Thursday, May 15, 2014

Carole King's Conditioned Role and Desire (Ava and C.I.)

For a period of time at Third, Ava and I were attempting to cover every female musician who wrote an autobiography.  We did praise many books -- including Ann and Nancy Wilson's Kicking & Dreaming which is strong reading.  But we're not here to go "oooh!" and "awwwwe!"  If we're taking the trouble to write about it -- let alone read it -- we're going to be real critics with critical thinking. If you feel your precious was insulted, remember that critics slammed Stevie Nicks throughout the 70s and 80s and it only made her fans feel stronger about her work.  Any coverage not involving an arrest is basically coverage that helps an artist.  Dona asked if we could note this review from 2012 here.

 Carole King's Conditioned Role and Desire (Ava and C.I.)

No one is mad at Carole King for what she wrote about them -- or didn't write about them -- in her just released A Natural Woman: A Memoir. They're just mad on behalf of someone else. Saturday night*, as the calls started coming in, it was really clear everyone was upset but, again, on behalf of someone else.

a natural woman

Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann were the most cited as slighted and they do make for the most convincing case. It was, after all, Cynthia and Barry who would drive out from NYC to New Jersey to help Carole when her husband Gerry Goffin was threatening to kill himself or possibly kill someone else. They were, as one record label exec put it on the phone last night, "The Dawn Patrol on Gerry for Carole." (The Dawn Patrol refers to a group of people who took care of Judy Garland when she was making her CBS TV series in the early sixties.) And certainly, Cynthia helped out in other ways as well. Some might argue, "Well Carole's not dwelling on the negtive." That excuse flies out the window when she writes about Gerry being institutionalized and receiving electro-shock treatments.

And, besides, even if she wanted to omit those details, was it really fair of her to refer to Cynthia and Barry as just a couple who wrote songs together? They wrote "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." They wrote "On Broadway." They wrote "Walking In The Rain." And so, so much more. None of that is noted in the text of this book. Mann and Weil, one of the longest enduring songwriting teams, show up on page 94:

Gerry and I competed the most fiercely against Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Each couple came to think of the other as "the other married songwriting team," and each couple was intimidated by how talented the other couple was. Whether in spite of that or because of it, we four have remained friends over many decades. What we shared was unique. We Aldon songwriters may have thought of ourselves as mortal enemies when it came to getting a follow-up, but we were a tightly knit brother- and sisterhood of friends, colleagues, peers, and, most of the time, allies.

Carole wrote or co-wrote many hits including "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman" which the book takes it's name from. However, to read the entire book is to learn that, in 1982, Cynthia Weil wrote "One to One" with Carole. No other song Cynthia co-wrote is ever mentioned. This despite the fact that Cynthia and Barry won the Oscar for "Somewhere Out There," that their other hits after the sixties include "Don't Know Much," "I Will Come To You" and "Here You Come Again." From the sixties through today, all of those monster hits, classics that nearly the entire world can hum along with or sing, are ignored to note instead what Carole asserts was a top 40 hit in 1982. (Possibly she means the adult contemporary chart because it did not make what is generally considered to be the "top forty" pop chart.)

Another notable silence is with regards to Howard Greenfield. A mogul wondered why she ignored Howie after stating that everyone at Aldon was a family? Howie appears on four pages of Carole's book, two as Neil Sedaka's co-writer (just noting one of their songs) and two more pages where he's also in single-sentences this time noting that he wrote with Carole. As the mogul pointed out, Carole claimed to know nothing of gay men or lesbians. This is in 1958, she claims she didn't know women were the victims of violence and "I was also unaware that some teenagers had feelings for others of the same gender." She'd learn "years later" about women and violence and, presumably, about gays and lesbians.

But she knew Howie. Howie was not in the closet. He was openly gay at a time when no one was. Carole knew him through Neil Sedaka before 1958. She knew him as a peer and a songwriter at Aldon starting in 1959. That's not "years later." And it's really sad that a trailblazer like Howie gets ignored in the book -- especially when Carole wants to claim to have never known about such things. [Greenfield wrote the lyrics to many hits including "Oh! Carol" (Neil Sedaka's 1958 hit about Carole King), "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do," "Love Will Keep Us Together," "Where The Boys Are," "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," "Crying In The Rain" (with Carole for The Everly Brothers in 1962), "Calendar Girl" and more.]

