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Carole King’s Central Park concert film is a powerful snapshot of its era

A still from 'Carole King: Home Again - Live in Central Park'
A still from 'Carole King: Home Again - Live in Central Park'Provided, courtesy Sound Unseen

by Michaelangelo Matos

March 08, 2023

Carole King: Home Again - Live in Central Parkshowing tonight at the Trylon, presented by Sound Unseen — was filmed in 1973 and directed by George Scott. But its auteur, as with so much else he was attached to, is co-producer Lou Adler. At the time Adler was King’s manager, producer, and the head of her label, Ode Records. Adler is also one of three people who provide the film’s voiceover narration, along with King and the event’s stage manager, Chip Monck. It’s a lively performance — King attracted an estimated 100,000 people to Central Park in New York City — though not always a lively film.

For all its considerable charm, it is understandable why Home Again stayed shelved for decades. It was originally shot for TV, and there are moments when footage seems to be missing, such as when King introduces the band members and, instead of close-ups of the players, we mostly get crowd shots. And it’s likely that for a studio perfectionist like Adler, King’s occasionally sharp vocals would have necessitated post-production sweetening. But 50 years on, it’s an intriguing snapshot of its era, and of King, who was still figuring out who she was as a musician — specifically, someone determined not to be trapped by her biggest success. Released in 1971, Tapestry was King’s second solo album, and one of rock’s first big blockbuster sellers — five million before its year was out, 10 million soon enough.

There’s a reason that Adler, in voiceover, emphasizes Tapestry rather than King’s 1973 album, Fantasy, a jazzy, horn-powered concept album about the power of imagination, which is the show’s centerpiece. Her post-Tapestry albums have their moments, but none has that album’s earthbound pizzazz. It’s easy to get the impression — not least from King’s own testimony — that Tapestry’s world-beating numbers spooked her some: She could no longer consider herself merely a songwriter who also made recordings. No matter how laid back her life may have been, King had made the best-selling rock album up to that point. That would weigh on anybody.

Today, a fan might reasonably guess that King had waited two years to follow Tapestry with Fantasy. In fact, two albums came between them. The first, Music, was released in November 1971, a mere nine months after Tapestry, and Rhymes & Reasons arrived in 1972. Some of this is alluded to in the film: “I couldn’t take it all in,” King says in voiceover. “I continued to think of myself as just a songwriter.” Adler, also in voiceover: “What she enjoyed was the process of writing the songs . . . I could have kept her in the studio forever.” What isn’t mentioned is just what a fluke Tapestry’s success was — Writer, King’s first solo album, from 1970, had sold a whopping 6,000 (repeat: thousand) copies.

The modern pop blockbuster playbook had yet to be written by the time of Tapestry or its equally best-selling brethren, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, from 1970 — the first two rock albums certified at 10 million sales by the RIAA. As the number of 10 million sellers multiplied — as Hollywood and MTV opened the pop-buying audience to ever larger numbers — global touring would create even longer gaps between blockbuster albums. By contrast, only one artist in the decades since Tapestry has followed up a 10 million seller less than a year later: Prince, who put Around the World in a Day out in April of 1985, following Purple Rain in June of 1984. The difference is that Prince was being perverse, bucking against the encroaching years-long cycle enveloping his chart-topping peers. For King, doing so was simply business as usual: Two albums a year was still an industry standard in 1971.

Part of doing business as usual is that King was determined to continue living the sort of quiet, private life she’d had prior to Tapestry’s success. Along with her first husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin (King was a melodist and didn’t start writing her own words until Tapestry), King’s ’60s songbook is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest. The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof” and “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take,” Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day,” and King’s collaboration with Howie Greenfield, “Crying in the Rain,” a hit for the Everly Brothers that Adler produced, merely scratches the surface. She was successful, but kept her anonymity. “I loved making demos,” King says in voiceover early in the film. “I loved being the vehicle to present the song.”

