A Vietnam Vet Fondly Remembers Carole King
The PBS documentary reminds him of the singer's importance to GIs
You can believe PBS and me when we say that Carole King is an "American Master" and that her 1971 album, Tapestry, is one of the greatest of all time. But if you still harbor any lingering doubt, tune in to PBS at 9 p.m. ET Friday, Feb. 19 (check local listings) and see for yourself. That’s when THIRTEEN's American Masters series will premiere its latest documentary, Carole King: Natural Woman.
Personally, I’m still recovering from King’s recent Kennedy Center honoree event when Aretha Franklin brought down the house — and lifted the Obamas and the rest of the audience out of their seats — with her rousing version of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (watch the video below). But I guess maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised by anything done by this four-time Grammy Award-winner, member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and first woman to be awarded The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Carole King is not only an American Master. She is a national treasure.
Too much gushing, you say? Then I suggest you double-check your boomer playlist and see just how much Carole King music populates it. Start in 1960 when King and her then-husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin, burst on the scene with Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? by The Shirelles — the first No. 1 hit record by an all-black female group.
The Goffin-King duo laid down the quintessential American teenage soundtrack and established a musical coda for our lives that will forever connect us as a generation. They wrote hits for Bobby Vee (Take Good Care of My Baby), Steve Lawrence (Go Away Little Girl), The Chiffons (One Fine Day), The Monkees (Pleasant Valley Sunday), Herman’s Hermits (I’m Into Something Good), The Animals (Don’t Bring Me Down), Freddie Scott (Hey Girl) and The Drifters (Up on the Roof).
Then there’s Tapestry, which receives plenty of well-deserved attention in the Carole King: Natural Woman documentary. First released on February 10, 1971, it went on to garner four Grammy awards including Album of the Year; Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female; Record of the Year (It's Too Late) and Song of the Year (You’ve Got a Friend). With the latter, Carole King, 45 years ago, became the first woman to win the Song of the Year award. It’s a special treat to watch as she and her close friend and fellow musician James Taylor discuss the making of King's landmark solo album with producer Lou Adler and recording engineer Hank Cicalo.
One thing they don't discuss — and that I doubt King herself knows — is just how much her album helped GIs like me to survive their years at war in Vietnam.
Music got a lot of us through our tours, as is evidenced in We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, the book I co-authored with Craig Werner. Those of us in the rear were fortunate to have access to music almost 24/7 and on nights when we weren’t pulling guard duty or watching a movie outdoors, several of us would head back to our offices to type letters home to our sweethearts, wives and loved ones while listening to music on our reel-to-reel tape decks.
This was normally a personal, not communal, activity, since the letters and the people to whom they were addressed would often dictate the music being played through the headphones — everything from The Doors and Hendrix to Rod Stewart and Cat Stevens. No self-respecting U. S. Army fighting man would admit to be listening to Carole King or Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins.
But we were.
Because their voices were pure and female and lyrical. Because their music spoke to us about who we were and where we'd been and where we were headed. Carole King’s Tapestry tapped right into our experience. The old hits like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? brought us back to growing up and being young and innocent and unsullied by Vietnam. But when you heard tunes like So Far Away and Home Again and Way Over Yonder, you would wake up to being in Vietnam, where you were so very far away from the people you loved most.
There were nights I secretly shed a tear or two listening to Tapestry , but I hid those tears from my macho brothers lest I’d be laughed out of the Army. How soft could a guy get?
Then one night when I thought I was privately listening to Tapestry through my headphones while writing a love letter to a Red Cross nurse I’d met while in Vietnam, I looked up to see the other guys in the office with me smiling and singing. And I realized You’ve Got a Friend was playing in the office, not just in my headphones. We all got up from our desks, put our arms around one another and sang that song together.
From then on, I wasn’t embarrassed about liking Carole King or listening to her. Tapestry spoke to us Vietnam soldiers. We needed all the friends — and good tunes — we could get. Carole King gave us that in abundance.