Karen Carpenter's Second Life
Four years before she died, the high priestess of silly love songs made
one bold attempt to liberate herself: a solo album. It was
destined to go unheard--until now.
The New York Times Magazine October 6, 1996
By Rob Hoerburger
The tape had been buried for three years, behind the colonnades of
stuffed animals, Disney memorabilia and "I Love Lucy" videos that lined
Karen Carpenter's luxury Century City condo. These were the
appurtenances of a time when she was pop music's own cuddly toy: as one
half of the Carpenters, she was queen of the lovelorn, an Edith Piaf in
Tricia Nixon's clothes, and for a few years in the early 70's
practically the most popular singer in the world.
But now it was the 80's, and the Carpenters -- Karen and her older
brother, Richard -- and their toothsome ditties had become fodder for
David Letterman jokes. A trade-paper review of their latest single even
absent-mindedly referred to them as "Richard and Linda." And so Karen
retrieved the cassette that until then only a roomful of people had
heard, a solo album that she made in 1979 and that was conceived as her
exit visa from a stultifying goody-two-shoes image.
She was talked into abandoning the album on the eve of its release, the
first blow in a three-year series of career and personal
disappointments: a bad marriage, dwindling record sales, a protracted
battle with anorexia nervosa. As Karen played the tape for friends
during the early weeks of 1983, though, they sensed that she had
finally passed the point equidistant between the last happy time in her
life and the next. On Feb.2, a month before her 33rd birthday, she
called her friends Karen Ichiuji and Phil Ramone; talk inevitably wound
around to the solo album, which Ramone had produced.
"Can I use the F-word?" Karen asked.
Ramone replied: "You're a grown woman. Say whatever you want."
"It's a f****n great album."
She died 36 hours later. Anorexia, in the end, claimed victory over her
body and her name, which became practically synonymous with the
affliction. And the solo album went back on the shelf behind Mickey
On Tuesday, A&M records will release Karen Carpenter, 16 years
after she delivered it to the label and 13 years after her death.
Rumors have swirled about the content as the album continued to be
withheld, including one on the Internet that claimed she was bumping
and grinding like Donna Summer, the reigning dance diva at the time.
But despite the toe-dippings into disco and new wave, Karen Carpenter
is no Bad Girls: its twelve tracks are still love songs, only leaner
and less naive than her previous hits. The last of America's great
virginal sweethearts was even, in her own polite way, singing about the
joys of sex, and finally catching up to the women's liberation.
Releasing the album in 1996 can seem like an exercise in necrophilia.
But it's a retro world, in which "Brady Bunch" movies generate robust
box-office and bands like R.E.M. and the Gin Blossoms continue to
reposit 70's riffs and stances, and so Karen Carpenter makes a lot of
sense. It will almost certainly be the crowning prize for what has
become a Cult of Karen; lambasted by the pop elite during her life, she
has become a mascot to the pop underground. First, the avant-garde
director Todd Haynes cast Barbie as the tragic singer in "Superstar:
The Karen Carpenter Story," which became something of an outlaw hit,
traded back and forth on bootleg video. (The film was withdrawn from
theaters because Richard Carpenter refused to authorize the use of the
music.) Then, in 1994, bands like Shonen Knife, Sonic Youth and
Dishwalla lent their grungy guitars and voices to If I Were a
Carpenter, a tribute album that revved up and amplified the duo's
dulcet hits. And the 1995 Off Broadway comedy "Party" ended with seven
naked gay men swaying to the gossamer strains of Close to You. As with
the "Brady" movies, part of the appeal is kitsch nostalgia, the acute
geekiness of the brother-sister act; overriding the high-yuk quotient,
though, is an identification with the profound melancholy in Karen's
singing. "She had," says one of the "Party" boys, "the voice of an
For a few months in 1979 that angel slipped onto more earthly ground,
recording songs like My Body Keeps Changing My Mind and Making Love in
the Afternoon. But her halo, like her brother, would be impossible to
"This wasn't just an album," says Frenda Franklin, who was Karen's best friend. "It was her Emancipation Proclamation."
