Jul 20 2002
Other inaccuracies in Marr's ''starving artist''? |
Besides the most glaring one--that on her 1966 solo single "Karen sang 'Where Do I Go From Here,' and 'You’re the One'" (paragraph 11; the songs were "Looking For Love" b/w "I'll Be Yours")--is there anything in Marr's article subject to debate?
On the whole an apparently well-researched piece. Nicely written too. However, I would like to know the source of one or two things he mentions. Like the autograph episode where several fans had to "go to the top" to finally get Richard and Karen's. I don't remember reading that in the fan club newsletters, or anywhere else. Also, Karen's ipecac use is still an assertion that, notwithstanding "outside doctors" Marr refers to in par. 37, has not been satisfactorily substantiated IMO. Anyway, his article covers a lot of ground. For convenience of discussion I've posted it below.
Pop Void #2 (ca 1990), pp. 114-21 (PDF file: popvoid.com/pdfs/karen.pdf).
The Karen Carpenter Story
By Johnny Marr
t’s hard to imagine the seventies happening without The Carpenters. Their first hit, "Close to You," spearheaded the "soft rock revolution" that brought rock back from the excesses of the late sixties, and put the pop back into pop music. The young "silent majority" ate it up to the tune of 16 consecutive top twenty singles between 1970 and 1976, along with eight gold albums. On the other side of the generation gap the establishment concurred with three Grammys and one Oscar. No less a figure than Richard Nixon proclaimed them to represent "Young America at its finest" at their 1973 White House performance. But, as much as their music and image epitomized the bright, bland side of the seventies, they weren’t immune to the dark side. By the end of the decade, their career was derailed and eventually ended by the diseases of the seventies: anorexia nervosa and Quaalude addiction.
2 To the public, The Carpenters were nice young kids who made music about heavy topics like "white lace and promises" and "polkadots and moonbeams." Their lyrics were always straight, clean, and uplifting. Favored themes were love, romance, and nostalgia. Noticeably absent are sex, violence, and depression. Richard Carpenter knew what their audience wanted, and carefully removed all controversial content. Even in The Carpenters’ version of "Superstar," the lonely groupie only longs to "be with," not "sleep with" the object of her affections as in the original.
3 Their tone was every bit as positive as it was clean. Even at their most downbeat, their lyrics of love are more wistful and melancholy than prostrate and suicidal. In the liner notes to their first retrospective, Singles 1969-1973, they proudly mention how everyone from newlyweds to "potential suicides" have written to them celebrating "We’ve Only Just Begun's" uplifting feeling of hope.
4 Unlike most of the other instantly forgettable pop and soft rock of the early to mid-seventies, however, The Carpenters had something more than sheer kitsch appeal. [p.115] Admittedly, their songs are almost invariably insipid and syrupy. Even Herb Alpert passed on "Close To You" over the "sprinkled moondust in your hair" line, probably out of embarrassment.
5 Yet, the Carpenters took this song, (an obscure Dionne Warwick B-side), and "We’ve Only Just Begun" (a minor bank commercial ditty), and injected them into the collective unconsciousness, making them instantly recognizable to virtually anyone.
6 What does it is Karen’s voice. An overly enthusiastic A&M press release asserted that "Every man of a certain age was in love at one point or another with the sound of Karen Carpenter’s voice." A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but even the most rabid cynic/rock critic has to admit that she had something. The Carpenters at their most banal may have been intolerable, but at their best…. Almost anyone, if they’re honest, will admit that there are one or two songs that aren’t bad, maybe even catchy. It might be the upbeat refrain contrasting with the plaintive lyrics of "Superstar"; the infectious melody of "We’ve Only Just Begun," the clever conclusions drawn by "Rainy Days and Mondays," or, heaven forbid, the kiddie chorus on "Sing."
7 The Carpenters were never cool. Their music was goody-two-shoes music, made by and for other goody-twoshoes. No drugs, no trashed hotel rooms; just two nice American kids who loved their parents, their country, and each other, and who wanted nothing to do with all that hippiesexdrug s---. At least that’s what the official story said.
8 The truth didn’t start coming out until February 4, 1983. That morning, Karen collapsed in the bathroom at her parent’s home. She was DOA at the hospital. Only 32, the autopsy pinned the cause of death on a heart attack brought on by chemical imbalances resulting from a long battle with anorexia and bulimia. The singer/star and idol of millions had all but starved herself to death. And then some of the truth behind that smiling image started coming out. An autocratic older brother with a Quaalude problem. Domineering parents. A [p.116] 25-year-old millionaire, still living at home. And, ultimately, a nine-year battle with anorexia, punctuated with laxatives, syrup of ipecac, and IV feedings. It adds a whole new interpretation to "Rainy Days and Mondays."
