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Yesterday, while the First Mate and I relaxed in her hospital room, we watched a portion of a show on The Carpenters, the teenage sibling duo that turned into an entertainment phenomenon. The show took a look back at the extraordinary career of Richard and Karen Carpenter, two young artists that could easily have been mistaken for the kids next door -- and growing up about a decade behind the two, not far from their Downey, CA home, that connection was easy to make.
The Carpenters first broke onto the music scene in 1969 at the apex of the counterculture and seemed to represent everything that the radicals resented: sweet melodies, understated arrangements, and an almost relentless optimism in the face of widespread cynicism and hatred. While their music was wildly popular almost from the outset of their careers (although Richard Carpenter emphatically states that they were decidedly not an "overnight success"), The Carpenters always struggled with a bubble-gum image, with some considering them sellouts to the Establishment. Their music was sweet and light, ballads with an occasional country-music influence, such as with "Top Of The World". Of their entire catalog, their most enduring song is "Close to You", a timeless classic.
I was and am a big fan of the entire Carpenters catalog. However, my favorite Carpenters song is one that is paradoxically cynical and bitter in a manner that belies its initial arrangement and the sweetness of Karen Carpenter's voice: "Goodbye to Love," written by Richard Carpenter after an inspiration from a Bing Crosby movie. Its lyrics are still jarringly haunting when paired with Karen's voice:
I'll say goodbye to love
No one ever cared if I should live or die
Time and time again
the chance for love has passed me by
and all I know of love
is how to live without it
Most strikingly, Richard Carpenter hired a prominent session guitarist specifically to create a power riff in the middle of the song, using an overdriven amplifier to create a hard-rock sound that was as equally out of character for the duo as the bitter and defeatist lyrics. Even as the first solo fades out -- the song finishes with a second one -- Richard changes key briefly to inject a moment of hope ("There may come a time when I will see that I've been wrong") but slides back to the despair in a minor key again, completing the most contradictory and pessimistic song of The Carpenters' repertoire.
Richard later recounted the letters they received, angry at him for "selling out", but the guitarist (whose name I can't recall now) described this as the precursor to the power ballads that would come later, such as "More Than A Feeling" by Boston. He credits Richard as an innovator, and it's hard to disagree. It's also hard to dispute that The Carpenters were too easily dismissed and deserve a lot more respect than they are given for their contributions. Their image as the All-American Kids of pop music gets in the way of an honest evaluation of their catalog. Unfortunately, it probably also got in the way of Karen Carpenter's life, leading to her tragic death from the complications of anorexia nervosa.
Hugh Hewitt interviewed another songwriting innovator on Friday, Alan Bergman, whose career spans six decades and has written classics such as "Windmills of My Mind" along with his wife Marilyn. Bergman expressed hope that people will return to the standards, as recording artists like Tony Bennett experience a renaissance. Perhaps it won't be too much to ask that people reassess the contribution of Richard and Karen Carpenter as well.
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