Long ago and oh so far away...
Halls Middle School, eighth grade, 1991.
I was sitting in an English class, near the back of the room, writing God knows what. Two classrooms were joined together by a partition. I could hear Dave Lewis lecturing next door.
After a few minutes, he showed a video -- one of those "Twentieth Century" documentaries hosted by Linda Ellerbee and a guy who's name I can't remember -- all about 1970.
Then the voice floated into the room. I was so taken by it I couldn't concentrate.
"Long ago, and oh so far away, I fell in love with you, before the second show..."
She was singing just for me, pure and honest, pitch-perfect and full of talent. I couldn't move. You know how it is when a good song envelops you, pulls you in like the undertow of a tidal wave. (This has happened exactly two other times; I'll tell you about them some other time.)
I didn't know her name. I went to the front of the room to ask Mrs. Clapp. I had to know who this singer was that had so stirred my soul.
It was my introduction to Karen Carpenter.
People tell me all the time I'm a walking anachronism. Born out of my time, they say. Kinda corny. Kinda crazy. I plead guilty to all of the above. And there's no good reason why I should have ever been stirred by a singer popular in another generation.
Oh, but that's not true. Talent lasts through the decades, remains just as powerful as it was "back then," rising above the fleeting fly-by-night junk that passes for pop music.
And I took to the Carpenters like peas and carrots.
I was touched by the lyrics, by way she seemed to crawl up into your lap and sing into your ear (to quote Herb Alpert), by the innate sadness in the timbre of Karen Carpenter's voice.
I couldn't get her out of my head. Kept humming what I later learned was a Leon Russell song. Wouldn't let it go.
A few hours later, Dave showed that same video to my class. And I learned all about Karen Carpenter's career, and her struggle with anorexia, and her untimely death at 32.
And, as is my custom, I dove head first into another obsession.
Had to have everything she'd ever recorded. Played it over and over. Ordered rare and out-of-print albums from overseas. All the crazy stuff you do when you're obsessive-compulsive.
What struck me is the all-knowing melancholy of a voice that must have hidden an inner pain. I still find it amazing that she could sing "Rainy Days and Mondays," a lyric that in some ways belongs to a mature performer somewhat weary of life, when she was all of 21 years old. It was as if she already understood something about the world that most of us later wish we'd never learned.
The other night, surfing around on You Tube when I couldn't sleep, I found a clip of Karen singing "Superstar" years ago on the BBC. I was just as taken by it as I had been that spring morning in the eighth grade. I thought back to that too-skinny little boy I was then, painfully backward in his naivete, and wondered how 16 years had slipped away.
And I thought about Karen Carpenter, about the tragic story of her life, and wondered for the 100th time why the special ones seem to leave too soon.