9 The Carpenters started with older brother Richard, the genius, the boss, and the shot-caller. He started piano at twelve, and was soon spotted as having real talent. By the time he was sixteen, he was studying piano at Yale and playing in a "horrible" band on weekends in his native New Haven. In 1963, the whole family moved to Downey, California, reportedly to give Richard a better shot in the music business.
10 Karen was four years younger than Richard, but eager to follow in his footsteps. She took up drums after they moved to California. This resulted in The Carpenters Trio, an instrumental jazz combo featuring Richard on piano, Karen on drums, and a friend doubling on bass and tuba. Playing a mix of covers and originals, including Richard’s "Iced Tea," they won the 1965 Hollywood Bowl Battle of the Bands. This led to a brief RCA contract, but nothing was ever released.
11 In 1966, sixteen-year old Karen started to sing, and the duo recorded a single in the combo garage/studio of indy Magic Lamp Records. Karen sang "Where Do I Go From Here," and "You’re the One." It was the first, and only record released under her name, but only 500 copies were pressed, and, predictably, it went nowhere.
12 By then, the Carpenters were dead set on a musical career. With parental help, they bought equipment, tape demos, and looked for the Big Break: a real record deal. It wasn’t easy. A six-piece group, Spectrum, circa 1968, quickly [p.117] followed The Carpenters Trio, and the Karen Carpenter single into oblivion. Richard’s "professional" music job was as a singing ice-cream man on Disneyland’s Main Street, scribbling songs on break. But, even with Karen and Richard both living at home, the constant equipment and production expenses were straining the family budget.
13 Finally, in 1969, it happened. Via a friend of a friend, a Carpenters tape (by then boiled down to a duo) reached Herb Alpert of A&M records. He liked it, and the rest, as they say, is history.
14 The Carpenters weren’t overnight stars. Their first album, "Offering" (later re-released as "Ticket to Ride") didn’t change the world, in spite of its number 45 withouta-bullet single, "Ticket to Ride."
15 The breakthrough came in 1970 with the single and album, "Close To You." Within a few months, The Carpenters went from opening for Englebert Humperdinck to headlining across the country. Thus started their six-year reign over pop as one of the most successful duos in history. Their singles were hits, their albums were gold, and, at one point, they were one of the top five guaranteed acts in the country.
16 Truly the stuff of which dreams are made. Yet, behind the squeaky-clean all-American image of success, trouble was brewing. In a 1974 Rolling Stone interview and article (the only major piece ever done on them) writer Tom Nolan observed, "The Carpenters have real pressures and problems, hard feelings and confusion which few associate with the image of the group…." That they did.
17 The number one strain was undoubtedly Mom and Dad. As late as 1974, after four years of chart-topping success, the multi-millionaire Carpenters still lived at home. Between their parents, and assorted public relations and record company types, The Carpenters were completely sheltered and controlled.
18 Consider the case of the disgruntled autograph hounds. In the early seventies, Richard and Karen were a bit brusque and rude with some pen-wielders after a show. So, the fans took their complaint straight to the top. No, not Herb Alpert, Carpenter management, or even a high-ranking PR honcho, but to Ma and Pa in Downey. And it worked. After presumably a bit of parental tongue-lashing, Karen came through with a personal phone call apologizing. How nice.
19 Both Carpenters also had to labor at the all-but-impossible job of living up to their goody-two-shoes image. Richard, for one, admitted to holding such un-middle American beliefs as favoring marijuana legalization and pre-marital sex. His tastes in music were eclectic. His fans could undoubtedly relate to his love for the "three Bs": [p.118] Bacharach, The Beatles, and the Beach Boys, but could they also relate to Frank Zappa and Van Morrison? Or Richard describing how he "got off" on Led Zepplin’s "Black Dog" and "Whole Lotta Love" and "Surfer (sic) Bird" by The Trashmen? Karen also had her problems. The official reason for all those horrible pant suits she performed in was "Karen is a clean-cut, modest young lady. Try sitting at a drum set some time and watch the position of your legs." They both enjoyed collecting letters from "strangies," their term for some of their more whacked out fans. They wanted to tone down their image into something more livable, but when they did, people were quick to accuse them of all sorts of degeneracy. There was even a time when they had to avoid touching each other in publicity pictures to avoid incest charges.
