The Strange Life of Carole King

I’ve been reading Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–And the Journey of a Generation. After 50 pages I threw it aside, too irritated by its writing style to keep going — it’s annoyingly effusive, arch, and just plain badly written in many ways. But the gossipy details drew me back, and it actually seemed to get better as it went — it’s at its worst when it’s trying to offer big-picture analysis of the era, better in the smaller-scale stories about the artists. I ended up skimming through a lot of it, skipping most of the Carly Simon stuff — I can’t muster too much interest in her. (By the way, she is the object of one of Robert Christgau’s meanest reviews, which I quote in its entirety:

No Secrets [Elektra, 1972]
If a horse could sing in a monotone, the horse would sound like Carly Simon, only a horse wouldn’t rhyme “yacht,” “apricot,” and “gavotte.” Is that some kind of joke? Why did Mick Jagger want her? Why does James Taylor want her? Come to think of it, why does she want either of them? B-)

Anyway, I focused on the Joni Mitchell and Carole King stuff. Mitchell comes off as a fascinating/infuriating narcissist, but I think she is a truly great artist, at least in the 1970-1974 or so period. You could definitely make the case that it’s pure sexism that her peers like Dylan, Clapton et al are still revered rock stars, whereas she has faded from view; although it’s an inconvenient fact that she stopped making great music decades ago (although that didn’t hurt Clapton, so never mind). Weirdest detail about Mitchell: in 1977 she invented the alter ego/ disguise of “a trim black man, his face half-hidden by big shades and a wide, thick moustache… nattily attired in dark creased pants, white vest, and white jacket… His fluffy Afro topped by a slick chapeau.” This guy was named “Art Nouveau” and represented the “inner black person” of this folksinger of Scandinavian descent from Saskatchewan.

The Carole King story is totally fascinating and reads like some kind of Forrest Gump-like allegory of modern American womanhood. She was born Carole Klein, a Jewish girl with a big nose, in 1942 in Brooklyn. Attends Queens College; meets and marries Garry Goffin, with whom she writes some of the most famous songs of the early and mid-1960s, notably “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, “One Fine Day,” and “Up on the Roof.” Her second solo album, Tapestry, sells a bajillion records (22 million worldwide, eventually) and is until Thriller the biggest-selling album of any genre of all time. She’s now married to a nice classical musician with whom she has several kids and tries to live a normal life.

Then everything goes haywire. She gets divorced and marries Rick Evers, a handsome and charismatic hanger-on who had some kind of association with the Eagles (just to clarify that we’re in the seedy, corrupt 1970s now). He is a not-especially-talented, violent megalomaniac who has served time in prison and insists on being pictured on Carole’s album covers, as well as co-writing songs with her. Shortly after he begins to beat her, he dies of an apparent O.D. Then, get this, she falls in with an arguably even sketchier Idaho character, also named Rick: her friends all call him Rick Two. To his buddies he is “Teepee Rick” (bad sign, Carole! Don’t get involved with any dude whose nickname involves animal pelts.) This world-famous musician moves to Rick’s teepee (well, cabin) in Idaho and spends over a decade in a survivalist mode (no running water, eating what they raise or shoot), a lifestyle which eventually disintegrates into drawn-out battles with the state and hostile neighbors over land rights. Finally in the early 1990s marriage #4 breaks up, and Carole comes into her own as a Democratic/environmental activist. And along the way she recorded one of the great children’s records, Really Rosie.

You really have to see the photos to fully appreciate it all.

She should get her biopic, although Wikipedia tells me that the 1996 Grace of My Heart is loosely based on her life — hmm, stars Illeana Douglas, I am adding that to the Netflix Queue…

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