Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Here I tell a story about the first celebrity death that hit me hard. I wrote this before the recent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, deaths that did not hit me particularly hard but did deeply affect many of my friends, and maybe you. It’s just part of being human to mourn the loss of people we didn’t really know, but whose work made us feel like we did. I wish somebody had explained that to me when I was a kid.
It could well be my first memory. Workday mornings, Dad’s alarm blaring, I’d get down out of bed and pad quietly into his room. If I lay still on the corner of his bed, he’d let me stay. While he got dressed in the dim light of his side-table lamp, his clock radio played softly on the Hit Parade station. I must have been three, because that’s how old I was when the Carpenters’ “Close to You” went to number one. Hit Parade played it every morning and I so looked forward to it. When it played, I’d close my eyes to see colors that flowed and shifted as Karen Carpenter sang. Such joy!
Growing up in the 1970s as I did, it was easy to be a Carpenters fan because their music saturated radio: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Top of the World,” “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” “Rainy Days and Mondays.” I especially loved “Only Yesterday.” I used to glide back and forth on our back-yard swing and sing it over and over again. I was in love with Karen Carpenter’s voice!
Those early records remained such radio staples that it was easy not to notice that the duo had few hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their early success brought enormous pressure, and they struggled to handle it. Richard wound up addicted to Quaaludes, a sedative. Karen dieted compulsively, to the point of damaging her health. Her case thrust anorexia nervosa into the public consciousness. Not only did they take time off to rest and recover, but the few songs they did release in those years just didn’t connect with as many people. Few became radio hits.
Meanwhile, I was just a teen who loved to hear and sing the songs from my favorite band. I had no idea the challenges Karen and Richard faced; all I knew of them as people came from their smiling personas on their frequent TV specials. And then, while idly watching TV one February evening in 1983, I caught this news brief on ABC:
I was shocked so deeply, so sharply, that I felt like I had suddenly been set on fire. The report went by so fast that part of me wasn’t even sure I had really heard it. There was no Internet to check for confirmation, and we didn’t have cable so I couldn’t switch to the fledgling CNN for more information.
I was deeply confused by the depth of my reaction. So much pain, so much grief, over a woman I didn’t actually know! I told my mom, my dad; they said they were sorry, but they were clearly surprised by how hard I was taking the news and didn’t know how to comfort me. I felt alone with my grief, which I couldn’t shake. Nobody knew how important Karen’s voice was to me. I scarcely knew until Karen died.
I had just one Carpenters album, a gift from my parents several years before. I ached to buy more so I could hear more of their songs. I saved my meager allowance and I did chores for neighbors for money for weeks and weeks until I had saved enough to buy another. Money in pocket, I rode the city bus to the mall, walked into Musicland, and picked an album out almost at random: A Song For You, from 1973.
I came right back home and put the platter on my record player. The title track opened the album, and shortly Karen sang these words:
I love you in a place where there’s no space or time
I love you for in my life you are a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you
I could scarcely believe what I heard, and my head spun. I knew it wasn’t possible for Karen’s words to be a direct message for me, yet how could I not let them penetrate and help me grieve? At last, I cried openly. I began to move on.
I would buy the rest of the Carpenters’ catalog over the next couple years. Their music remains a beloved part of the soundtrack of my life. And I’ll always be grateful that fate, or perhaps random chance, delivered “A Song For You” to me first.
Click Play to listen to “A Song For You.”