On February 4, 1983, Karen Carpenter died while she was reaching for a fuzzy bathrobe in the bedroom closet at her parents’ midcentury suburban home in Downey, California. By all accounts — Ray Coleman’s 1994 biography chief among them — Karen spent the day before she died cruising between suburban chain stores, looking for sturdy household items, like a washer-dryer at the Downey Gemco, a big-box shop absorbed by Target in the mid-1980s, which she affectionately referred to as “the Gucci of Downey.” She ate a shrimp salad for dinner with her parents at Bob’s Big Boy and picked up a couple of tacos to go from a local joint next door, so she could snack on them while indulging in the made-for-TV spectacle of a manscaped, micro-kimono-clad Richard Chamberlain in Shogun. Everyone thought she was on the mend, the very picture of SoCal suburbanity in repose, eating tacos and watching the tube all night, before what was supposed to be another sunshiny day in an endless season — nay, a lifetime — of sunniness.
On the other side of the Pacific, a mere stone’s throw from the land of Shogun and newfangled devices like sing-along karaoke machines, I learned about Karen Carpenter’s death in the waiting room of a dubious travel agency in Little Ongpin, Manila’s old Chinatown district. I was 9 years old and stuck there with my musician parents. They were making arrangements for our departure from the Philippines, where I was born, to the dry heat of Southern California, where my white stepfather grew up, just 50 miles east of Downey, in a region called the Inland Empire: a place with its own aerospace and defense plants nestled between the citrus groves and stucco, like the one Agnes Carpenter, Karen’s mom, worked in for many years.
Karen Carpenter Dies at 32 screamed the newsprint just above the fold of a Filipino newspaper discarded on the cracked, moist Naugahyde bench next to me. Even though my body had slackened while I was sweating it out in the tropical density of that miserable waiting room, cooled only intermittently by a half-cocked electric fan, my spine went stiff as soon as my eyes grazed that headline. SusMaryosep! I cursed in my head. My namesake is dead. And she died young — at 32, a year younger than Jesus himself.
At 9 going on 10, I was just growing into my fear of mortality, which was aggravated by the fact that we were about to take another epic, transpacific journey on a jet packed with people chain-smoking duty-free Dunhills. At least this was how I remembered my first flight to the States, when I was 5. I also recall the oxygen masks dropping somewhere past Guam, and my mother setting her half-drawn cigarette in the tiny armrest ashtray before strapping a mask over my face.
Courtesy Karen Tongson
My family, comprising mostly professional musicians, made a lot out of the fact that I was named after Karen Carpenter instead of a relative, saint, or some other Catholic luminary. My grandfather and his brothers — Romy Katindig and the Hi-Chords — were credited with innovating Latin jazz in the Philippines in the 1950s and '60s. My mom, whose stage name is Maria, carried on the family business, briefly singing in OPM — Original Pilipino Music acts — in the 1970s with supergroups like Counterpoint and the Circus Band, before falling in love, and forming a touring jazz combo with my stepfather: a California-born, Hawaii-based musician named Jimmie Dykes. His Pacific Rim roots landed him gigs with the top Filipino performers of the 1970s, including one of my mom’s godfathers, crooner Roberto “Bert” Nievera from the Society of Seven.
My own mother’s voice was often compared to Karen Carpenter’s, when both of them were in their prime, so Karen was like family — but more of a distant relative whose resemblance felt significant even if it was only circumstantial, and whose global accomplishments were touted as an aspiration for my musical clan: Karen Carpenter, superstar.
Even before she died, in 1983, she fulfilled something of a spiritual role in our home in Manila, like the friendly ghosts our neighborhood curandera claimed to have found living in our duhat tree, and with whom my grandmother, Linda Katindig, tried to negotiate one evening after several hours of mah-jongg and too many bottles of San Miguel beer. She asked the mother-daughter spirits not to manifest in front of us, lest they actually scare us to death, even as she acknowledged and respected their own claims to residency and tacitly accepted their ubiquity. Karen, too, was everywhere: in the late-night sing-alongs around the water-damaged upright piano on the veranda, in the cook’s whistled refrains of “Top of the World,” in my name. But most of the time, as the song goes, it was just the radio.
