can be a journey as well as a destination. Hippy talk, maybe. But grounded in a truth that, like her songs, is built to survive the worst that rock’n’roll could throw at it.