Persephone Unbound: Tapestry turns 50
And with each note, I recall my teenage initiation into astrology, fashion, and pop music's most dynamic sibyls.
IN 1971 MY DAD ESCAPED from the suburbs and moved his family up into the Puente Hills of Southern California. The area we settled into was called Turnbull Canyon.
Our closest neighbors lived a good distance down from us. Their house was perched on the side of a gulch, shrouded by eucalyptus trees. Come the spring, the neighbor’s two teenage daughters started to blast—more like broadcast—Carole King’s Tapestry throughout the canyon. This transmission occurred each weekend morning, without fail.
In the evening, around the cocktail hour, the album would resume. Although at that point I think the girls had left the house with their wannabe surfer boyfriends. Most likely it was the mom replaying the record. Come Christmas the parents divorced and the daughters moved away with their mom. I imagine Tapestry helped spur the mom’s decision.
Way over yonder
I recall scores of details about that spring, primarily because it coincided with my discovery of astrology. A dangerous pastime as my dad had plans for me to become a doctor. Still, through spring and into the summer I’d play Tapestry while sending out query letters (typewritten on my old Underwood) trying to find someone who would teach me the basics. This is how I met my first astrology teacher.
Trapped in the canyon (my dad was a functioning agoraphobe) and in search of a California glow (to counter my albino-like complexion), I’d listen to Tapestry while blasting my face with the light from a sun lamp. A device so old it would release a sharp metallic smell as the air in my room crackled into ozone. The following day I’d head to school—bright pink—with outlines around my eyes from the opaque safety goggles. Tans were everything back then.
Tapestry was also the soundtrack to my dad freaking out when I returned home one day dressed in a saffron, hip-length Nehru jacket. I was also wearing black and red ‘love beads.’ Gifts from my mom during one of my weekend visits to her home in San Clemente. My mom always catered to my fashion infatuations. And she’d purchased the new outfit for me without hesitation—or consideration of my Aries father’s hyper-fixation on masculinity.
Once home my dad immediately locked away the coat and beads. He explained that the jacket was inappropriate for school and that the seed pods that comprised the necklace “might be poisonous.” I played along with his reasoning, knowing that he considered the jewelry and coat as yet another feminizing element to his already ultra-feminized son.
I’d started to avidly collect pop music 45s when I was around 10 and had a large collection by the time I was 14. I gravitated more to Black artists: Sly and the Family Stone, the Temptations, Ike and Tina Turner—Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder—anything from Motown made its way into my collection. I had an extraordinarily otherworldly obsession with Diana Ross. And when Ross left The Supremes to go solo during my freshman year of high school—troubled and saddened—my grades plummeted.
45s were easy to collect with my allowance because of their price point, but albums were risky. And I can’t recall what was in my long-player library at the start of the 70s, but Tapestry was probably one of my first assured purchases. And now, fifty years on, I see how King was a gateway for me into a new realm of female musicians. Women who offered close psychological reads, not into just romantic love, but into the urge for autonomy and freedom.
Although Joni Mitchell’s Blue was released just a few months after Tapestry, I’d no interest. Given my preference for vocals by earthier Soul and R&B artists, Mitchell’s high-flown mezzo-soprano came off precious and grating. I still can’t listen to any of her records prior to Blue—and Mitchell herself, decades later, confessed to mimicking female vocalists of the Joan Baez ilk, assuming this was required of a folk artist in the 60s.
It wasn’t until after I graduated high school that a fellow astrology student turned me on to Court and Spark. Mitchell’s voice had uncoiled into a more straightforward delivery on the record, and I became enamored. As I matured, I worked my way backward—starting with For the Roses and then, finally, into a new appreciation for Blue. Although, even today I prefer the cuts from Blue as Mitchell performed them on Miles of Aisles, her 1974 live album. By then tobacco had settled her voice into a perfect pitch.
