It’s Yesterday Once More
Sylvie Simmons hails a new examination of the life and art of the late Carpenters singer.
Lead Sister: The Karen Carpenter Story
Lucy O’Brien NINE EIGHT. £22
FORTY YEARS after her death comes a new book about the singer with the warm, calm contralto Macca once called “the best female voice in the world”. As half of sibling duo The Carpenters, she had a hugely successful career – 100,000,000 records sold worldwide – and a very short life, effectively starving to death aged 32. Karen Carpenter’s life story has been told a number of times in documentaries, TV movies and filmmaker Todd Haynes’ cult classic Superstar, where Barbie dolls take the place of actors. O’Brien herself wrote an essay in her study of women in the music business, She Bop II. O’Brien is an academic and feminist but also a musician and long-time MOJO journalist, and it’s these four approaches that add up to a comprehensive picture.
The music business wasn’t blameless, but there was another villain in the stor y: Karen’s mother. Agnes Carpenter doted on her son and seemed to have little left for her daughter. Karen was a tomboy, the only girl to play drums in her high school marching band. Richard, four years older, was a sensitive boy whom Agnes considered a musical prodigy, pouring the family’s love and money into furthering his career. When Richard studied music at university, Karen was the drummer in an all-girl surf band, before Richard’s friend Wes Jacobs suggested they form a jazz trio with Karen on drums – on vocals too when Richard rightly sensed his sister’s soft voice was a good match for the songs.
Herb Alpert, hearing their 1969 demo, called her voice “magic… [like she] was sitting right next to me.” Signing them to A&M he “gave us everything we wanted,” Karen said. “Nobody pushed us.” The business’s major sins were to separate her from her drums – “an instrument,” says O’Brien, “that allowed her to express herself and be heard, an integral part of her musical identity and her style” – and, in later years, to stymie the funkier solo album she recorded while Richard was in rehab for sleeping-pill addiction. But Agnes’s influence was ongoing, with Karen living at home well into her twenties. Initially Agnes controlled their pay-cheques and paid them an allowance. When they earned enough to buy their parents a house, Agnes declined to move. She criticised Karen’s boyfriends (though not Richard’s relationship with a younger firstcousin), pressured her into a toxic marriage. And it certainly didn’t help to call her “hefty around the butt.” Anorexia wasn’t much talked about then but it’s since been associated with a sense of powerlessness, a way to find control. A tragic but fascinating stor y.