Concise readable overview of a classic ’70s album.
The Bloomsbury 331/3 series has produced another in its 150 plus catalogue of volumes about specific albums. The next in line is Carole King’s, ‘Tapestry’, described as,
‘An anthemic embodiment of second-wave feminism and an apotheosis of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter sound and scene … an expression of the freedom and independence women of King’s generation sought as the turbulent sixties came to a close’.
Author Loren Glass is a professor of English at the University of Iowa specialising in the link between 20th-century culture and literature. What Glass brings to the book is not an overtly academic slant but more a coherent and engaging narrative with deeper analysis where needed; an approach that makes his book very readable. Possessing no great knowledge of King, I felt there were fewer revelations than I might have expected but then maybe I have absorbed more about her over the years than I have realised?
In my mind, ‘Tapestry’, is an album that, currently, gets rather passed over in favour of similar artists who presently gain more attention for their efforts – Joni Mitchell would be a prime example, incapacitated as she has become in recent years. In its time, ‘Tapestry’, seemed to have the status of, ‘every home should have one’, as indeed every home seemed to? It was something of a phenomenon – selling, out of almost nowhere, millions of copies. As Wikipedia would say in its entry about the album,
‘Tapestry ….. released in February 1971 on Ode Records and produced by Lou Adler. … is the 81st best-selling album of all time, with over 14 million sales certified worldwide, reaching Diamond status in 1995’.
There does actually seem a bit of Wiki-confusion, given that in their entry specifically about King the artist rather than, ‘Tapestry‘, the album, it is reported to be 25 million copies. Let’s just settle for – a lot.
I didn’t know there was such a thing as, ‘Diamond’, status but for an album that cost a reputed $26,000 to make it was a commercial success of inordinate proportions. In 2020, ‘Tapestry’, was ranked number 25 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Lou Adler, a great early supporter of King, presciently referred to the album as, ‘The Love Story of LP’s’,- hopefully referring less to relative artistic merits but more about impact and longevity.
The album pretty much swept all available categories at the 14th Grammys and had there been an award for best-named cat on an LP cover then the wonderfully named Telemachus would surely have been in with more than a shout.
The book divides into four chapters, the first of which considers King’s status as the, ‘Mother of Us All’, dealing with her early life. It also introduces us to the childhood of Loren Glass which is relevant, interesting, and thankfully not overwritten as so many can be as they inflate relatively mundane events into hyperbole. Born Carole Klein of a New York Jewish family, King seems to have been something of a prodigy. There was early success with Gerry Goffin as the musical input to his lyric writing in the Brill Building set up. Klein had changed her name to King for reasons that may seem obvious but get no further explanation. She married Goffin at the age of 17, in 1959, and had two children by the time she was 20. Glass describes the Brill building as a sweatshop, unfriendly to its female employees, and based on, ‘frivolous commercialism’, (an excellent phrase) that was dying by 1969. The model was replaced by artists like Dylan and the Beatles who wrote and performed their own songs.
Goffin’s infidelity, drug use, and mental health problems became unbearable and the couple split and eventually divorced in 1968 – though it seems that King supported and occasionally worked with him throughout the rest of Goffin’s life. She moved with her two children to California where one of her earliest supports was James Taylor – both names have become synonymous with, ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, King who wrote it, Taylor who made it into a hit. It’s noteworthy that this seems to be one male / female partnership that did not go further, which perhaps accounts for its longevity. It’s hard to understand why they weren’t drummed out of Laurel Canyon!
In this new setting, King established a musical and personal relationship with bassist Charlie Larkey and the couple eventually produced two further children. This was the second of four marriages and the book comments on this fact as evidence of a strong-minded monogamous woman who generally knew what she wanted on the relationship front. I say generally, given that her choices do not always seem to have worked out.
‘Tapestry’, was a monster success and other albums followed which were successful in themselves, selling in millions, but paling next to the master-work. Name five Carole King albums might be a good parlour game?
