There are some perks to being my son’s mother. For his birthday he was given tickets to see Carole King and James Taylor’s traveling reunion concert, and he took me with him. (Could he do less for the woman who filled his head with music beginning Day One of his life? Sooner even.) Anyhow, last night we went to the Oracle Arena in Oakland for the love fest.
A love fest on stage, that is; maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t feel as emotionally moved as I’d expected. Still, I’m not complaining: three hours of live music by two of the best songwriter/musicians of our time wasn’t too shabby, and now that I look back, there wasn’t a single hitch in the program, not one awkward or flubbed or even mildy dissatisfying moment.
These two are polished performers with so much material between them, their first try at a playlist clocked in at six hours: Taylor said letting go of half the songs was gut-wrenching. Carole’s written 118 songs, and Taylor too has a huge body of work. He’s covered some of King’s songs over the years, and they did duets on those, the most heart-rending of which was, unsurprisingly, You’ve Got a Friend. JT heard that song even before Carole recorded it, and she allowed him to cover it before she released her version.
It’s probably that kind of generosity that kept many of King’s songs in obscurity – well, not exactly in obscurity, but not attributed to her, either. Not everyone realizes it was King, with her then-husband Gerry Goffin, who wrote so many classic rock n’ roll songs recorded by The Shirelles, Little Eva, and other groups long forgotten.
Her generosity hasn’t hurt her any, though; she’s had a good run and is still going strong. She’ll be 70 years old in February. I gasp inwardly every time I think this. I picture my mother and other relatives at 70, and it’s like they’re of a different species. I confess I spent half the night studying her face on the Jumbotron, wondering if she’s had any “work” done, and marvelling at her energy. A lot of Carole’s songs are real rockers, especially as compared to JT, whose voice I’ve always called “verbal valium” (not an insult). On numbers like Smackwater Jack and Beautiful she rocked out, relinquishing the piano keys to get up and dance, and when she sizzled through Natural Woman you could feel the heat 20 rows back.
King’s voice has always been somewhat raspy, and she frequently has to push the songs out to the point of screaming; sometimes she doesn’t even make it to the end of a phrase. But she’s entirely nonplussed by this — and so is her audience. Speaking of which: I haven’t been in such close proximity with so many members of my generation since I went to see Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park (you know how long ago that was!). When I wasn’t assessing Carole King’s aging process, I was doing it to my peers.
The difference between the way the genders age is huge. I don’t know why everyone says men age more graceully: the men were gray and balding, while their better halves really looked it. I could sort of tell which gals were second wives, and left them out of the equation; even in what seemed to be long-time intact partnerships, the women looked much younger. Hair coloring helps, but I saw a healthy number of gray heads on women – and they still looked younger than the men sitting next to them. As for the two on stage, Carole looks 40, while the skin on JT’s neck has obviously been there a good deal longer than that.
Okay, Marcy enough already! I apologize for my superficial obsessions. I’ll get back to what really matters.
Besides having great material and delivering it in style, the chemistry between King and Taylor is what makes for a love fest. In the book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and the Journey of a Generation, author Sheila Weller notes, “The tortured boy was the only one worth having.” She was referring of course to JT. Joni and Carly, in that order, were his lovers; he and Carly married. Weller doesn’t say
outright if he did or did not sleep with Carole, but in a recent inteview, JT said they’ve never had a love affair, that their relationship is that of old and caring friends, and that’s what comes through on stage.
Another thing that comes through onstage is James Taylor’s loving nature; he comes across as possibly the sweetest man alive. Sheila Weller wrote that he was cold and emotionally withholding – even, on occasion, cruel. Well, a tortured boy would be cruel, wouldn’t he? He’d be too vulnerable otherwise. I choose to believe that when the boy outgrew being tortured, he stopped hiding and protecting his sweetness.
The evening ended on sweet, with a couple of slow ballads, the two of them sitting close, her head on his shoulder part of the time. Not a hint of romance in their body language, but rather the kind of closeness some of us have been fortunate to share with members of another gender. That kind of closeness can’t be faked.
Cross-gender friendships are, in their own way, a little bit romantic. What they are not, usually, is tempestuous in the way of heterosexual love relationships. That’s probably why Taylor and King work and play so well together, and give so much to their audiences night after night after night. Thanks guys. Kiss kiss.