Greatest Dead Angelenos #23: Karen Carpenter

goodbye Hollywood, goodbye Downey

Growing up in Downey was like living with the ghost of Karen Carpenter. My mom, a fan of their music, had a few LPs which she’d occasionally play, but I was never particularly interested. She was just this angelic voice I heard on the weekends, softly playing in the other room while my brother and I played Nintendo.

It was not until I heard Sonic Youth’s album Goo during my middle school days that I started paying any attention to the Carpenters. “Tunic (Song for Karen)” wasn’t just Kim Gordon singing about our hometown hero; she actually mentioned Downey by name! Incredibly cool, I thought. I started listening to my mother’s albums, learned all the songs by heart. As a burgeoning wee feminist, I thought Karen was really cool–she sang better than Joni Mitchell, and I thought the drums were way cooler than the piano.

Every time Christmas rolled around, my mom insisted we get in the car and go look at the neighbors’ decorations. That year, when we drove down one of the neighborhood streets, my mom squealed, “That’s where the Carpenters live!” Even though she said that every year, I finally really heard it. I took a good look at the house: nice decorations. A large-ish home, like the other houses on the block. I wondered what kinds of things that house had seen.

By this time, I had of course learned about Karen’s struggle with anorexia. Trying to describe what I felt would be difficult. I felt betrayed–I had wanted her to be a strong woman, not an underfed waif abusing laxatives. I felt sorry for her–I wondered if she felt she needed to hide her disease. But eventually, I felt neither. She was instead a girl like me, insecure about her body image, trying to fit into a town like LA. I’m not a blonde, nor a bombshell; neither was she. Would any of this have happened if Karen hadn’t left New Haven?

Once I got to Downey High, I thought it was eerie that Japanese tourists would show up to photograph the band room, that they would ask us students about the Carpenters. Most kids didn’t know squat, and those who did didn’t feel like talking to some guy in Bermudas about it and risk being late to class.

As my mom drove us home from school, we’d pass by the two apartment buildings on 5th street: the “We’ve Only Just Begun” and the “Close to You.” They are still there. We’d pass by the Downey Community Hospital where I was born, and where Karen died from complications due to anorexia in 1983. Even still, Karen hangs over Downey like a benevolent spectre, reassuring the girls in our suburb, “I ain’t never going anywhere.”

3 thoughts on “Greatest Dead Angelenos #23: Karen Carpenter”

  1. When I left South Gate for Boston (for college) the song I last heard on LA radio was the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” No other song would have been more appropriate. Thank you for posting this.

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