Ourselves, we were kind of shocked that the woman who co-wrote "He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)" in 1962 (with first husband Gerry Goffin) would claim it would be "years later" before she was aware that women were the victims of violence. Strangely, that song's never once mentioned in the book though she does detail abuse from her third husband (Rick Evers) in the late seventies. No one deserves to be the victim of domestic abuse but when you've co-written a song glamorizing it, maybe you need to write about your own role in society's denial -- long denial -- of abuse?

That's not the sort of book Carole's written.

And people reading for answers will be disappointed as well. The notoriously press-shy Carole kind-of opens up but does nothing to ease years of confusion. For example, anyone wondering why she appeared in episode 120 of The Mary Tyler Moore Show ("Anyone Who Hates Kids And Dogs," first aired on CBS March 8, 1975) will be as puzzled as they are when they come across the broadcast and see her in the role of Aunt Helen. Just as puzzled as they are over the fact that Carole chose to be billed as "Carole King Larkey." Charles Larkey was Carole's second husband. Their marriage, as she notes in the book, soured in 1974 and the divorce came in 1975. So why in the world did she choose to be billed with his last name?

It's apparently a mystery that will never be solved or, in A Natural Woman, even mentioned. Tapestry, the 1971 album that took her from the woman who co-wrote "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "The Locomotion," "Go Away Little Girl" and more and turned her into a successful singer-songwriter, results in a highly frustrating series of chapters as you realize she doesn't remember half of what took place. So she talks about playbacks and not performances or how she could see Joni Mitchell and James Taylor whispering and she wondered what was being said? And that's the most she ever writes about an album. Some albums are reduced to a single sentence.

What she does bother to mention is written in a fresh and lively voice for which she should be applauded. A first time book author finding a voice isn't that common. A celebrity writing their own book (with no apparent ghost writer) often struggles with sounding pompous or simple-minded. So Carole's sure and steady touch is no minor accomplishment.

She often makes moments seem real and alive. This is especially true when recounting how she had to battle the state of Idaho in court repeatedly when they attempted to call a private road on her property a public one. Those pages are probably the strongest of the book because they give Carole something to really rage against.

She doesn't rage elsewhere in the book.

Everything's great and everyone's wonderful. She manages that feat of Pollyanna-ism by simply rendering major people in her life invisible. Phil Spector? Carole hated him. They fought bitterly. She fought with Gerry over Phil claiming credit on the songs she and Gerry wrote together. Carole stood up to Phil at a time when few people did. (Cynthia Weil always stood up to Phil.) Now days, Phil Spector doesn't control the music industry. Today, he's infamous for his abuse and torture of Ronnie Spector (the Ronettes lead singer who made the mistake of marrying Phil) and for being in prison currently after being convicted of murdering Lana Clarkson. And despite Carole knowing him and working with him for years in the sixties, he shows up only in a single sentence, "More recently he [Lester Sill] had been the 'Les' of Philles Records (Spector being the 'Phil') and the music supervior of the Monkees' movie, Head."

As this sort of thing happens repeatedly throughout the book, you sort of get the feeling that if she'd spent years in the Philippines with the Marcoses, she'd work in a sentence about Imelda's lovely shoe collection. Or maybe she would have developed a crush on Ferdinand Marcos and written an unbelievable portrait of him the way she has James Taylor?

It's a real shame Carole never slept with 'baby' James. If she had, her romantic and child-like view of him would have died real quick. James can't stand women, he's treated all of his wives poorly, the only ex-girlfriend he doesn't trash is the one who left him (Joni Mitchell) and was smart enough not to cater to him. (The minute you cater to James is the minute you cease to be a person in his eyes.)

Reading Carole's James stories, after you shake off the school girl crush that she can't, you realize she doesn't know a thing about this man she claims to be friends with. She has no insight into him or awareness of him or even fond shared memories unless you're talking memories located in studios and concert halls.

That's because there is no there there. At some point Carole may realize that. Maybe not. She's seventy-years-old and hasn't realized it so far.

Carole did know -- and realize -- not to mention Carly Simon. For those who don't know, a ground-rule for any JT interview is that you may not bring up the words "Carly Simon." Though Taylor is the one who ended the marriage (via drugs among other things), he likes to play injured party (he does the same with regards to his second marriage), so he has insisted that no one discuss Carly Simon, the woman he was married to for nearly a decade and the woman who gave birth to two of his children, the woman who co-wrote songs with him (sometimes credited, sometimes not, yeah we outed that truth), the woman who sang on many of his songs. You can't bring her up or he will walk out on an interview. He's also attempted to tell Carly that she can never mention him. (She attempted to follow that edict briefly before realizing she had no reason to cater her life or public remarks to an ex-husband.)

