#194 – You’ve Got A Friend by Carole King
– I only have one Carole King story, but I think it’s pretty cool…
Sometime between 1986 and ’89 there was a country-western themed bar/concert club in New York City. It was somewhere in the upper East 20’s and either on Second or Third Avenue. I want to say it was called the Buffalo Roadhouse, but I can’t be sure. After an internet search I found a few places with the same name, but none seem to have once been located in that neighborhood. But rather than dwell on this, the one thing I’m positive about is that it was a short walk north from where I lived in Gramercy Park.
The place was one of the last Manhattan hold-outs from the Urban Cowboy fad that ran through the country during the early 1980’s thanks to the movie of the same name. That may not have been unusual for anywhere west of the Hudson River, but in New York City it represented another world. Where Studio 54, CBGB’s and the Mudd Club were the hot spots blasting out disco, punk or rock, now urbanites thought it was hip to line dance in cowboy boots, jeans and Stetsons, and actually attempt to ride mechanical bulls. But only after a few drinks of course.
One other fact I’m positive about is that I’ve never been on a mechanical bull in my life. The NY Subway was thrilling and untamed enough for my Urban Cowboy fix.
I remember the bar because it wasn’t a bad place to hang out and drew a big crowd on the weekends. But being seasoned New Yorkers, my crowd avoided the weekend rush and usually hit the cool places on off-nights. This particular memory goes back to a Sunday night.
The bar was big and what set it apart from the other cowboy wannabe establishments was a GIANT full-sized stuffed Buffalo that stood over the bar. On our first visit it was so high over the liquor shelves that we never even noticed it for the first hour or two. Then someone glanced up and said, “Look-it that!” As an animal lover and peacenik it definitely was the type of decoration that today would cause me to find fun in a different location. But with that seasoned late 1980’s New York mentality we had learned if you wanted to play pretend cowboy you had to hang out with the real cowboy trophies. And this was the closest we’d ever get to a real cowboy bar, even though the hired hands serving drinks and waiting tables spoke with New York accents.
In a separate large room behind the bar was a cowboy style night club with a wooden stage for live bands. There were also long wooden tables, wooden chairs, wooden walls and wooden “fences” leading to the bathrooms. The only thing I remember not being wooden were the toilets, which thankfully continued the New York trend for porcelain.
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On this Sunday night there was a cowboy band on stage made up of young guys who might have once been rockers, but were now playing electric guitars that amplified more of a “twang” than anything resembling a Keith Richards riff. Don’t get me wrong because they weren’t bad. In fact, with hindsight it’s possible to see they might have been a bit ahead of the coming trend that saw Garth Brooks and others really rock up the country genre during the 1990’s.
I was seated at a wooden table with a certain blonde who was my steady at the time, along with a few others from our usual entourage. I don’t recall having a problem carrying on a conversation over the live performance, but it was a show rather than just background music so we paid attention. At one point the singer announced their “manager” was in the audience and invited her up to sing a few songs.
The manager turned out to be Carole King.
Now, I honestly don’t know if Carole King ever really “managed” a band. I’ve read her book, A Natural Woman: A Memoir, and never noticed this career position mentioned anywhere during her life story. So either it was not worth noting, forgotten, or possibly an inside joke among the musicians with Carole being more of a friend or supporter. The bottom line is it doesn’t matter. While we sat there sipping cold ones through longneck bottles, the legendary singer-songwriter walked on stage and sang a few songs with the band.
Of course we all recognized her from photos and television appearances. But with more honesty, I didn’t recognize the songs until the last one they performed, which was the classic Chains written by King and her former songwriting partner and husband, Gerry Goffin. I knew it because The Beatles covered Chains on their first album, Introducing The Beatles (in the U.S.) or Please Please Me (in the UK).
So this was a big deal.
I still remember her curly hair bouncing up and down as she bounced around on stage singing. And yeah (yeah, yeah) I’m sure we all sang along. When she finished, King sat down at a table with her entourage and as seasoned New Yorker’s we went back to our conversations.
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End of story? Yeah, but like I said it was pretty cool.
As for our Dream Song, King didn’t perform You’ve Got A Friend that night, but my waking mind was performing it on the morning of June 17th. My notes say I hadn’t heard it in awhile, which I find hard to believe because it’s one of the most played songs on my digital playlist. So even though a claim can be made it’s chained to my memory (apologies for a bad pun) we’ll add this one to the subliminal category and leave it at that.
King’s version wasn’t the first I’d heard. That scoop goes to James Taylor who also released the song as a single in the spring of 1971 and scored the most radio airplay. Both were recorded with the same musicians, including King on piano and Taylor on acoustic guitar.
And for a little more honesty, I really didn’t care for the song when it first came out. The acoustic troubadour ballad singers were a little too laid-back for my personal tastes after the earlier excitement of Crosby Stills Nash & Young and John Lennon’s Working Class Hero. By ’71 I was ready to rock again with The Who, Led Zeppelin, Sly & The Family Stone, Rod Stewart and The Faces, and other artists that knew what a volume nob on an amplifier was meant for.
The biggest influence that year had to be The Rolling Stones who were in the midst of a “golden era” that blasted us with Gimme Shelter and Brown Sugar.
So it wasn’t until many years later I finally calmed down and listened to Carole King’s 1971 album, Tapestry. And the song that caught my attention most was You’ve Got A Friend. It may not be the only reason why the Broadway show based on King’s music is titled Beautiful, but that description certainly fits.
Chains was the memorable choice for a Manhattan country bar that Sunday night. But if she had sat down at the piano and given us You’ve Got A Friend, I’m sure there would’ve been more than a few urban cowboys and cowgirls putting down their longnecks to sing along. And the mechanical bull could’ve waited until she finished.
As mentioned, it’s a beautiful song. And for a beautiful rendition by Carole King, check out this video.
To purchase Carole King’s classic LP Tapestry with You’ve Got A Friend, visit Amazon.com.
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