June 26, 2014 5:53 AM EDT

In the 1960s, before singer-songwriters became fashionable, songwriters’ names were just part of the small print on a 45-r.p.m. disc. If people knew who wrote such classics as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” it’s probably because their composer, Carole King, eventually became a pop star. It’s true King wrote the music for those perennials, but Gerry Goffin, her husband in the ’60s, wrote the words.

Goffin, who died June 19 at 75, never achieved King’s renown. His triumph was more private: he expanded the pop lexicon. A look at his lyrics upends the common wisdom that pre-Beatles pop was all banal optimism conveyed in moon-June-spoon doggerel. Goffin was eerily in sync with the convulsions teenagers feel during first love, first sex and first breakup.

Goffin used the pop-ballad form to offer hard answers to dewy questions and, often, to say that life’s most perplexing riddles had no comforting resolutions. King put the hummable lilt in many of their songs, but Goffin educated young listeners on the complexity of love and loss. He wasn’t just the guy who put simple words to her lovely music. He was a prime ’60s poet of teen yearning.

–RICHARD CORLISS

This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.

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