A Natural Woman: A Memoir
“evasive, cloying, and from time to time even ponderous. . . . completely oblivious memoir”
If Carole King’s singing voice might be described using words like vibrant, supple, or emotive, then it should fairly be noted that her author’s voice, now on display in her memoir A Natural Woman, might be judged to be evasive, cloying, and from time to time even ponderous.
On reflection, it does seem only “natural” that a celebrity who has shunned the spotlight as thoroughly as Ms. King has might be less than interested in telling the world the full sordid details of her life, and, in doing so, revealing the details of those (Gerry Goffin, James Taylor) lives that rubbed up against her own. But the resulting respect for everyone’s privacy, Ms. King’s own included, yields a memoir shot through gauze, backlit, with the camera lens smeared with plenty of Vaseline.
Forget about warts and all, in A Natural Woman, we’re lucky if we can make out limbs. Which is not to say that there are no details on these pages. Ms. King often works through relative ages—her own, each of her children’s, whichever of her four husbands she is then married to at that time—as if she is trying to remind herself just at what point in her narrative she has arrived at in telling whatever story at hand.
Plus the woman shows a remarkable ability for remembering the identity of every sideman who every recorded with her or worked with her on a concert stage, which both helps fill her memoir’s nearly 500 pages and contributes to that descriptive word ponderous.
Strangely, for a book that finds the time for “Lessons from Underground,” a complete chapter on the New York subway system, including the three life lessons it has to teach us (“Subway Lesson 1: When the subway runs smoothly, as it does most of the time, it’s the most efficient and affordable method of getting around New York City.”), when the time comes to share with the readers the story of her first husband Gerry Goffin’s (with whom she wrote such hit songs as “Loco-Motion” and “Natural Woman”) struggles with drug addiction, which led to the end of their marriage, she writes only:
“The next treatment the doctors recommended was electric shock therapy. Because their patient was incapable of rational thought—hence the need for such a drastic remedy—the decision to give consent was legally in the hands of his young wife. To say that this was one of the most agonizing decisions I’ve ever had to make is to grossly understate the difficulty. I was twenty-three, Gerry was twenty-six, and our daughters were five and three.”
A total of five paragraphs are dedicated to her husband’s plight, before we go with our author to Café Wha? in New York’s Greenwich Village to see a young musical virtuoso:
“‘I couldn’t believe it,’ Rick said. “The guy played guitar with his teeth!’
“Charlie chimed in to describe how the guitarist had turned his amp all the way up and transformed the electronic feedback into an otherworldly musical experience. The guitarist, Jimmy James, would later become known to the world as Jimi Hendrix.”
Bam! From Gerry to Jimi in a few sentences, no questions answered, no explanations given.
A Natural Woman is a bumper car of a book, one that careens about, turning on a dime, most often when the actual timeline moves into difficult topics. These are avoided with a minimum of impact.
With one exception.
Perhaps it’s because her third husband died years ago now, or perhaps it’s because of the abuse that she suffered at his hands, but when writing about Rick Evers, Carole King hits the mark, revealing for the first time that she herself was the victim of an abusive mate, and telling her tale with a poignancy that so much of the rest of the book lacks.
Richly detailing how she fell in love with the man despite the warning signs and in spite of the disapproval of him shown by family and friends alike, Ms. King’s writing is especially fine in fleshing out the period of time of their separation and just after she was told of his death by a drug overdose.
Having just recently discovered his drug use, she fled from their home in Idaho, taking her children in secret to the relative safety of Hawaii, where she learned of his death:
“I was filled with a deep sense of loss, not for the man Rick was when he died, but for the man with whom I had fallen in love. Before I had seen his dark side, I would have described Rick Evers as full of joy. How could that man have a dark side? How could he take himself out of this world? Had my saying no driven him to drug abuse? Was it because my work had taken us away from his beloved Idaho? Of course I wasn’t to blame for Rick’s death, but when we lose someone unexpectedly, we often ask what we had done that might have contributed to the death of our loved one, or what we didn’t’ do that might have saved him or her. Usually the answer is ‘Nothing.’ But still we ask.”
Yes, even this (like oh, so much of the rest of the book) could have benefited by a rather ruthless edit—that shift from first person singular to third for no apparent reason as an example of the need—but you get the gist. Here is an honest accounting for love and loss and a revelation based in her true life experience.
Those still wondering why the author hides herself and her readers from some of the difficult, even sad details of her life (as well as from such negative emotions as anger, guilt, bitterness or jealousy—all of which have apparently been Oprah-cized from her mind) can find the answers for themselves on page one hundred and ninety-three:
At this moment in the book, Carole King has moved to California in the wake of her first divorce. She moves to Los Angeles, and lives in the legendary Laurel Canyon and the moment in which the hills echo with the music of Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, and David Crosby. She begins working with famed producer Lou Adler:
“Lou had invited me to his new office to propose that I record another album for Ode, this time as a solo artist.
“‘Look,’ he said. ‘If an artist doesn’t record a song of yours that you really like, you can record it and release it on a Carole King album. That’ll get your song out there. Isn’t that what you want?’
“Yes. It was.
“Between Lou’s logic and the attraction of working at A&M, I agreed to strive for success as a solo recording artist. But then I developed a new boundary. I didn’t want to be a star.
“Everyone around me thought I was out of my mind. I was being offered an opportunity for which so many people had been praying their whole life and all I could say was, ‘Please believe me. I don’t want to be a star.’ My rationale was that I viewed success and stardom as two different things. Successful recording artists were played on the radio, were respected by the public, and had longevity. The songs they sang moved and inspired people. Stars were hounded and mobbed, their privacy was nonexistent, and they were under constant pressure to reach #1 and stay there.”
Given that the resulting album that Adler and King made together was Tapestry, one of the best selling records in music history, and given that, as a result of the creative and financial freedom that that record gave her, Ms. King up and moved from California to Idaho, where she spent her time, along with milking the goats and hauling water up to the log cabin from the spring on the property, writing new music on a borrowed piano in a neighboring cabin, it’s safe to say that when she chose to put her privacy ahead of stardom, she meant it.
But the question begs answering: Why, if she so values her privacy and if her success has given her the freedom to pick and choose her projects, did Carole King decide to write this long, detailed (“I was thirty-nine, he was twenty-three and the children were this and this and this and that”) and completely oblivious memoir?