20 But, as bad as the pressure was for Richard, it was worse for Karen. Not only did she have the expectations of the public, her parents, and the PR men to live up to, but also Richard. From day one, Richard was the boss, Richard was the genius. People commented how "It always seemed as if she was under his thumb."
21 Karen’s voice was the group’s trademark, and she received most of the fan mail. But when it came to interviews and such, Richard did the talking, just like he picked and/or wrote the songs, arranged them, produced them, and everything short of lead vocals. The typical Carpenters interview consisted of Richard pontificating on a wide variety of topics, with Karen occasionally interjecting agreement, a brief anecdote, or a forthright statement like, "My taste naturally evolved from what Richard likes, I was totally into whatever he was into."
22 In a way, her anorexia was a classic case. She was hemmed in on all sides by people demanding obedience: parents, manager, brother, fans.
She had to relinquish control over virtually every aspect of her life to meet everyone’s expectations, and she did it quite well. She was "The Best Little Girl in the World." But there was one thing left that she could control, and no one could stop her. She had been a little overweight as a teenager. When she was seventeen, she dropped twenty pounds on a medically-supervised Stillman diet, down to 120 pounds. She evidently had few or no problems during the early seventies. The fan club newsletter regularly reported the details of the Carpenter’s feasts at various gourmet restaurants across the country. A special favorite was the Hungarian Village in [p.119] Toronto; both Carpenters enjoyed the house specialty, "Flaming Atilla," a blazing tray of assorted meats.
| "Karen’s voice was the group’s trademark, and she received most of the fan mail. But when it came to interviews and such, Richard did the talking…"|
23 Legend has it that some unkind reviewer labeled her "chubby" during this bucolic period, and sparked her endless succession of diets that culminated in the can’t-miss combo of laxatives and starvation. No one knows if this is true--no such review has ever popped up--but by 1974, Karen developed a minimalist approach to food. Her eating habits were sufficiently offbeat to make every writer comment on them.
Nolan, in the 1974 Rolling Stone article, noted, "While everyone else at dinner (including her brother) was enjoying the sumptuous pasta, she had before her a simple green salad and iced tea. She was, as usual, on a diet." A fan club bio from around the same time compliments her: "Her will-power is tremendous. At dinner parties, while those around her indulge in rich, high-calorie foods, she faithfully sticks to low-calorie items." Those 120 pounds were disappearing fast.
| "By 1975, it was obvious something was wrong. Her weight dropped to 90 pounds, and still she refused to eat."|
24 By 1975, it was obvious something was wrong. Her weight dropped to 90 pounds, and still she refused to eat. Richard recalls, "I tried every method I knew to get her to eat. I would scold her and she would say I was getting upset over nothing." Her voice was unaffected; even at her worst, she could deliver on "Superstar" and "Rainy Days and Mondays." Her appearance was another matter. People described her as a "living skull" and Richard remembers "gasps from the audience when she came on stage." Look who’s in control now.
25 Karen was on the point of collapse after their 1975 Summer tour. Their European and Japanese tours were cancelled, and she spent five days in the hospital. Rumors flew about cancer, but the official reason was colitis (inflammation of the colon), brought on by overwork and exhaustion. No one’s talking, but chances are that laxatives had something to do with this too. This is when the rest of the Carpenters discovered that Karen had anorexia.
26 After her recuperation, her weight was back up to 105 pounds--still skinny, but an improvement over the living skull look. And she finally took the plunge and moved into her own place in 1976: a double-sized luxury condo in Century City. But, even as Karen was showing some improvement and independence, The Carpenters’ hot streak was fizzling. Their 1977 album, "Passage," was their first not to go gold, and its single, a cover of Klaatu’s "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" was embarrassing by any standard.
27 Things continued on a downhill slide in 1977. Tours of Japan, the Philippines, and [p.120] Australia were cancelled after doctors ordered complete rest for the pair. Around this time, Richard’s Quaalude problem became serious. He began taking them during their first European tour to help him sleep after the shows. Over the years, he found himself taking more and more to "achieve the desired effect. " Unfortunately, the pills left Richard with slurred speech and trembling hands the next day, and as his dosage increased, it took longer and longer for these side effects to wear off. Both brother and sister were trying to fight it out; Richard remembers, "While I was trying to prevent Karen from withering away, she was trying to help me kick my drug dependency."