Tapestry also made way for my entry into the world of Laura Nyro (although ‘dimension’ is a better description). As a teen, I’d only encountered Nyro indirectly—from songs already in my collection, songs she’d written for herself that were made into hits by The Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
Nyro as prodigy was here all at once—and then gone. Her preternaturally reflective song “And When I Die,” was composed when she was 17. (Nyro died in her late 40s). In 1971 Nyro announced her retirement—at 24. This was right after releasing her late 71 album Gonna Take a Miracle, a set of cover tunes that honored her love of girl groups, doo-wop, and Motown. Miracle was a recalibration after her abstract and arabesque album Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. (Hello! The title—and that’s only the tip of the Nyro iceberg.) Christmas was released several months before Tapestry.
To describe Christmas and the Beads of Sweat as surreal is a copout. A possible adjective could be chthonic, as a lot of the tracks assume cracked earth impressions. Songs like “Black Patch,” “Brown Earth,” “Map to the Treasure,” and “Been on a Train” (where the lyrical ‘tracks’ and ‘tunnels’ refer to a junky’s arm wounds). All accompanied by the Swampers, the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section. Nyro countered those titles with songs like “When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag,” “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp,” and—heralding Tapestry—a sublime cover of Carole King’s “Up on the Roof.”
I replayed Christmas again last night and was reacquainted with its demands. Bright and overcast—lace wrapped around a chunk of iron ore. Nyro’s vocals toggle between angelic and banshee. The album, considering pop music’s hundreds of genres, defies categorization. And like Tapestry and Blue, the album is a true blue LP—vinyl progeny—an integral connection of songs that must be listened to in sequence. The open of A—to the close of B.
The return of the repressed
All three of the aforementioned albums were forged during the peak moments of the late 60s’ Uranus Pluto conjunction in Virgo. Traditional commentaries on that conjunction focus on the disruptive (Uranus) and extreme (Pluto) sociopolitical ruptures of the times—events in keeping with the decade-defining counter-culture movement. Emphatic male-driven records emerged from those fractures—Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On, Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece What’s Going On.
But being positioned in Virgo, the Uranus Pluto conjunction’s feminized fallout usually passes undocumented. Virgo, the virgin goddess, encapsulates the full spectrum of the feminine—from goddess to whore. And with Mercury as the sign’s androgynous ruler, the borders and divisions—the polarities and prohibitions—wobbled and thinned. I still contend astrologers haven’t really cracked the Sphinx-like Virgo codes related to that powerful late-60s conjunction. But then that’s fitting the sign too, as the Zodiac’s greatest enigma.
Like a forgotten bottle of perfume—corked and cast aside eons before, the Virgo conjunction shattered the container and released its contents back into the world. A wellspring of roiling female secrets—ancient poems and potions—agitated and soothed the cultural dialogue. Second-wave feminism found its footing and a uniquely feminine, nature-oriented spirituality spurred the counter-culture’s pagan and occult revival with its attraction towards Eastern religions.
Tapestry, Blue, and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat were the sonic benchmarks for this new female perspective. I see the three albums as a pop music lightning rod. Figuratively, Nyro’s cryptic album was the root or grounding base. Whereas Mitchell’s Blue—was the live wire midzone—cellophane-like with its raw emotionality. Tapestry claimed the capstone. King, well-versed in pop music song-crafting after her tenure in the legendary Brill Building, was the seasoned pro. And so Tapestry, with its friendly, folk-jazz arrangments, was more approachable. This is why the album became the decade’s soundtrack. Tapestry didn’t leave Billboard’s rankings until the last gasp of the 70s, a 310-week run that broke previous records for a pop album’s command of the charts.
“It might have been the Vietnam War, the violence, the cultural divide,” King suggested in an interview where she discussed the album’s longevity. “People around the world have told me Tapestry helped them reconnect with basic human feelings when they really needed that.”
