David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 108: Carole King (So Far Away)

August 12, 2020

The joy of writing this series: to go from The 5th Dimension to Judas Priest to Carole King back to back to back. Without any advanced planning, I have found myself skipping from cosmic mysticism to bitter despair to lovely ballad, with artist names that all connote something slightly spiritual. Only pop music can take you down this weird road.

Carole King's career is one golden-paved road as she has had a mind-boggling 118 Top 100 hits between 1958 and 1999, written either with her husband, Gerry Goffin, other collaborators, or solo. When she claims in "So Far Away" to be writing "one more song about moving down the highway," no one should judge her, even if the highway metaphor in rock and roll is a tired one. Good lord, she could write one more song about anything -- grass, heaven, Wankle rotary engines, dust particles, alcoholism -- and she wouldn't have to justify it.

Well, maybe one she needs to justify: I didn't realize she and Goffin wrote "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" famously recorded by The Crystals.  There is interesting back story to that because it was meant to be an ironic examination of a real response from a battered woman, but then Phil Spector (yeah, that convicted murderer of an actress he took back to his home one night) forced The Crystals to play the song straight.

I can't imagine how someone who wrote that many hits, for so many other artists, for so many other producers, only to see them maimed, wrangled, or twisted, couldn't have been dying to have complete control of her work. For whatever the reason, King didn't get around to releasing her own versions of her songs until 1970.  One can't help but wonder if there was some kind of institutional sexism at play.

Luckily, by 1971, she was making her own albums, including the revered Tapestry, which featuring a line-up of songs that includes "I Feel The Earth Move," "You've Got A Friend," "It's Too Late," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "A Natural Woman," and "So Far Away," makes it the musical version of the 1950's Yankees Murderers Row. "It's Too Late" and "You've Got A Friend" are probably the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig's of the line-up casting "So Far Away" as something akin to Earle Combs, the hall-of-famer centerfielder on that Yankees' team too often forgotten after RuthRig (the 1950's needed more Bradgelina type media concotions).

"So Far Away" seems as if a whispered prayer, the musical version of a lithe centerfielder chasing down flyballs with apparently effortless ease. The piano so grand, the bass so expressive when it flits in and out, the flute near the end almost ethereal. The piano notes tumble over each other, as if a third hand has come in playing a series of notes that push aside the main chords.  King's voice is exquisite, aided by the hint of a harmony vocal on the "traveling around sure gets me lonely": all this seems a perfect representation of a love so close and yet so far away in her life.

Can anyone express the agony of longing any better than King (and James Taylor, as I am not exactly sure who wrote what) does here:

Long ago I reached for you and there you stood.

Holding you again could only do me so good.

How I wish I could

But you're so far away.

In the end, I love coming back and listening to this song because of the "road" figure of speech. Highway as metaphor for rock songs truly is a tired trope: Jackson Browne's "The Load-Out" ("all these towns look the same"); Bob Seger's "Turn The Page" ("here I am on the road again/here I go playin' star again"); The Grateful Dead's "Truckin'" ("I'd like to get some sleep before I travel"); Journey's "Faithfully" ("They say the road ain't no place to start a family"); and worst of all Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" ("Head out on the highway/looking for adventure"). Almost all are tales of road woes or road wows as told by men.  It's nice to hear a female voice.

King even admits that with this "one more song" about the highway, she "can't say much of anything new," but the wanderlust of male road songs is replaced by the question of priorities: "doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore."  It isn't necessarily a song about road trips, it's a song about restlessness and the things we give up by wanting something new and exciting. By the end, she knows she can't let the highways define who she is and what she desires: "I sure hope the road don't come to own me/there's so many dreams I've yet to find." 

In America, especially, we believe that our dreams come true somewhere far away. King reminds us that they come true when we pull them up close. 

"So Far Away." Carole King. Tapestry. A & M. 1971.  Link here.

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Day 109: 'Til Tuesday "Coming Up Close." ->

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