The story of US pop singer Karen Carpenter is well-known: the squeaky clean all-American girl-next-door who, with her brother Richard as the duo The Carpenters, had sunny hit after sunny hit during the cloudy 1970s.
What is maybe not so well known is the dark shadow behind the perfect Colgate smiles – the spectre of Richard’s prescription drug addiction and, most tragically, Karen’s awful battle with anorexia nervosa that ultimately led to her premature death at the age of 33.
It is this tragedy which adds an aching poignancy to Carpenters’ hits such as ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’, ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ and ‘Yesterday Once More’ – a poignancy amplified by the bitter sweetness of Karen’s woodsmoke voice and Richard’s widescreen arrangements. It is genius capital-p Pop, on par with the hit radio triumphs of Björn Ulvaeus’ ABBA or Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys.
Sydney cabaret chanteuse, Meera Belle’s Close to You: A Tribute to Karen Carpenter – performed over two nights at the inner-City Italian Forum as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival – took on both the sunshine and the moonshadow of Karen Carpenter’s art and life.
The songs were hung on a smartly scripted monologue – shared between Belle and backing vocalist Rob McDougall – detailing Karen’s sunny highs and nightblack lows over a two-part show. It worked beautifully too: the first half – kicked off fittingly with the almost too cute ‘Top Of The World’ – is the sunshine.
Meera Belle, cool in a pale mint gown, recounted the meteoric rise of the Carpenter siblings under the eye of A&M Records hitmaker, Herb Alpert. She touched on the irony of Karen, who only ever wanted to be a drummer (and she was a damn good drummer), growing to become one of the world’s most beloved singers.
A smart touch here was the featuring of young Sydney jazz drummer Lauren Benson in the band: between Benson’s cool swing and Meera Belle’s rich, assured voice they created a kind of composite Karen for us – drummer and singer.
The band, led by astute musical director and keys player Ray Lemond, somehow managed to recreate – with very spare means – those huge luscious Richard Carpenter arrangements. Veteran bass player Phil Scorgie and alto/flute/clarinet man Scott Simpkins rounded out the intrepid quartet that achieved this magic. (Huge kudos to Belle for not using backing tracks – these songs deserve more respect than that).
Meera Belle returned for the second half in black with a simple gold belt, reflecting the somber nature of the moon shadow half of Close to You: A Tribute… The back story here was of the personal decline of both Carpenters, focussing on Karen’s snakes-and-ladders love life and, of course, her descent into anorexia nervosa, the wracking slimmers’ disease that, in the late ‘70s, was still barely acknowledged.
She always wanted to be perfect – the perfect wife and suburban Mom, the perfect show-biz face and figure. Her parade of faithless lovers robbed her of the former; anorexia robbed her of the latter, and finally her life. Close to You: A Tribute… did not shy away from the tragedy of Karen Carpenter’s life but allowed her story to colour and illuminate the way we heard the music.
And what music it is – one of the rare bodies of work that, like the music of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, is beloved by millions now and into the future. Perfect pure pop – beauty, born, like Brian Wilson’s, of pain.
Close to You: A Tribute to Karen Carpenter (Sydney Fringe) played at Leichhardt’s Italian Forum Auditorium, Friday September 7 and Saturday September 8.