Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Tapestry (1971)

(Somewhat addled previous review here. Somewhat more sensible review of the main song here.)

I wrote this piece for a fanzine in the '90s. The topic was something on the order of "first record," which you will see I was at pains to twist to my own ends. For better or worse I still own the album in vinyl, as described, perhaps a bit more aged now (and my turntable still needs replacing too).

Carole King’s Tapestry was not the first record that I bought—hardly. In fact, I don’t think I actually came to own a copy of it until sometime in the ‘80s, and then only because of a wife who loved her old copy of it to distraction. To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember the circumstances of purchasing it or how this copy I now have actually came into my possession, or even whether it is the first or the second or possibly even the third time that I have acquired it. But I do have it now, it is sitting upright on my desk and I am looking at it as I type. It’s in excellent condition, which is what makes me wonder if I didn’t buy it sometime in the last five to 10 years, when the vinyl market was closing down and I bought so much in a frenzy. A scratch mars the upper part of the binding, evidence of a cat I once had, a dear animal prone to such irksome habits. But otherwise it is in practically flawless shape, still shiny and smooth and supple. The irony is that I can’t even play it as my turntable has needed replacing for several years now.

Even so, I submit Tapestry as a first record under the thinnest tissue of rationalization, namely that it is my first inescapable album, of which I count only three others: Rumours, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and Thriller. I’m sure other examples exist for other people in this admittedly vaporous category, depending entirely on one’s circumstances and orientation (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Born to Run, Murmur, and Nevermind might be possibilities). My own inescapable albums were all mega-sellers that also happened to be perfectly fine records, though it’s unlikely I would have considered them much if they hadn’t been played ALL THE TIME on the radio. What unites them most of all is that, practically against my will, they insinuated themselves deep into my life.

Carole King’s blockbuster was the first of them, and my first taste of that, of course, was "It’s Too Late," a #1 hit for five weeks in the late spring and summer of 1971, when I was 16 and just finishing tenth grade. I hasten to point out, for the sake of that callow boy, that my professed tastes of the time ran toward rock and jazz and some blues, toward the Doors and Miles Davis and Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa and Johnny Winter—heavy, difficult, relatively arcane music, and the fewer who appreciated it the better, since it only afforded me more opportunity to proselytize and affect superiority. Yet in spite of myself I continued listening to AM Top 40 radio far more than underground FM, which typically bored me, unless it was albums I already knew. And in spite of myself I was still continually entangled with the AM fodder of the day, with "It’s Too Late" and "A Horse With No Name" and "Alone Again (Naturally)" and "Me and Mrs. Jones" and "Crocodile Rock" and "Hello It’s Me."

For most of that summer of 1971 you just couldn’t turn on the radio and avoid hearing the strains of "It’s Too Late" for long. And it always caught me up. It made me genuinely sad, even tearful on some occasions. Its details were so right, opening with "Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time," its generalities so provocative ("Something inside has died and I can’t hide"), its overwhelming conclusion so utterly impossible to refute: "And it’s too late, baby, now it’s too late." I tried once to identify the wan break and solo in the middle of the song as some sort of jazz-respectable thing, but even as I blurted that out to my friend I could hear the bullshit larded through it. The truth is that I couldn’t help myself. I just loved it because it was so damn pretty and moving.

The song captures an essence of giving up, which I believe is why it struck so many deep chords with me and, obviously, others. This was the time, the early ‘70s, as head-of-the-class baby boomers approached 30 (the whole thing so laughable now), when it was all basically over, "it" being the ‘60s. The time had come to put up or shut up, you heard a lot of that kind of sentiment, and a surprising number of people were opting to shut up, to stop waving their freak flag, stop rioting in the streets, shrug inward and isolate, retreat to normative values (even hippies headed back to the land, to farm), return to college, get married, get a job, make a decision, stop fooling around, and grow up—and so what if the war was still going on. It’s not surprising that the other song of that time that reliably choked me up was Carly Simon’s "That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be," another song of capitulation and quiet, if beautiful, despair.

But in another way, its most obvious, "It’s Too Late" ran somewhat against convention. More than anything, it’s a song about giving up on a deeply felt connection, a person you have been living with, for no obvious or good reason other than "Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool." This was also a time, the early ‘70s, when separation was coming more and more to be preferred over battling through the difficulties of a relationship, a trend that would not slow for many years. There has since been some backlash to that, ringing statements that divorce is bad for children, and probably in turn there will be a backlash to that. The truth here will likely remain a painful puzzle for generations to come; the fact is that only in the 20th century have marriages for love (as opposed to marriages for social advantage and marriages arranged by parents) been typically accepted. Marrying for love is a theory that is beautiful on paper but has yet to be demonstrated conclusively workable in reality.

In that way, "It’s Too Late" provides one of the clearest and most straightforward statements of giving up that may exist in popular culture, a realm where, for example, Little Peggy March’s sentiments of a decade earlier are more common ("I LOVE HIM I LOVE HIM I LOVE HIM/And where he goes I’LL FOLLOW I’LL FOLLOW I’LL FOLLOW/I will follow him"). In her tear-jerker hit, King argues gently and persuasively in favor of simply leaving behind a relationship, that it’s really for the good of all, and she delivers it with a healthy and untortured sadness that makes it convincing. Separate, cry and feel your pain, and then move on, she seems to be saying—"get on with your life," as well-meaning friends urge friends in the throes of break-ups of any magnitude. Break-ups never make any sense anyway, when people try to explain them, but everyone knows the feelings, and the feelings are all over this song.

