You might be wondering if what the world really needs is yet another biography of Karen Carpenter, the drummer, singer and adorable front-woman of the saccharinely sweet ‘70s soft rock brother-sister duo, the Carpenters, who died tragically at the tender young age of 32 in early 1983 from complications resulting from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder. After all, there’s been a 1989 TV movie-of-the-week detailing her life, numerous other television specials, and at least one other non-fiction book biography by Ray Coleman floating around out there.
While it may seem like the carcass of Carpenter has been picked pretty clean, and there can’t be anything else left to say to the casual observer, the thing is that most, if not all, of these other examinations of her life have all come with the Carpenter family seal of approval, scrubbing clean any notion of dysfunctional dynamics or otherwise overtly shocking revelations. Anyone who has tried to tell the unvarnished story of Karen’s life has been more or less struck down by a thunderbolt by, primarily, brother Richard Carpenter, who has seemingly strived to keep both the act’s clean-cut image intact as well as the portrayal of his mother as anything less than controlling.
Exhibit A on that front is filmmaker Todd Haynes’ 1987 short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which is a roughly 45-minute examination of Carpenter’s life told using Barbie dolls. That film has been more or less “banned” as it hasn’t been in proper distribution since 1990 (though you might find it if you do a search of Google Video as I did a number of years ago), and you have to wonder about the official reason it has been shunned from proper viewing – that Haynes used numerous Carpenters’ songs in the soundtrack without obtaining proper permission first. If you see that film, you’ll note that an allegation surfaces there that Richard was a closeted homosexual (for the record, he obtained a wife and children after Karen’s death), which might be one of the unofficial reasons that Superstar fell off the map.
What’s more, even Randy L. Schmidt – in his relative new, shockingly unauthorized biography of the seemingly wholesome Karen Carpenter – takes great pains to point out that writers who attempted to surmount the topic of her gradual and tragic decline were more or less bound at the wrists to whitewash certain details of the family’s professional and private life. Therefore, it seems that Schmidt’s Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter – which was originally released in 2010 as a hardcover, and is now making its paperback debut – is anything short of a miracle. It’s a book that plumbs directly into Carpenter’s personal life by compiling interviews with some of her friends and closest confidants, some of whom were reluctant to talk about her life prior to the author’s probing.
Naturally, being an “unauthorized” account, Schmidt has gone to great lengths to dig up as much dirt as he possibly can that nobody has previously accounted for, which, truthfully, makes me a bit nervous to be actually reviewing this book. Given the Carpenter estate’s manipulative reputation when it comes to anything biographical, I have dreams of Richard Carpenter coming after anyone who even talks about this book with the intensity of a hit man or a rabid pit bull. Richard and a few people who were close to Karen chose not to participate in the making of this book by simply eschewing interviews and offering best wishes – a feat that Schmidt seems to believe, according to his introduction, is a begrudging endorsement, considering that the song-smith didn’t close down the project altogether by working the phones and contacting other would-be interview subjects, telling them not to speak to the biographer.
Perhaps, with nearly 30 years gone since Karen’s untimely demise and roughly 15 to 20 years since the death of her parents, Richard felt that enough time had passed and the Carpenters spotlight had sufficiently dimmed to allow this unfettered biography to pass any sort of scrutiny from the public. Who knows? What is evident, however, is that Little Girl Blue, so named after an obscure Carpenters number, is a damning and penetrating account of a tortured and tormented artist, and could just be one of the most depressing books you’ll ever read.
For those who didn’t come of age in the early ‘70s, a recap: the Carpenters were one of the decade’s most successful American acts, ringing up 16 consecutive Top 20 hits between 1970 and 1976. They were too soft to be rock, too streamlined to be country, too pop to be jazz – but they took on all of these genres with aplomb, even dabbling in reggae and calypso by the decade’s close. They were simply as white bread of a group as they came: a smooth and watered-down immensely popular act that served as a balm to the American public during the heady days of the Vietnam War and Watergate. As Schmidt himself notes, the Carpenters were a band that both parents and kids would turn up on the radio if one of their songs came up during a car ride to grandma’s house.