Where she led…we followed
Ernest Hemingway was mocked by some critics after he used the phrase “the earth moved” to describe a woman’s orgasm in one of his novels. The account must have sounded corny coming from a man. But King owned the phrase completely with Tapestry’s opening track, “I Feel the Earth Move.” A song that reminded you that pianos are percussive instruments. And that King was a woman in command of her instrument and her libido. Fittingly Tapestry closed with King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
All of the songs on Tapestry offered a unique take on traditional notions of romance. But more, they were affirmations and nudges to see nature (and oneself) as beautiful—susceptible to joy but also the longings for liberation. All of these themes mirrored King’s Aquarius Sun sign sensibilities. The approachability of the record was fortified by producer Lou Adler’s arrangements. He’s stated in interviews that he designed the production to sound as though King was performing the songs in your living room.
And I know as a kid that’s what moved me—the warmth was believable, palpable. Pop music generally approaches romance through unvarying metaphors—you’re either swooning or crying, living or dying—for the love object. Tapestry changed that. The songs were tender and soulful—and King’s delivery passionate and ‘real.’
The album’s biggest single, “It’s Too Late,” has got to be the most gracious breakup song in the history of pop. And it still succeeds in both breaking my heart and uplifting me each time I hear it. It’s self-assured, sober. No ambivalence or “how will I live without you?” What I loved most is how the song intimated that, in the end, the lovers would remain friends—“there’ll be good times again for me and you…” An Aquarian mindset personified.
In his book, The Heart of Rock and Soul, Dave Marsh says the song “expresses an implicit feminism: She leaves him, she sets the terms of her own departure, she provides not mystical wisdom but a hardheaded view of the situation's practicalities.” (Aquarius is Saturn-ruled after all.)
Tapestry wasn’t just for the white females (or young gay boys) of the world. Music reviewers at the time repeatedly wrote about King’s innate soul and the earthy quality of her vocals. And this eventually attracted a Black audience for the album as well.
I remember how my friend Rob (who my dad hired during the summer to tutor me in algebra because I’d no capacity for mathematics) became smitten with Tapestry. This was a sports-loving, chick-obsessed guy who worshiped at the guitar altars of Black Sabbath and Santana. One weekend he casually asked me if he could borrow my copy of Tapestry and then I had a hard time getting it back. He eventually bought his own copy but never talked about what moved or piqued him. I think his notions of romance were reframed. King offered him a new lens to consider the opposite sex. And that’s one of my tenderest memories about Tapestry—Rob’s conversion and…
That darn cat
Fitting a myth or legend, the iconography binds us to its magic, creating a talisman of sorts. Tapestry is no different. Consider the rhetoric of the album’s cover. In the art of arrangement, it is the object placed in the foreground that claims our attention. On Tapestry it is Carole’s cat Telemachus—named after the son of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey.
Consider the album cover without the feline. The power of the icon is diminished. The poetic associations are incomplete; Carole’s homey Laurel Canyon vibe is missing. The French poet Jean Cocteau wrote: “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.”
After spotting Telemachus sleeping on a nearby sofa, Tapestry’s photographer Jim McCrary flashed on the results of a recent Kodak poll he’d studied. The survey noted that after children, the most popular thing people photographed was their cats. Wanting a commanding shot, McCrary asked Carole if he could move the cat into the tableau. After King assured him that Telemachus was friendly, he carried the tabby (and its pillow) over to the window’s ledge. After a couple of clicks, the cat returned to the couch—but no matter. McCrary had captured the image that would frame one of the defining pop albums of the decade.
As the story goes, it took Homer’s Telemachus twenty years to find Odysseus, his wayward father. This is a recurring motif within myths and fairytales—a fatherless or motherless child in search of a reunion with his or her ancestors. But now the progeny is matured, no longer a child—now it’s a man-to-man, woman-to-woman meeting.
Carole King did something of the same in the early 70s. Tapestry rewrote the dialectic that dominated romantic themes in pop music—not as giddy conversations between teens—but as authentic feelings between ‘natural’ men and women.