The kids from Brooklyn were unquestionably the greatest husband and wife songwriting team in American history, and he had top billing. Yet when Gerry Goffin, first husband and lyricist for Carole King, died recently, the Washington Post noted, “King became a household name as a solo star while Mr. Goffin receded into the background.” It was part of his personal tragedy.
They met at college, he, a young chemistry student and she, an aspiring songwriter. He told Vanity Fair, “She was interested in writing rock’n'roll, and I was interested in writing this Broadway play. So we had an agreement where she would write [music] to the play if I would write [lyrics] to some of her rock’n'roll melodies. And eventually it came to be a boy-and-girl relationship. Eventually I began to lose heart in my play, and we stuck to writing rock’n'roll.”
When she became pregnant at 17, they got married. In their spare time, they brought their collaborations to Manhattan and Don Kirshner, the record producer known as “The Man with the Golden Ear”. Kirshner realized who he had - the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the two minute pop song.
The pieces fit perfectly: Kirshner’s unerring knack for selecting the right song and singer, King’s beautiful melodies, Goffin’s alluring lyrics, and the wonderful harmonies of the best young African-American voices in pop music. That alchemy produced masterpieces including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (the Shirelles), “Up On The Roof “ (the Drifters); and “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”, a song that helped make young Aretha Franklin a star.
But Goffin and King’s triumphs were short-lived. The popularity of The Beatles and Bob Dylan encouraged recording artists to write their own songs; traditional professional songwriters like Goffin and King became a dying breed. This strained their marriage, already shaky because of Gerry’s drug use, mood swings, and infidelities.
To save their marriage, they moved to the suburbs, because that’s what many young middle-class couples did in the early 1960’s (think Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as Rob and Laura Petrie). They bought a home on Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange, New Jersey. But by 1967, the world was a far different place than in 1962. The Vietnam War, Sergeant Pepper, an emerging counterculture, the civil rights and feminist movements made it so.
Carol didn’t fit in especially well. She told the Telegraph in 2009, “Living with Gerry in New Jersey suburbia I was surrounded by the wives of doctors, accountants, lawyers. With a pen in one hand and a baby in the other I was a real oddity. A working woman.”
Gerry, a nonconformist by nature, did not fit in at all. He told Vanity Fair “I wanted to be a hippie — grew my hair long — and Carole did it modestly. She never wanted to go overboard. And then I started taking LSD and mescaline.”
Although their marriage foundered, their muse remained. They wrote one of their underrated classics, Pleasant Valley Sunday, a scathing indictment of suburbia reflecting Gerry Goffin’s bitter resentment of the era’s material culture.
Kirshner realized the song’s potential and made an inspired choice of artists to record it –The Monkees, not even a real group. But with a popular television show and the right promotion, they were outselling The Beatles. The song became a smash hit.
But Pleasant Valley Sunday could not save the Goffin/King marriage. They divorced in 1968. (The Kirshner/Monkees marriage was also over. They wanted to write their own songs, fired Kirshner, and were soon finished as a group).
Goffin and King moved separately to California - what many young middle class divorcees did in the late 1960’s. King moved to Laurel Canyon where she found overwhelming success – her solo album Tapestry remains one of the top selling albums in history. Along with success, she found unhappiness - three failed marriages. Eventually she retreated to rural Idaho.
Gerry Goffin moved out to California alone. His talents, diminished by drugs, did not desert him completely. He continued to write for African-American artists, including the lyrics for “Theme from Mahogany ” (Diana Ross); “Tonight I Celebrate My Love” (Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack); and “Saving All My Love For You” a song that helped make a star of young Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin’s honorary niece. For any other songwriter, those songs would have been the apotheosis of a career; for Gerry Goffin, they were little more than a footnote.
Before his death, Gerry Goffin had his travails publicly resurrected in the current Broadway hit, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”. Featuring a superb performance by Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller, the play portrays Goffin none too sympathetically as a talented but tortured foil for Carole. Gerry was in the audience opening night.
Ironically, Gerry expressed guilt later in life for his treatment of Carole during their marriage. He told UPI in 1996, “Carole loved me for what I was, I’ve had a lot of guilt. It’s been almost 30 years, and I’m finally feeling expurgated… I feel like I’ve worked it off, but maybe you never work it off.”
Guilt was not his only personal demon. He never fully understood the significance of his genius for expressing genuine emotion. And living in Carole’s shadow for so long, he was perpetually underappreciated.
As he wrote in Pleasant Valley Sunday, “Mothers complain about how hard life is and the kids just don’t understand.”
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