Although I have written recently about the Carpenters, I have no hesitation in posting the piece below today, on the 30th anniversary of the passing of the twentieth century's greatest and most interesting female vocalist -- the unforgettable Karen Carpenter. The Drummer Girl from Downey, California, continues to provide a musical beacon of innocence and light in a darker world.
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Karen Carpenter's Burial Site, Thousand Oaks, CA
In the summer of 1970, pop radio's relentless cacophony of hard rock, acid rock, and Motown was interrupted by something delightfully offbeat and original. It was the pure and mellifluous contralto of a guileless young girl, accompanied by a seamless arrangement of instrumental harmonies and multi-layered voice-overs that sounded like nothing anyone had heard before, this side of Les Paul and Mary Ford. And if this intriguing group's multi-tracked vocals were not enough of a novelty, the ingénue with the angelic voice turned out to be a prodigious drummer as well, who could riff the Ludwigs with infectious verve and authority – the first female drummer in history to achieve any significant prominence and recognition.
The breakthrough song was "Close to You," the drummer-girl was Karen Carpenter, and the captivating new sound was the brainchild of Karen's creative big brother, Richard. "Close to You" quickly soared to #1 on the Billboard Chart and the Carpenters were off to the races. Between 1970 and 1975, hit after Carpenters hit rose to the top of the charts in dizzying succession. "We've Only Just Begun," "For All We Know," "Top of the World," "Superstar," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Yesterday Once More," and countless other classics made the likeable, clean-cut siblings from Downey, California, instant international superstars. Their popularity reached phenomenal heights in countries as varied as England, Holland, and Japan (and years later, even China ) where their concerts drew record-setting crowds, they were sometimes mobbed like the Beatles, and their records achieved international sales that ultimately exceeded their success in the U.S. And many thousands of 1970's newlyweds chose the dawn-like romantic optimism of "We've Only Just Begun" as their wedding song.
But 30 years ago today, on February 4, 1983, the Carpenters' dazzling melodic run came to a heart-rending and premature conclusion. After some seven years of anorexic self-starvation, Miss Carpenter fatally succumbed to the debilitating effects of a disease that was then only dimly understood. She was only 32. Although in the last months of her life she had seemingly overcome the compulsive disorder, resumed reasonable eating, and re-gained weight, the years of nutritional deprivation had critically sapped the strength of her weakened constitution. The world had lost a vocalist of unique virtuosity and emotional conviction, a pioneering female drummer, and, even more sadly, an unforgettable icon of romantic innocence. Karen Carpenter was The Girl Next Door writ large. But just beneath the rich, round tones of her soothing ballads lurked a subtle but distinctive undercurrent of melancholy – what one discerning critic later described as "the sound of a human heart breaking."
In the annals of underappreciated heroines, few can surpass the painful experience of Miss Carpenter. The extraordinary success she and her brother achieved on the record charts and concert stages of the world was rivaled only by the harsh and mean-spirited vituperation that was inflicted on them at home by the fashionable music critics and cultural cognoscenti of that disjointed era.
The condescending criticism had little to do with the Carpenters' music itself, which was indisputably superior both in Karen's vocals and Richard's arrangements. But in what can only be described as a bizarre twist of cultural judgment, the Carpenters were mocked and belittled by the critics for the very qualities that attracted the affection of the many millions who bought their records – they were civil, good-natured, sincere, modest, and romantic. In an era when tout le monde was embracing free love and egotistical exhibitionism, a demure suburban chick from unfashionable Downey who wore pinafores, cameo lockets, and lace collars up to her neck offered an easy object of ridicule. Even worse, the Carpenters' songs were devoid of "attitude," raunchiness, or rebellion, and they never made the slightest effort to deny what they were or where they came from – middle-class white kids from suburban SoCal. But rather than receiving due credit for their authenticity and willingness to sail against the winds of the times, the Carpenters were smugly castigated as too vanilla and "too white."
While the stinging critical dismissal of their work failed to undercut their overwhelming popularity in the first half of the 1970's – when they were probably the most successful recording artists in the world – it eventually took its toll when it achieved the status of a kind of received truth among the arbiters of hip culture in America. Karen's descent into anorexia and Richard's difficulties with prescription sleeping pills soon followed, and the Carpenters never recovered the productive heights they had maintained from 1970 to 1975.
