When I was a kid, “It’s Too Late” by Carole King was all over the radio.
Being in the single-digit age range, I interpreted the lyrics to all songs literally, and within a very limited frame of reference. When Ernie sang “Rubber Ducky, I’m awfully fond of you” on Sesame Street, he meant that he liked his rubber ducky. There were no alternate interpretations, no subtle metaphors. I didn’t even know what a metaphor was.
So when the lady on the radio sang
It’s too late, baby
I imagined she was singing to an actual baby. Presumably her own. And what did she sing to that baby? The worst possible news:
Now it’s too late
Though we really did try to make it
Despite their best efforts — and they really did try — they had not arrived in time. I was too young to know all the possible meanings of “make it,” but I was old enough to know that tardiness could cause real problems, and this woman seemed especially dispirited by the situation. I tried to imagine circumstances where a belated arrival could have such traumatic consequences. Because I knew it was late, my mind’s eye pictured an ominous night scene: a big house with no lights on, standing alone on a windswept road, tucked away behind an unkempt lawn. The lady singing the song had just pulled her big old gas-guzzler of a car (it was the 1970s) into the darkened driveway, and had turned around to address the child in the back seat.
Whatever this house was, whatever they had hoped to accomplish here… it wasn’t going to happen. There was one message the mother had for her infant child, and it was: abandon all hope.
She lowered the boom by singing
Something inside has died
And though she didn’t spell it out, I knew what was responsible: monsters.
Perhaps if they had arrived in a more timely fashion, they could have gotten to the house before sundown and turned on the lights before the goddamn monsters came out, and the whole crisis could have been averted. But no, they showed up late, and now the whole place was crawling with infernal horrors, and the mother and child had seconds to live. (Where was the father in all of this? He was probably the “something” that died inside.)
She further acknowledged the hopelessness of their situation by saying
And I can’t hide
Which was a tacit admission that all her strength and intelligence and protective maternal instincts would prove worthless when pitted against the ravenous jaws of the Beast. The only reason she didn’t sing
And they’ll dine on my guts
While you sit there in your car seat
Shitting yourself in abject terror
And once they’re finished with me
They’ll rip you to pieces
is because that didn’t scan.
But perhaps she was saying something even worse. When she lamented her inability to hide, was she was tacitly admitting that given the opportunity, she would save herself, sprinting back down the road while the air filled with the shrieks of her own helpless infant? Was this the ultimate declaration of parental failure; an admission that she was the real monster? It’s hard to think of a more unlikeable song protagonist than a mother who abandons her baby and scurries to safety while her own child becomes chupacabra chow. To me it seemed the most ethically and morally ambitious song on the radio, Sophie’s Choice condensed into a four-minute singalong. Even as a child I knew this was leagues beyond Simon and Garfunkel. (Although, now that I think about it, “Mother and Child Reunion” fits in nicely with this narrative — once you realize they’re being reunited in death.)
She wrapped up the chorus with
And I just can’t fake it
Just in case the child thought all this talk of impending slaughter might be some sort of hilarious practical joke.
Years passed and I gradually realized that this song is about something much more banal and commonplace than I originally thought. I can also see that I had a fucked-up outlook on life from a very early age. But I think Carole King should have explored the whole monsters-eating-people angle. It makes for a more compelling narrative.