Wednesday, March 05, 2014

'Long ago, and oh, so far away...'

Those who know such things say smell triggers memories quicker and stronger than any of the other senses.

Can't deny it, but for me, it's sound. Particularly the sound of music, if you'll pardon the pun. 

You ever remember where you were the first time you heard a song? I had just made the turn into the big curve on Emory Road near Greenwell Drive when I first discovered Merle Haggard's "What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana?" Somebody was playing it on the great, long-gone WGAP-FM ("World's Greatest Aluminum Plant!"). 

It hit me so hard, I nearly wrecked. 

I was sitting somewhere in the UT Music Building when I first heard Miles Davis' "Flamenco Sketches." Music, life, how the weather was -- nothing was ever the same after "Kind of Blue." 

I was at a joint downtown, one Sunday night nearly a decade ago accompanied by a girl with whom I attended high school, when I heard Robinella's "Teardrops." I had a near-religious experience. Killing me softly with her song, indeed. 

And I was finishing a project in eighth-grade English class when the most beautiful voice I'd ever heard came wafting in from the next room. 

Long ago, and, oh, so far away; I fell in love with you before the second show..."

I would probably be expelled for doing this today, but I stood up, right in the middle of class, opened the partition, and asked the social studies teacher to identify the woman with the warm, ethereal voice. 

It was Karen Carpenter. 

I know it's all subjective, but I get angry at the scorn leveled at The Carpenters. If you don't like their music, no worries. But the cheap shots are musically ignorant. And the anorexia jokes are awful. Just plain awful.

Karen had the intangible quality that makes a singer a star. Those who were there say you could wake her up at 3 a.m. and she could sing on perfect pitch. And she had this timbre to her voice, this warmth, that gave you the illusion she was sitting in your lap, singing just for you. 

And poor Richard. Always overlooked. But he was the man behind the curtain, the arranger, the musical genius who created their sound, the John Ford to Karen's John Wayne. 

I went bonkers. Bought all of their albums. Later, I bought all of their CDs. Even the ones I had to get from England and Japan. And this was before Amazon and the Internet! 

I wrote to their longtime secretary, Evelyn Wallace, whom we lost last August. She sent me a nice note in return and an unopened vinyl copy of their last U.S. studio album released during Karen's lifetime, "Made In America." It's still sealed. 

Although I didn't care for all of it, I was tickled when several modern bands and singers released a tribute album, "If I Were A Carpenter," in the 1990s. 

"Well," I said, "at least somebody gets it." 

I devour music like others devour doughnuts. It is a companion when I'm lonely, it is solace for the soul, it is artistic inspiration, and, yes, it is a time machine. 

Though it was long ago and, oh, so far away, sure enough, the song remembers when. 


Blogger Amy Aboumoussa said...

(I'm submitting this in parts as I wrote a novel. Sorry. Ha!)

Part One:


Like you, I devour music and mark time and memories by it. My sense of smell is my strongest so I also associate memories with smell and sometimes a song and a smell and a memory all get wrapped up together. It's always interesting…try telling someone how Jim Croce's "Time In A Bottle" smells like your mother's perfume in 1980 without them looking at you like you've got a third eye.

Unlike you, I don't remember the very first time I heard the most beautiful voice there every was and this is probably because to me when I think back on my exposure to music as a child, the Carpenters were woven into the baseline of the music I was exposed to very early on and became part of the eclectic musical taste I've developed as I've aged. My sister Laura ALWAYS loved them. My parents owned "the tan album" and growing up, we still listened to my parents' records…daily. My parents have given Laura and I so much, but our love for music is something I will eternally be grateful for as long as I am breathing.

There is something about Karen's voice that literally captivates me. Holds me in a trance. It was truly God given as only God could create an instrument that beautiful. When I took the time to learn more about the person behind the voice, my love for her grew and my connection deepened. I too become enraged by the anorexia jokes. There's no call for them. People do not joke about cancer which is an illness. So are eating disorders. One doesn't choose to have one. They develop as a way to cope. Having suffered through one myself and worse than it the crippling (at times) self-image issues, it's Hell on earth. There are many, many reasons one can develop whether it be genetic, environmental, chemical, etc. But Karen existed in a perfect storm for one. I love Richard and I too feel sorry for him. I have zero tolerance for the legion of people throughout the years who have sought to criticize them only to come up short, so they make fun of them. Real credible. Idiots. But I mostly feel sorry for Richard because whether he'd ever admit it or not, I think he's had to live the past 31 years in hindsight realizing there were probably at least a few things he could've and should've done differently.