28 Not that this togetherness helped matters much. They went back to performing in 1978, but with mixed success. During their engagement at MGM Grand, the effects on Richard of the previous evening’s pill-popping were wearing off around five in the afternoon. When they did, all he wanted to do was go back to sleep. They cancelled halfway through their run, claiming exhaustion (of one sort or another). Their Christmas benefit concert at their alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, was similarly hamstrung. With his trembling hands, Richard remembers, "I pared that damn program down to nothing because I couldn’t play most of it." Karen sang three songs, and Richard played only one: the "Close Encounters/ Star Wars" theme, instead of the scheduled, more difficult, "Nutcracker Suite."
29 Richard finally admitted he had a problem when he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Officially to allow for a "long vacation," the duo suspended all recording and performing activities in early 1979. Richard checked into the Menninger Clinic for treatment, while Karen went to New York to work on a solo album. Although the recording kept her busy enough to turn down an invitation to boogie at Studio 54, it was never released. A few tracks would make it onto the posthumous Carpenters album, "Loveliness," however.
30 By mid-1980, things were almost back to normal. Even as [p.121] Karen continued her battle with anorexia, Richard, "showing signs of having benefitted from his overdue hiatus," had them back in the saddle, working on her new album. They did take another break, but this time for a happier reason: Karen’s marriage. In a truly star-studded affair at the Beverly Hills Hotel, featuring a 40-voice choir and the bride herself debuting a future single, "Because We Are In Love," Karen married real estate developer Tom Burris. The head usher was California Lieutenant Governor Mike Curb, Olivia Newton-John caught the bouquet, and the guest list was a veritable seventies Who’s Who: Daryl Dragon, Hugh and Barry Gibb, Dorothy Hamill, Casey Kasem, and John Davidson, for starters.
31 Unfortunately, this would be The Carpenters’ swan song. A single from the album, "Touch Me When We’re Dancing," would be their last hit, although only making it as high as number sixteen. Karen’s marriage would last less than two years, no doubt due to her anorexia.
32 After her marriage ended in 1981, Karen finally decided she needed outside help. The Carpenters had been friends of the Pat Boone family since the mid-seventies, so Karen naturally turned to recovered anorexic Cherry Boone, author of the classic bulimic confession, Starving for Attention. They met once in person and spoke on the phone a few times. Cherry advised Karen to get away and get help. Karen agreed, telling Cherry, "I’m going to do it. I’ll get well--it’s just so damned hard."
33 At least Karen tried to follow the advice. She did get away, moving to New York. There, she was treated by Dr. Steven Levenkron, the best-selling author of pulp anorexia novels, The Best Little Girl in the World, and Kessa.
34 Under Levenkron’s care, which included IV feeding, Karen improved. Her weight went from a low of 85 pounds back up to 105 pounds--still skinny, but at least livable.
She was in treatment for a year before getting the green light to go back to Downey for Thanksgiving, 1982. Levenkron was confident of her cure, and so was she. Before she left, she gave him a needlepoint sampler she’d stitched: "You win--I gain."
| "Ipecac is a standard over-the-counter drug used to induce vomiting…. It’s also widely abused by bulimics to bring up what they regret swallowing: food from their last binge. It’s also poisonous…"|
35 But there were signs that Karen’s cure was little more than cosmetic. In New York, she’d developed a near mania for walking and other exercise, and bought at least thirty pairs of jogging shoes. At Thanksgiving dinner, Richard still felt uneasy: she was "picking at her food, and there were certain rituals in eating."
36 From November 1982 to her death in February 1983, Karen spoke with Levenkron on the phone two or three times a week. Each time she assured him that yes, she was eating well, and no, she wasn’t using laxatives. But what she didn’t mention was the stuff that probably killed her: syrup of Ipecac.
37 Ipecac is a standard over-the-counter drug used to induce vomiting when, for instance, you’ve swallowed poison. It’s also widely abused by bulimics to bring up what they regret swallowing: food from their last binge. It’s also poisonous, and must be taken in increasingly larger doses by regular users to remain effective. Although not mentioned in the official autopsy report, outside doctors estimate that Karen may have been downing up to two bottles a day to maintain her weight. The human body isn’t made for this kind of abuse, leading to the final result: cardiotoxicity and a heart attack at age 32.
38 In the end, it wasn’t "You win--I gain," but "I win--I lose." In falling to the disease of the late seventies (to date, the only celebrity to actually die from it), Karen just followed her image to its logical conclusion--the good, all-American star, starving herself to death like any other good, all-American girl 1970s style.