Tuesday, July 6, 2010

This Masquerade

Personal Blogs - Blog Rankings
The rock music landscape is littered with the bones of lives cut short and massive potential unreached. One of the saddest is that of singer Karen Carpenter, who died at 32 in 1983 of a heart attack resulting from years of anorexia nervosa.

The plight of this lost superstar has become somewhat relevant again after all these years because of a new biography called Little Girl Blue by Randy L. Schmidt. I haven't read it yet but I wonder if there is any new ore to be mined from this particular patch of pop history: we know about the monstrous mother, the controlling brother, the brief marriage, and the pain and longing that are so evident throughout her substantial song book. The bio includes a foreward by Karen's close friend Dionne Warwick, so it seems somewhat authorized, though I'm sure her brother had no part in it.

Karen's story is particularly sad because she exhibited such tremendous raw talent right from the start, and could have had a long and luminous career. A tom-boyish drummer reluctant to be the focus of attention, she was thrust in front of her drum set and instantly revealed herself to be a natural song stylist, putting her unmistakable stamp on every song she touched, though she never had a single singing lesson. For nearly all of her career she was the victim of her brother Richard's peculiar artistry; he'd always been the golden musician in the family who got all the accolades and awards. Believing that the multiple-track overlay recording style he'd devised was the defining Carpenters sound, he rarely allowed her to showcase her full, bass vocals without piling on the orchestrations and echo chamber effects. Even some of her best work is marred by gerunds with dropped "g's," as though he couldn't decide if he was marketing a country star like Dolly Parton. By the end of their partnership she was reduced to providing the vocals for disco-themed numbers and inexcusable dreck like Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft. Two of her covers of ballads, however, are relatively untampered-with: Desperado and Don't Cry for Me Argentina, where the purity of her voice is used to its full advantage. 

When Karen finally escaped her brother's influence it was only because she was in New York fighting the condition for which she would soon become the poster child. She made one solo album that wasn't released until many years after her death, but the song choices are questionable and her talent really doesn't come through on most of the cuts.

She worked with many other industry veterans, but because of the duo's squeaky clean image, they tended to be linked with fossils like Andy Williams and Bing Crosby. There remains one stunning artifact, though: a duet between Karen and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald from a 1980 television special. 

You can see how skeletally thin Karen is in this clip, yet her voice if anything is richer and more beautifully modulated; Ella was 63 and looks as though she's incapable of standing up (her legs would eventually be amputated), but she was still able to tap into that amazing voice, and would live until 1996 when her diabetes finally got the better of her. She'd had a bumpy life as well, an illegitimate child who'd been abused by her stepfather, found herself homeless and worked as a "lookout" in a whore house. Once she'd finally made a name for herself, Ella spent decades bouncing from one record label to another, a victim of her own incomparable talent, which no one seemed able to market appropriately. But seeing these two natural talents from such different musical eras blend their unique instruments together is a wonderful thing. It's too bad that they were both so poorly managed during their careers.

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