Joel Goldenberg: Carpenters' Made in America

Richard and Karen Carpenter interviewed in 1981.

And here we have yet another example of the story behind an album being more interesting than the album itself.

I'm a big fan of the music of Carpenters (the official name of the brother-sister team, not The Carpenters), because of Karen's unique, intimate style of singing and Richard's talent for producing and especially arranging, such as turning a rather nondescript bank commercial song into one of the most affecting hits of the 1970s, We've Only Just Begun. One could say what Brian Wilson was to the 1960s production-wise, Richard Carpenter was to the 1970s.

I pretty much like all Carpenters album to different extents — the folk-rocky debut Offering and such hit-filled albums as Close To You, Carpenters, Now and Then and Horizon, and the risk-taking experimentation of Passage.

But Made in America (1981), the last album released before Karen's tragic death at 32 from issues related to anorexia nervosa (the eating disorder), is the Carpenters album I listen to the least.

The production is lush, in my mind too much so; kind of like Richard's sanitizing of older Carpenters songs in 1991 to achieve a too-clean sound. Most of the songs are pleasant, but don't hit me in the gut (the exception is I Believe You, previously a stand-alone single in 1978). Karen's voice sounds kind of thin (except on I Believe You) and their revival of the Marvelettes' Beechwood 4-5789 is less effective than their previous cover of the same group, Please Mr. Postman.

So why am I even discussing this album? Because of what was going on behind the scenes.

By 1978, both Richard and Karen were deteriorating physically, him because of a raging Quaaludes addiction that limited his piano playing and arranging ability, and to some extent his ability to function generally; and Karen from the anorexia that had a pretty major effect on her appearance and stamina. That year, they stopped touring for what turned out to be forever.

In 1979, Richard took six weeks to dry out in a rehab facility, and Karen — instead of dealing with her own problem and much to Richard's displeasure — decided to record a solo album.

The album met a lukewarm response from Richard and their record company A&M, and it wasn't released in 1980 as it was supposed to be. Instead, after numerous appeals from fans, Richard authorized its release in 1996 — some remixed tracks from the album had been released on the 1989 collection Lovelines.

While some biographical accounts have Karen feeling devastated and betrayed by her album's non-release and the stress contributing to her further physical deterioration, she officially said work on the upcoming  Carpenters album (Made in America) took precedence.

But there was more going on behind the scenes.

I have read numerous interviews with Karen and Richard, and both had a strong desire to fall in love and combination settle down/continue their careers throughout the 1970s. Karen said the Richard Carpenter/John Bettis song I Need To Be In Love (from the not-so-great A Kind of Hush album) reflected her situation exactly and was her favourite song to sing. Karen had many boyfriends over the years, among the best was record label owner Mike Curb.

But she instead fell in love with a real estate man named Tom Burris (who she first thought was Richard when introduced to him), and they got married. But numerous factors ensured their marriage was a short one. In fact, Richard and Bettis wrote the song Because We Are In Love (The Wedding Song)  (included on Made in America) especially for the wedding, where Karen looked like the picture of health and beauty.

But their separation plunged Karen into a faster spiral of anorexia-related deterioration. In the midst of all this, Richard and Karen filmed the last of their several ABC TV specials, 1980's Music, Music, Music. Karen looked fine and her voice was, in my opinion, at its confident peak.

When Made in America was released, the album art portrayed Karen (in actual photos and art depictions) as being in robust shape, but as mentioned above, her voice on the LP was noticeably thin and her appearance was not great in videos made to promote the album, as well as TV interviews at the time. In fact, in one British interview, Karen was directly confronted as to whether she had anorexia. She lied and said No, but her appearance said otherwise. That part of the interview didn't air originally, at Richard's request.

By the end of their promotional trip, Karen knew she needed help, moved to New York City and consulted a therapist for several months in 1982. That didn't work, and weight was put on her in a hospital. Not long after returning to Downey, California in late 1982, she died suddenly (although there were warning signs) in February 1983.

What all this demonstrates is that you can portray one image to the public that all is sunshine, flowers and lush music, while major turmoil can go on in the background.

And then we hear about the latter when it's too late to prevent a potential tragedy.

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