At 29, Karen Carpenter was, for the first time, working without Richard
Carpenter, her producer, arranger and frequent songwriter -- part
Pygmalion, part Gepetto, the master carver of her sound. She had become
a musician only as a tagalong to Richard, a piano prodigy three and a
half years older. When they started out, she was the drummer; her
deeply pining contralto was discovered almost by accident, when it
became clear that her brother's voice wasn't commercial enough.
"Richard's contributions were enormous, and underrated," says Herb
Alpert, who signed them to A&M Records in 1969, when Karen was 19
and Richard 22.
Karen's opinions -- or the inclination even to have them -- were
subsumed not just by Richard's but by the duo's success. With songs
emphasizing melody over beat and washed by sudsy strings and four-part
harmonies, the Carpenters appealed to a country disenchanted with the
Vietnam War, campus unrest and the generation gap. These were songs
that were played at weddings and graduations; when We've Only Just
Begun or Rainy Days and Mondays came on the car radio, kids AND parents
would turn it up. (Hipper fans, especially college students, had to be
discreet; more than a few smuggled Carpenters albums into their dorms
under their Led Zeppelin T-shirts.) This was musical white bread, to be
sure, but it was feeding masses of a biblical proportion.
Karen was suddenly being painted as a poster girl of the young, gifted
and square -- and as she was squeezed out from behind the drums she
found her appearance under constant scrutiny. Big-boned and tomboyish
all her life, she cracked under the pressure and developed anorexia.
Complicating matters was her troubled relationship with her mother,
Agnes, who, according to friends, unabashedly favored Richard. "Karen's
mother never told her she was a good singer," Franklin says. 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.
Strangely enough, it was Richard's illness, not Karen's, that prompted
Karen to try a solo album. Around 1976, his divining rod for hit
material started coming up dry. Americans would continue to be sucked
in by love songs but had started to forsake the snail's-pace,
hyperglycemic Carpenters for harmonic disco groups like Abba and the
Bee Gees. Richard became addicted to Quaaludes and by the end of 1978
was unable to perform. When Karen told him she wasn't interested in
remaining idle, he considered it practically an act of treason,
especially when she asked for his blessing. After months of pleading,
and tugging on his sleeve like the loyal sister she had always been, he
finally gave in. There was one caveat, according to his biographer, Ray
Coleman: "Don't do disco."
This was wishful thinking at best. Like cars at the gas pumps that
spring and summer, pop singers were lined up around the block, waiting
for their turn at the disco trough--everyone from Cher to Johnny
Mathis, Barbra Streisand to Ethel Merman. Soon Karen was on a plane,
flying into the land of Studio 54.
Phil Ramone, now approaching 60, is ever the music-biz hipster, draped
from head to toe in basic black but with a silver mane that lends him
an avuncular, Walt Whitman cum Grandpa Walton air. Based on the
polished pop records he produced in the late 70's for Barbra Streisand,
Billy Joel and Paul Simon, he seemed the perfect choice for Karen
Carpenter. Though he had been a fan of Karen's voice, he was not
interested in making any sexually clueless songs like Sing and Top of
"I said to her: 'A lot of your fans aren't teenagers anymore. Why don't
you grow up with them?'" Ramone says. From the outset Carpenter agreed
that a sexier approach could win those fans back; her good friend
Olivia Newton-John had, after "Grease," transformed herself from pop
Kewpie doll into a kind of slut-next-door and was ringing up the
charts. So Ramone recruited a bunch of relative ruffians (Billy Joel's
backup band), as well as Rod Temperton, who wrote Michael Jackson's Off
the Wall. The songs they chose had come-hither titles like Make Believe
It's Your First Time and Remember When Loving' Took All Night. Some of
the grooves were disco, some were rock-and-roll; the few ballads, like
Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years, avoided the syrupy choirs
and string sections favored by Richard.
