There is a lot of music that I don’t like. Just as any of you will have your own likes and dislikes. My favourites are always changing – and I’m in the business of always trying to reassess; reappraise. So, on a recent flight I decided I had to listen to the Carpenters. I was going to enjoy the recordings of the smiling siblings; their teeth so shiny, her life so sad, his melodic gift so obvious. Karen and Richard were going to entertain me on my trip from Wellington to Auckland.
I usually listen to hard rock on planes. I don’t know why. But I usually play some form of metal or rock’n’roll. In fact, I almost always play Guns’n’Roses’ Appetite For Destruction. It is the perfect 1-hour-flight album. The perfect beginning-middle-end enhancement (Welcome To The Jungle as the plane is still ascending; Paradise City and Sweet Child O’ Mine when I’m somewhere in the middle of the North Island; Rocket Queen as the wheels hit the tarmac, “…all I ever wanted, was for you, to know that I care-ear-ear-ear”. Oh Axl I do! Well, did.)
But it was time to reassess; to reappraise. And so, with that as the only proviso, the fingers scrolled down to The Carpenters on my iPod. I clicked on the only option under their name: Their Greatest Hits. It started off well. Every sha-la-la and, I might add, every woah-a-wo-wo seemed still to, shall we say, shine? It was sweet. The sub-Bacharach melodies of Richard Carpenter longed to be close to me (hang on, that one actually was Bacharach!) Karen’s voice whispered naively in my ear – the headphones a conduit – rainy days (and Mondays) always seemed to get her down.
My wife always sleeps on planes. So she grumbled past the offer of a packaged passion-fruit muffin. I took the extra bit of baking – three more songs skipped by, I wish I could have been flying back in time. I would have shared this muffin (or at least, as Elaine from Seinfeld would recommend, the muffin-top) with Karen. Then maybe she’d still be getting those flares twisted around the bass-drum pedal; still wrapping that larynx around some drippy vowel sounds as if it truly was yesterday…once more; just a taste of my wife’s spare passion-fruit muffin (and a time-machine) could put Karen Carpenter on the top of the world.
I think I want to like The Carpenters more than I do. And I blame that TV-movie, The Karen Carpenter Story. For some reason I have watched that more than any non-Carpenters fan ever should. I guess I’ve always found it the ultimate example of how strictly un-cool The Carpenters were – I mean she died of Anorexia Nervosa (hardly a laughing matter? As so many have said before – if only she and Mama Cass had shared the same sandwich…) is that not the ultimate example of an un-cool musician dying in an un-cool way? Hendrix: sleeping pills/booze; Jim Morrison: anything he could grab – usually including (but not restricted to) pills, booze and women; Brian Jones: life. These were cool musicians who died in cool ways. They didn’t care – they were young and had the world in the palm of their hands (in Hendrix’ case it was just to the side of his guitar-pick). They died at 27. Well Karen was just 32. And she wasn’t even close to cool.
But have you ever heard that tribute album, If I Were A Carpenter. Now Karen and Richard may not have ever known a thing or two about being cool – but that compilation/tribute album sure does. Sonic Youth, Grant Lee Buffalo, Red Kross, Babes In Toyland – the last great wave of alternative bands from the 1990s pooled their talent to offer stellar versions of Superstar, Hurting Each Other and Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft.
I should have taken that album (one of my favourites) on the plane ride. My attempt to get through the real Carpenters saw me skip past 15 of the 20 songs on offer. I just couldn’t do it. As Scotty from Star Trek used to say, with regard to those missed opportunities on New Zealand beaches, “I didnae have the Paua”. I want to like The Carpenters more than I do. But I can’t. They were geeky – and they knew it. I do respect them for that.
Between late 2007 and early 2016 I wrote a daily music blog at Stuff.co.nz called Blog On The Tracks. I’m reposting some of the entries here because the discussion is still valid or entertaining or because you might have missed them the first time.
Click here to see the original post from 2007.