Adler and King had become friends in the early ’60s, when Adler was the West Coast rep for Aldon Music, Goffin-King’s publishers. Like many bizzers who heard them, Adler fell hard for the song demos King recorded: “Lenny Waronker brought Randy Newman to meet me and I gave Randy a stack of Carole King demos. I thought that was the best education that anybody that wanted to be a songwriter could have,” Adler said in 2008. “Once a producer got a hold of her record, she pretty much laid out the arrangement. Both instrumentally and the vocal parts that would end up on the record.” When King left Goffin and moved from Brooklyn to L.A., Adler became her benefactor. His mission with Tapestry was to make something closer in sound to King’s Aldon demos than either the more expansive Writer or the 1968 album she made as a member of a band called The City. “The pre-production consisted of coming up to my office on the A&M Records lot,” Adler later said.

King seldom did interviews, and Adler often acted as her liaison, as with the 1972 Grammy Awards. Tapestry swept them, but King, who was pregnant, stayed home in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon and Adler went in her stead. “When Carole had a show at the Hollywood Bowl,” Denny Doherty of the Mamas and the Papas told Barney Hoskyns in his history of L.A. rock, Hotel California, “she would feed the cats, water the lawn, put on her gear, get in her car, drive to the Bowl, do the concert, and come back to the canyon. Living in the canyon was like closing the drawbridge behind you. You’d just go back up there and no one could find you.”

A lot has been made of King’s reluctance as a live performer, both by Adler (“Carole was still shy and learning to be, not learning from a talent standpoint but learning to be a solo artist,” he said in 2008) and by King herself. Central Park intimidated her: “When I first walked onto the stage, it was kind of terrifying for me,” she says in voiceover. There’s no reason to doubt their veracity, but you wouldn’t guess it from the documentary — or, for that matter, a decade later, from King’s appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in August of 1982. Both performances channel her nervousness into exuberance. (Also in both, her outfits define ’70s-style funky chic: wide-lapelled plaid jacket and bell-bottom jeans at Central Park, diaphanous blue blouse and matching headband for Letterman, hair proudly long and frizzy in both.)

The Central Park show itself is bifurcated — King alone on piano for the Tapestry-heavy opening half (as well as a solo closer, “You’ve Got a Friend”), followed by a full-band rendering of the Fantasy material. It’s a crack unit — the players were superb, including drummer Harvey Mason, Bobbye Hall on percussion, bassist Charles Larkey (a Tapestry alum who was also King’s second husband), and a tart horn section. “Wave your horns so they can see you guys,” she admonishes the latter as she introduces them — she may have gone to L.A. years earlier, but it’s fun to hear her no-nonsense Brooklynese coming out in her hometown.

Fantasy was a bold move, though 50 years on, it sounds more like a snapshot of pop currents in 1973. It was a period when large bands with horn sections were commonplace — think Van Morrison or early Springsteen — than a thoroughly convincing statement unto itself. The title song, for example, celebrates the power of imagination. “In fantasy, I can be / Black or white / A woman or a man” — not untrue, and she’d written plenty of R&B hits for men, but also rather pat.

That’s also true of the other songs, which are often sung in character — such as “Haywood,” a plea to a junkie friend that seems almost entirely secondhand. Rolling Stone, in its review of the album, called “Corazón” “an unintentional travesty of Latin music.” The song isn’t that bad, but it isn’t that good, either. Seeing and hearing King belt out the Fantasy material with a powerful group behind her gives Home Again a unique charge — but those aren’t the songs you’ll be humming coming out of the Trylon. Any guesses which album those ones come from?

Carole King: Home Again - Live in Central Park. 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 8. Trylon Cinema, Minneapolis. Tickets

A collage of people enjoying music and beverages
89 Days of Spring 2023 artwork
Emma Eubanks for MPR

This feature is part of The Current’s 89 Days series, helping you enjoy the best of the season with weekly guides to events, entertainment, and recreation in the Twin Cities.