To this day, the scornful seed planted by the critics and hipsters of the post-Woodstock culture has undermined the Carpenters' musical legacy in the United States, even while that legacy has grown and prospered internationally (see my previous posts below). Among other things, the liberals who dominate American musical orthodoxy could never forgive the Carpenters for graciously accepting an invitation from President Nixon to perform at the White House during the height of the Watergate scandal. Under the incredible tension of that moment, exacerbated by the confining space of the small White House stage, Karen performed with extraordinary grace, poise, and good cheer. Yet the Carpenters' classy performance at the White House (which is viewable on a YouTube video) has always been considered a strike against them by the left-oriented musical establishment. The perverse bias built up against the Carpenters over the years for their association with white, middle-class values has not only greatly reduced their playtime on so-called Classic Rock radio stations, but is undoubtedly responsible for their continued exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite credentials which dwarf most inductees into that Philistine institution.
Of all the cultural misjudgments inflicted on Karen Carpenter, none was more mindless or more ironic than the canard that the Carpenters were one-dimensional poster-children whose music was little more than superficial treacle. Behind the flawless white teeth, the shining Breck Girl hair, and the puffed-shoulder dresses lay a deep and lovely lake of complex emotions that swelled to the surface in the songs that gave voice to the dark and melancholy side of romantic loss and emotional isolation. Karen's moody rendition of Leon Russell's "Superstar" is the most prominent of these, but the Carpenters' catalogue includes numerous lesser-known ballads, such as "Crescent Noon" and "Eve," where she pushed her signature lower register to emotional depths rarely approached in contemporary pop. And she delivered some of these haunting renditions when she was only 19 or 20 years old, revealing a vocal maturity that now seems prophetic in the hindsight of her tragically shortened life.
Whatever the verdict of the nameless Woodstock-era critics, Karen Carpenter's place among the great pop vocalists of the 20th Century is firmly recognized in a far more telling and credible quarter – the enduring admiration of her performing peers of past and present. Musical giants from Henry Mancini to Paul McCartney to Burt Bacharach have acknowledged her stature among the great ladies of song. When the Carpenters happily agreed to record a song Mancini's daughter had written ("Sometimes"), the maestro remarked: "It was like having Sinatra do your song." Carpenters biographer Ray Coleman records that McCartney and his brother Michael described Karen as "the best female voice in the world, melodic, tuneful, distinctive." And Elton John has praised her as "one of the greatest voices of our lifetime." Experiencing one of her live performances in concert, such as her BBC Concert in 1971 (see above link to YouTube), is to understand the appreciation these giants had for Miss Carpenter.
Karen's admirers run the gamut, crossing both musical and cultural divides. Shania Twain called her "my favorite singer of all time . . . . She has the voice of perfection." Madonna, whom one might consider the antithesis of the very modest Miss Carpenter, is actually a great admirer, and acknowledged that "I'm completely influenced by her harmonic sensibility." Even Barbra Streisand has extolled Carpenter's voice as a "marvelous instrument."
Indeed, some of Karen's strongest admirers are found in the most unexpected quarters. After revealing that he listened to the Carpenters on his iPod, the inimitable Alice Cooper was asked why. He tersely responded, "They're the best." Actor Nicholas Cage made the motorcycle tough guy he played in the film "Ghost Rider" a dedicated Karen Carpenter fan, and the film's soundtrack includes not only the haunting "Superstar," but an original instrumental piece called "A Thing for Karen Carpenter." And more recently, the eccentric Tim Burton featured a video of Karen singing "Top of the World" in his film "Dark Shadows," moving the Johnny Depp vampire character to exclaim, "Reveal thyself, tiny songstress!" Interestingly and somewhat ironically, large elements of the gay community are especially fond of Miss Carpenter's music and persona, possibly because they identify with the self-image struggles that led to her anorexia.
The enduring affection for Karen's unique vocals extends even to the denizens of the Alternative Rock world. In 1994, a motley assemblage of alt rockers combined to produce what can only be described as a highly singular tribute album called "If I Were a Carpenter." The free-wheeling interpretations of Carpenters classics by cutting edge groups like the Cranberries, Sonic Youth, and Japan's Shonen Knife ranged from the slightly distorted to completely over-the-top, but all reflected genuine admiration and affection for the Carpenter sound and Karen's unforgettable vocals. And just two years ago, California "roots rock" legend Dave Alvin, a fellow Downey native, recorded a moving tribute ballad about Karen called "Downey Girl."
Thankfully, 30 years after her death, the Drummer Girl's mellifluous voice, and the bright and rosy face of her first television appearances, are still accessible in a forum Karen never lived to see. Unlike commercial radio, the Internet is an unfiltered democratic medium, and tens of millions of her fans log onto YouTube to resurrect the timeless images of Karen Carpenter in her golden years. The raunchy caravan of today's musical mayhem moves on, but the Drummer Girl's incomparable voice endures as a welcoming refuge for those who crave a gentler song.