Carly and Carole weren't especially close. (Carole did sing backup on Carly's 1975 hit "Attitude Dancing.") But considering their conversations about children (much deeper than any conversation Carole ever had with James), it's rather surprising that Carole's so quick to follow James' command.

Surprising until you grasp that Carole's a sad seventy-year-old woman.

Not "sad" as in depressed. Carole loves her life. But "sad" as in kind of pathetic that a woman at her age still defines the world on male terms.

That is the whole point of A Natural Woman in Carole's mind. A natural woman, you understand, caters to a natural man. And that's the story of Carole's life. She's damn lucky that, for all of his LSD trips, Gerry Goffin was a good-hearted and usually level-headed man. Otherwise, what she went through in marriage number three could have started in her first marriage.

There are telling moments throughout the book. High school is nothing but Carole being upset that the boys don't notice her and overhearing conversations about how boys talk about girls. Decades later, when high school alumni come backstage at a concert, all Carole can focus on even then is male approval and male gaze. It's as though in her mind she was the only girl in an all boy school.

Aldon was a songwriting stable with a number of women. Not just Cynthia Weil but also Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager among others. In fact, Toni and Carole Bayer wrote the classic "A Groovy Kind of Love." Toni is mentioned in a rambling sentence (pages 128 to 129) that notes her and four other people but never manages to identify her as a songwriter or a singer. Despite knowing Carole Bayer before she was Carole Bayer Sager or Carole Bayer Sager Bacharach, despite knowing her since the 60s, Carole King never mentions her until page 428 ("with encouragement from my friend Carole Bayer Sager," King decided to produce her own 1997 album). Carole Bayer Sager gets another mention two pages later when she's listed as one of the writers of Carole King's "You Can Do Anything."

"A Groovy Kind Of Love" is never mentioned nor any of the other hits Carole Bayer Sager co-wrote including "That's What Friends Are For," "Stronger Than Before," "Through The Eyes Of Love," "Nobody Does It Better," "Don't Cry Out Loud," "Heartbreaker," "You're The Only One," "I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love," "Anyone At All" (sung by Carole King on the You've Got Mail soundtrack), "It's My Turn," "Ever Changing Times," "Making Love," "On My Own," "When I Need You," "Heartlight," "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)," etc. All a reader of the book will know about Carole Bayer Sager is that she was King's friend who suggested King produce her own 1997 album and, apparently as a thank you, King gave her a songwriting credit.

Contrast that with the lengthy sections on Paul Simon, Paul Newman, John Lennon . . . In fact, she calls the chapter "John and Yoko" but she doesn't even talk to Yoko (her third husband does). She has no time for Yoko.

And that's pretty much the 'natural' story of Carole's male-defined life.

Carole's male-defined life included ignoring her stage fright when James Taylor needed her to open for him at the Troubadour, especially when she was promised all these male musicians on stage with her. As she was working her way through her set (with no stage patter), everyone was told they had to leave because someone had called saying there was a bomb in the club. Carole piped up, "As long as it's not me." That elicited laughter and Carole falsely states that's when she realized she only had to be authentic on stage. That wasn't authenticity, that was clowning.

And if she's going to claim she was authentic on stage following that moment, shortly afterwards, she'll have her Carnegie Hall concert (June 18, 1971, released on Sony's Legacy label in 1996) where she'll declare of Laura Nyro, "a great lady if ever there was one." Laura's now dead. Yesterday, Laura was (finally) inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Bette Midler who noted "love was the main thing" in Laura's art. Laura appears no where in Carole's book. Before there was Carole, there was Laura Nyro. Writing songs, singing, playing the piano. And at one point in her life, at least when she needed to come across with Laura's hometown audience, Carole could sing the woman's praises onstage. But there's no mention of Laura in the book. Carole wrote "Up On The Roof" with Gerry Goffin and her books notes that the Drifters had a hit with it on one page and she spends page after page noting James Taylor later sang it. But she never notes that Laura took it into the top 100 in 1970 and that Laura doing that, Laura recording it, was a major move and one that gave Carole more cachet in 1970 than anything else.

Joni Mitchell gets a few mentions, mainly for sketching King's daughters. No Carly, no Laura, no female singer-songwriters who emerge after 1980. But she's got Bono in there, praising Bono. She's got all sorts of men in her book.

