Lucy O’Brien’s new book ‘Lead Sister’ puts a new perspective on the story of Karen Carpenter. Karen, who has sometimes been portrayed as a one dimensional, glossy-haired easy-listener, bravely smiling through the tears. Karen was so much more than the schlocky, prime-time crooner that she is often seen as, and Lucy’s book looks way beyond that crimplene leisure dress.
Karen’s story has been long overdue for an update and there’s really no-one better to have handled this than Lucy. Having already written books about Dusty, Skin, Madonna and the classic girl band tome ‘She-Bop’, Lucy has now turned her attention to Karen. The book is laid out chronologically; from Karen’s very early years growing up in New Haven, through the family’s relocation to sunny California, to her time as a world-famous performer and vocalist. All of this is done with Lucy’s trademark precision and care. Having sifted through hours of Carpenters footage, and references, Lucy gets down to interviewing the musicians, studio engineers, friends and boyfriends that knew Karen best, on a hunt to find the ‘real’ Karen.
Despite Karen’s global presence on the music scene of the 1970s – a time when the Carpenters were one of the biggest selling acts in the world – this is probably the first time that so many first-hand accounts have been collected and distilled to form such a complete, and different, picture of the girl with the golden voice, a sense of humour, drumming skills beyond the capabilities of most actual drummers … and the unspoken eating disorder.
The school band, the parents and that toe-curling interview with Sue Lawley are all put under the post-modern spectrascope.
As the parts of Karen’s life come together, Lucy’s thought-provoking prose also includes the story of her own recent trip to Los Angeles. There on a fact-finding mission for the book, she recounts her own feelings walking around the Downey neighbourhood that the Carpenters called home,
‘The cars are rushing past, there’s non-descript housing, car spares shops, cheap malls, and as I get nearer to 22020, the apartment building where the Carpenter family lived when they first move to Los Angeles, the thought flies into my head ‘This is where the depression started, this is where the eating disorder started’.
Her cab driver might never have heard of Karen, but for plenty of Karen’s close associates, the memory of Karen is still fresh in their mind. Lucy recounts her trip to the A&M studios where Karen recorded; the engineers tell her that Studio B is still known as ‘Karen’s Room’. Lucy describes it as candle lit, womb-like and still suffused with a feminine energy, and she goes on, to report that every night when they lock-up they still say ‘Goodnight Karen’.
Think of Karen for a moment, today March 2nd would have been her 73rd birthday. What are you thinking? The voice? The long dress? The bulimia? Why is the book called Lead Sister? And what about her brother who’s been endlessly repackaging and remixing Karen since that tragic day in 1983?
Having read Lucy’s book, we have some of the answers, but better than that we have a whole new perspective and the book itself is packed with timelines and references. Whether it was intentional or not, Lucy writes like it’s a pop detective story, at every chapter new facts emerge, and because of this, it feels like a journey with both Lucy, and gotta say, Karen right by your side.
‘Lead Sister’ by Lucy O’Brien is released in hardback today and published by Nine Eight books.
2 thoughts on “Lead Sister – The story of Karen Carpenter”
It sounds great – but I’d expect no less from Lucy.
It’s really good!