The Carpenters: Up From Downey

After 25 million records, 10 gold singles and 5 gold albums Richard & Karen Carpenter have decided to leave home

July 4, 1974
The Carpenters on the cover of Rolling Stone.
The Carpenters on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

We're just. . . normal people.

Karen Carpenter, the solo singing half of a brother and sister musical duo that has sold over 25 million records world-wide, has classic "good looks" but with something extra. It is the something extra that makes her interesting to look at, some unrealized firmness in her features, a womanliness she does not always allow herself to express. It comes out when she sings – in the emotion that makes her voice intriguing and beguiling.

Karen insists on the right to be normal, even though she is a celebrity known all over the world, but it is impossible for her or for her brother Richard to regain the placid existence of their youth.

At a back table in Beverly Hills' La Scala restaurant, Karen described some conditions that would tend to make an "ordinary" life impossible for her. While everyone else at dinner (including her brother) was enjoying sumptuous pasta, she had before her a simple green salad and iced tea. She was, as usual, on a diet.

"A lot of kids write and ask me for advice," Karen began.

"Some of the things they ask are normal. How do you get into the business? How do you learn to sing?

"A lot write and say they were hung up on drugs, but since they've heard our music they've gotten off of them.

"But a lot of kids who write have mental hang-ups. They're lonely, they want to know why their parents don't love them, why do their brothers and sisters hassle 'em. They haven't had a good life at all, and they just live for our music.

"They ask for advice that I'm not capable of giving. Because I'm not a doctor. It's hard to tell someone how to live their life even if you know 'em, let alone if you've never seen them. It's hard. It really is.

One girl, her boyfriend had gone to Vietnam and gotten himself killed. She wanted to kill herself, and what should she do? I said, God, don't kill yourself! I mean . . . what do you tell 'em?

"Another girl, in Phoenix . . . Remember, Richard?"

"Oh yes," Richard Carpenter said, looking up from his meal. "The first time we played Gammage Auditorium. That big hall Frank Lloyd Wright designed."

"This girl. It was her mother's third marriage. The stepfather hated her. Truly sad. What else, Richard?"

"Something to do with her brother," Richard said slowly. "I can't remember."

"The ones that are really . . . freaky, if you answer once and they write back, then I give them to our manager, Sherwin Bash. You can't really get involved. It gets too heavy. You have to handle each one in a different manner. When you're playing with personal feelings, with someone who's that hung up on you . . . "

One of the first times the Carpenters worked with their current opening act was in a huge coliseum in Houston. During Skiles and Henderson's comedy turn, a young man walked up the ramp to the stage and sat down at Karen's drums. Skiles and Henderson thought maybe the Carpenters were putting them to some kind of test, and the group supposed the guy at the drums was part of the comics' act.

He punched a policeman who approached him and was forcibly carried off, shouting, "Don't touch me! I'm engaged to Karen Carpenter!"

At the jail it was found he had on his person a wedding ring and airplane tickets for the honeymoon.

Another man who inserted himself memorably into Karen's life began his courtship with a letter which she received while they were playing Tahoe. Torturously scrawled like a five-year-old's mash note, it read, "Guess what. I've been waiting all this time to marry Melanie but it looks like it's not gonna come off, so you know who I picked to be my next old lady? That's right, Karen – you!" She and Richard laughed and kept the letter just for kicks, as they keep all the "strangies."

Three months later a GTO with Jesus saves stickers on the back bumper pulled up in front of a home in Downey, California, where Richard and Karen lived with their parents. Their father was in the garage working on a car. The fellow in the GTO got out and asked him if Karen was home.

"Yes," said her father, who cannot learn to lie.

"I'd like to speak to her."

"I really think she's busy right now."

"Oh," the fellow said, "she'll want to speak to me."

"Why is that?"

"Well," he explained, "you know all those songs she's been singing for the last four years? She's been singing them to me."

He showed up the next day, and the day after that. They came to recognize his car as it approached, the GTO of this guy who was not playing with a full deck, the guy who had written the letter they laughed at in Tahoe.

The night Richard and Karen went to the Ali-Norton fight at the Inglewood Forum with Herb Alpert, they returned to find the GTO parked and empty in front of their house.

While their parents were away GTO had pried open a door, setting off the burglar alarm. The police had come instantly. GTO had been very calm. He was not there to rob anything. He was engaged to Karen Carpenter and he had just come in to say hello.

They locked him up for 72 hours, after which he returned for his car.

He sat in the car for another day.

A neighbor called the police. As he was leaving, the black-and-whites pulled up, fencing him in. That was the day Karen had had enough. The police said they couldn't arrest him, all they could do was escort him to the city line, to Norwalk, mere minutes away. "Look," she said, "let's be serious about this. The guy has broken into my home. I don't know anything about the law. But don't tell me I'm supposed to be calm about this guy sitting and staring at my house, looking for me. If you just take him to Norwalk he'll turn around and come right back here."

Sitting there, day after day, staring at the house.

The police said that he had spent some time in a home. He had been in a mental home.

The police wanted her to go outside and say hello to him. Since he wanted so badly to speak to her, maybe that would satisfy him. She told them they were crazy.

The final day of his vigil he got out of his car and walked to the far end of the house. Perhaps that's where he thought her room was. He stood there ten minutes and at the top of his lungs screamed her name, over and over . . .

"Some people center their whole lives around us," Karen continued. "They only live to see us, to hear us. That's getting awfully heavy.

"People get so involved. It's sad to see kids cry if they can't get backstage to see us. They go to sleep with our album covers. Sometimes their mothers send them to be autographed. Especially Close To You. You should see them . . . all crumpled up . . .

"Only the really important letters are handled personally. There was a 12-year-old girl in Utica, New York, who was dying and who wanted a drum set. We got her the drum set. She was supposed to die a couple months before we played Utica, but she wanted to see that show so bad that she stayed alive for it. A few weeks after that . . . that was it. That also happened with a little girl in Notre Dame.

"It's weird to think you could have a meaning like that for someone, to make someone go on living. That's a hell of a responsibility. Someone loving something that much, to keep them alive . . . It's a very strange feeling, to think you could have that much . . . power . . . "

Karen concentrated on articulating thoughts she did not seem often to entertain. "That you could mean that much to someone. It's an eerie feeling. I don't dig being responsible that way.

"I mean . . . we only wanted to . . . make a little music . . . "

I guess I'm really very lucky
That I've got this thing to play
Cause it can really make me feel good
Even when it's cloudy and grey

Yes, after years and years of practice
And awful allergies that made me sneeze
And now the other guys are out playin' with their girlfriends
And I was still. . . bangin' on the keys
And it got me

Right where I am
This is me
Playing the piano
I hope ya like what I do
It's for you
And I'll try and sing right too*

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