However, the Carpenters were never really a cool band. Record store clerks would turn up their nose if you came to the counter with a Carpenters record, rock critics abhorred the band, and any enduring popularity that the group has attained since their heyday seems almost ironic. (Sonic Youth, it should be noted, are big fans having contributed a cover of “Superstar” to a ‘90s tribute album and recorded the homage “Tunic (Song For Karen)” on 1990’s Goo.) Beneath the shiny and rubbed-down veneer of the impeccable songcraft, though, you get Karen’s voice: a soft, mellow cadence that calls out to the angels of heaven. While her voice is lilting, if you listen to a Carpenters record nowadays, there also seems to be an underlying hint of sadness and melancholy, that something wasn’t right beneath the surface.
It’s hard to believe, if you now hear songs like “Superstar” and “Yesterday Once More” (my personal favourite Carpenters song), that this is the voice of a woman in her early ‘20s. She seems so much older, wiser and more grizzled than she actually was while performing some of those hits. Little Girl Blue digs into that voice and offers its own hypothesises as to what wasn’t right in Karen’s all too short life.
Little Girl Blue starts out being pretty much a rote retelling of the duo’s formation and ascendant rise to fame. You could skip the first 80 pages or so and only skim through the band’s Wikipedia entry and not miss out on much. In fact, the story of Karen Carpenter is pretty much relegated to the backseat here, as there simply isn’t much story to tell. The Carpenter family, you see, saw early on that Richard was the musical beacon amongst them, and did everything in their power to support his budding talents as a pianist – even going so far as to move to California from Connecticut with the hopes that being close to Hollywood would provide an easier ticket for him into the entertainment industry.
This, of course, meant that Karen, who started to take a liking to the drums (which was a rarity for a girl at the time), was pretty much shunned to secondary status, even when it became apparent that she had a haunting, gorgeous voice that made her a natural for fronting Richard’s various band endeavours of the ’60s. However, about a third of the way through the book, Karen’s story begins to take off as the band gets signed to a major label and almost immediately starts having hit after hit after hit. What Schmidt does well is invent imagined conversations that she might have had with her friends, lovers and various peers from interviews she gave as well as through primary research conducted by the author.
What Little Girl Blue does really successfully – and perhaps unconsciously – is mark the growth and maturity of Karen as a young woman. Schmidt has cobbled together print, audio and television interviews throughout her career, and there’s a marked maturity of thought and language as the ‘70s wear on and life begins to really wear down on her. Still, the striking thing about Karen as a personality is that, even though she was purportedly a tomboy growing up, she really was, at heart, a little girl throughout her life. She kept all sorts of plush toys on her bed, and then there’s the fact that she didn’t really leave the nest of her parents’ house until she was well into her mid-‘20s.
She had seemingly unrealistic expectations when it came to looking for a mate: she wanted perfection in a man, much like she wanted perfection in her singing. In some ways, she, too, was living in a prefabricated past, as most Carpenters albums contained covers or melodies of songs from the ’60s. Perhaps her persistent dieting – which took root in the late ‘60s but really got out of control by 1975 – had to do with the fact that she was held up to a persistent and unobtainable ideal, and a warped sense of body image was the only thing she felt that she could have any power over. But that would be only half the story.
Joan Crawford Had Nothing Over Agnes Carpenter
There are some true villains to be found in Little Girl Blue, and it becomes quite clear that Karen was trying to fill a void of some sort by not eating and using laxatives (and later, poisonous ipecac, which induces vomiting but weakens the muscles of the heart) to lose weight. While she was adored by millions of fans around the world, Schmidt paints a picture that Karen was always put behind the interests of her brother and lacked any sort of love or affection from the members of her own family and inner circle.
Managers and her brother convinced her to step outside her drum kit and perform ballads live in concert at the front of the stage – something that Schmidt contends she never felt overly comfortable doing. Both her brother and her mother Agnes, who comes across here as a manipulative control freak, would use her as the bagman whenever a member of their entourage needed to be fired.
