Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Wild World of The Carpenters

I'm not a Carpenters fan per se.  I find their music kinda bland & soulless (most of it).  That's not quite fair:  it's not my taste... let's put it that way.  But Karen Carpenter is one of the most talented & tragic musicians of the 20th Century, and also underrated.  And she didn't have to die.  Her story is the saddest of any celebrity death I can think of, not only because we lost a great talent but because she never got to experience the simple pleasures most people take for granted: mutual romantic love, a mother's warmth, a family of her own or living independently as an adult.  It was said that she didn't even know how to hail a cab or order for herself at a restaurant in her late 20's.  Karen died one year before I was born (1983) from complications of anorexia nervosa.  She never abused drugs & didn't drink or smoke, which was exceedingly rare for a mainstream musician.  So her death at 32 from cardiac arrest was shocking to the public who--to that point--had not heard much about eating disorders.  

The Carpenters were presented by their record label as a "clean cut" brother-and-sister duo who made saccharine adult contemporary hits you could listen to with your parents.  And on the surface they were clean cut.  This was in stark contrast to other music during the '60s & '70s which included lots of psychedelia, punk rock, reggae & other raucous countercultural music.  Let's just say they weren't on the bill at Woodstock or Altamont.  Carpenters hits include "Rainy Days & Mondays," "Superstar," "Top of the World" & lesser-known gems like "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" (video below), which is about as trippy as they got. 

So what drove a sweet, beloved icon like Karen to starve herself to death so young?  We'll get to that, but first we should talk about her brother Richard, the other 50% of the group.  The elder sibling, Richard Carpenter was the producer & arranger of the band's sound who stayed behind the piano but was actually the "leader" of the group for all intents.  While he voted in favor of marijuana legalization in the '70s, he never (openly) smoked pot or used other recreational drugs & rarely drank more than one or two beers.  Despite this straight edge lifestyle, Richard checked into rehab in 1979 for a serious Quaalude addiction: he was taking up to 25 pills per day by this point.  That's an insane amount of downers, y'all.  

Quaaludes (methaqualone) were an intermediary between barbiturates & benzodiazepines and were all the rage in the '70s.  Anxiety clinics were to that era what pain clinics are to this one.  They were said to produce not only sedation but a physical numbness & sexual arousal in users, who playfully referred to them as "leg spreaders".  Interviews of the group from '78-'79 show a dazed & confused Richard barely stringing sentences together & Karen dutifully covering for him like the good little sister she was.  It's disturbing.  (See vid below).  I say that as someone who has experienced the hell of benzodiazepine withdrawal firsthand & barely survived.  And my habit was nowhere NEAR that big.  I give the man props for overcoming that with his sanity intact.

Little did the world know, Karen was already in the mid-stages of her own battle with anorexia by this point and only had 4 years left to live.  She started dieting aggressively in 1975 & had to be hospitalized for "exhaustion" after a grueling 118-show tour--around the same time Richard's problems were starting to escalate.  Her well-publicized relationship with her mother is often cited as the sole cause of her eating disorder, but things usually aren't that cut-and-dried when it comes to mental illness.  Karen never wanted to be a lead singer & wasn't comfortable having her appearance picked apart by critics, but her mom & brother decided it was best for the brand that she leave her drums & sing instead.  So she the good little sister & daughter she was.

All this pressure caused Karen to crack.  She used pretty much every trick in the book to achieve weight loss and then some.  Starvation, laxatives, exercise, induced vomiting with ipecac syrup (which ultimately killed her heart muscle) & even abuse of thyroid pills--up to 10 a day.  People started noticing her rapid weight loss around this time & showing concern after initially complimenting her when she reached 110 lbs.  But she didn't know how to stop even as reporters questioned whether she had cancer.  But why?  

We all have our theories & many books have been written on the subject.  The main theory of anorexia is that it's about the need to control something--in this case, the food that goes into your body.  And yes, she had very little control over her career.  She was forced out from behind the comfort of her drums & made to be a lead singer, thereby giving up the thing she most loved about performing.  Being out front also made her vulnerable & uncomfortable--critics were harsh(er) on women in those days.  It's easy to see she looked happiest when banging away on the drums.  But I still think it's a little more complicated than simple insecurity.  

Many anorexics have a Type A, perfectionist personality & strong desire to please others.  Anorexia is often called 'the good girl syndrome'.  Karen might've sought therapy for her problems but she was never free from them long enough to recover fully & focus on her healing.  Things actually got much worse in her life around the time she sought help from her first therapist.  Her beloved solo album was shelved; her brother was hospitalized for his drug addiction & her marriage to sleazeball Tom Burris failed.  In fact she didn't want to marry him at all but her controlling mother forced her, saying the wedding was paid for & the invitations had been sent out.  "You made your bed, now lie in it" were the exact words she said to her ailing daughter.  So it was something akin to an arranged/forced marriage.  Every little girl's dream.  😒

And here's where I'll get into my own speculation.  I suspect based on my own intuition (and experience) that Karen might've been lesbian or bisexual.  I don't think she identified as such even to herself privately, as she believed strongly in the traditional family unit.  I think she truly wanted kids & a heterosexual family as she claimed.  And yet... 

There were whispers that she was dating bestie Olivia Newton John way back in the '80s before "gayness" was on everyone's radar.  She had the body language, interests & clothing style of a total tomboy (her word) for most of her life until the music industry glammed her up.  She joked about sleeping with the Butter Queen--a well-known female groupie.  She never had a long-term relationship with a man despite professing traditional values & rejecting women's lib, always finding a weak excuse for dumping anyone that got too close.  She turned down Elvis Presley's advances, for Pete's sake!  What straight girl would do that?!  (Half-joking here).

