With his untimely recent passing, here’s my tribute in the form of an interview I did with the reclusive and understated Gerry Goffin, who wrote some of his best lyrics with his then-wife Carole King. This originally appeared in my first book, In Their Own Words: Lyrics and Lyricists, published by Macmillan in 1975.
Given his somewhat guarded opinion of his life’s work to that point, I always wondered if in the intervening years he’d ever come to terms with his majestic and prolific output or if he’d instead remained a prisoner of his demons.
ALONG WITH HIS first wife, composer Carole King, Gerry Goffin has been responsible for some of the most memorable and enduring music of the sixties, among them “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Chains,” and my personal favorites, “Goin’ Back,” “No Easy Way Down,” and “Wasn’t Born to Follow.” Working out of Don Kirshner’s tiny Aldon Music factory, the same publishing house which spawned lyricists Cynthia Weil (‘Blame It On The Bossa Nova’), Howard Greenfield (‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen’), Lee Kolber (‘Patches’), Gerry Goffin practically wrote the scenario for a generation that cruised the highway in beat-up roadsters, hung out in team jackets at drive-in burger stands or Carvels, and found love to the tune of the Top Forty radio stations in the back seat parked beyond the empty lots down alongside the swamps of Jersey or Brooklyn.
Working out of New York City his lyrics reflected a street sense, timed to the rhythm of the traffic lights, backed by the consistent, pulsing beat of the rattling subway underneath. It was a time when the City was still considered the place to be, where thousands of young men and women hitched with their high school graduation money, in their one good suit, to seek their fortunes, demos in hand, in the corridors of the Brill Building.
In 1973, ten years after he and Carole King were signed to Screen Gems for a reported $100,000-a-year advance, Gerry Goffin’s name means little more than nostalgia to a new generation of rock fans. Although renditions of his old songs still come out regularly (and make the Top Ten!), he and Carole King have split up, professionally and maritally.
Both have remained creative, however, with Carole becoming a superstar in a solo role and Gerry, after a layoff, emerging with a new partner, Barry Goldberg, a new hit song ‘I’ve Got To Use My Imagination,” recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and an album of songs – on which he sings for the first time – entitled It Ain’t Exactly Entertainment (Adelphi Records).
After quite a while tracking down the reclusive Mr. Goffin, I finally interviewed him in the offices of Screen Gems Music, where he is known among the secretaries as a figure of legend and mystery. Goffin was very offhand about his career, hesitant about any generalizations in regard to songwriting, and ambivalent about his accumulated body of songs, their impact and their worth. “Irwin Schuster [head of Screen Gems Music] gave me a list of songs I wrote and I can’t believe some of the titles.”
Does it seem like a whole other person wrote them?
“I know I wrote them, that’s what hurts.”
It is this half-kidding, evasive tone which Gerry adopted for most of the interview. Some more examples: When did you start taking lyric writing seriously?
“I never took it seriously.”
Do you think youth plays a great part in the productivity of a songwriter?
After a while, though, we did get down to specifics. “I’m not gonna say whether my songs were good or bad. It’s pretty good to be successful at songwriting. If the people like them that’s fine and I’m happy. There was a time when I used to cringe hearing them; now I don’t anymore because I figure it was that time and it was okay. I mean, you’ve got to realize when I started writing songs. There’s been several revolutions that have taken place in pop music since then, and I think they were all improvements. I’ve always thought, any way you looked at it, that the changes have been for the better. I mean, it’s better than having assignments. Groups are writing now for their own personal feelings–it’s a whole different thing. To me that’s a little more honest, not that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing.”
What was it like in the old days?
“In those days it was write a song for this group or write a song for so and so. That was our job, Carole and I, and it was a lot of fun. When you’re young you don’t mind doing that so much. When you get a little older you sort of rebel against that and you get a tendency to want not to write to a market. I can’t write under deadlines anymore…but I respect people who can. Right now I’m just writing what I feel like writing and I keep changing. If I want to write something commercial I don’t see anything wrong with it. If I want to write a song that I feel personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that either.”
