Drumbeats, Heartbeats

The September nights shorten as the twilight slips down the western sky, coating trunk, branch, leaf and frond with liquid gold. Darkness falls to the crazed yips and yowls of coyotes just one hill over. Sylus, my new best friend, stirs on the bed … I’m glad she is indoors.

These days I am reading a biography of Karen Carpenter.  She was one of those guilty, secret pleasures that I indulged but never told friends about in the ’70’s.  White bread.  I wasn’t about to admit to liking anything so mainstream … not with Tricia Nixon still living with her father in the White House.

But from the first, something about her compelled me. (Karen, I mean … not Tricia!)  Of course, there was that amazing, clear and melancholy voice.  Then there was how awkward she looked in the dresses that someone was dressing her in (Richard, I suspected). I could so totally relate. It was painful to see – endearingly so.

But the icing on the cake came when I learned she was a drummer, and a damn good one at that.  It was soooo out of character with what was being presented. I was fascinated and felt absolutely confirmed in my suspicion that there was much more to Karen than the white bread persona we saw.

So, accompanying my bio reading has been a bit of YouTube exploring.  There are some amazing videos out there.  Here, for example, is a melange of some of her drum performances. The sound and video quality is quite variable, but what comes through is her skill (starting at @ age 16) along with her palpable joy and comfort behind the drum kit. (And if you’re reading this via the e-mail feed, you’ll have to click the link at the end of the e-mail to be able to see the videos.  Sorry – and lesson learned!)

She started playing the drums in high school – so that would have been @1964. Very unusual stuff for a girl. Her singing was really an afterthought. The drumming was her passion.

This next video shows her in the studio performing “Close to You” – at about age 20. Watching this, I wonder about being thrust into fame at such a young age.  What were you doing at 20?

This next is a performance from The Tonight Show in 1973 – so now she’s @ 23. (Hmmmm what was I doing at 23?). The tempo changes in this piece seem complex and difficult to navigate (to my uneducated ear) … and she looks like she is having a great time with it all!

I just wish she’d lived long enough to ditch the weird dresses!  Or get back to where she wanted to be … like in this video from a 1970 performance on The David Frost Show …

I’m at the point in the bio where fame has arrived and, along with it, lots of pressure. Apparently the audience doesn’t know where to focus during a Carpenter’s performance, so Karen is being asked to step out from behind her drum kit, stand out front and just sing. She hates the idea … feels awkward and afraid … but does it.

And if it hadn’t already started, this must have been the beginning of the end. Too much exposure.  Too many eyes with no buffer. No longer doing the really heartfelt, joyful thing. Standing front and center singing … sacrificed to success.

Ultimately unbearable. That’s how I see it. No more drum kit or drumbeat – except as a funny novelty on TV specials.

But this is the terribly sad, weirdly predictable, haunting part – the part that I keep coming back to.  In the report from the Los Angeles coroner, while anorexia nervosa was the clear underlying cause of her demise, the proximate cause of Karen Carpenter’s death was listed as “heartbeat irregularities.”

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6 Responses to Drumbeats, Heartbeats

  1. Thanks, Karen … as they say, the beat goes on …


  2. karen says:

    Beautifully written, Jordy. Thanks for opening my eyes!


  3. Uh oh … “sitting” on the Beltway doesn’t sound good! (Were you able to see the videos? If not, check out the post on the web when you get home … I have been mesmerized.) Safe travels, and see you soon, I hope! 😉


  4. Alice says:

    What a fascinating piece, Jord. And so sad. From where I sit in the Beltway, I loved your image of the crazed yips and yowls you’re hearing. Beautifully written –thanks for it.


  5. Julie says:

    Admittedly, I was one who disparaged Karen Carpenter….too slick, too commercial, too popular. I am a Procul Harum fan after all. And I found this riveting. Makes me think a lot about getting away from things connected to your heart and about how anorexia is connected to control. I have a new found respect for her….one hell of a drummer. Thanks.


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