Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Superstar / The Carpenters

"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.

10 comments:

Julie said...

Funny, when I was younger, I thought the the protaganist was signing about an actual relationship. Appears that we are cut from the same cloth. ;-)

Uncle E said...

I heard about that 15th anniversary thing and instantly pictured you maniacally and haphazardly throwing clothes in a suitcase and running for the airport. What a show that's gonna be!

wwolfe said...

My favorite Carpenters record by miles and miles. Hal Blaines' drums help a lot, but this is Karen's best vocal. I've always heard her as singing about hearing the Beatles for the first time as a hemmed-in girl in Downey, CA in 1964, glimpsing a vision of freedom she never quite had the nerve to reach for, but could never quite shake out of her heart and head. That freedom is what she's longing for, and knew she'd never get, and that's what makes this record so sad, and even unnerving: both the listener and the singer know what the end of the story will be.

NickS said...

I hadn't heard that version. Oh so wonderfully of its time; it just sounds like the early 70s.

I will say that the (also very much of its time) Sonic Youth cover which was used in Juno (from this tribute album) is really quite good (though probably not something to listen to immediately after the Carpeters' version -- I think it would be difficult to like both versions at the same moment).

Holly A Hughes said...

Curious. The Sonic Youth version seems completely referential -- as if it totally depends upon having the Carpenters' definitive recording running in your head at the same time. I can't really reconstruct how I'd hear it without knowing Karen's take. As it stands, it seems arty and dislocated and even a little haunting -- but on its own, empty and baffling. I do like covers that make radical changes to the original, but in this case, the story line seems to have been lost.

At the same time, I don't know that I can entirely reconstruct what it was like to hear this song before Karen's tragic death. When I heard the news, the first line that popped into my mind was "Loneliness is such a sad affair." Her intimate knowledge of depression and despair made this song so powerful, yet they also laid the seeds for her death. I still get shivers thinking about it.

NickS said...

This is one of the moments when my age shows. Despite the frequency with which my musical tastes lean towards the 70s, Karen Carpenter is before my time -- I know of her story, but it feels remote from my own musical fandom.

My reaction to the Sonic Youth cover was to find it baffling initially -- I didn't have a sense of the storyline of the song, but what made it work for me was that it simply sounds great. I generally dislike that that particular sound but that track works for me. It manages the trick of being both opaque and compelling at the same time (oddly, the youtube video sounds good but doesn't feel as dense as I remember it being on CD -- I should see if I can find it and listen to it again).

[Incidentally, this is my absolute favorite Carpenters cover, which manages to be soulful, tender, and heartbreaking.]

Holly A Hughes said...

Ah, now you're talking. Curtis Mayfield is always superb, and in this case he (no surprise) outdoes the Carpenter schmaltz by a MILE...

NickS said...

That album (Curtis/Live!) is one of my desert island disks.

He is, as you say, a fantastic musician and singer, it's clearly an standout performance -- he's so focused* the whole time, but the thing that really makes that album unique in my mind is that it's deeply political without being angry. He finds this mood in which he is absolutely committed to the need for change, and the injustice of the world, but is still full of (for lack of a better term) hope and love.

I've never heard anything else like it.

* A note about his focus -- at some point I started listening to the little bits of interaction between him and the crowd (for example there's a point at which somebody shouts, "right on" during a song and he chuckles at it) and it's impressive how open he seems to the crowd -- he's capable of responding genuinely and spontaneously while still being completely locked into the songs he's performing. Often times there can be a tension in performances between being loose and relaxed on one hand vs being completely committed to the music and the emotions of the songs (for example, when I saw Michael Smith in concert, he was amazing -- one of the best concerts I've been to -- but he was not loose in any way. His attention was very much on delivering the best performances of the songs that he could. He was still witty and engaging, but not relaxed). In that recording Curtis Mayfield manages both.

Wally Dow said...

Music from the 70s was the Creme of the crop. NO ONE these days can fill the shoes of the bands and performers of that decade. I miss it terribly. Just a note .... I am a musician that played that decade, and a couple before it and several after.

Renee Mirsky said...

Yep, an ode to girl fandom all right! Forgot all about this song till it came on in the lobby at the doctor today. Wow!