The second chapter, ‘Trilogy’, places, ‘Tapestry’, as third in line after the first album, ‘Now That Everything’s Been Said’, created by, The City, a band of sorts featuring Larkey and Danny Kortchmar. This seems to have suffered from a lack of focus and quality material. Second, solo album, ‘Writer’, was overwhelmed by synthesizers and organ and neither album featured any King lyrics. These, Glass believes, were only forthcoming following her involvement in a tour with James Taylor to promote his, ‘Sweet Baby James’, album. Glass also highlights the important contribution of Toni Stern as a lyricist. ‘Tapestry’, put King’s voice and piano to the foreground, and that for Glass is one of the keys to its success – which he analyses in detail with his concluding thought that it both embodied and transcended its time.
The third chapter considers the time of, ‘Celebrity’, and the rather unusual spectacle of an urban Jewish girl who wrote uptown R&B for black vocalists before becoming an LA songstress with a strong persona if somewhat fragile and limited voice. Glass highlights that despite her failed marriages, King was not the subject of celebrity gossip and was always seen as a woman – and not a ‘girl’ as so many female artists were.
He moves briefly through subsequent albums, ‘Music’, ‘Rhymes and Reasons’, and then, ’Fantasy’, the first to receive negative reviews. During this time King was emerging as a left-wing Democrat and offered support to the ill-fated George McGovern campaign. ‘Fantasy‘, was a departure inasmuch as it featured something of an all-star band (Glass compares it to that of Sly Stone) including guitarist David T Walker who did great things with Stevie Wonder. It is suggested that this is an underrated offering.
King produced, ‘Really Rosie’, a multi-media return to form, ‘Wrap Around Joy’, and finally, ‘Thoroughbred’ before everything changed with the divorce from Larkey and a move to Idaho with a new, abusive, partner (who died of a drug overdose in 1978). The move seems to have been a repudiation of life in the Californian fast lane.
The fourth and final chapter, ‘Legacy’, finds King as of late 2018, still in Idaho – having recently reached her 80th year. She still performed and made music there but as the author concedes all subsequent activity was forever in the shadow of that album – clearly her artistic peak. As artists have adapted to the changes in the way music is consumed King also saw that live performance was the way forward (having been noticeably reticent in her early years) and her 2010 world tour generated $58 million. There was also in 2008 the two-CD legacy edition of Tapestry. It doesn’t seem that penury beckons?
It is obvious that the author has an affectionate, strong connection with King’s life and music and it has been a soundtrack to his own in a number of ways. King’s emergence as a strong feminist artist seemed to shadow the break up of his parents’ own marriage and his mother’s realisation that her sexual identity was that of a gay woman. Whilst his young life was a lively affair it does seem to have been positive. Relationships, good and bad, feature strongly in the lives and art of many of the protagonists here – both King and Goffin grew up in fractured households. Whilst Goffin seemed to fare badly in later life, it was always noted that King was a devoted mother and serial monogamist despite her marriages and subsequent divorces.
This book is, in the best sense, an easy and enjoyable read, and the way it places, ‘Tapestry’, in relation to her other work is a bonus. There is no evidence of direct contact with King and some readers may feel that is a loss. I’m not so sure, and it often surprises me how uninteresting artist’s comments can be in relation to their own work. Whatever your view, you won’t find King’s voice on these pages.
Glass captures the political and social background of King’s life and art and concludes that her Californian glory years were relatively brief – from 1968 to 1975. This is a relatively short book, with 86 pages of text rounded out to 112 by way of references, acknowledgements, and bibliography. That said, if it can be stated briefly then there is no need for padding and there is a lot of information within those pages. Clearly, a must-have for fans but also for the interested reader as the book examines the times and the context of a seminal album. I feel the mark of this series is whether or not you can enjoy the book without necessarily liking the music it covers, and this is in that category.
One last thought from Glass. He believes we grow out of the Beatles as we grow older and conversely grow into the music of King. Read and discuss I say!
‘Tapestry’, by Loren Glass was released by Bloomsbury publishing in March 2021