The Carpenters: Up From Downey

Page 7 of 7

Karin is lying on the wide shelf of a balcony, looking down on the stage from the left. Sitting behind her in aluminum folding chairs are her mother and a hospital nurse. Karin rests on a litter, dressed in pajamas, covered by blankets, supported by pillows. She clutches a teddy bear to her side, and in one attenuated hand is a tattered Kleenex like a paper lily. When introduced to someone saying he is with the Carpenters, Karin beams suddenly with an intensity that is hard to bear. The skin on her face, on all her body, is sparse and taut, barely covering the bones. Her head is skeletal and looks enlarged, too big for the wasted frame that carries it. Karin reminds one of embryos photographed in the womb, but her gaze is informed with a century's wisdom not native to the unborn, nor to eight-year-old humans. Her being has taken on through pain a beauty it seems blasphemous to contemplate. With great effort she summons the energy to speak. "I really like their songs," she says. "I really like to listen to them."

In each of their concerts the Carpenters perform their hit "Sing" with the help of a local children's choir recruited from whatever town they are playing. The Wheeling Elementary School Choir is in tune and particularly well-kempt, fresh-faced and exuberant as they cheerily endorse the virtue of facing life while delivering your personal melody. "Aren't they somethin'?" Karen Carpenter asks, and the audience applauds its endorsement of these adults of the future, and Karin applauds them too.

The Carpenters' unofficial observer leaves the balcony before the concert's finale, before the end of the show that someone has stayed alive to see.

As the Carpenters finished, there was much applause from their second capacity audience of the night, but the cheering faded and stopped before the hem of the curtain had quite touched the boards of the stage of the Wheeling Jamboree. As her brother led her off gently by the arm, Karen asked in subdued alarm, "What was – what happened? What went wrong?" Richard, walking her briskly toward the stairs to the basement dressing rooms, amused by her faith in the infallibility of their magic, said with a chuckle, "Well honey, sometimes it just doesn't . . . work . . ."

The 12-passenger Hansa jet was less than full. Murky weather enveloped the small airfield and promised a bumpy 40-minute trip ahead. Police cars had stood guard around the Carpenters' two chartered planes. Autographs had been extracted in return for a swift departure: Sign these albums, and you're free to leave.

Now, inside the small craft, a stewardess prepared to quietly distribute orange juice, coffee, beer, vodka; copies of Time, National Lampoon, Rolling Stone. She made no announcements. The Carpenters had made it clear at the start of this tour they wished no extraneous disturbances.

It was a short field. The pilot took all of the runway to lift the Hansa up into the bleak gray morning.

Karen confessed to her hairdresser she had chosen the wrong color socks the night before – orange instead of tan to match today's slacks – then settled back, no one beside her, resigned to the flight.

Richard, eyes closed, his head on Randee's shoulder, seemed to be listening for the sounds of the landing gear retracting. He counted the thuds with the fingers of his right hand: one . . . two . . . three . . . He nodded, satisfied. He gave himself up to sleep.

Below, through drizzle and hazy clouds, a grim panorama of American landscape inched by beneath the plane carrying Richard and Karen away from and toward what they had created for themselves.

This story is from the July 4th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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