jueves, 25 de febrero de 2016

206º-The New York Times Magazine-

 

Magazine

 

‘I’m Here, I’m a Carpenters Fan, Get Used to It’

 









By ROB HOERBURGER JAN. 3, 2014


In the basemnt of my childhood home, there are stacks of old Billboard magazines, dating from the mid-’70s. Recently I rooted through them to find the issue of Jan. 5, 1974. At the top of the album chart inside is the greatest-hits collection by the Carpenters, No. 1 40 years ago this week. Seeing that chart always puts me in mind of another date that same year, April 12, when I got to see the Carpenters live. I was 13. After the show, my mother and I walked up the aisle of the theater, and she delivered her review of the concert:

“Karen looks as if she’s putting on weight.”

She was talking about Karen Carpenter, of course, who, with her brother, Richard, had staged a nonviolent musical coup a few years earlier. Their gentle pop songs, stuff like “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” conquered the charts in the era of acid rock. And because they were a little geeky — Karen a tomboy-with-bangs who played the drums, Richard a keyboard-and-arranging whiz in a pageboy haircut — they scored big for underdogs everywhere, including me. The music could be cheesy sometimes, but I still loved Karen’s low, lamenting voice and Richard’s tidy, tuneful arrangements. And most of all I loved their chart-topping numbers. For a gay adolescent nerd whose other greatest thrill came on report-card day, their success was my success.

My own review of the concert had nothing to do with Karen’s appearance; she didn’t look overweight, or underweight, to me. I was just struck by how the music — long, somewhat rote medleys interspersed with hokey patter — almost didn’t matter. For me it was probably similar to the Beatles’ legendary concerts at Shea Stadium a decade before, when the screaming drowned out what was happening onstage. On that night in 1974, my mother and I were within a few feet of the Carpenters. We touched the proverbial hem of Karen Carpenter’s hiphugger garment.

They were always better in the studio anyway, I thought, again just like the Beatles. And they were due for a new album soon. The music would take care of itself then. 

That summer, my mother and I sat in plastic-covered chairs in my Aunt Marie’s living room in Ozone Park, Queens, watching President Nixon leave office on TV. I felt bad for the guy. I knew he’d done something wrong. But still, he was resigning in disgrace from the most powerful position in the world in front of millions. And he was a Carpenters fan. He once called them “young America at its very best.”

The Carpenters, meanwhile, were M.I.A. The fan-club newsletters reported that they were touring the world and made vague references to their being in the studio. “When is the new album coming out?” my mother said that day.

“Maybe around Thanksgiving,” I conjectured hopefully.
 
I was craving new Carpenters music not just because there hadn’t been any in more than a year, but also because I was worried about the state of pop. This wasn’t about disco, which was starting to gain a foothold. I loved some disco songs. The stuff that disgusted me were huge hits like “Seasons in the Sun,” “The Streak,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “The Night Chicago Died,” “(You’re) Having My Baby.” I suppose every era has its novelty hits, but there was just no escaping these crummy songs on the radio. If ever there was a need for the kind of classing up of the airwaves that the Carpenters could provide, it was the summer and fall of 1974. Moreover, for them to be off the market for so long seemed like madness, when they could have gone platinum practically by setting road signs to music.

While there was no new album, there was one major Carpenters-related life event around that time: I threw a punch. And it landed.

Like my mild-mannered father, I avoided confrontation at all costs. I kept my head down in the halls at school, and when someone made fun of me or shoved me into a locker, I just let it slide. My mother and I had recently witnessed some road rage, two guys duking it out in the middle of bumper-to-bumper traffic. She said something like: “Look at those idiots. Always, always walk away from a fight.” So I usually did.

But one day in the cafeteria in eighth grade, I ignored her advice. The object of my rage was not one of the denim-jacketed nicotine-soaked meanies who tormented me regularly, but rather a boy I ate lunch with every day. He was a mouthy, sarcastic kid named Danny, and as I continued not to hide my affection for the Carpenters — I wrote their name on notebooks, wore their T-shirt, sang their praises wherever I could, as if to say, “I’m here, I’m a Carpenters fan, get used to it” — he belittled them, and me, constantly.

That day at lunch I had my drumsticks with me — in band I played drums, Karen’s instrument! — and Danny pulled them out of my folder. “Are these the kind your girlfriend uses?” he said mockingly. I looked up from my Velveeta-on-white sandwich and pulled the sticks back, and the recoil made one of them slap into my eye. No damage was done, but the weeks of ridicule gathered into a fist, and before I knew it, it was landing smack in the middle of Danny’s honk of a nose.

I hit a gusher. That kid bled.   

November came, and with it, finally, a new release! Only a single, but at least it was something.

