OCTOBER 22, 2017
House lights dimmed in a Broadway theater. The brassy overture of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” erupted from the orchestra pit. Toes started tapping.
Seated one row ahead of me was a woman roughly the age of the famous singer/ songwriter, 75, swaying to the beat. Silver hoop earrings danced below her cropped gray hair, and a purple shawl was splayed across striped jeans.
She had come to hear the life story of Carole King as told through her music. But, in equal measure, to recall the memories that King’s music evoked from the gray lady’s own youth. She sang along as the performers replayed the sound track of not one, but two lives — Carole King’s and the elderly fan.
Her weathered hands clapped silently in rhythm with melodies from the 1960s when King, along with her then husband Gerry Goffin, wrote more than two dozen hits for a variety of performers.
It was a bittersweet time for King as the joy of musical success was undermined by her struggle to salvage a faltering marriage. On stage, the story played out through her songs. The jubilation of early upbeat hits like “One Fine Day” (you’re going to want me for your girl) and high-octane numbers like “Loco-Motion” gave way to haunting songs of heartbreak as her marriage slipped away.
By the time “You’ve Got a Friend,” “It’s Too Late Baby,” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” arrived, King’s marriage had collapsed. The gray lady was in tears. Watching her made me do the same. It was a painfully familiar story for both of us.
I don’t know the lady, and never will. But, for a few minutes in that crowded theater we both felt the anguish of failed dreams. We were transported back to a time when our lives lay before us as big and bright as Broadway itself. A fearless and beautiful time when all things were possible. But, also a time of inevitable decline when the lights would fade to black.
The emotional impact of such memories and the music that triggers them is so powerful it has become the cornerstone of a medical protocol called music therapy (MT).
Professor Kate Gfeller, director of graduate studies in MT at University of Iowa, works to harness the sinew of music to help Alzheimer’s patients. Her study, published in the Journal of Music Therapy found that music, including playing instruments and singing, helped them become more emotionally accessible and less inclined to disruptive behavior.
However, according to Gfeller, not just any music will do. It must have been popular when the patient was a teen and young adult. A time of developing autonomy. Of first loves, first cars and first homes. People remember and play the music they heard during those years for the rest of their lives.
For my generation, that music will always include Carole King songs of the sixties.
While musical therapy verifies music’s special power, for me the most compelling evidence will always be the gray-haired lady who made me cry.
Malcolm “Mack” Gibson is an attorney in Houston, Texas.