‘When this old world starts a getting me down’…I quite often search for music documentaries.
Last week I came across ‘ The Carole King Story: Natural Woman’ on the BBC iPlayer. We have grown up with Carole’s songs and her music has been the soundtrack for many of our lives. There’s a reason I’ve decided to write about one of Carole’s songs but before I get to that I’d like to tell you a little bit about Carole King.
Carole came from a musical family and she was confident in her abilities from an early age. Some of her earliest recordings where made with her friend Paul Simon. She decided she wanted to be a songwriter and headed to the home of pop song writers, the Brill Building in Manhattan. One talent scout said if she had as much talent as confidence the lady would take over the world.
Great songs need to have the perfect marriage of music and lyrics. Without the music lyrics would be poetry by another name. Without great lyrics songs could be just be banal and meaningless.
It’s said the music to the song ‘Yesterday’ came to Paul McCartney in a dream. As soon as he woke he rushed to the piano to make sure he didn’t forget it. So far so good. Now comes the tricky part, what is the song about?
For a week or 2 the song was known as ‘Scrambled Eggs’ with an opening verse..
‘Scrambled Eggs, Oh My Baby how I love your legs, not as much as I love scrambled eggs’.
Catchy yes but maybe not as deep and meaningful as the eventual lyrics to Yesterday.
What has really made Carole King’s songs last is their depth of meaning.
One of her first big hits was ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ This song written for ‘The Shirelles’ has lyrics that trip off the tongue easily. It rhymes beautifully in the perfect pop song setting… but it also tells the story of a woman who has given her lover everything and wonders will he still love her in the cold light of morning?
Then there’s ‘You Make me feel like a Natural Woman’. This song written especially for Aretha Franklin has music that lends itself perfectly to a soul setting, but the lyrics make it real.
When my soul was in the lost and found
You came along to claim it
I didn’t know just what was wrong with me
‘Til your kiss helped me name it
Only a woman could have written something so sensitive except…
I knew a lot of Carole King’s songs were credited as Goffin/King but before watching the documentary I didn’t know much about Gerry Goffin.
Carole met Gerry Goffin in college. He had worked in his Grandfather’s fur shop and spent a year in Naval Academy before resigning that commission and going to Queen’s College New York to study Chemistry. For her it was love at first sight ‘He looked like the boy she had carried around an imaginary picture of in her wallet all her life’. It’s hard to tell if they started writing songs together or started dating first but before long they were doing both and the hits started coming.
‘Natural Woman’ and ‘Will You Still Love Me’ are terrific female anthems but it was Gerry Goffin who wrote those words.
It’s said she wrote the music to ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ one day whilst looking after her daughter. At the time Gerry was out working as a chemist to support he family as they weren’t making a living from the song writing. She left the song on the piano and went out to play ‘Canasta’ with her mother’s friends. He wrote the words while she was gone, and it was only the next day the song came together.
Sometimes her music was brighter than his lyrics. ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’ is a jolly hit for Bobby Vee but the story is about a man who made a mistake, lost the love of his life and is singing to her new boyfriend to look after her. The singer is heartbroken, he’s made the biggest mistake of his life…and you can dance to it!”
It must have been an interesting writing partnership being married to your co-writer. Some songwriters work completely in isolation. Bernie Taupin sent Elton John a bunch of lyrics and Elton took them away and wrote the melody. I suppose because Carole and Gerry were married and living together there must have been a little more discussion about the story for each song, maybe over the dinner table or on the school run.
Which brings me to ‘Up on the roof.
Carole King wrote the music but also had an idea about a ‘secret place’ that you needed to go to sometimes. She and Gerry lived in the city and the best place to get away from it all was up on the roof. Her idea but his words…
‘When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space’
I was having a chat with a student lately about of respective use of mobile phones. She couldn’t quite believe that an old timer like me racked up so much screen time.
The thing is I’m involved in lots of projects. My phone gives me emails and DM’s and social media updates and ticket sales, all of which is very important for my business.
But it also brings me news updates, dire warnings form Ukraine or the cost of living crisis or mortgage rate increases. This week I had to listen to Goffin and King and digitally go ‘Up on The Roof’. For one whole day I put my phone face down and decided to go cold turkey.
For the first hour or so I felt twitchy, like a smoker in early abstinence wondering what to do with my hands. After a few hours I could feel my stress levels start to lower, I could feel my mind start to unwind.
The following morning I turned the phone to face me and was greeted with 50 emails and 100 social media updates. The world hadn’t stopped while I was away, but I think I felt better able to cope with the deluge of information.
Over the coming weeks and months we will all go through really hard times. Running away won’t make the problems go away but it might help to go ‘Up on the Roof’ for a little time every so often to regroup.
And one last thing, maybe we should make ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ our song to live by in the coming months, and after everything I’ve said, that’s a song Carole King wrote on her own.