The jukebox musical has been a theatre mainstay for decades now — basically ever since theatre people figured out that pop songs are the lingua franca of the theatregoing audience. How on earth did it take so long for someone to do one on Carole King, then? The artist’s own self-effacing nature may have had something to do with it, but no matter: since 2013 there has been Beautiful, and it looks set to run indefinitely.
The spring of 1971 was a time of stasis in pop culture. The post-’60s hangover was still very much in effect; there was the nagging feeling that the new decade called for a new voice. Janis Joplin died the previous autumn, and one of her final recordings, Me and Bobby McGee, entered the Billboard chart just a few weeks before the release of a little-heralded album bearing the cover image of a barefoot woman sitting by a window with her cat.
Tapestry — its homespun title a perfect match for the contented domesticity of that photograph — was trailed by It’s Too Late, a single whose nuanced breakup dissection and sinuous soft-rock groove was suddenly everywhere. King’s vocal — its unadorned communication of regret and guarded, cruel-to-be-kind optimism a revelation in the context of Top 40 radio — was an argument for the power of understatement, describing an experience less mythical than Joplin’s but a whole lot more relatable for most listeners.
No one saw Tapestry coming. If you’d been looking for a female singer-songwriter to go supernova, the house money would probably have been on Laura Nyro, another precocious New Yorker who had been churning out hits for all and sundry. But it was King’s voice that caught the zeitgeist. It may have helped that she arrived more or less in tandem with James Taylor, whose album Sweet Baby James had been percolating for a year and whose cover of King’s You’ve Got a Friend topped the singles charts during Tapestry’s 15-week run atop the album chart. In the summer of 1971 it looked as if the world was theirs — even if a close listen left an uneasy sense of smooth surfaces striving to keep demons at bay.
But there was another surprise dimension to Tapestry. The Beatles notwithstanding, the auteur theory of pop hadn’t fully taken hold; people weren’t yet in the habit of studying a record’s fine print. For millions of listeners, then, it dawned only gradually that this all-conquering album, arriving seemingly out of the blue, was the work of someone whose songs had already been part of their lives for a decade or more. Indeed, one of those oldies but goodies — Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow — was right there on Tapestry, in a bittersweet interpretation that made you feel every day of the years of living the artist had done in the interim.
The backstory is now universal knowledge. King (née Klein) and Gerry Goffin, her first husband and longtime lyricist, were outer-borough New York kids with the good fortune to grow up at the centre of the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the 1950s. Surrounded by doo-wop, steeped in rhythm and blues, they also revered the American Songbook composers who for decades had been writing hits to order in midtown Manhattan’s Brill Building.
Slotting into that scene through sheer force of willpower and talent, they were writing hits for a remarkable range of artists while King was still in her teens, and their grounding in two separate but related traditions shows in the work. Covered hundreds of times, their early songs resist radical reinterpretation because they were structured so flawlessly from the get-go. When the Beatles chose one for their debut album, they were probably wise in opting for an obscure single, the Cookies’ Chains — though even there, the lyric’s extended metaphor of imprisonment hinted at a behind-the-scenes darkness that would be revealed in due course.
There are as many ways into the King songbook as there are styles covered in the songs. Sarah Bockel, who stars as King in the touring production of Beautiful that comes to Place des Arts this month, first came to Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow through Amy Winehouse’s 2004 version, having no idea who had written it. She also describes talking to audience members whose only prior knowledge of the Tapestry deep cut Where You Lead had been as the theme song for Gilmore Girls.
Unlike many of their early-’60s peers — friends and rivals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, whose parallel story is an important part of Beautiful, being major exceptions — King and Goffin had little trouble adjusting to the changing times; their compositions turn up in a head-spinning range of settings. Check the Byrds’ 1968 psychedelic classic The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and you’ll find not one but two: Goin’ Back and Wasn’t Born to Follow. David Crosby left under a black cloud when the former made the final cut for the album while his own Triad didn’t. That might have turned out well for him in career terms, but as a song judge he couldn’t have been more wrong.