I often think that if A&M and Richard had allowed the solo project to be released in 1979, she may still be with us. She loved that album despite what he has said over the years. I don't think it was her intention to break them up at all, but she needed space. She needed to grow. The album isn't OMG WOW, but I still love it. It wasn't anything different than what the other droves of artists were churning out at the time. I think it would've charted fine because it was her. The fans would've purchased it and it may have even bolstered the future Carpenters' albums. Karen was exposed to the kind of professional recognition she needed when she made that album in NYC. She needed the ego boost. Artists stopped by just to see her work in the studio. Billy Joel's band was hired by Phil Ramone and Billy stopped by wanting to meet her. Each time someone new would show up, I think it really gave her some much-needed confidence and Ramone allowed her to call the shots. It's been said that many times Richard would just tell her to be at the studio; she wouldn't even know what the plan was or what she was going to be singing. When A&M and Richard told her they didn't' care for it, it crushed her spirit and broke her. That was strike one. The anorexia had definitely already taken hold, but if it wasn't bad enough before…

10:34 PM  
Blogger Amy Aboumoussa said...

Part Two:

Then she meets Tom Burris, has a whirlwind romance, and just days before the wedding he tells her he has had a vasectomy. Karen wanted children immediately. This was such treason to her for him to have kept this from her until two days before their wedding and rightfully so. What would any bride-to-be do in this situation? Call her mother. But perhaps she should've called her best friend. When Karen told her mother she wanted to call it off, Mrs. Carpenter told her she would do no such thing and that she would walk down that aisle because they had spent a fortune and had family coming from England. Told her you have made your bed, Karen, now you will have to lie in it. Strike two.

Then there was the failed marriage to the lying scumbag of the century. Strike three.

Here's the thing with Levenkron. I don't question his treatment so much as I say that it was the wrong kind of treatment for Karen. Eating disorder treatment was still in the baby stages then, but outpatient, couch sessions like that are more suited to someone who isn't in full-out, 9-1-1 mode. She, like Cherry Boone suggested, needed inpatient treatment in a quiet atmosphere. By then, Karen may have not been strong enough to face it on her own like that. At any rate, she reached an all-time low of 77 pounds in the fall of 1982 and was fed intravenously to make her gain weight. Richard still holds true to the fact he thinks this is what killed her. I don't buy and I didn't buy even before the book "Little Girl Blue" was released.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Amy Aboumoussa said...

Part three:

