A band on top of the world

Two upcoming tribute concerts show the public’s fascination with Karen Carpenter has never faded, says Richard Fitzpatrick

KAREN Carpenter had the ‘slimmer’s disease’, or anorexia nervosa as it was formally becoming known when she died aged 32 in 1983.

Karen lived a troubled, double life. She was consuming 40 laxatives a day to keep her weight down.

“She had to have some amount of turmoil when you consider what she presented to the world and what was going on inside her. Wicked when you think about it,” said composer Burt Bacharach in a recent BBC documentary. Bacharach wrote the song Close to You, which catapulted The Carpenters to fame in 1970.

Biographers trace Karen’s anorexia to Agnes, the dominant mother who doted on Karen’s older brother, Richard, the blue-eyed boy who formed the other half of The Carpenters. The pair created one of the sounds of the 1970s, their love songs being the antithesis of the rock ’n’ roll, disco and punk music which ruled the airwaves.

Their music still resonates with the public, with two tribute concerts planned in Dublin and Cork this week.

Karen was born in 1950, four years after Richard, in New Haven, Connecticut. She played the drums in high school, and later with The Carpenters. John Bonham, Led Zeppelin’s drummer, was allegedly miffed when she beat him to first place for Playboy magazine’s ‘best drummer of the year’ award in 1975: “I’d like to have it publicised that I came in after Karen Carpenter in the Playboy drummer poll. She couldn’t last ten minutes with a Zeppelin number.”

Her velvety voice captivated the public and helped The Carpenters to sell 100m records. Her brother was responsible for arranging and producing their melodies, among them Yesterday Once More, Rainydays and Mondays and Top of the World, but it was Karen who held their fans’ gaze. Karen eclipsed Richard such that they agreed he should come out on stage first, always to the same announcement, ‘ladies and gentlemen, Mr Richard Carpenter.’ Then, he’d take their orchestra through an overture before Karen appeared. The siblings were close, curiously so for the press, who tittered about a brother-and-sister team singing love songs like We’ve Only Just Begun to each other. When they moved out of their parents’ home, they moved in together. Richard married his first (adopted) cousin, Mary Rudolph, who he began dating in the 1970s, a year after Karen died.

Despite Karen’s struggles with anorexia, Richard endured his own battle with an addiction to quaaludes. He was originally prescribed the drug as a sleeping pill, but the high got him hooked. He took a year off from the music business in 1979 to kick the habit.

At 5ft 4in, Karen was considered a slightly chubby 17-year-old, weighing 10 5lb. By Sept 1975, she weighed 6 st 7lb. Fans used to gasp when they saw her arrive on stage.

Her handlers pleaded with her not to bare her shoulders when choosing an outfit. A reviewer for Variety magazine suggested that “she should be gowned more becomingly”.

Karen had childish ploys when it came to sitting down to eat. She’d push her food around the plate or offer samples from her dish to other people at the table.

Her family and close friends tried all the tricks to convince her to eat. “I tried everything — the heart-to-heart, the cajole, the holler … It can just make you crazy. Obviously, it wasn’t about to work, and I was upset,” said Richard in an interview in 1993.

Having spent the 1970s immersed in her career, Karen became engaged after a whirlwind romance to a 39-year-old property developer, Tom Burris. He was a charlatan who leeched money off her.

Days before their wedding in Aug 1980, he told her he had a vasectomy. The thought of being unable to have children appalled Karen. She phoned her mother to call off the wedding, but met a stone wall.

“The invitations have gone out. There are photographers and reporters coming. People magazine is going to be there. The wedding is on, and you will walk down that aisle. You made your own bed, Karen,” she said. “Now, you’ll have to lay in it.” The marriage quickly unravelled, with Karen filing for divorce in Nov 1981.

She began seeing a celebrity psychotherapist, Steven Levenkron, about her eating disorder a couple of months later. During an intervention session with him and her family, Karen broke down crying and apologised for ruining their lives.

“I think that Karen really needs to hear that you love her,” the therapist said.

“Well, of course, I love you,” Richard said.

“Agnes?” Levenkron said, tapping her mother’s shoe with his own.

Agnes bristled, and said that she preferred to be addressed as Mrs Carpenter. “Well, I’m from the North,” she said. “And we just don’t do things that way.”

Karen gave up on the counselling shortly after. She collapsed in her parents’ house in Feb 1983. Her mother found her lying nude in a walk-in wardrobe. Her eyes were open but rolled back. She had died from a heart attack, brought on by taking ipecac, a type of poison that induced vomiting.

* We’ve Only Just Begun — The Love Songs: A Celebration of the Carpenters is at The National Concert Hall tonight and Cork Opera House tomorrow.


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