And while we’re on the subject of cult classics, consider Dusty Springfield’s 1969 blue-eyed soul album Dusty in Memphis, a masterwork built around four Goffin-King songs. So Much Love, Don’t Forget About Me, No Easy Way Down and and I Can’t Make It Alone have all somehow avoided becoming songbook standards, yet for anyone else they would serve as the cornerstones of a Hall of Fame oeuvre.
There may be no better case study of the Goffin-King reach than their working relationship with the Monkees, whose Pleasant Valley Sunday was a power-pop tour de force with a theme of suburban anomie that broke new ground in 1967. Better yet is 1968’s Porpoise Song (Theme From Head), written for the group’s doomed foray into psychedelic cinema. As a bellwether for environmental awareness, it stole a march on Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology); as a regret-drenched farewell to an era, it packs a punch the makers of Mad Men recognized when they used it as a scene-setter in the show’s penultimate season. If it had escaped its misbegotten host film to become the hit it deserved to be, the collective memory of both the Monkees and King would be deeper and richer for it. (Canada can take a bow: the song charted higher here than anywhere else. Even if it only reached a measly No. 26.)
As the ’60s drew to a close and the Goffin-King marriage ended along with it, King branched out into group work with the folk-rock band the City and made a debut solo album, Writer, whose humble ambition can be gleaned by its succinct title. She might have had a comfortable career as a sort of connoisseur’s semi-popular favourite — much like, say, Laura Nyro. But then Tapestry happened, and that album’s era-defining impact is where Beautiful’s story arc ends. And that’s fair enough — it’s a two-hour production packed with songs. As the play’s book writer Douglas McGrath said, “If you try to tell the whole thing, you don’t really have time to tell any of it. You’re just checking boxes off.”
It’s not that there wasn’t worthwhile work after Tapestry. This reporter carries a torch for Music, the album that followed Tapestry in (incredibly) the same calendar year and has unjustly languished in its predecessor’s giant shadow ever since. There’s not a weak link on it, but herewith a doff of the cap to Brother, Brother, a song of sibling empathy (or maybe race solidarity, or maybe both) so affecting that it was covered almost immediately by no less a fraternal institution than the Isley Brothers. And if You’ve Got a Friend is the great song of one-to-one loyalty, then Song of Long Ago can stand proud alongside it as an ode to the circle-of-old-friends reunion.
Really Rosie, King’s 1975 collaboration with Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), marks one of the few times a major artist has addressed her songs to children without a hint of condescension. (Its only true company might be Donovan’s A Gift From a Flower to a Garden.) But the work that probably best encapsulates King’s post-Tapestry experience may be a little-remembered song from the little-remembered 1973 album Fantasy. A Quiet Place to Live gives some idea of what it must have been like to become a superstar more or less by accident, and to grapple with that new reality. The song finds the singer now wishing for nothing so much as to be “free in a world of my making / instead of taking / what they decided to give.”
And that, it would appear, is what King ultimately found, and continues to enjoy.
“If there’s any sense of her maybe not being as talked about or as fussed over as some other people, it could be because Carole herself is such a private person,” said McGrath. “She doesn’t chase any of that. She’s not cultivating any of that.”
It could well be, of course, that King, 76, has been happy to stay in the background because she knows that her work is out there doing the heavy lifting for her, making a mockery of the passage of time. These songs, unlike us, do not get old.
AT A GLANCE
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical runs from Tuesday, Feb. 12 through Sunday, Feb. 17 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Place des Arts. Showtimes: 8 p.m. Feb. 12 to 15; 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 16; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17. Tickets cost $45.95 to $128.95; call 514-842-2112 or see placedesarts.com.
Six essential threads from the tapestry of King’s career
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical features 26 songs from the King oeuvre, a fair representation of a classic-filled songbook. The six here all feature strongly in the production. Star Sarah Bockel and book writer Douglas McGrath offer some thoughts.
