[It was a September Saturday, fall but still summer. The leaves were turning, but the sun was shining brightly. It was a day when you could live forever. It was 1969, or maybe ’68 … doesn’t matter. I, and my college classmates and our we, were lolling about on the green of Morse College (one of Yale’s residential colleges) with our weekend dates.
New Haven, Connecticut, before the shit hit the fan. (That’s a different story.) The barbeque was going. The kitchen staff was serving up burgers and dogs for lunch prior to the big game. Football hadn’t yet fallen out of fashion on the college campus. For the moment, it was still the axis, along with music, around which campus life revolved.
There was music, too. A duo played music that qualified as popular, but stopped short of being our beloved rock ‘n roll. They were an odd configuration, a guy on electric keyboard and a chick/singer on drums. No one was paying attention. They were background noise. At one point I paused long enough from the banter to give them an ear. “These guys are really good,” I said to no one in particular. “Who are they?” No one knew what they called themselves, although someone ventured that they were local. “Well … they’re good,” I reiterated. It wasn’t until half a dozen years l, when I saw them on television that I realized the group we had been ignoring on the Morse College green was The Carpenters. Long ago … but maybe not so far away. SB SM]
Considering the identity crisis percussionists suffered during the 1970s when drum machines and synthesizers were threatening their legitimacy in the world, Karen Carpenter’s work as a drummer was remarkably sure of itself. It was all there in her playing: a latched pedal that slowed and raced when it needed to; a playful demonstration of cymbal display that echoed The Beatles; a selection of drum solos performed with tremendous urgency and fire; and best of all, an ability to play drums as she sang lead vocals on a series of haunting pop pieces.
And while The Carpenters had a calm appearance, the duo nevertheless boasted a more rugged interior life just beneath the surface. Lead Sister – Lucy O ‘Brien’s portrait of a drummer in creative revitalization – demonstrates the band’s eagerness to explore their confessionals, whether it suited the market or not.
Underneath the sweet flutes of “Superstar” stood an insecure woman who was determined to show she was capable of competing with the hardest, the fastest, and the most furious, regardless of gender. “It hit me that I could play drums as good as nine-tenths of those boys,” Karen said. “When I got into the marching band I immediately fell in love with the drums and I was the first female drummer. The band thought I was crazy, but luckily I took to them right away.”
This book is not a cheap Spice Girl-like fable about “independence,” but a deeply feminist apotheosis. It’s the last couple of chapters where the book truly lives up to its potential, painting a brother and a sister in their attempts to make peace with both their legacy and their lives. Karen Carpenter died at the tender age of thirty-two, leaving Richard as the sole custodian of the legacy. (Incidentally, drummers John Bonham and Keith Moon also died at that age, making it one of the more unfortunate coincidences in rock.)
There’s a lot to absorb in the book – O’Brien casts a wider net than she did on Madonna: Like an Icon – and the book rushes to explore the latter, more pop-oriented aspect of The Carpenters’ trajectory that it seems to overlook the formative lessons Karen and Richard discovered on their way to pop glory. It’s a good thing that O’Brien writes with razor-sharp precision, or the reader might get bored in the process.
It also feels like the book is reluctant to waver from the central character: there are some snippets on Richard that could be expanded upon, considering that he was the one who composed and arranged the band’s work. Still, O’Brien recognizes the artist, the woman, and the drummer in her work, and weaves a tightly coiled narrative that explores all three of these aspects of the central figure.
If her drumming was sidelined by the trendy presses, there was no denying the fact that Karen Carpenter possessed a singular voice, capturing a unique midway point between the uber-hip girl groups of the 1960s, and the more ragged vocals bellowed by Blondie and Siouxsie and The Banshees.
One way or another, Karen charmed her way onto the music charts, but she was equally as fascinating as the songs she produced. The richness of O’Brien’s book fleshes out a person who was committed to the history books too early in her career, giving a new overview of her work and her character. Also featured is a scientific account of anorexia, which is a timely reminder that even the sturdiest can fall victim to the disease.
Photo: Public domain image of Karen Carpenter