"Long ago / And oh so far away / I fell in love with you / Before the second show"...
Tonight, I should be on my way to North Carolina to see Nick Lowe, Robyn Hitchcock, Dave Alvin, and a host of other YepRoc superstars play at the YepRoc 15th anniversary hoedown. But no, I'm not going, because I've had to put the fangirl on hold and act like a normal rational adult person. (Note the "act like.") For a while. . . .
But oh, I really get where Karen Carpenter is coming from in this song.
It almost makes you overlook the fact that the song's protagonist is a stalker who's fantasized a brief boff into a real relationship. And all those Carpenters trademarks -- the swelling production values, the hard edge to Karen's voice, her cheesy dipthongized vowels -- things that normally really put me off, somehow work in this case, because they perfectly underscore the singer's borderline craziness. Or maybe, in hindsight, Karen's borderline craziness . . . six of one, half a dozen of the other, I guess. . .
I have to say, I didn't read it this way in 1971 when this track was all over the airwaves. I was sure that the girl singing had really had a meaningful affair with the rock star, and that it would be only a matter of time before he came back to town to resume their relationship. Well, that tells you a lot, doesn't it?
In fact, when this song was written by Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends) and Leon Russell, the title was a lot more obvious: "Groupie (Superstar)." Not many people know their version, or even the Joe Cocker cover from Mad Dogs and Englishmen, sung by a young Rita Coolidge, But once Karen and Richard got their hands on it. . . .
What the hit version lost in irony and satire, it gained in soul-shivering sumptuousness. That throw-caution-to-the-winds passion in Karen Carpenter's voice is truly a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Bring on the harp glissandos, the lush strings, the Bacharach-ish horn section, the breathy backing chorus.
"Your guitar," she wails, plangently in the second verse, "It sounds so sweet and clear." We're right there with her, grooving on that riff -- only to learn that "But you're not really here / It's just the radio." The line between fantasy and reality is blurry, and getting blurrier all the time.
"Don't you remember you told me you loved me baby?" she pleads in the jangly chorus. "Said you'd be coming back this way again, maybe." Note that "maybe" -- it's way more than just a convenient rhyme for "baby." It's his standard line, what he says to all the girls. But she can't see that; she can only repeat, almost feverishly, "Baby, baby, baby baby, oh baby." And then, abruptly, the wall of sound telescopes into a rare acoustic simplicity for the last line: "I love you, / I really do." There's such a world of difference between his careless "I love you" and hers.
Why laugh at this girl, when she still believes with all her wretched heart that the rock star will come back? Isn't her intense belief in him grander than irony or satire? And the palpable pain of her loneliness and neediness -- well, trust Karen Carpenter to go for it without judgement or reservation. "Loneliness is such a sad affair" - that's the heart of this song.
Sure, rock music is full of groupie songs. There's the Kinks' "Starstruck," the Rolling Stones' "Starfucker." More important for me, from the ladies' perspective, we've got Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" and Norah Jones' "I've Got to See You Again." Let's face it -- if it wasn't for us chicks lusting after those guys with the guitars, there would be no rock and roll. Why else do men pick up guitars if not to score with the ladies? So it's about time that we stage-door adorers get our fair share of credit.
In 1971, I was just enough of a budding hipster to distance myself from the Carpenters -- so plastic! so shallow! so mass market! -- yet I was not above singing along to this song alone in my car, belting it at the top of my lungs, letting the tears trickle down my cheeks because Paul McCartney still didn't know that I, his true soulmate, even existed.
(For the record, Paul still doesn't know that. Amazing, hunh? After all these years . . . )
Things haven't changed that much, not really. I was driving in my car today, listening to Sirius/XM satellite radio, and this song came on. With no one else in my car but the dog in the back seat, I could sing my heart out, and after running through about 20 Dusty Springfield hits (courtesy of my iPod), here came Karen Carpenter, another contralto, going for broke on this song. Totally in my range . . . and totally in my frame of reference. Whopping me upside the head.
God bless you, Karen Carpenter.