I don’t get many voicemails, and it had been a long time since I last looked at my phone’s log. Apparently, about two years. At the log’s end were three voicemails from July 2014 – messages from my mother, who died six months ago at 87. I listened to the oldest message today, from 24 July 2014 – she sang me ‘Happy Birthday.’ I would have been turning 49 that day but in her voice is the transporting gentleness of someone singing a lullaby to a child.
My mom reserved her singing voice chiefly for birthdays and had a great sense of humor about it. She knew it was poor but wouldn’t have realized how much she was able to make up for with its very beautiful sincerity. Each birthday my sisters and I would look forward to being charmed by a singularly quiet and straightforward version of the birthday song, either preceded or followed by her own wide-eyed and funny deprecations regarding her skill level.
In a ‘meta-meta’ moment, I was taken back nearly two years to the time she left that voicemail – and also back to the sounds of the summer of 1971 when I turned six. In the 1970s the orderly kitchen of our house would echo with the anemic sounds of KRGI, a local AM radio station. Metallic strains pinged out from my mom’s small, inexpensive, single speaker transistor – often playing top 40 songs.
I looked back and that summer of 1971 had a fair share of fine top 40 hits that were songs of unrequited love, like I Don’t Know How To Love Him by Yvonne Elliman, Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers, and It’s Too Late by Carole King. But perhaps the best of the lot came later that summer. With its lonely opening melody, a solitary oboe giving way to strings, The Carpenters had a massive top ten hit in 1971 about a young woman and her obsession with a musician. The song transcends its specific topic and becomes something more – a potent capsule of universal yearning and loneliness.
Written in 1969 by Bonnie Bramlett with Leon Russell, ‘Superstar’ has been performed by a host of singers including Vicki Carr, Cher, Rita Coolidge, Peggy Lee, and Bette Midler. (Delaney and Bonnie recorded the original 1970 version.)
This version is most powerful, and it is a great example of the clarity and beautiful sincerity of Karen Carpenter’s voice.
Superstar by The Carpenters from Carpenters (1971 A&M Records).
Late summer of 1971 my sister Beth would have been entering her senior year of school, and The Carpenters (along with maybe Joni Mitchell, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Fifth Dimension, and others,) would have made tens of thousands of revolutions on her record player that summer.
I got a text from Beth last week during a PBS documentary about The Carpenters that we both happened to be watching in our separate cities. She messaged a memory from when she was 14 or 15, “I remember sitting on the curb listening to the radio & hearing We’ve Only Just Begun & thinking that I had found the next big thing.” She had, indeed.
We’ve Only Just Begun by The Carpenters from Close To You (1970 A&M Records).
The old kitchen transistor led a double life. Away from its tidy daytime home in the burnt orange and bronze mid-western kitchen of my mother, it also entertained us in the evenings from the pale curb of our bleached out, summertime street corner. After my sister Beth graduated and while my sister Andrea was in high school, my neighborhood friends and I would gather in evenings from April through October, and the little transistor frequently made the scene, spilling out tinny hits.
On Sundays Casey Kasem presided. American Top 40 was the soundtrack to many twilight games of kick the can and neighborhood track meets or bike races. Pretty much throughout my elementary school years – The Carpenters were just…around. They had forty-six singles over about a dozen years – Christmas songs – television appearances and specials – 1970s ubiquity. Anyone could like them and most everyone did – from my mom, to my sisters and myself, to tastemakers at Rolling Stone Magazine.
Things really change. Probably around the time I went to junior high, I didn’t pay much attention to them anymore. My tastes were evolving. By the time I was in high school and college their squeaky clean conventionality, their homogeneity, their perceived lack of any edge … well, it would have put me off.
But man, now when I hear some of the songs – I am right back on East Phoenix Street in old Grand Island – a little kid chowing a bowl of Quisp in the kitchen with my sisters – the transistor playing good stuff that bounced off all the hard surfaces and landed upon our ears. I allow myself to be unselfconsciously sentimental now and I also hear the incredible craftsmanship of Richard Carpenter’s arrangements and the
great playing – the effortlessness of Karen Carpenter’s sterling vocals – all of these, for a time, mistaken by myself as fogyish, mushy drivel. I was just wrong then.
Kim Gordon is a fan, and her band Sonic Youth not only covered ‘Superstar’, she also wrote and sang a wonderful tribute, ‘Tunic’. Both are clickable below.
Superstar by Sonic Youth from If I Were A Carpenter (1994 A&M Records).
Tunic (Song For Karen) by Sonic Youth from Goo (1990 DGC Records).
Andrea was the first of us to have to celebrate a birthday without a serenade from mom, but we’ll each take a turn now in the coming months. So will our spouses, our nephews and nieces, our cousins. I saved her voicemail, so I can bust it out if I feel like it next month when I turn 51. I’ll play it for you sometime if you want.
Close To You by The Carpenters from Close To You (1970 A&M Records).