I heard Justin Vivian Bond in a tribute to The Carpenters on 2/15/18. Loneliness is such a sad affair. I think I’m gonna be sad, I think it’s today. Something in the wind has learned my name. Can’t we stop hurting each other?
My friend Nicola asked me to explain The Carpenters to her that afternoon. To her, they were a fixture of Lite FM, she didn’t quite understand their greater cultural impact. I told her that The Carpenters were made for Lite FM, and they possibly MADE Lite FM! I see them as the standard bearers of a genre known as “vanilla pop.” Degraded by some, coveted by others - - ear-grabbing popular music, perhaps a bit slick and airless in its production, but with hidden depths that maybe the creators didn’t even intend.
Karen’s voice is the primary draw. Her voice is warm, rich, complex, and intimate. It reaches through the radio at you, it feels like she’s singing just to you, what’s known in the record business as a “phonogenic” voice. But don’t discount the contributions of her brother Richard. I call him the co-genius of the group. He did all of the arrangements, he created the perfect frame to display the masterful oil painting of Karen’s vocals. And he did a brilliant job of choosing (and in some cases writing) the songs that were right for Karen, and for them.
I told my brother Howard that I was going to this Carpenters tribute show and he asked what my favorite Carpenters song was. I rifled through their catalog (in my brain). “Well, I think I agree with the general consensus that ‘Superstar’ is their greatest song, but it’s not my favorite song. My favorite song is ‘I Won’t Last a Day Without You.’ “ I offered up silent prayers for the next couple of days that this song would be included in the show.
The show was at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It has a huge wall of windows behind the stage, looking out onto Columbus Circle. As the woman next to me said to the woman next to her, “This is both the most beautiful and the most distracting concert hall in the world."
The hall was bathed in pink light before the show. This is a good color scheme for me, and for the rest of the audience, who were mostly north of forty.
The band came out onstage, and then Justin Vivian Bond. And you won’t believe what song they chose to start the show. “I Won’t Last a Day Without You.” It’s like JVB was saying to me, “Chill out girlfriend, we got you covered.”
I said this in my last JVB review, but I feel I should say it again, to avoid confusion: JVB uses the pronoun “they” rather than “he” or “she.” I’ll paraphrase a few of the funny things they said:
“I’m a downtown artist, so it’s fun for me to have an uptown gig now and then. Just to show them that I can, and maybe I should be asked to do it more often.”
“We are in a strange cultural moment. I feel like we’re at the precipice of something extraordinary, and it could go either way, but it’s up to US to make it something good.”
They did “It’s Gonna Take Some Time This Time,” such a wonderful song. Claudia Chopek totally rocked her violin solo, played by flute in the original recording.
“We did a sort of out of town tryout for this show a few weeks ago, in San Francisco. We did two shows, at 7 and 10 PM, and I made the mistake of not eating in between. So in the second show, before I knew what I was saying, there I was talking about blow jobs! Personal remembrances, if you will. But this was San Francisco, they loved it. I don’t think that’s quite the kind of thing I want to be doing here at Lincoln Center. But I used the phrase, for those of you who like to hear it.”
“I’m a WASP, one of God’s frozen people. People say that I don’t express my emotions, but I’m so tightly controlled I don’t really HAVE emotions. So why should I be expected to express them? When I do let them out I’m usually surprised at the ferocity of the outpouring. It doesn’t always happen at the appropriate time. Like Karen Carpenter died in 1983. I was sad when she died, of course, she meant a lot to me, but I didn’t have a big meltdown over it. Well, in 1991 I was out in Los Angeles staying with a friend. I was home alone and went over to her record collection and pulled out a Carpenters album. I put it on the turntable and the needle dropped and I started hearing ‘A Song For You.’ And I went into a seizure of intense, heaving sobs. My profound sense of loss over the death of Karen Carpenter. Eight years after she had died."
Then they did “A Song For You.” This is a song I sort of know but need to get to know better.
“I think of The Carpenters as my musical savior. I’ll tell you about the first time I heard The Carpenters. My family had a tradition of going to my grandma’s house for dinner after church on Sunday. They’d play softball. Well, I felt like it was a major moment of arrival for me when I was invited to join the game. I was just a little kid. I had the bat, and they threw the ball and I swung the bat and I missed it. And they did it again, and I missed it. Over and over, really about sixteen times. My father said, ‘Keep your eye on the ball,’ but that wasn’t the issue, I SAW the ball as it was coming towards me, I just couldn’t hit it. Finally my father said, ‘Maybe you should just go in the house.’ Which I did. One of my older cousins was in there, and she saw that I was upset, and she said, ‘Do you want to play Barbies and listen to The Carpenters?’"
The next song was “Maybe It’s You,” a song I don’t believe I’d heard before. Clearly there are gaps in my Carpenters knowledge.
I should say what JVB was wearing: a gorgeous silver silk satin gown with a slit up the front. They talked about this choice:
“You know that Karen Carpenter was a drummer and loved being a drummer. But their handlers made her come out from behind the drums and stand in front of the band singing. And even though she was a tomboy - - she always said she dressed like a trucker, and talked like one - - they put her in these girly dresses and these big hairdos. I wondered if I should wear something butch for the show, as a tribute to her, but no, I think it’s better that I wear what makes me feel comfortable. Since she wasn’t able to do that.”
The next two songs were “Top of the World” and “Hurting Each Other.” Then “This Masquerade,” which had a tasty jazzy piano solo by Matt Ray.
JVB did a darling and somewhat goofy ballet solo during the faux Mozart opening to “Ticket To Ride.” Next up was “Goodbye To Love.”
“Think about it. She was 22 years old and her brother and Richard Bettis, a friend of theirs from high school, came to her and said, ‘Karen, we’ve written this great song for you! It’s perfect for you, and it’s gonna be a big hit.’ And the first lines of the song are, ‘I’ll say goodbye to love. No one ever cared if I should live or die.’ Don’t you think that would be a sort of bitter pill to swallow, at the age of 22?"
Somewhere in there they did “We’ve Only Just Begun.” They ended the show with “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Close To You.” And just as they did at the Skirball show, they came back and said they were doing two more songs. So cute that they announce they’re doing two encores, rather than make us work for it.
“One of Karen’s best friends at the end of her life was Olivia Newton-John. Karen was very sick and depressed, and Richard was in rehab for quaalude addition. Olivia figured out how to cheer up Karen. She asked her to go on tour with her. As a drummer. Wouldn't that have been great?"
They did “All Because of You,” a song from Karen’s posthumously released solo album. I didn’t like the song very much. And with only one song left, I was getting a little worried that they weren’t going to do “Superstar.” As I told Nicola, if you’re doing a Carpenters tribute, you are required BY LAW to do “Superstar!” So of course that was the song that they did last.
I’ll leave you with a cute story from my brother Howard:
"My brother Patrick and I were lucky to join our mother and her parents at the 1971 American Milk Producers convention in Chicago. We stayed at the famous purple Hilton downtown, near McCormick place where President Nixon (and Paul Harvey) was to address the tens of thousands of dairy farmers who had come from all over the country.
"Patrick and I were playing in the elevators at the hotel one morning. At one point I remember we were in the lobby and saw a long black Cadillac limo drive up to the door. A concierge who looked just like that butler from the old movies (the one who would pop his hand flat on his mouth and make that champagne cork sound) walked up to the back of the limo and helped out a tall, young man and woman wearing sunglasses and looking really cool.
"Just imagine it: two young boys standing by the elevators eyes bugging out and mouths hanging open when they realized it was, indeed THE CARPENTERS.
"Ahhh, the 70s."