Karen Carpenter, Born 72 Years Ago Today

by Kevin Burton

   No rock and roll artist discussion can make me more happy, but at the same time more sad and more angry than that of Karen Carpenter. 

   None of my other favorites, from Steely Dan to Gerry Rafferty, Motown to the Beatles, to Supertramp, Billy Joel, Elton John, Flans from Mexico, none of them make me care at that level.

   Today would have been the 72nd birthday for Karen Carpenter.  Happy birthday dear Ka-ren…happy birthday to you. And many mooooore… Smile, blow out the candles.

   Just didn’t work out that way.

   For some reason that hurts me, though I didn’t know her personally. It just seems wrong. 

   Set out to write the top ten things I love about Carpenters music on the occasion of Karen’s birthday. I will get to that. 

   But it’s really eleven things. Karen’s voice is the one element that transcended anything else I could write about. 

   Her voice was just the best, most bankable musical asset of the 70s.  It was more valuable than the skill of the best guitar player you want to mention, the best drummer, horn player, whatever, that voice was and still is unmistakable.  She was the purest, best female vocalist of my era.

   I will leave it at best of the 70s because I can’t be bothered with the larger argument just now. 

   And, Karen was the voice of my tribe, the rejected ones, the discards.  She sang all these sad songs. She articulated our pain in a way I still can’t match all these years later. And thanks to Richard Carpenter, his arrangements and selection of material, it was all so musical. It was a gift we badly needed and I still cling to.

   I obviously soaked it in at a level beyond just spinning tunes.

   The anger part of my Carpenters story is how Karen’s mother treated her and how the Carpenters have been excluded from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I’m not as mad as some people are though.

   Here’s a post by Bill Hosley on the Future Rock Legends website about the Carpenters.

   “The Carpenters deserve more than an apology from a music “establishment” that has been slow to admit the obvious – excellence isn’t limited to any one genre or form.”
   “The Carpenters should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame years ago and it is a discredit to the integrity of the award and the spirit of rock and roll that it’s taken so long….This is the most indefensible blackballing and disgrace.”

   Oooo-wee! That guy’s spitting mad! I’m not that mad.

   The idea of a rock establishment is irony in its highest form. Rock and roll was largely a generational rebellion against rigid definitions of everything, starting with music.  

   But somewhere along the line, some set of guitar boys started erecting new definitional walls and excluding soft rockers such as the Carpenters.

   The truth is Richard and Karen, with a big assist from Herb Alpert at A&R Records, went into the studio and kicked their rock and roll butts all over the charts for most of the 70s. You tell me who was hotter from 1970 to 1975. 

    You tell me who invented the power ballad with “Goodbye to Love.” OK, we’ll let that swing us back to the top ten things I love about Carpenters music.

   10-The guitar solo on “Goodbye To Love.”  I’m not even judging the quality of the solo here, but lauding their courage to do it.  Their detractors mocked Goodbye to Love as “a Jimi Hendrix song.” Some of their fans felt betrayed by it. 

  But check your musical history and see how many bands gave it the highest form of flattery by imitating it.

   9-The encouragement of “Sing.” I should play this song as an attitude check every time I practice music. “Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear, just sing, sing a song.”

   8-The nostalgic tribute of “Yesterday Once More.” Just like a long-lost friend, the song melts the years away, contrasting old times to new.

   7-The hope and optimism of “We’ve Only Just Begun.”  How many couples used that song in their weddings?  White lace and promises. Sharing horizons that are new to us. Talking it over, just the two of us.

   It kills me that Karen never reached a place where she go to live out the song.  

   6-The rock-country mix of “Sweet Sweet Smile.” Richard has said this song should have been a bigger hit. I agree. Swingin’ tune.

   5-The group therapy of “Rainy Days And Mondays.”  “What I’ve got they used to call the blues…walking around, some kind of lonely clown.”  But then “What I feel has come and gone before.” So she sings herself and us through the bad times.

   4-The historian’s take on “For All We Know.” The song is devoid of the usual grand pronouncements. “Love, look at the two of us, strangers in many ways.  Only time will tell us so, and love may grow for all we know.”   

   3-The love song for grown-ups, “I Won’t Last A Day Without You.” “When there’s no getting over that rainbow when my smallest of dreams won’t come true. I can take all the madness the world has to give, but I won’t last a day without you.”

   2-The honesty of “It’s Going To Take Some Time.”  “Like the young trees in the winter time, I’ve learned how to bend.”  Clear-eyed self-assessment before the next try at love. “I really fell out of line this time…so it’s one more round for experience and I’m on the road again.”

   1-The personal life-story word pictures of “Only Yesterday.” This was the first dance song for my wife Jeannette and me at our wedding.  “In my own time nobody knew, the pain I was going through…I have found my home here in your arms. Nowhere else on earth I’d really rather be.”

   “You were the dawn breaking the night, the promise of morning light, filling the world surrounding me.”

   I’ll let you know on Page 7 when I write a song that good.  Don’t hold your breath.

   But thank God for Karen and for her great gift that lives on.

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