Disco was really dominating now, and while I didn’t think the Carpenters should make a disco record per se, at the very least I was hoping for something lively, a song the kids could dance to on “American Bandstand.” About a week before Thanksgiving, such a record appeared. Here was “Please Mr. Postman.”

The exhilaration that flooded me as that song flooded our living room for the first time — it was late on a Sunday afternoon; the radio station was WNBC; Cousin Bruce Morrow was the D.J.; my mother was cooking pot roast — made me focus on everything that was good about the record. It was a classic Motown song later covered by the Beatles, so it couldn’t have had better provenance. The Carpenters’ take on it wasn’t disco, and it didn’t have the irresistible hip-chug of the earlier versions, but it had smooth, steady drumming, by Karen herself and not one of the studio ringers who usually played on their records. Karen’s lead vocal was fluid and sometimes muscular; she clearly held her own on this beloved rock treasure.

The mixed emotions I had about the record surfaced later. It almost came to a dead stop when the blanched-out harmonies kicked in. Making matters worse was a promotional video for the song that had Karen and Richard cavorting around Disneyland. I knew that Karen was a big Disney fan, but . . . what were they thinking? They always complained that they were pigeonholed as square and white-bread, but then they dance around with Mickey Mouse?

Oh, and in the months since my mother and I saw that concert, chunks of Karen’s body seemed to have fallen away, like a snowcap after a sudden, unexpected spike in the temperature. I wasn’t alarmed, exactly, not yet. I’d never even heard the word “anorexia.” And she still sounded pretty good.

Many people were Carpenters fans, but you had to keep it to yourself in the 70's, especially in High School. Great article, I look forward...

What buoyed me most, as usual, were the chart numbers. “Please Mr. Postman” flew up the Billboard Hot 100, and in January 1975, it became their 10th million-selling single. On Jan. 25, my mother and I watched Dick Clark count down the Top 10 on “Bandstand,” and when he revealed the occupant of the No. 1 slot, she looked over at me with something akin to pride.

The song played. And the kids danced. 

Five months later, in June 1975, the new album, “Horizon,” finally arrived. Karen sang as beautifully as ever, and the album was a hit, but not on the multiplatinum level that only a year before was so automatic for them. While they should have been reveling in their success and ramping up the energy, at a time when pop music in general was picking up the tempo, “Horizon” was oddly short and slow and downcast. The really big hit of the summer belonged to the Captain and Tennille, kind of an ersatz Carpenters, with the perky “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

With each successive album, there were quizzical song choices from Richard, while Karen’s voice, once the place where hope and despair fought to a draw, melted away sliver by sliver, song by song, along with her body (and their record sales). I kept hoping that the next album would be the one to turn things around, But by the time I left for college in 1978, they weren’t even making the Top 40 anymore.

Then, a glimmer of hope: Near the end of my freshman year, I read that Karen would record a solo album with the hot New York producer Phil Ramone. I thought, This could fix everything. But the album was shelved on the eve of its release. Karen reunited with Richard for one final record, “Made in America,” in 1981, but it wasn’t the comeback they (or I) were hoping for. In early 1983, the years of battling anorexia caught up to her, and she died in her parents’ home at age 32, with no second act in sight.

That night, Feb. 4, I went to my job spinning records at a local bar. I was mostly numb during my six-hour set of songs by Men at Work, Prince, A Flock of Seagulls, the Pointer Sisters. For my last song, around 4 a.m., I played the Carpenters’ “Superstar.” When Karen started to sing the haunting first line, “Long ago, and oh, so, far away,” the bar got quiet. I closed the door to the D.J. booth, sat down on a record crate and wept. 

New York, 2013. The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling,” is a fixture on the radio during the holiday season. I hear it in my car on occasion and quite often in the living room of my Manhattan apartment. I wonder if that kid I punched almost 40 years ago is hearing it somewhere. That day in the cafeteria, to his credit, he didn’t hit me back or rat me out; he still teased me about the Carpenters (especially the Disney video), but now with a hint of respect. I guess I made the one punch I’ve ever thrown in my life count.

And the Carpenters themselves have, over the years, been getting respect from unexpected sectors: the film director Todd Haynes; the bands Sonic Youth and My Morning Jacket; the alt-cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond; the novelist Mary Gaitskill have all acknowledged or celebrated the Carpenters in their art. There was a second act after all.

An even more recent nod, though, came from a not-so-surprising source. Burt Bacharach, the composer of “Close to You,” was on NPR last spring to promote his new memoir, and the host played a few bars of his classic “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” but not the familiar version by Dionne Warwick. “That’s a good singer,” Bacharach said. “Who was it?”

“Karen Carpenter,” the host replied.

“Oh, oh, my God,” Bacharach said. “What a voice.”
 
Rob Hoerburger, an editor at the magazine, is writing a book about growing up a Carpenters fan.
 

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