February 4, 2020
February 3, 1959. August 16, 1977. December 8, 1980. February 4, 1983. April 5, 1994.
For any person who is a true fan, any one of these dates might invoke an unpleasant memory of the ‘day the music died’ for them. Each date marks the passing of a well loved and famous musical artist. Do you recall where you were and what you were doing on any one of these days?
My brother – who is a disc jockey – still talks about August 16, 1977. The day Elvis died. For Nirvana fans it’s April 5, 1994. Beatles devotees recall December 8, 1980 as a day which shocked the world. And, of course, February 3, 1959, marks the tragic date when Buddy Holly died in a plane crash along with a few others.
If you don’t recognize February 4, 1983, you can be forgiven. But for me that was the date when the first artist whose voice and music truly captured me died: Karen Carpenter.
To this day I wonder it was an avoidable outcome if only… if only her mother had been more loving and less controlling… if only she hadn’t been forced to come out from behind her drums… if only the press had not been so awful to her… if only she could have loved herself the way her fans loved her.
By all accounts, Karen’s life could have become a fairy-tale come true. At the age of 19 Karen, as one half of The Carpenters, saw their first big hit “Close To You” rocket to the top of the pop charts. Fame and financial success followed with a string of Top Ten records. Concerts, TV specials, and an invitation to the White House were all a part of those heady years.
And yet. Karen was particularly sensitive to body image. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Carpenter began dieting while in high school. Under a doctor’s guidance, she began the Stillman diet, eating lean foods, drinking eight glasses of water a day, and avoiding fatty foods. She reduced her weight to 120 pounds and stayed approximately at that weight until around 1973, when the Carpenters’ career reached its peak. That year, she happened to see a photo of herself taken at a concert in which her outfit made her appear heavy. Carpenter hired a personal trainer who advised her to change her diet. The new diet caused her to build muscle, which made her feel heavier instead of slimmer. Carpenter fired the trainer and began her own weight loss program using exercise equipment and counting calories. She lost about 20 pounds and intended to lose another five pounds. Her eating habits also changed around this time, with Carpenter trying to get food off her plate by offering it to others at the meal as a taste.”
With increased success, came increased pressure to look and be perfect. By most accounts it seems that Karen spent her life trying to gain her mother’s love and approval. Older brother Richard was the focus of the family’s attention. At age 3 he was playing the piano and identified as a child prodigy with immense talent. It must have come as a huge shock to her parents when it was Karen and her amazing voice that proved to be the secret to success. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“(Karen) Carpenter had a complicated relationship with her parents. They had hoped that Richard’s musical talents would be recognized and that he would enter the music business, but were not prepared for Karen’s success. She continued to live with them until 1974. In 1976, Carpenter bought two Century City apartments which she combined into one; the doorbell chimed the opening notes of ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’.”
Most of the focus on Anorexia Nervosa came after Karen’s untimely death. In the decades since there has been research and a public push to find solutions for those who are afflicted by the disorder. Karen Carpenter’s struggle has been largely responsible for this.
One of the things I would have loved would have been to attend a Carpenter’s concert. Alas, being only 13 when they hit the top of the charts, it was not going to happen. My mother believed rock and roll concerts (the Carpenters were not exactly rock and roll BTW) were not appropriate places for young women. In fact, the first concert I attended was in 1980’s, long after the Carpenters were no longer touring.
For several years in the 1970’s, however, I purchased every one of their albums and would listen to Karen’s dulcet tones for hours on end. I loved her voice.
Fast forward to Friday, February 4, 1983. I was working at Microsoft – then located near the Burger Master on Northup Way in Belleuve, Washington – paying more attention to selling computer software and not listening to music for hours each day.
It was payday and at lunchtime one of my fellow Microsofties, Sue C., and I decided to go deposit our paychecks in the bank. We headed to downtown Kirkland, a few miles north. Once our banking was complete, we drove south on Lake Washington Boulevard. We likely had the radio on – background to our chatting – when I heard the announcement “Pop star Karen Carpenter has died.”
I think Sue was behind the wheel and immediately stopped the car as we both exclaimed shock and dismay. How could it be? What I most recall about that day is that it seemed dark to me. In reality, according to the weather history, it was a fairly mild, clear day. But in my mind, it’s dark.
Karen Carpenter was such a part of our growing up experience; she was 32 years old, a mere seven years older than ourselves.
In 1989 I watched with interest the CBS TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story. In the years since her death I had not listened much to The Carpenters. The moment I heard those favorite songs and her voice, however, it was as if I was transported back to the early 1970’s. What a voice. It was filled with emotion and able to convey a sadness that transcended the years. Like so many artists who died young, I wonder what wonderful songs the world missed out on when Karen Carpenter left us on February 4, 1983.
A few links:
I couldn’t make up my mind as to which of these two songs to share… so I did both. I think Superstar also captures the depth of whatever pains she felt in life.