Thursday, February 9, 2012

Carole King is Famous

Today is Carole King's 70th birthday and I am going to tell you some things about her! Because she's just truly one of my all time favorite people ever. If anything, her music has a strong sedative-like effect on me- which is probably because, like Randy Newman and Cat Stevens and Laura Nyro and James Taylor and all the old Motown and Stax, it's what my mom listened to when I was a kid. I totally have a soft spot for Mom Music. One of the things I was most excited about at The March for Women's Lives several years ago was getting to see her live for the first and only time. I actually cried, which felt both appropriate and insanely dorky at the same time. I'm from New England. I have a hard time with feelings.

About a year ago, I had this really strange week where I met one person who didn't know who she was. And then, being so appalled, I repeated this atrocity to another person, who also didn't know who she was. And it repeated, and repeated and repeated. This completely blew my mind and I had to call my mother just to be reassured that Carole King was in fact as famous as I thought she was, because I felt all of a sudden that I was living in an alternate universe. It really, really bothered me. I honestly don't know how anyone would go through their entire life without having heard of her- and I don't mean this in a pretentious, hipstery "Oh my god, you haven't heard of this totally obscure band? What a loser you are!" kind of way. I just genuinely don't know how that could happen. She's pretty famous. She wrote ALL OF THE SONGS for crying out loud! Pretty much! I don't understand the kind of life someone can lead where they've managed to never hear of freaking Carole King! It's just bizarre. If for some strange reason you are a giant freak of nature and are too are not familiar with her, I will take care of that right now.

She had her first #1 hit as a songwriter at the age of 18, with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" as recorded by the Shirelles (which was also the first major song for a Girl Group). Which is entirely mind blowing when you think about it, because what were you doing at age 18? What are you doing now? Whatever it is, it is not as awesome as writing this:

She also wrote Up on The Roof, Natural Woman, One Fine Day, Take Good Care of My Baby, and the theme song from the Monkee's movie "Head", which no one has actually seen.

So anyway, Carole worked at this place called The Brill Building with her songwriting partner and husband at the time, Gerry Goffin. It was basically like a songwriting factory, where all your Phil Spectory hits were made and processed like so many toaster ovens. Also headquarted there were Neil Sedaka (with whom she went to college), Laura Nyro, Paul Simon, Ellie Greenwich (whom we will get into another time), Burt Bacharach and a ton of other  famous songwriters. Prior to this, The Brill Building was home to the big band sound, so it's kind of an important place.

Ok, so now the interesting stuff, or at least, some of the things I feel are super interesting.

Neil Sedaka had some kind of a crush on Carole, and he wrote this song about her- which was also his first number one hit:

Carole, however, being the kind of lady I would like to hang out with, responded with this little ditty of her own. Answer songs were a big thing back in the day, and they also happen to be some of my favorite things ever (most particularly this one and the Ginger and The Snaps song "I'm No Runaround"), so perhaps I will explore that at another time. But for now, here is Carole's delightfully snarky response:

Don't you totally want to be her best friend now? I know I do!

One of King's most controversial (to this day!) songs is most definitely "He Hit Me, And It Felt Like a Kiss".  The first time I heard it, I was like, 8 years old and it was on the "Best of The Crystals" album that my aunt had gotten me for Christmas that year. It freaked me out so much that, after that first hearing, I'd skip over it every time. I couldn't listen to it because it made me feel sick to my stomach. It wasn't just me. When the song came out, it was definitely not a hit. Like me, people took it to be some kind of horrid and disturbing justification for domestic violence. Despite this, it's been covered now by pretty much everyone, including Grizzly Bear, The Motels, Amy Winehouse, and Hole, which is my favorite version:

SO. You're wondering! Carole King was a big feminist, right? Why the hell would she write a song that seemed to condone abuse! BUT HERE'S THE THING. It didn't.

Allow me to explain. The genesis for this song was an incident involving Little Eva, who had been discovered by King and Goffin when she babysat for their children. They wrote the song "The Locomotion" based on her unique dance moves, and asked her to record a demo of it. The song was originally intended for Dee Dee Sharp (of Mashed Potato fame), but they were so impressed with her version that they had her record it instead, and now we all have to awkwardly dance to it at every family function and Father-Daughter dance ever. Anyway, King and Goffin discovered that Little Eva was in a seriously abusive relationship with her boyfriend at the time, and when they confronted her about it, she said he did it because he loved her so much. Which, duh, was fucking disturbing as HELL. The song was *meant* to be a condemnation of domestic violence, was meant to explore what was going on inside the head of a victim. Which was actually rather brave for it's time. You get a sense of this when you hear how sparse and haunting the original version is, in comparison to most other Crystal's songs. Barbara Alston just sings it so earnestly, but the accompaniment provides the commentary, and it's just a very interesting dichotomy going on.

Of course, I can't talk about Carole King without telling you that you should really own a copy of Tapestry. It's probably one of my favorite albums ever, and if you asked nicely I'm sure your mom would at least lend you a copy. Tapestry and Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now are probably two of my most favorite "hysterical sobbing over a dude" albums. Don't judge me. I have feelings! Sometimes! Especially when it comes to this-

So, I wish a very happy 70th birthday to Carole King, without whom I would have been lost in times of dickishness. She is awesome, and you can talk about her at cocktail parties. With your mom.