A Natural Woman by Carole King – review

Wildly successful, modest – Carole King is a one-off

A sentence in chapter 30 of A Natural Woman tells you quite a bit about Carole King, whose songs have been familiar for 50 years to anyone who knows anything about pop. It refers to 1966, when she and her then husband and co-songwriter, Gerry Goffin, were living in suburban New Jersey and raising two daughters. Inspired by coolsters who advocated taking drugs to expand one's consciousness, Goffin was on a quest to ingest as much LSD as he could. King herself was an abstainer. "In reality such explorations were mostly unscientific, with no built-in controls," she writes primly.

This earnestness permeates the book, making it the kind of pop memoir you couldn't possibly mistake for, say, Keith Richards's Life. Though King's career has had its eyebrow-raising moments – to escape her affluent Los Angeles lifestyle, for instance, she once spent three years in an unheated cabin in Idaho – she is still, even at 70, a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn. And she writes that way, constructing sentences correctly, telling anecdotes with scrupulous attention to detail (avoiding drugs in the 60s had its benefits – she can actually remember the decade) and fretting maternally about family and friends.

It makes for a cosy, comforting book: this is someone, you fancy, who would remember your birthday and return your calls. It's little surprise that King originally wanted to be a teacher, although her gift for music presented itself so early – she claims to have written her first song when she was three – that there was never much chance she would end up in the classroom. Essentially, she has never been edgy, and doesn't mind it at all. Her "core characteristic", she says, is "just wanting everyone to be happy".

Accordingly, the most heartfelt chapters of A Natural Woman aren't those that focus on the pop-legend parts of her life, such as the years she and Goffin spent crammed into a cubicle at their music publishers' Broadway office, writing hit after hit, or her period of wafting around LA's Laurel Canyon in the early 70s, hanging around with fellow Canyon biggies such as Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.

Those sections of the book are fascinating, but what she pours her heart into are lengthy descriptions of home life with her husbands (there have been four) and four kids. Of living in rural Idaho, her home to this day, she rhapsodises: "We had no phone, no two-way radio … Visitors on cross-country skis brought our mail." Nice work if you can get it. There's a bit too much of this towards the end of the story, which is clogged by a dull account of her legal fight to stop the public accessing a road running through her ranch; this is where her earnestness becomes tedious rather than charming.

As a jobbing songwriter, King co-authored some of pop's most enduring songs, including "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", "Natural Woman" and "The Loco-Motion"; as a solo artist, she made the 25m-selling album Tapestry – still one of the biggest-selling LPs of all time. Aged 18 and working with the Shirelles on "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", she volunteered to compose the string section herself. She'd never written for strings before, but her elegant arrangement helped the song to get to No 1 in 1960, and it's still considered one of the great teen-romance records.

She was also instrumental in creating the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter sound that dominated the serious end of American pop in the early 70s. She looks back on all of this, though, as if it were something that just somehow happened to her. Though she writes in detail about the making of Tapestry, she barely mentions its subsequent success. It's an odd omission. Any record that spent a full six years in the Billboard chart is, at the least, a small cultural phenomenon. It must have been life-changing, yet she skims over what it felt like suddenly to be America's biggest-selling singer. There are three brief sentences about winning four Grammys in 1972 (she didn't attend the ceremony "because it was in New York and I wanted to stay in California with my family"), and a bit more about how she coped with fame: "I just wanted to do what I'd been doing as a wife and mother before the success of Tapestry. I made clothes for everyone in the family, tended our small garden and occasionally went out for sushi lunch in Little Tokyo …"

And that's about it. King would have made a terrible American Idol contestant, if the programme had existed then. Her driving force was simply to make music, and then only because it happened to come easily to her. Her run of 60s classics with Goffin yields the dry observation: "We continued to write enough hit songs to cover our mortgage."

There's some soul-searching about her relationships with men, which brings the revelation that her third husband, Rick Evers (who died of a cocaine overdose in 1978), physically abused her. It comes as a shock, because all of King's other men, even acid-guzzling Goffin, seem such decent sorts. Sisterly to the last, she includes information about how other abused women can get help, and sums up that chapter of her life with the words: "I thought about the peace that Rick had experienced so rarely in his life, and I hoped with all my heart that he had finally found it."

Her generosity, towards him and almost everyone else, lights up A Natural Woman. Even the platitudinous closing thoughts – "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" – ring sincere. This is a pop icon you'd (probably) like to have as a friend.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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