Plenty of people have suffered eating disorders longer than Karen and lived to tell the story. Remember the perfect storm I said Karen lived in? Eating disorders develop as a way to gain a sense of control over one's life. Karen's mother was known to be somewhat domineering (to put it mildly) and she made no bones about Richard being her favorite. Everything in life was done for Richard. The focus was always on Richard. They moved to California not only so Mr. Carpenter could escape the Northeast winters, but so that RICHARD could pursue a career in music. Karen's voice? That was an accident. That beautiful, gorgeous, God-given instrument: an accident. And her mother never told her she was a good singer. She also never told her she loved her. Didn't believe in that kind of thing. Except there was a problem with that…Karen needed to hear that. Some people do. And Karen was very demonstrative; she loved to give hugs and she loved getting them. So, mom loves big brother more and big brother tells me where to be when and tells me what to do once I'm there. It was militant to put it mildly. One of the most poignant things ever said about Karen's situation is this (and I think her best friend Frenda is who said it), "If anorexia has classically been defined as a young woman's struggle for control, then Karen was a prime candidate, for the two things she valued most in the world -- her voice and her mother's love -- were exclusively the property of Richard. At least she would control the size of her own body." She resorted to abuse that not even the therapist had thought of. He still has the bottle of untaken thyroid pills he made her give him. She admitted she was taking 10 times the normal dosage. I have autoimmune thyroid disease. I take .137 mg daily. I'd imagine Karen was ingesting about 1 mg daily. Too much thyroid hormone will cause heart issues. This is why people with Grave's disease are at such risk for a heart attack. Levenkron was appalled at this. As if the 90 laxatives a day and God knows how many diuretics a day weren't bad enough, thyroid replacement when her thyroid was perfectly healthy. That contributed to weakening her heart in such a short period of time. But it was the two-three month period of using ipecac syrup to purge that killed her. As surprising as the thyroid replacement was to Levenkron, the ipecac left him speechless. He has lobbied for years to make it prescription and he was successful at helping get a bill passed so that the bottle carries a skull and crossbones label. Funny. The very thing you buy to make you vomit if you've ingested certain poisons is a poison itself. It cumulatively builds up in the body as the human body has no way to break it down or process it. And worse, it breaks down heart muscle. It literally eats it away. What killed our Karen? The ipecac. Her heart looked like that of an 80-90 year old's heart upon post-mortem examination. And "emetine cardiotoxicity" and "cardiac arrest due to complications from anorexia nervosa" are listed on her death certificate (so I don't see how Richard is still denying the ipecac. Emetine cardiotoxicity = ipecac poisoning of the heart in so many words). But what REALLY killed her? The shelved solo album, the failed marriage and her mother's militant inability to show her she loved her. It was too much. It had to be. The abuse her body took worsened and seemed to follow the events. As they happened, the eating disorder plummeted into an even more sinister black hole.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Amy Aboumoussa said...

Part Four:

Do I blame Richard? No. He adored her and she him In fact, 13 years after she died when he finally decided to release the solo album, he called Phil Ramone's wife (one of Karen's dearest friends) to see if Karen had any album dedications. And Itchy told him Karen's dedication read, ''Dedicated to my brother Richard with all my heart.'' Upon hearing this, he bawled into the phone. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to hear that. I cannot imagine what it has been like for him to live these past 31 years without her. My heart always broke the most for her father though. He adored her. He was always so quiet and soft spoken. She loved him too, dearly. And once when she called home while in therapy in NYC, he answered. He said, "Hold on let me get your mother." And Karen quickly said, "Dad! No, I want to talk to you." Long-time secretary/mother-Karen-never-had Evelyn Wallace directed Mr. Carpenter into a closed room knowing if Mrs. Carpenter got wind Karen was on the phone, she would snatch the phone from him in a split second. It was said after Karen passed, he would lay in the music room and listen to her sing and cry and cry. I have a piece of the carpet that came from the music room at Newville Avenue before it was destroyed. True 1970's, red shag. I used to take cheap shots at Mrs. Carpenter before I became a mother myself. And I don't know what her circumstances were growing up, but now as a mother, I cannot imagine a day that didn't go by that I didn't tell my son that I love him and it seems like I hug and kiss him numerous times a day. If Nate had been a girl, this would be no different. I just have a very hard time understanding how she could love Richard so much and be so vocal about it and yet be so critical of Karen and not see fit to show her love too. I'll never understand it. Ever.

Her story is so layered with heartache and it was made more evident by Randy's book "Little Girl Blue" that was released in 2010. As much as one could argue that she became the "poster child" for anorexia/eating disorders after her death and it was important as it brought them into the light and people realized how serious they are, that's not all Karen was. And it's the heartache that caused the anorexia that deserved to be told in my opinion. She was a fine human being. Dorothy Hammell said that Karen was a true friend to her even before she was a dear friend and that is hard to come by. I've read numerous times that you were a better person to have known her. Fame didn't change her. She remained the girl next door. If anything, fame demanded she try and change for it. She never forgot a birthday and always sent cards. She was dear and real and sincere.

So, long ago and oh so far away…not only did the world lose the greatest voice to ever sing, but it lost a precious soul. And many are haunted, myself included, by the fact she may have not been loved and/or appreciated nearly as much as she loved and appreciated everyone.

She will always be my favorite.


10:39 PM  

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