It is interesting to note, in this context, that Goffin’s solo album, a package containing sixteen originals, has in it not one typical “hit” song. A good percentage of the songs could be termed “protest” – a type of writing which was most popular from 1963 to 1968, that period of time when Goffin was struggling to turn out gems for the Drifters, the Shirelles, and the Monkees. Also on the album are quite a few lyrics in which Goffin probably reveals himself to a greater extent than he will in any interview. One in particular, ‘Everything and Nothing’, seems, quite adeptly, to describe his rather ambiguous feelings as to his past achievements and his current prospects.
“In the last six months I’ve been in a slump, so right now I can’t imagine putting a song together. When I was younger I could write every day, but it all gets corny after a while. It’s been a lot of years of writing and a lot has been said and written. I’ve written a couple of thousand songs. I tell you, I write a lot more songs that people don’t use – about fifty to one. Sometimes you write just because there’s nothing else to do. Last year I wrote forty songs in forty days. But I’ve been pretty drained since I finished my album. I don’t think anyone should be drained that much, but I certainly haven’t thought of anything to write about since then. And there’s also another thing. There’s a certain magic that some records have and that some records don’t have and that’s not a quality you can capture unless everything is going right, and that’s something that comes and goes and there’s no formula for it. I’m talking about even at a record session. There are so many personalities involved, so many variables. Sometimes you could write a mediocre song and it becomes a big hit–it’s really hard to talk about.”
Gerry Goffin met Carole King at Queens College where he was advancing reluctantly toward a career in chemistry. But he had always written songs. “I started writing songs when I was eight years old. I mean just lyrics, like some kind of game in my head. I’d think of them as songs. They’d have a kind of inane melody. Sometimes I would sing the melodies over chords, but they were pretty horrible. In fact, even after we made it, no one recorded them. When there was a completed melody and a whole structure and I’d write to that, those seemed to be better songs. Many of them were written simultaneously, one line at a time. When you’re writing something good it always seems to be easy. Any time it took me a long time to write a song it usually wasn’t too good a song. When I say good I mean something that’s right, marketable, that has something to say. It has to go through a lot of different ears; different people have to decide if it’s something that people want to hear. If it gets on the radio and if people want to hear it, they buy it. That’s how I thought I could tell if a song was going to be a hit or not, or how big a hit it would be–by listening to it on the radio. I never listened at home; I used to always listen in the car. I don’t know, it was just something about the resonance of the car radio, usually with the good records you caught the sound of a hit single.”
How do his own songs sound on the radio these days?
“No matter what you write it always sounds good on the radio, so they sound fine. But not as fine as Chuck Berry. I think Chuck Berry wrote the best lyrics to describe what it was like in teenage America in those days. I think his was a more accurate picture than mine. I didn’t realize how good his lyrics were–because I didn’t listen to lyrics much, I just sort of enjoyed them–until I got a job and had to write them every day.
I asked him how he felt about the songs and songwriters of today.
“Randy Newman has his own approach. He’s probably the most uncorrupted lyricist there is. I like him. I like Joni Mitchell; she represents some sort of sophistication in what she writes about. I can appreciate them and I can appreciate the Chi-lites. It’s nice to turn on your radio and get good music. I mean, first it was just sort of pop lyrics, then all of a sudden poetry got involved, and there’s a big difference between being a pop lyricist and being a poet–which blew my head a whole lot. Being a poet is a lot harder, it’s really work. I had a desire to be a poet, but I wasn’t able to, so I gave it up. After the Beatles started to grow and get real good, it suddenly didn’t appear that going in and writing songs for whoever you were writing songs for was the way anymore. I think Dylan is very good, and there’s a magic there too. I never could do [protest songs] very well. I mostly did it very straightforward, but I agreed with everything that was said. I don’t see how it’s possible to dislike that kind of songwriting.
“So, to simplify it, if people like my songs I’m very happy. It’s a nice job, having to write. Being a lyricist is a pretty nice job.”
For more vintage rock interviews, visit my website https://www.brucepollockthewriter.com or download my classic long out of print book When the Music Mattered: Portraits from the 1960s. For a satirical version of rock in the ’70s, download my classic long out of print novel, It’s Only Rock and Roll.