I was watching the horror movie “1408,” based on a Stephen King story. I was pleasantly surprised to find it better than the reviews had led me to expect. John Cusack stars as a ghost story debunker who finally finds a story he can’t debunk in hotel suite 1408. The wicked spirits that haunt the room don’t want Cusack to survive his stay, let alone get a good night’s sleep. Much of the pleasure in the film is derived from watching Cusack himself enjoy running through his whole vast repertoire of expressions, from initial skepticism to dismay, fright, panic and then total horror in response to his room transformed into Hell by Hollywood wizardry. But the most effective special effect comes early on in the movie from the 60s era radio in the bedroom, which comes on spontaneously from time to time, even after Cusack has unplugged it, playing the Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun.” It plays as an ironic joke: the earnest, sweet Karen and Richard are singing in proxy for whatever malignant spirits haunt that accursed suite, with each repetition promising more fun from the other side.
I wasn’t laughing. Because Karen herself is singing from beyond the grave. Ever since she died, that honeyed voice always makes me a little queasy. I hear in every shiver of her famous vibrato evidence of her tortured life, traces of family trauma. I can’t help but sift every phrase like tea leaves for portents of the anorexia that killed her, self-hatred literally eating her alive.
All this never stops me from listening, because the neurosis and suffering I divine in (or project into) her voice can’t drown out its unique pleasure inducing quality. She had pipes of silver and gold, encrusted with rare gems. To describe the feeling I get as she digs into what Richard called the “basement” of her voice, I have to go all the way to France, where the bakeries sell a fat puff pastry called an Eglise. It looks like any old cream puff until you bite into it. A river of dark chocolate pastry cream pours into your mouth and you’re tasting heaven itself. And that’s how Karen’s voice feels on my ears.
I popped the DVD of “1408” out of my computer and went right to Amazon and before my guilt could stop me, I ordered up the Carpenter’s Greatest Hits. That guilt had stopped me from actively seeking out their music since long before her death laid morbid overtones on it. It started in fact from the first moment I heard “We’ve Only Just Begun” in 1970. My guilt came from the fact that I fancied myself as quite the hip musician. My Gods were Garcia, Hendrix and the outrageous Jefferson Airplane, and I their worshiper with my ratty Telecaster and straggly hair growing down to my ass.
From the first strains of “Just Begun,” I knew I was hearing something terribly unhip. Seeing the Carpenters’ picture just confirmed it. They were cleancut, smiling goody-goody smiles that proved they were as straight as they could come. The worst thing they’d ever done probably was sneak an extra cookie with mom’s milk. In all fairness, Richard now claims that this image was thrust on them by a media that was hungry for just such a musical counter to all of the freaks coming out of San Francisco.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be caught dead enjoying them. Fortunately there was always my car radio, where I could safely enjoy the Carpenters – still guilty, but at least not endangering my reputation. But with my girlfriend in the car I had to put on a charade. “Top of the World” would come on, she’d yell, “Shut that off!” and I’d oblige, because to do otherwise would mean sleeping on the couch or worse.
As I approached fifty, an older friend said, “It’s great being past fifty. You no longer have to worry so much about what people think of you.” I’m well past fifty now, and she was right. I tore the shrink rap off my trove of Carpenter pelf. It starts with “For All We Know.” An oboe, the perfect instrument to stand in for Karen’s voice, then her first word, “Love,” and yeah, the way she deep kisses that first word I know she’s still got it. The chorus ends, “And love may grow, for all we know,” and then “Love” literally grows, as her brother joins her in one of those Mormon Tabernacle background choruses, which sounds like 7 generations of Carpenters singing together.
I had expected to be blown away by Karen, but not by those oohs and aahs between multitracked brother and sister. They conjure a magic of perfect harmoniousness that must owe to the vocal blending of shared genes. The only other place you can find it is in the Wilson Brothers.
You could perhaps accuse them of cheating by covering “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” a song from the height of Carole King’s writing career. This song would be hard for the limpest lounge act to ruin. But they do it real justice. Karen knows to acknowledge the subtle but devastating melodic turn in, “After all the tears we’ve cried, how could we make amends,” because on that last word she reaches down into that basement and delivers a hit of yum. What surprised me though was Richard’s arrangement. This is not the hackwork his many detractors would ascribe to him, but a work of brotherly love, setting a perfect bed of their shared voices, luscious strings and the famous LA session band the Wrecking Crew in which Karen can luxuriate. And she does.
“We’ve Only Just Begun,” even when freed from that infernal radio in “1408,” gave me new creeps when I realized that it had been one of the most popular wedding songs starting in the ‘70s, the same period when marriage became so threatened. The song now sounded haunted by all the horrific marriages that must have begun with it and ended so badly.
The Carpenters’ songs don’t break new ground and certainly aren’t going to put Stravinsky out of business. But they supply two essential tools for Karen’s voice. Obvious is their fabulous hooks, as in their masterpiece, “Superstar.” Less obvious is the expert voice leading. It sets up the sweet spots of the scale so that Karen can easily grab them and work her magic. The verse of “Won’t Last a Day After You,” reminds me of something with a previous generation’s sophistication for melody writing, like something from “My Fair Lady.” Here again I have to acknowledge Richard’s arrangement skills. Just as he knows oboe is the perfect stand in for his sister’s voice, he knows strings are its natural compliment. He scores them in the right range so they don’t step on her voice. And someone is recording them so they sound like a million bucks (and actually they made that many times over). Richard never stints on doubletracking Karen’s voice, knowing two Karens is even better than one. He heats the arrangement up with a tasteful electric guitar, and by the end of the song the Wrecking Crew is almost rocking.
I think Richard has gotten an unfair rap: people going so far as to blame him for his sister’s demise, for pushing her too hard. And I’m sure he was a tyrant in the studio. But he suffered the same parents she did. And between his arrangements, good piano playing, and background singing I think he did an equal share to Karen as a Carpenter.
OK, even getting past their unhipness, the Carpenters committed musical sins that might make us listeners guilty. They butchered the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride.” I can’t bear the later songs because they are increasingly lifeless, as though Karen was already dying. And their genius is mostly one of sound rather than the deep purpose of music, the expression of emotion.
All Karen’s avowals of love, admissions of nostalgia, ruing of loss, has the smell of sentimentality, which is to say, of lying. All the monster oohs and aahs and the strings, and even Karen’s voice itself feel like denial of what’s really inside that troubled woman: a loneliness that was never far from plunging into despair. That’s why “Rainy Days and Mondays” is my favorite. Yeah, that harmonica opening is pure sap, and has since inspired many a hack arranger to commit musical crimes. But here I think I’m seeing the real Karen, a little girl alone, staring out the window at the rain. She’s grown up, but she’s still that little girl, and will always be. And will always be alone.
But be my guest: buy some Carpenters, and enjoy without guilt. If you still need to come to confession, come here to Father Luminous, and I’ll give you ten “Wind Cried Mary’s.”