Though there aren’t any charts to prove that the Carpenters were more popular in the Philippines than in any other nation in the world, their enduring presence on Filipino radio and in Filipino-American karaoke repertoires attests to my people’s profound affinity with this most wholesome of American duos. After all, the Carpenters famously performed at Nixon’s White House during West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s state visit, around the same time our neighbors in Southeast Asia were ablaze in napalm and our own would-be dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, was declaring martial law. Their album Now & Then, from 1973, the same year my teen parents (who met performing in a Manila concert production of Jesus Christ Superstar) christened me “Karen,” has been clocked by music critic Tom Smucker as “one of the greatest pop music explorations of whiteness in the last half century.”
The Carpenters’ westward migration from Connecticut to Downey, California, a white, working-class suburb conveniently situated between Orange County and Los Angeles, would seem to affirm this narrow trajectory toward “whiteness and promises,” to invoke a Filipino karaoke machine that misinterpreted the line about “white lace and promises” in “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Both the original lyric and the error are essentially referring to the same thing: an American suburban fantasy of the good life, with a good wife, “sharing horizons that are new to us,” but not foreign or strange in the grander scheme of things. Familiar. Comfortable. Just as things should be — or, at least, as we always pretend we want them to be. As Smucker writes in “Boring and Horrifying Whiteness: Lawrence Welk and the Carpenters,” “Control and precision — often assigned as white musical values — and elaborate pop production that implies a kind of mass affluence, locate the Carpenters’ soft rock in the suburban world abstracted on the Now & Then album cover.”
Carpenter tunes her drums during a performance in Frankfurt, West Germany, 16th February 1974.
Michael Putland / Getty Images
It was in the master-planned splendor of Downey, and in the Carpenter family home, featured on the 1973 cover of Now & Then, that Karen spent most of her life. She learned how to keep time playing drums at Downey High, with what would become the Carpenters’ characteristic precision. She’d harbored a minor musical crush on a Latino kid in the marching band, Frankie Chavez, and asked him to teach her how to play, after several failed efforts at mastering more ladylike instruments like the flute, the glockenspiel, and the accordion. The notoriously exercise-averse Karen also wanted an excuse to get out of gym class, so drumming ensured she would be indispensable.
Sure, I was Karen, but I also wanted to be — I probably already was — Frankie.
When I first read Ray Coleman’s The Carpenters: The Untold Story, a number of years ago, I slash-fictionalized a more elaborate, amorous relationship between Karen and Frankie, based purely on the line “She admired the drumming of a young Frankie Chavez.” As a recovering SoCal suburban band geek myself, I knew all too well the hormonal frenzy in public-school music practice rooms, especially when drums and drummers were involved. And as a brown butch lesbian named Karen who worked through a whole hell of a lot of gender trouble in the quasi-militarized structure of marching band, with captains for every section (drums, color guard, and the horn line, of which I was the captain), I could identify with both sides of the slash. Sure, I was Karen, but I also wanted to be — I probably already was — Frankie.
In her own way, Karen Carpenter also wanted to be Frankie: She wanted to wield the sticks, to set the beat. In a 1976 radio interview with Charlie Tuna on the newly formed KIIS, Karen explained how it all happened: “In my junior year I got real friendly with a kid named Frankie Chavez, who was head of the drum line… I said, ‘Let me see if I can play. I know I can play.’ I went over, I picked up a pair of sticks. It was the most natural-feeling thing I’ve ever done, and that was it.” Explaining why their relationship never evolved beyond the innocuous status of “good buddies,” despite the fact that Karen may have been “smitten” (in biographer Randy Schmidt’s words), Frankie Chavez observed that Karen “had that little tomboy streak to her and used to talk like a beatnik. I loved that she would talk like a jazz player.” Karen’s musicianship, her adeptness at an instrument, and her ability to talk like a “player” gave her access to the ensembles of largely male musicians that Richard assembled to perform locally shortly after he started attending California State University at Long Beach, which was a mere 12 miles south of Downey, in 1964.
Carpenter in London in 1976.
Chris Walter / WireImage
There’s a photograph of Karen on tour with the Carpenters in 1975 wearing a custom-made, iron-on tee with “LEAD SISTER” in block letters across the front. As Richard explained in an online chat with fans, a Japanese magazine mistakenly translated the word singer as “sister” in an interview with the band during their world tour in 1974. Karen thought it was hilarious, and had the T-shirt made the following year to wear for a special drum bit during the middle of their show in which she soloed, marching-band style, on a snare. The largest fan organization dedicated exclusively to Karen is called Lead Sister in honor of the iconic images of her wearing that shirt and rocking her snare. But the joke behind “lead sister” is a cruel one, insofar as it reveals a pointed and painful truth about Karen Carpenter: She was the lead, the star, yet she was defined, both in public and private, by her relationship to her brother.