Meanwhile, Karen Ichiuji, Ramone's wife and a glamorous, street-smart
singer, became Karen Carpenter's cultural compass. "This really was the
girl next door," Ichiuji says. "She didn't know how to hail a cab,
wasn't comfortable even ordering for herself in restaurants." Russell
Javors, who wrote two of the raunchier songs on the album, says
Carpenter "had this very sexy voice, but she wasn't a sexy person at
Though it could seem that Carpenter traded one Svengali for another,
even moving into Ramone and Ichiuji's home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., Ramone
sees it differently. "I didn't feel like her mentor," he says. "There
wasn't one part of this album that she wasn't involved in, when she
didn't have the reins." It was Karen, who had often been photographed
with Richard in a matching outfit, who encouraged the glam photo
session for the album cover. When she saw the proofs of one shot, which
showed her elegantly coifed and made up and wearing an oversize white
sweatshirt (a precursor of the "Flashdance" look), she ran to Ichiuji
in a rare outburst of self-worth. "Look at me, Itch," she said. "I'm
pretty. I'm really pretty."
After four or five songs were completed, Carpenter flew back to Los
Angeles, tape happily in hand. "She was so in awe of Phil and these
cool, hip musicians, who were treating her like an equal," Franklin
says. "She wasn't used to that." (Richard Carpenter told Coleman that
he sometimes wouldn't even tell Karen what she was going to sing until
she got to the studio.) "She told me that working on this album was the
happiest time of her life."
Ramone remembers that Karen looked good during the early sessions and
ate like everyone else. (He had been warned about Karen's illness but
was unschooled in the wiles of the anorexic.) But when she returned to
New York in the fall of '79 to resume recording, Ramone says he was
faced with an 80-pound "Auschwitz figure" and then started finding
laxatives all over his house. He suspected that Karen had played those
first tracks for her parents and that they had disapproved. "She had
too much class to say,'My parents think you're screwing me up,'" he
says. As Franklin explains, it offended them to hear their daughter,
who a few years earlier had been hailed by President Nixon as "young
America at its best," singing lines like "I remember the first time / I
laid more than eyes on you."
Carpenter's anxieties were compounded by the excessive overtime on the
project. She had spent the standard $100,000 allotted by the record
company, plus almost half a million of her own money. As her anorexia
intensified, she became too weak to travel, and so Ramone had to fly to
Los Angeles to complete production. "It was almost militaristic there,"
he says. "She would meet Richard at the same restaurant at the same
time for breakfast every day -- you know, Belgian waffles at 0800."
They finally finished in January 1980, delivering 11 of the 21 songs
they recorded. Karen chose the white sweatshirt shot for the cover, and
Olivia Newton-John invited Karen to sing on her latest TV special. All
that was left was the routine playback for the label presidents, Herb
Alpert and Jerry Moss, the A and M of A&M. Also in attendance, at
Karen's request, was Richard Carpenter.
The silence was deafening. "She was expecting them to come up and hug
her after every track," Ramone says. "But they just sat there."
Alpert remembers liking the album but not loving it. "It just didn't
ring my bell the way a Carpenters album would," he says between heavy
pauses. A friend of Karen's recalls a management meeting in which she
was accused of trying to sound "like a black chick." It's unclear what
everyone was expecting, but what they clearly weren't hearing was
"It was an attempt to get as far away from the Carpenters as possible," Rod Temperton says. "Some of it didn't ring true."
John Bettis, Richard Carpenter's longtime lyricist and no fan of the
solo album, agrees: "Everybody knows how great a producer Phil Ramone
is, but in the end I think Karen missed the chemistry." Lost amid the
carping and strategizing was what Karen herself felt. Alpert says she
vacillated between loving the album and hating it, but the Ramone camp
doesn't buy this. "This wasn't a woman given to tears," Ramone says.
"When she was upset, she just wouldn't eat. But when we got out of that
meeting and far enough away, she just crumpled in my arms."
Ramone set up another listening at the home of Quincy Jones, but
A&M wouldn't budge: the record still had to be "improved." And then
there was Richard, who was out of drug rehab.
His criticisms of the album were the sharpest. According to Coleman, he
said that the songs were weak and that the keys were too high for
Karen's voice. At another point he accused Karen of "stealing" the
Carpenters sound, because of the Carpenter-like harmonies on a few of
the songs. "Nobody is saying Richard had to like the record," Franklin
says. "But he could have supported her. When he didn't, I think it
forever put a division in her mind about him."
