Quinn on the Books: A One-Sided Story
Carpenters: The Musical Legacy review, by Mike Cidoni Lennox and Chris May, with Richard Carpenter
Michael Quinn live review
Two reporters approached musician Richard Carpenter for his blessing on a book they were developing about the group he led in the 1970s and 1980s with his sister Karen (now deceased). Richard offered more than his approval. He gave of his time, access to his archives and answers to countless questions. He also took charge of the project. “Hello and welcome to our book,” he wrote on the front page of Carpenters: The Musical Legacy. On the margins of every page, you can practically feel co-authors Mike Cidoni Lennox and Chris May worrying, flattering, and ultimately relinquishing control. So much for hard-hitting journalism: it’s the world according to Richard.
Knowing it’s a vanity project doesn’t make it any less impressive. Beautifully packaged, this massive superfans album features family photos, trivia, ephemera, tour schedules, interviews, and an extensive list of Carpenters discography. It reviews their careers song by song, year by year, including release dates, chart entry dates, peak positions, and how much time each spends on a chart.
The level of detail is fascinating and the commitment to getting it right is admirable. What the book doesn’t capture are the two things Carpenters are known for: Karen’s haunting voice and that incredibly distinctive sound. These harmonies, arrangements and layered productions are all the work of Richard. As he wisely points out, “an arrangement can make or break a record.” The trouble is, it never lets you forget it.
Richard’s relentless quest for recognition is understandable. History has not been kind to him. Previously, by his own admission, he had been burned for authorizing a biography which he later referred to as an “anorexia book” as he focused on Karen’s struggle with the disease that claimed her life. at 32 years old. Some fans continue to resent him, feeling his workaholic tendencies pushed Karen to the brink and he cashed in right after her death, precipitating a bunch of unseen (and sometimes even unfinished) material – a decision that he deeply regrets now. “I can hear a few things that I know she wouldn’t be happy with,” he admits.
In Carpenters, Richard’s certainty about how Karen would have felt about something never wavers. Not only was he his brother and his greatest collaborator; at one point, he goes so far as to call himself his “spiritual twin”. After all, he argues, they shared the same smile and the same likes and dislikes. Then again, Karen didn’t know classical music like he did, he points out, as if she was working to score another point in his favor. This relentless quality to prove bleeds into the book and embitters it. Describing a first performance, he writes: “I think I stole the show, if anyone did. I was elected exceptional instrumentalist. Additionally, we were named the best combo based on base, and the Richard Carpenter Trio won the all-around trophy. (Did I mention this guy is big on overbidding?)
It is in a first iteration of this trio that Karen, 16, on drums, obtains the group’s first recording contract, for her vocals. The reason why Herb Alpert later signed them to his A&M Records label? “Her voice,” he said. Yet Karen had to be cuddled behind the drums to take center stage. “She couldn’t accept the fact that she was a world-class singer,” says Alpert.
This voice is sorely lacking here. As photos and memories of Karen are sprinkled throughout, she receives a two-page eulogy – an excessive correction from the “Anorexia Book” which also walks lightly around Richard’s own demons. , including a previous addiction to Quaaludes, which he calls “my pills”. “
If you are not familiar with carpenters, this book is not the place to start. The writers don’t hold hands and throw themselves in from the start. They are not great in substance or staging; they dive into it. They care about the details, like which singles were only released in Japan, and with what illustrations (which everyone admits is still really bad). The technical elements may be of interest to other musicians, but these always carry an off-putting smell of Richard’s personal importance. The same quality that could have made him an excellent producer and arranger, namely the energy of the control freak, goes against the best interests of the book. Achieving it seems like a gentle ordeal for everyone involved. At one point, Richard complains that he has been “spoken to”. In another, while being toasted about a legendary piece of carpenter lore, he dismisses it as a “mystery to the few who find this kind of arcane interesting.” He is sometimes self-deprecating, but always appears both suspicious and resentful.
Carpenters is also not the place to find pages of poetry to ponder. It’s not like the Carpenters are great lyricists. They made a name for themselves covering other people’s songs – “(They Long to Be) Close to You”, “Ticket to Ride”, “(Groupie) Superstar” – with the lush, slowed arrangements of haunted Richard. Karen’s low, plaintive voice, still looking sad, but hopeful. These feelings are reflected in the listener: you feel like they understand what you are going through, and no matter how badly you feel, there is also a chance that you will feel better. It’s a voice like eyes: it gives the impression of being seen.
Yet even in their prime, the Carpenters suffered from an uncool image. They were white kids from the California suburbs singing the same songs you’d hear in an elevator. Richard still doesn’t want it. He argues for the albums, the choices he made to put them together, but it’s the singles that tell their career story, and they still stand. They are of their time, but with that magical timeless quality that all grown-ups share. What Carpenters is showing is that even if you favor one of the siblings, the sum is really greater than its parts. Richard’s sunny harmonies carried the dark notes of Karen’s voice. Others have since followed this formula; no one else has done it in such a winning way. “Individually we were something,” Richard says of Karen. “But together, we were really something else.”