In 1967, Karen followed her brother to Cal State Long Beach, where he was pursuing his dream of becoming a composer and professional musician. His dream was hers, and like their parents, who had relocated the family across the country to foster Richard’s musical aspirations closer to Hollywood, Karen, too, would continue to pursue the paths carved by Richard’s ambitions.
Long Beach was nicknamed “Iowa by the Sea” in the early 20th century because it offered a sunny sanctuary for throngs of transplanted Midwesterners. Though it was only 20 minutes away from Downey by car, Long Beach was a world away, at least when it came to the Carpenters’ musical and personal development. After playing regularly as the Richard or Dick Carpenter trio in such Hedwigian venues as the Jolly Knight steakhouse in Garden Grove, with Karen on drums and occasionally singing vocals, both Karen and Richard inevitably found themselves more immersed in the musical curriculum on campus, where they joined the university choir directed by Frank Pooler. Long Beach — specifically Cal State Long Beach — is where the “Spectrum sound,” later to be both celebrated and derided as the pristine, obsessively produced Carpenters sound, was cultivated. An important precursor to the Carpenters’ own overdubbed vocal sensorium, their experimental vocal ensemble, Spectrum, performed choral pop with tight harmonies akin to the Beach Boys’, only scored to more elaborate time signatures and jazz syncopations inspired by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which was all the rage in California.
I didn't realize my affinity for the Carpenters was what they used to call “corny” until I landed in the same Southern California suburbs a decade after the Carpenters' heyday.
The band failed to make a dent in the music scene, despite a vigorous show schedule that included hip Hollywood venues like the Troubadour and Whiskey a Go Go. Having downsized once again to a duo with Karen, Richard began to experiment with overdubbing, replicating the harmonically intricate Spectrum sound with their voices alone: think “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” with its orgy of choral interludes and tight, five-part melismatic riffs and resolutions. This wall of harmony, once a product of the pair’s exogamous experiments with choral collaborators from school and church, winnowed itself to what we now recognize as the Carpenters’ sound: a seemingly insular one, with a sweet layering that owes its richness to what is, in essence, an infinite redoubling of sameness. It is a sameness born of the suburbs, and nurtured in Southern California’s emblematic structures: in its garages, churches, chain family restaurants, and public schools; in the region’s many defense plants; in its vacation mountain getaways; at Cal State Long Beach.
Beyond the surf and sand, it is this Southern California — an interconnected sprawl of suburbs packed with good public schools, venerable places of worship, and reasonably priced themed restaurants with live music from bands like the Dick Carpenter Trio — that seduced so many midcentury dreamers of the golden dream. This is the same fantasy peddled across the Pacific through the Carpenters’ cavalcade of hits, and through Karen’s welcoming voice, in which (like Ella Fitzgerald’s) you could always hear the subtle curve of a smile, even if she was singing about tears.
I didn’t realize my affinity for the Carpenters was what they used to call “corny” until I landed in the same Southern California suburbs a decade after the Carpenters’ heyday, and a month after Karen died, in search of the kind of American prosperity epitomized by a perfectly edged lawn. “Corny” is a word that retains its saliency in its everyday use in the Philippines, even though its usage has diminished in the American vernacular. The fact that I kept using it, if primarily to punish myself for my failed efforts at assimilation by touting my affection for decades-old soft rock, says something about how out of time I truly was when I first landed in the region’s neatly planned subdivisions, where newer meant better.
To be corny is to be “mawkishly old-fashioned: tiresomely simple and sentimental,” and this definition describes my attachment to the Carpenters with searing precision. Even though Karen was supposed to be my gateway to a whole new world (albeit a world obsessed with yesterdays), she actually ended up being the anchor to my old one: to the Philippines, where corny still means something. And even if the Carpenters were the whitest of musical acts, engineered in the most white-bread of contexts, nothing felt more Filipino to me in those first lonely months fresh off the boat than the sound of Karen’s voice.
Jeepneys in Manila, Philippines
Waterfall William / Getty Images