Richard began to pressure Karen to start the next Carpenters album, and
then at what Franklin calls her "most vulnerable point," she met Thomas
J. Burris, a real-estate developer from Beverly Hills. "He seemed
nice," Ichiuji says. "Karen really thought he was going to be her
knight in shining armor." With Richard in one ear saying, essentially,
"Come back, all is forgiven," and Burris whispering a fast proposal in
the other, her conviction on the solo album wavered, and on May 5,
1980, it was officially jettisoned. Karen told all involved that now
that Richard was healthy, she wanted to return to the Carpenters.
Besides, she was getting married.
The reunion album, and the marriage, failed in short order. Richard
later said that anything he and Karen put out was doomed to fail
because of their image--a problem Karen's solo album was designed to
fix. The details of the marriage are murkier; she and Burris separated
after a mere 14 months.
Faced with a triple dose of rejection in less than two years, Karen
finally sought treatment for her anorexia, eventually agreeing to
hyperalimentation, an intravenous feeding procedure that alarmed her
friends as a quick fix. "I knew something was all wrong when I went to
the hospital and saw she had gained 10 pounds in a week," Ichiuji says.
By Thanksgiving 1982, she was back above 100 pounds and returned to Los
Angeles, blatantly gorging at the holidays in front of her family. She
gave what turned out to be her final live performance -- at her
godchildren's school, two months before she died -- without Richard.
The initial coroner's report showed an abundance of ipecac, a common
vomit-inducing syrup, in her system. Taken in high quantities, it can
cause potassium deficiency, which can lead to heart arrhythmia. But
neither her family nor her friends have ever been satisfied with that
explanation. "I talked to the coroner myself," Ichiuji says, "and he
said it was only a matter of time. She had just starved her organs for
Richard Carpenter, 49, still lives in Downey, California, near his
mother; in 1984, the year after Karen died, he married his cousin Mary
Rudolph and is now the father of four. In 1987, he made his own solo
album, Time, a critical and commercial failure, and since then he has
spent most of his time overseeing the repackaging of Carpenters
recordings--and making a handsome living. In Japan alone this year, a
new greatest-hits set outsold such international juggernauts as Mariah
Carey and Celine Dion. But when fans buy that collection, or any other
one anywhere in the world, they won't hear the same versions of
Superstar or Yesterday Once More that dominated American radio in the
70's, but doctored versions of those songs, some with new piano or drum
parts. Unable to remix or rerecord the events of his sister's life,
Richard continues to slave over the master tapes of the music they made
together, certain that perfection is only one take away.
Though a few of the songs from Karen Carpenter dribbled out on various
Carpenters releases, Richard had steadfastly refused to release the
whole album. After declining several requests to be interviewed for
this article, Richard said through his manager, Sherwin Bash, that he
was only respecting what he understood to be Karen's final wish, that
she didn't like the album and didn't want it released. "He only
acquiesced," Bash says, "when fans and writers kept begging him for
this last piece of her legacy." In a note to The Times Magazine,
Richard wrote, "I wish the album nothing but success."
When Richard called Ichiuji last spring to say he was releasing the
album, he asked if there had been a dedication; she unearthed her notes
and found one: "Dedicated to my brother Richard with all my heart."
"Karen knew that the Carpenters needed more of an edge," Ichiuji says,
"and by dedicating the album to Richard, she was saying, here, I did
this for you and for me. Accept me, because I did this for the both of
us." Ichiuji says that when Richard heard the dedication, he bawled
over the phone.
Karen Carpenter may not be the great American pop album, but it holds
up with anything that like-minded singers -- Barbra Streisand and
Olivia Newton-John -- were recording at the time, and especially with
anything the Carpenters put out immediately before or after. If there
is no We've Only Just Begun on the album, it doesn't really matter.
Fans typically crave an artist's most personal work -- even it it isn't
"It was a beginning," Ramone says. "I'm not saying that Karen was Ella
Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, but a voice like that could have done
anything -- an album of Dylan tunes, country ballads, Broadway. But not
from where she was."
Instead Karen Carpenter remains frozen in the 70's, singing gooey love
songs with her brother. And for her fans, who never got to judge the
album when she was alive, Karen Carpenter ends up a cherished souvenir
from the collection of a woman who was never allowed more than a
vacation from her own image.