I should say that I was prompted to this essay by a discussion of Tapestry I read by Rob Sheffield somewhere. "The songs were everywhere but so was the album cover," he wrote. "It was the first album cover I ever spent lots of time staring at. Carole’s in her apartment, sitting barefoot and frizzy-haired on her windowsill, one foot propped up, wearing a fuzzy sweater and jeans and holding some cloth in her hands. It’s a sad rainy day, but lots of sun is streaming through the ‘70s curtains. Carole’s cat sits at her feet. They’re both daydreaming, staring out the window. They’ve glanced at the camera for a minute, still lost in thought, and when the photographer leaves they’ll go back to staring out the window, alone together. You have no idea what they’re musing about. When I look at this photo now, I see things I didn’t see before. Carole’s wearing a wedding ring."

I had been driven to my own stacks to dig out my copy and look for myself. The first thing I noticed about the cover, with an almost paralyzing sort of shock, examining it closely for perhaps the first time in my life, was how young King looks (later I looked up the numbers and did the math, and I figure she's 28 in that picture). At the time of the hit I had thought of her as an "older" woman, which she would be to a 16-year-old, imparting hard-won wisdom. Then I went back to the piece and picked up where I had left off and I found him talking about how much older she looked in that picture than he had thought.

Something about the discrepancy of our perceptions—is Carole King older or younger than you thought?—struck me as terribly poignant. It made me sad the way "It’s Too Late" itself once made me sad, and for some time now I have kept the album cover out to look at, though of course I can't play the record because my turntable doesn't work. Perhaps it’s as cheaply provocative a question as Greil Marcus’s familiar Elvis formulation—did Elvis go to heaven or to hell? But I think it’s worth considering: Is Carole King younger or older than you thought? Did you think she was some ancient hippie and were surprised to find the girl who wrote the Little Eva and Shirelles hits? Or did you think she was a waify Janis Ian / Lisa Loeb prototype and were surprised to find a woman?

And if you were surprised, does it mean you lost something?

It’s an imponderable, this feeble zen koan—yet for me, tonight, it somehow only deepens the mystery of the effect that Tapestry has had and still seems to have on me, in spite of myself. I don’t think I’ve ever singled it out as anything particularly special, yet I’ve always been glad to have it, and happy to hear the songs on oldies stations. Still, if I actually played the album I would probably soon lose interest because it’s all so overly familiar now. I have been hearing the music for more than 25 years. Perhaps that’s why the object itself seems to be weaving such a spell on me. I am fascinated by it, picking it up to look at it closely, feeling its textures, even smelling it. Actually, it smells just like most of my albums.

The other hits and the rest of the album always struck me as only faint and distant echoes of "It’s Too Late." But because "It’s Too Late" had such a powerful effect on me for so many years, even its pale imitations held some interest... "I Feel the Earth Move" (the flip of the single, a "two-sided" hit), "So Far Away," "Home Again," "You’ve Got a Friend," "Where You Lead," and the genius stroke of re-covering "Will You Love Me Tomorrow"—each contained an unmistakable piece of what made "It’s Too Late" burrow so deeply into me. The sound of the album is all of a piece, slightly abashed pop, light tinkly jazz-rock arrangements put to the service of a painfully sincere folk feel, buttressed by a perfect sense of melody and the knack for the phrase that works, and King’s voice itself, all homely and achy and plaintive. Sometimes I feel like I could listen to it in great gulps, for hours at a time.

But it wasn’t until I was involved with the woman who became my wife, and later my ex-wife (oh yes, we crapped out like that too, "It’s Too Late" indeed), that I finally had that kind of exposure to it. She loved Tapestry, and played it over and over, practically every day for months and years, so that now it carries the added baggage of tiny moments precious to me and doubtless banal to all others—the way she let herself sink into the opening strains of "I Feel the Earth Move," parading the living room or the kitchen in her jeans and barefoot, or the way she sought out and found the notes of "Home Again" as she sang with it, or the annoying (and gratifying) way she smirked and carried on over her favorite, "A Natural Woman." As often as I explained to her that, in this case, the songwriter had been unfortunately exceeded by the chanteuse, she never showed much interest in Aretha Franklin’s version, and in fact often set the needle down directly to this track, playing it over and over, unself-consciously, maybe lighting a joint or taking a drink of white wine and going back to her work on whatever project she had to hand, humming and yelping happily with it. Is that why I’m just as happy I can’t play it, you wonder? No way. I wish I could play it right now, and get a hit myself off that baggage (though chances remain good, I insist, that I would stifle a yawn and find myself looking at the newspaper before even a side had played out).

Tapestry finally also played a minor role in the first assignment I ever had as a rock journalist, which was to review a Fleetwood Mac concert in 1982. In my lead for that piece I made a small joke, talking about how Carole King and Fleetwood Mac bracketed the ‘70s with super-popular soft-rock classics, and likening them to the famous hamburger franchise competitors that their names resemble. My editor laughed at that, looking over it with me right there, and I think that’s when he decided that in spite of my repressed, somewhat taciturn manner, I might actually have a sense of humor and be worth giving a dependable schedule of assignments. So when I look into Carole King’s face on the cover of this album, and note the details of lighting and the unfocused cat perched on its pillow and the wedding ring and the curtains and everything that Rob Sheffield saw and pointed out, I see that too, I see all of it, everything: my career, my marriage, my deceased pet, the transition from the late ‘60s to the ‘70s, the wrecks and the glories of my life, my place in history and beside it and without it. I feel the sky tumbling down, tumbling down, tumbling down; I’ve got a friend, etc. And I’m glad my turntable is broken because I don’t think the music could possibly support all of this, and likely never did, but against all odds or expectations and perhaps only for tonight the album cover itself somehow seems able to.

1 comment:

  1. Well ... this is just beautiful, so much so that I doubt I'll ever hear the music again without thinking of your piece.