by Kevin Burton
Karen Carpenter was the spokesperson for the brokenhearted.
She alone, truly gave voice to our feelings. She worded and sang it so well that we forgot the pain, if only in the moment.
Carpenters music was a hiding place, a comfort, a home. It made bad things go away, at least it seemed to.
Then we learned that just as her songs became our songs, our pain was her pain.
And then we lost her.
This is my eighth album-challenge post, honoring records that influenced me greatly. Today it’s “Yesterday Once More” a greatest hits compilation by the Carpenters.
Karen Carpenter died of anorexia nervosa on Feb. 4, 1983. Before her death she finally confronted her illness and was gaining weight. But the damage already done to her heart proved to be too much.
She started out in the band as a drummer. She reached unbelievable heights as a singer. What she really wanted, a happy marriage and stable family, she never got.
Her music lives on as an everlasting gift to be cherished.
Those who love rock’s guitar heroes make fun of the Carpenters. But they were the best at what they did, melodic soft pop.
The divide between the hard rockers and soft rockers was such that it was jarring to some Carpenters fans to hear the fuzz guitar solo on “Goodbye To Love.” The band got more than a little flack over it.
As Bob Dylan was in 1965 when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, the Carpenters were accused of “selling out.”
Any sane accounting of their work shows that they didn’t. They had a sound and stuck to it. You could make a case that beginning with the chart-topper “Close To You” The Carpenters owned AM radio from 1970 to 1975.
Richard Carpenter is overshadowed because of his sister’s transcendently great voice. But his talent is considerable.
Thank God Karen usually had great material to interpret. That doesn’t always happen. (I am thinking of Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson here).
That was Richard’s doing. He either co-wrote songs or found great material in odd places such as TV commercials. His musical ear, piano playing and arranging would have made him a mega star in another setting.
But Karen had a voice that left both fans and industry professionals, gushing.
How blessed were we growing up in the 70s, with no life experience or particular skills beyond the ability to turn on a radio, to nevertheless stumble into some of the greatest music ever composed?
Take “It’s Going To Take Some Time,” from 1972, a beautifully-crafted, eloquent, clear-eyed ode to resilience. The song alludes to past turmoil without dragging us through it. Even “the birds on the telephone line” encourage her to learn and grow.
“So it’s one more round for experience and I’m on the road again….” We’ve all been there.
The lyrics and vocal performance are also both superior on the happier “I Won’t Last A Day Without You.”
It feels like “We’ve Only Just Begun” dropped straight out of Heaven as a wedding song and celebration of love. I think of “For All We Know” in that same vein. Who has expressed the joy of wedding day any better?
On my wedding day, to contrast the pain in my past and the joy I felt at present, I reached for “Only Yesterday” and made it our first dance song.
The Carpenters are known for sadder songs such as “Rainy Days And Mondays,” “Hurting Each Other” and “Superstar.” But their catalog isn’t wall-to-wall tears. The first 45 I ever owned was the very upbeat “Top of the World.”
“Sing” is a gift of encouragement toward self-expression for those of us with lesser talent than Karen.
I lost touch with The Carpenters after “There’s A Kind of Hush” hit number 12 in 1976. The band’s momentum slowed as Richard struggled with drugs and Karen with the eating disorder. Disco blew them out of the water too.
Of the songs from the later years, my favorite is “Sweet Sweet Smile.” It reached number 44 in 1978. If you don’t know it, check it out. It’s too good to miss.