In 1996, Allison Anders wrote and directed the classic Grace of My Heart which was about a Carole King type songwriter who (like Carole) became a singer-songwriter. Unlike Carole, Denise Waverly (played by Illeana Douglas) was actually from a wealthy family. That was among the many, many differences. Carole King was offended by the movie, by this film that is not based on her life and does not pretend to tell her life story. Having read her book, we have to conclude that what really offended her was that Denise wasn't male defined and that she and fellow songwriter Cheryl Steed (played by Patsy Kensit) were not just working for the same publishing house but were also good friends who meant a lot to one another.

No non-blood relative female means anything to Carole in this book except her housekeeper who makes everything perfect when she agrees to move from New Jersey to California. Toni Stern, who co-wrote many of Carole's solo artist hits, is now a professional painter. There's no time for that in the book or for much of anything about Toni. Carole does want you to know, "The Carpenters' performance of 'It's Going to Take Some Time' was Toni's and my first joint appearance at the top of the charts."

Well that's good.

Except number 12 on the top forty isn't "the top of the charts."

And a single written by Carole and Toni that was released in April 1972 doesn't come before a Carole and Toni song that hit number one in 1971 ("It's Too Late"). In fact, "It's Too Late" is on 1971's Tapestry. "It's Going to Take Some Time" appears first on Carole's Tapestry follow up (Music, released December 1971). So it's kind of a big mistake. Not the only one, but the most obvious one.

And it calls into question her re-telling and the framing device she uses. Carole got a print out of important events of each year from the fifties on up. And she worked from that list of events (without mentioning the list) to construct her book. Those who don't realize what's going on have praised that device -- even though it's very clear that Carole doesn't know the first thing she's writing about when she starts invoking those events. That true of 1980 and it's true when she wants to 'talk the 60s' and informs you that if you spoke out against the government, you would be targeted. We applaud David Harris for refusing to comply with the draft. But that's what he was arrested for, not for speaking out. There were many people who spoke out against the government and got targeted for it. Carole seems unaware of them. Again, while we applaud David's civil resistance, we are aware, as was he, that what he was doing was a federal crime. That's very different from, for example, Jane Fonda being a put on enemies list because she speaks out against the war. (Carole's anti-war stance is only with regards to Vietnam. She makes no comment on the Iraq War though she does let you know she's pro-tsunami relief, pro-Haiti relief and pro-Hurricane Katrina relief -- she supports all the easy and non-controversial causes.)

Carole wrote this book for one reason. No, not money. She doesn't need it and she's never done anything for money since Tapestry was first released. She wrote it because another recent book was a best seller and purported to tell her life story and the life stories of Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. That book hinted at a few things and Carole's attitude, after years of keeping a firm wall around her private life, was, 'If somebody's going to start talking about this, I'm putting it out there on the record to get it right.' In that regard, she and her book are a huge success. In getting another woman in music to tell her story, the book is a huge success.

But it's a huge disappointment that she cares so little for other female songwriters or female performers. She'll argue she wrote about Aretha. Yes, she did. Several pages about a woman she never met recording one of Carole's big hits. The women she knew, the ones who were part of the same scene, her peer group? She's got no belief in sisterhood. And if you're not getting how male defined she is, she repeatedly refers to the feminist movement as "women's lib." "Women's lib" is insulting shorthand developed by enemies of women's liberation to demean and put down the movement.

But of all the women she short changes, the one she short changes the most is named Carole King. Opening for Taylor at the Troubadour at the start of the seventies, she notes, "Sitting up again, I ventured a shy smile over my right shoulder to acknowledge the audience members who would mostly see my back because I was facing the other way." And that pretty much describes the book. Anything of great consequence about her art is going to be buried because she's going to face the other way and play it shy and modest. If Carole King had given one lengthy interview in her hey-day, this book wouldn't have been accepted by any publishing house. But because the tales -- often charmingly told -- are new, they're treated as deep and insightful. They largely aren't and that has to do with Carole's refusal to honor women and her embarrassment or shame of women goes a long way towards explaining why she herself doesn't take center stage in a book labeled a memoir.


* The calls started coming in after one of us (C.I.) mentioned at The Common Ills that we'd be reviewing this book and offering a critical appraisal. The reason there are nearly three hours between that entry and the second entry is because the phones did not stop ringing as various friends -- producers, singers, songwriters, label execs, etc. -- wanted to weigh in on the book and they were all weighing in about how someone else was wronged in the book. One of us (C.I.) knows Carole King. One or both of us know Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Ronnie Spector, Carole Bayer Sager, Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, Gerry Goffin and C.I. knew Laura Nyro.