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
King was 19 and Goffin 21 when the Shirelles landed them their first No. 1 with a song that pulls off two feats that are rare for writers of any age: Goffin’s capturing of a vulnerable young woman’s point of view and King’s harmonically and melodically immaculate setting for it. This may well be their greatest song. Said Bockel: “There’s a scene (in Beautiful) where she is reading the lyrics for the first time out loud and Gerry is sleeping on the couch, and she’s like, ‘Wow, these are super personal.’ ” And indeed they are, for 1961, for 1971 and for 2019. (The Tapestry version drops the “still” from the title — a choice that might have been down to simple scansion but could still provide fodder for endless textual-psychological analysis.)
Ponder for a moment, if you will, a world where the same people who wrote the song above wrote this one, quite possibly the most popular song ever tailored for a babysitter. Little Eva, née Eva Narcissus Boyd, was 19 when she found herself topping charts worldwide with a dance-craze number bestowed on her by her busy employers. The Loco-Motion has long outlived its era, becoming the novelty song that refused to go quietly, hitting No. 1 for Grand Funk Railroad (nobody saw that one coming in 1974) and getting to No. 3 for Kylie Minogue in 1988. The song’s staying power perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, given that the dance it describes — one part rhythm to several parts soul — is easier to learn than the alphabet. This was the first King song McGrath remembers hearing; he and his sister misread the writer credit as “Coffin King” and were confused the song wasn’t more ghoulish.
Up on the Roof
Goffin’s personal favourite of his songs with King was written for the Drifters and defined for all time by Rudy Lewis’s perfect vocal. Lennon and McCartney were probably thinking of this song in 1963 when they wrote There’s a Place, the great Beatles hit that never was. “It’s really about someone who, in modern terms, you could say is having a panic attack,” said McGrath. “The world is pushing down on him; there’s no place to be. You can read all sorts of levels of either poverty or anxiety into it. But then there’s this beautiful release by going up on the roof. And where (Goffin) makes it something popular, a love song, is by saying at the end that there’s room enough for two.” (You get the feeling King was knocking off masterpieces during her coffee breaks in 1962; that same year, a one-off collaboration with Howard Greenfield yielded the Everly Brothers’ evergreen Crying in the Rain.)
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
Written in 1967 for Aretha Franklin, this feminist love song will forever be associated with the late Queen of Soul despite King having reinterpreted it four years later. “There’s a lot of layers to the scene where she records the song (for Tapestry),” said Bockel. “She doesn’t want to record it, because it’s a song that her now ex-husband wrote when they were in the prime of their relationship. It’s too painful for her now. So many of the songs on Tapestry are about heartache, and (producer) Lou Adler says to her: ‘There’s a lot of songs about the pain of being in love, but when you are first falling in love with someone there is a lot of joy, and we need this song.’ So she ends up doing it, and she kind of finds that joy again. It’s triumphant for that reason.”
It’s Too Late
Lyricist Toni Stern, whether consciously or not, channelled the emotional aftermath of the Goffin and King breakup for the song that broke King’s career wide open. “Knowing what Carole and Gerry’s situation was, it wasn’t the most peaceful breakup,” said McGrath. “And yet the song is all about not blaming, about: ‘Look, we both made mistakes, we both tried our best, it didn’t work out, we can’t make it work, it’s too late.’ But there’s no anger in it. And I think the absence of anger is part of what drew people to Tapestry right then.” It’s Too Late is all the more poignant for being placed on the album two songs after the Hemingway-echoing I Feel the Earth Move, a song hard not to hear as a testimony to that same relationship when things were still good.
So Far Away
The early 1970s were rife with songs sung from the perspective of hirsute men in denim running solo down various roads and highways, their justification a putative need to be “free.” Here was that scenario from the perspective of a woman who experienced that same rootless condition as a cause not for selfish celebration, but for profound regret.
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