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The Carpenters: Up From Downey

Page 6 of 7

Touch me and I end up singing . . ."

Karen is in some ways like a child, which is not surprising. A star since 19, a committed musician even longer than that, she probably missed out on one or two normal stages of adaptation to "the real world." Richard is similarly detached, but he is older; Karen at 24 most noticeably shows the effects of an early success. She has been sheltered and pampered and behaves accordingly. Finished at lunchtime with the gum she often chews, she drops it unwrapped into a clean ashtray, where it glistens wetly like a kitten's tongue throughout the meal. She is capable of doing childlike things with the unself-consciousness of a ten-year-old: Giving directions to some destination, she uses her body like a walking car, driving down an imaginary boulevard, pivoting herself to the left for a turn . . . Onstage she sometimes projects the air of a spoiled, slightly heartless prom queen toying with the emotions of the audience, a willing collective beau. "There she is," one of the Carpenters' band muttered sourly one morning as Karen and her hairdresser/wardrobe girl, laden with traveling bags and beauty kits, descended downstairs to a Sheraton Inn lobby. "The princess."

But petulance or overobvious use of privilege are mere compensations for being in a position she is not truly able to enjoy. She is the star of the show, but her lot seems more like a band singer's of an earlier decade, the amiable thrush along for the ride; except Karen rides private jets instead of band buses, and there's not much hearty fraternization going on. The partially forced naivete, the occasional bitchiness on the road, the comic Imogene Coca mask which fits her so imperfectly are all forms of a will which cannot find its proper outlet. So long has she deferred to her brother, it seems, she cannot express a distinct personality of her own. The two of them are like a couple married too long, in whom passion has been replaced by accommodation. When agreed-upon patterns are deviated from, the transgressor (usually Karen) is quickly slapped down. Then again, Richard can be stronger only because Karen lets him.

The closest she is to her brother is when they are making or talking about music: During a rehearsal, discussing a four-bar break, the two of them will suddenly burst into song as if they possessed ESP. On tour, huddled over a coffee-shop table, discussing the chart positions of their latest releases, she consoles him when their single hasn't debuted as high on the Top Hundred as might have been hoped. At other times, when she needs reassurance from him, at least in public he isn't there. So Karen retreats into giggles and facial takes, becomes a gum-chewing comedienne or a spoiled princess who doesn't allow herself to think out loud with strangers. Or close friends? Or even alone?

When she really comes alive is when she sings; she changes completely. Joking or talking one moment, she becomes a different person the very next, as soon as she opens her mouth. Out comes that unique and wonderful voice, exactly as on record, expressing fascinating contrasts: chilling perfection with much warmth; youth with wisdom. Then she seems to be someone who knows something of life. She must be aware of the transformation she brings about, yet when asked to describe what happens at such a moment, all she will guardedly say is, "I don't know what you mean. I'm not thinking of anything in particular. I'm just . . . trying to get it right."

At breakfast in the coffee shop of the Beckley Ramada Inn, Karen said she had a sore throat.

Richard had a complaint of his own. The group had ordered an expensive piece of sound equipment from the firm that supplies the hardware for their concerts, and the equipment was months overdue. Richard seemed in some way to blame Karen, because her sometime boyfriend worked for the firm when the order was placed. He began nagging her in a scolding manner.

"We were supposed to have that thing by January. Then we were going to get it for Europe. Then they said it would come in time for this silly little tour. And now – they're telling us, wait till Japan. Karen. I want that $15,000 back."

Karen floundered, out of her depths and for once in more human waters. Piteously, unconsciously touching her throat, she said, "Look. Richard. I don't know anything about that equipment. All I know is, I don't feel very well."

Elliot Abbott, Sherwin Bash's dry-humored representative, began uncharacteristically to hum "Tea For Two" in a strained and significant voice, as if to remind them of a writer's presence at the table. They didn't notice. Richard stared at his sister as if she were pulling feminine rank on him by having a sore throat, but for the moment he let the matter drop.

The waitress – this one had decided to treat the Carpenters as just plain folk – brought the news that there was no orange juice this morning.

"No orange juice?" Richard slumped against Randy in astonishment and mock despair.

"Gee, I guess this is gonna be the first time in 17 years that Richard hasn't started his day with a big double glass of orange juice," Karen offered. Richard nodded like an endearing little boy. His disappointment was partly comical and dispelled the previous moment's mood, but it also betrayed a real letdown. Not a $15,000 letdown, but certainly something worth remembering.

"Boy, there've been a lot of firsts on this tour," he said. "No grapefruit yesterday, no ice cream the day before . . ."

"No vanilla ice cream," Karen said with wonderment. "I almost died when I heard that one. Could not believe it."

"And now this."

Allowing for unforeseen mechanical annoyances, the show itself is as seamless as could be. It never varies. It features all of the Carpenters' many hits: "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Top of the World," "Close To You," "We've Only Just Begun," all the others. There is a fun oldies medley, narrated in terrific boss-jock fashion by superb guitarist Tony Peluso, the man responsible for the incredible solo on "Goodbye To Love."

The Carpenters' conservatively mod wardrobe consists of expensive and attractive "semi-hip" ensembles, generally embroidered or sequined denim suits. Karen and Richard's patter has been created for them by a professional writer, and they speak it word-for-word during every performance.

"How many of you remember the Mickey Mouse Club? You do? I want you to think back to the end of the show, when the camera would focus in on two of the littlest Mouseketeers: Karen and Cubby. Well, I'm not the same Karen. But the newest member of our band is the same Cubby! Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a big round of applause for our drummer, Cubby O'Brien!"

When they speak nonmusically to their audiences, for some reason – insecurity? a misguided sense of propriety? – they become something very close to the image of wholesomeness they are so weary of. They are here to present a series of tunes as professionally as possible, and there will be no nonsense please!

The music is wonderful. Karen sings like a dream, a wish fulfilled, a sorrow resolved in the telling. Richard conducts from his electric keyboard with the precision and brilliance that has won him respect as an arranger and producer from such peers as Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach. When Karen plays the drums she flails away with unthinking enthusiasm; she is a very good drummer. It all makes an excellent show.

In Wheeling, West Virginia, the Carpenters play two shows back to back in the Capitol Music Hall, home of the WWVA Jamboree, a well-known counterpart of the Grand Ole Opry. The hall holds approximately 3000. Both concerts are sold out, and an official guesses that if a third performance had been scheduled it too would have attracted a capacity crowd.

The Wheeling audiences are respectful without being dull, enthralled but enthusiastically appreciative on cue: the kind of audiences Richard likes. The setting helps a marvelous ratty old theater with proscenium stage, velvet curtains, balconies – "A dump," as Karen says. The night before, in Beckley, the Carpenters had played semi-in-the-round in a domed athletic stadium, and the informal atmosphere had encouraged a lively cheering and whooping which Richard had found rude. Here in Wheeling the loudest sound except applause to be heard from the other side of the footlights is a shushed and sibilant hiss, a whispered chorus of many young women singing softly along with Karen on "Close To You."

One of the thousands attending the first show of the evening is an eight-year-old girl named Karin, who is dying of cancer. She weighs 40 pounds. Her fondest wish was to see the Carpenters perform in person. This was arranged for her by the men who are serving as the Carpenters' drivers in Wheeling. There is no limousine service in Wheeling or St. Clairsville, the town in Ohio across the river where the group is staying; these part-time chauffeurs were recruited from their usual jobs as drivers for the town's private ambulance service and funeral home. Through their work they had heard of Karin, and they made possible the special treatment which allows her attendance tonight.

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