King of
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And how many straight women do you know who literally have to be coached on how to appear feminine onstage?  A friend said she looked like a "truck driver walking across the stage".  Yes, hetero tomboys exist.  But let's not be naive here.  Karen was from an extremely conservative family & town.  Her image in the music industry was as squeaky clean as it gets.  Some say she was asexual or sexually immature due to her love of Mickey Mouse & other kid stuff, but that's a bunch of bull.  That's what people who are closeted cling to in order to stall & avoid adult relationships.  Some might even say the eating disorder was a way to make herself less attractive to men, but that's a bit of a stretch for me.  Anorexia is often a response to the fear of life transitions such as career or relationship changes, big moves or other things.  Perhaps Karen knew people would start expecting her to marry & settle down in her 30s and started to panic?

Regardless, she had NO room to explore or deviate from what her controlling mother & handlers wanted.  Even her relationships with men were covertly cut short by A&M a few times.  Her solo album was considered too provocative for the Carpenters catalogue, which is asinine.  (This was the age of Studio54, ffs).  The Carpenters performed at Nixon's inauguration & received hate mail for coming out in support of marijuana legalization & claiming not to be virgins in Rolling Stone.  Every aspect of her life was controlled to the max.  A lesbian Carpenter simply would not do.

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Karen Carpenter: Gay-O?

I don't have any concrete proof & certainly don't mean any disrespect.  Quite the opposite.  Even if Karen was 100% straight, there was something different about her aura that's hard to pin down.  (Asperger's maybe?)  And "different" hasn't always been okay.  Had she been born one decade later she might still be alive, both because more is known about eating disorders & the world is a lot more accepting of people who are different.  I've included some photos below of Karen "before" and "after" her eating disorder separated by part of the Rolling Stone article that marked the transition.  You can clearly see the transformation not only in her body size but her clothing & hairstyles too.  It's heartbreaking.  She came into the music industry a sweet, bubbly kid bursting with raw talent & left it an empty shell of herself.  Or in Karen's own words, "a robot". 

By the time Karen died, she'd been taking half-Quaaludes to knock herself out at night & was on a 3x per day Ativan dosing regimen from a poorly-informed doctor who referred to the benzodiazepine as an "anti-depressant".  Not that it mattered much:  Karen's heart is what ultimately killed her.  It was the syrup of ipecac that poisoned her heart muscle--or 'emetine poisoning' as it's referred to on the autopsy report.  Her blood sugar was also a startling 1,110 at the time of death.  After years of abusing her thyroid, heart & other organs, Karen Anne Carpenter's frail body gave out on February 4th, 1983.  She died in the closet.  Literally.  Face down naked in her closet while getting dressed.  She was on her way to sign divorce papers later that day.
Most troubling, after her death the family showed absolutely no ownership of their role in her decline.  In fact, they went out of their way to pay off her ex-husband to keep quiet, sue any documentary filmmakers who got too close to the truth & otherwise censor criticism of the family in the media.  This of course makes them look even MORE guilty than they might be.  What other dark secrets might they be hiding?  Even in death, it's all about image & control.  Karen's remains haven't even been allowed to rest peacefully.  Around 2003, Karen was exhumed & moved to a different cemetery along with her deceased parents.  Oh, and Richard went on to marry his first cousin & have 5 kids.  They remain happily married to this day.

Let me be clear:  Karen Carpenter loved her family & they were not responsible for her death.  As with addiction, the eating disordered person has to want to get better & devote themselves to treatment completely.  Karen kept working even when she should've been in treatment working to save her life.  But there's no denying the dysfunction of her family relationships.  You can be a good person & still have toxic relationships.  Nobody seemed to care what Karen wanted for her career or personal life.  A little empathy & support would've gone a long way toward saving her life, and even if that didn't work, some introspection & accountability would've been nice after the fact.  

R.I.P. KC result for karen carpenter 1979 

The Carpenters Music Photo A92 Karen and Richard Carpenter | eBay  Richard and Karen with their dad, Harold Carpenter.  At least I think that's their dad, but I'm not sure. Somebody with VERY skinny legs, that's for sure!

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Image result for karen carpenter rare Image result for karen carpenter 1975Image result for karen carpenter 1976Related image  Pictures in Honor of Karen Carpenter... | Carpenters Avenue ...
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The Carpenters seem to be going through what they would like to be a transition period. They have an idea of what they are unhappy with but apparently no clear picture of what would make them more content. They would like to change the image people have of them. They would like to change their way of life. It is just that they are not at all certain what they would like to become. They are reluctant to give up the sheltered existence they have known, and change is such a foreign concept to them they can only approach it with great caution.

“Ever since then it’s been, ‘OK, get an album out, OK you gotta go here to perform, OK you have to do this, OK now that.’ Sometimes I feel like a big . . . like a robot."

The partially forced naivete, the occasional bitchiness on the road, the comic Imogene Coca mask which fits her so imperfectly are all forms of a will which cannot find its proper outlet. So long has she deferred to her brother, it seems, she cannot express a distinct personality of her own. The two of them are like a couple married too long, in whom passion has been replaced by accommodation. When agreed-upon patterns are deviated from, the transgressor (usually Karen) is quickly slapped down. Then again, Richard can be stronger only because Karen lets him."

--- Rolling Stone (1974) 

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(^Karen's last Christmas, 1982)         

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