My favorite scene in Carole King’s long-awaited “A Natural Woman” comes near the beginning — appropriately, since the teen hitmaker was the epitome of an early starter. The high school student born Carol Klein had just signed a recording contract with ABC-Paramount. She was attending her first session as a guest when her host Don Costa, the conductor of the session’s orchestra, had to leave the room. King had never held a baton nor read a score before, but she stepped to the podium and, at age 15, proceeded to lead the room of professional musicians.
Multiple Grammy winner, Diamond recording artist and member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Carole King has earned that overused label: a living legend. Such classics as “Up on the Roof,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “I Feel the Earth Move” and “You’ve Got a Friend” epitomize the concept of the well-written pop song. And they are mere samples from a catalog whose earnings could probably rescue Greece from debt.
But “A Natural Woman” is not about fame; it’s about a woman’s search for normality. King’s career — and this good-sized memoir — spans from her doo-wop songwriting beginnings in the 1950s, to her record-busting singer-songwriter days in the ‘70s, her back-to-the-woods retreat and activism, and her stage and screen career in the ‘90s and on. This book also serves as a travelogue: a Jewish American’s practical Queens childhood, the industrious songwriting factories of Brill Building-era Manhattan, lovely lilting Laurel Canyon, a tough but beautiful survivalist cabin in Idaho and even a humble family dinner in war-torn Belfast. King does not tell the usual celebrity story of hardship, riches, overindulgence, downfall and rehab. “A Natural Woman” is a far more original — and sometimes, determinedly unglamorous — tale.
King was a good student and piano-playing prodigy when, like so many teenagers in the 1950s, she discovered rock ‘n’ roll. The music did not lead her to ruin; quite the opposite — from her first meeting with DJ Alan Freed (arranged by her firefighter father) at 15, King pursued a career as a musician and composer. Her ABC deal yielded no hits, but her songwriting collaboration with a fellow Queens College student, Gerry Goffin, became a solid gold mine. It also turned into a love affair; they married when King was 17, and she had their first baby at barely 18.
Thus a still-adolescent King began to negotiate that difficult, delicate mix of work and family. She did so without the benefits of ‘60s’ feminist consciousness, with a husband who gradually became afflicted with mental illness. Clearly, the future composer of “It’s Too Late” had plenty of inspirational material with which to write the emotive, confessional songs to which millions could relate — “My baby’s in one hand, I’ve a pen in the other,” she wrote in “Goodbye Don’t Mean I’m Gone.” But how did she find the time?
King is mostly tactfully taciturn about the father of two of her children. For more, grimmer details of Goffin’s bad behavior (and a broader feminist, historical reading of King’s life), see Sheila Weller’s 2008 book “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation.” King does not hesitate to reveal her physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her third husband, Rick Evers, a psychotic wannabe who helped King flee L.A. for Idaho — then secluded and terrorized her. Just as she finally worked up the nerve to escape him, Evers died of a cocaine overdose.
Self-determined and financially independent from a young age, King admits she never imagined she could be a victim of abuse. She intends her harrowing confession not to rouse pity but to empower others who may find themselves in such perilous straits.
King does passively, sometimes irritatingly demur throughout “A Natural Woman.” James Taylor tricks his reluctant “sideman” (King’s insistent term) into finally taking the stage herself. Every breakup (she married four times) leaves her bereft. With her practical dress, morning goat-milking chores and Idaho ranch, King’s the ultimate pioneer woman — right down to her tendency to stand by her man. I wanted to see more of that bold band leader who grabbed the baton at 15.
The book borrows its title from the soul hit that Goffin and King wrote for Aretha Franklin, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Anti-essentialists and other feminist theorists have been arguing for years about just what it means to be a natural woman — isn’t “natural” a pose itself? At least since Madonna’s conical brassiere, female artists have found donning armor and war paint to be useful ways to wrest control of their image and art (just ask Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj). Then again last year, one remarkable young woman with a songwriting gift and an old-soul voice swung the pendulum back toward unprocessed talent. Fans of Adele would do well to study the precocious conductor from Queens who broke pop ground.
After all the professional, romantic, geographic and family moves, King finally has her epiphany at book’s end, while on stage. “I kept pushing music away because I thought it was keeping me from having a normal life.
“At this moment I understand that for me, music is normal life.”