The same characters would almost always disapprove of any picks for a suitable romantic partner – which usually came from within the Carpenters own gaggle of stage hands – repeatedly and harshly. When Karen chose to cut her own solo album in 1979 while brother Richard took time off to kick an addiction to Quaaludes, she was chastised yet again by the same members of her family for almost trying to break up the band.
Her record label was equally unsupportive, leading the record to be shelved until 1996, naturally denying her the opportunity in life to assert any sort of independence as a maturing young woman and artist. When she learned that her husband-to-be, real estate developer Tom Burris, was a liar and not what he seemed to be — for instance, he seemed to indicate during his courtship that he wanted to start a family with Karen, but dropped a bombshell right before the wedding that he’d had a vasectomy — her mother shamed her into going through with the marriage on the guise that preparations were underway to such an extent that there was no turning back, and that she should sleep in the bed that she’d lay in.
Finally, when she finally tried to seek help for her eating problems in the early ‘80s, she fell under the spell of a shady doctor, Steven Levenkron (who wasn’t even a licensed practitioner), who sought to make her dependant on him. When asked by Levenkron to have Karen meet her family during an emotional session that saw the young singer reduced to tears, her mother simply refused to acknowledge her love for her own daughter. Honestly, Joan Crawford almost comes across as a more loving and dependable parent than Agnes Carpenter in this searing account.
Of course, Little Girl Blue leaves us with more questions than actual answers: questions that probably can’t be answered now that the principal characters are now six feet under. (That’s so to speak: Karen didn’t want to be buried, so she and other member of her family are actually interred above ground.) For one, what made Agnes such a domineering, controlling Tiger mother? The book sheds no light, other than to suggest that something wasn’t right upstairs with her from the get-go. Why didn’t Karen’s father Harold step in and try to be some sort of buffer between her and her mother? We don’t know. Why didn’t Karen’s closest friends do more to help the beleaguered star cope with her illness? Schmidt doesn’t really pry, except to acknowledge that things were different in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and that anorexia nervosa was unknown territory at the time.
And what about Richard? Richard took his mother’s side when it came to whatever disagreements were floating through the family, usually, since he was considered to be the Golden Boy and probably didn’t want to rock the boat or upset Agnes. There was probably some sort of maternal obligation he felt towards her but, without his involvement in the book, that’s a bit of heresay. Why did he side so much with his mother? Without his involvement, that subject gets skirted. All of these things make Little Girl Blue a little one-dimensional: it’s as though the biographer, in trying to get the truth behind Karen’s story, sacrificed some balance in his quest to finally look behind the velvet curtain. (Assuming, of course, there was any sort of balance that could be found in such a dysfunctional family).
Still, Little Girl Blue is a powerful and absorbing book, one that will make you never listen to the Carpenters’ music in quite the same way again. In the middle of my reading, I made the mistake of going out onto my apartment balcony with a beer on a late summer evening. I had just put the Carpenter’s double-LP Greatest Hits on my turntable. I had snagged it from a dollar bin of a Toronto record store some years ago. I was expecting pleasant background music, I hoped for a feeling of being swept away in the gorgeous multi-tracked harmony of Karen’s voice. I got something completely different out of the experience, though.
While listening to the record, I actually grew upset and agitated, and eventually had to take it off. I just couldn’t see the magic behind the music – all I could feel was anger and bitterness towards Richard, Agnes and the label executives who ran an unbelievable talent into the ground. I suppose that would mean that there’s a certain power and sway to the narrative of Little Girl Blue, making it an important look at the absolute waste of what should have been Karen’s salad years. Maybe a lot that has been said about the life of Karen Carpenter in the years following her death, but Little Girl Blue punches new buttons and, despite its odd flaws, it’s a must read for those interested in how some celebrities suffer behind the prettified scenes of their art. That’s something I’m sure that Richard Carpenter doesn’t want to hear – but, at least this time, he’s biting his tongue.