For a Carpenter, it's still yesterday once more

Janie Lawrence
Wednesday 01 October 1997 23:02

For Richard Carpenter there's no escape: fourteen years after the death of his sister Karen he's still her captive. "Can somebody who wrote and arranged `Goodbye to Love' really be square?" he asks. To which question, says Janie Lawrence there is only one answer.

The waiter is becoming extremely stroppy. No, the American gentleman really can't sit and have photographs taken of him playing on the lounge piano. Hotel policy. Anyhow who did we say he was again? Clearly it's time for the definitive vocal reminder. "Every sha-la-la, every whoa- oh-whoa..." does the trick. The penny drops immediately. Oh, THAT Richard Carpenter. Ginger without Fred. Wise without Morecambe. Richard without Karen. Sad, sad, sad.

"I always felt that my role was to be in the background," he says, recalling the heady days when the Carpenters racked up twenty hits amnog the top 40. She with the flicked back hair and the maxi dresses, him bobbing behind the keyboards. So apple-pie wholesome, so very square.

Over 20 years on, he minds being called "square". Surprisingly he still minds. "I'm not square" he counters in nervy fashion. "Anybody who can come up with, not only the song, but the arrangement to `Goodbye to Love' isn't square. I think those cheek to cheek shots of us didn't help the image whatsoever."

Now, approaching 51, Richard Carpenter looks - well - square, in his diagonally patterned acrylic jumper and grey flannel trousers. His hair with its incipient balding patch is neatly parted in prep school fashion. And for a man who need never do anything, ever again, except pick up the constant stream of royalties cheques, Mr Carpenter appears remarkably lacking in confidence. He is polite, suspicious and palpably vulnerable. His American manager hovers protectively only two feet away. My questions bring on the same eye-swivelling anxiety Darren of Bewitched had when he feared his wife was about to turn him into a plant. Richard is uncannily like Darren.

When his sister Karen died of a heart attack brought on by her anorexia nervosa in 1983 the Carpenters had sold over one million records. Their popularity had dipped but if Karen were alive they would still be recording today. Or that's how Richard sees it. "We'd be making more albums, spend more time in the studio and do an occasional tour. Summer tours, a week per venue, every other year a UK tour." It sounds so planned and present tense, it's as if Richard has never fully adjusted to what actually happened.

Now married, he has four children but still lives in the same LA suburb of Downey the Carpenter family moved to when Richard and Karen were teenagers. Much has been written and hinted at about the disturbing closeness of their brother-sister relationship.

Even now the interest in the Carpenters phenomonen hasn't abated. There are three new American documentaries currently in the pipeline.

"We spent a hell of a lot of time together," he says uncomfortably. But weren't they uncommonly close?

"With the exception of the occasional squabble we always got along very well as kids and growing up. It was a damned good thing, cause we were together in the studio and together out on the road." Perhaps it's a loss he will never get over? "Have you ever lost a brother or a sister?" he asks.

Despite the millions of times he's talked about it over the years, the pain still seems raw. "I hear the only thing that's worse is losing a child, which I can well imagine. That great voice, that great lady, gone at 32. I don't see any rhyme or reason for it." He must have known how seriously ill she was. "I could see it in her eyes. But even though you say to yourself `You can die from this,' you never really believe it's going to happen."

Unprompted he volunteers that he still feels guilty about the other emotions he went through after her death. "It was a little bit selfish of me. In addition to everything else I thought of all these songs yet to be recorded which she was not going to be able to do." In recent years he has spent most of his time producing other people's records. Nothing he has composed has enjoyed the success of the Carpenters in their heyday.

His "new" album - Richard Carpenter, Pianist, Arranger, Compose, Conductor - is (bar two new tracks) an instrumental reworking of all the old songs. Why go over old ground? "If I just took the original arrangements that would be a travesty to Karen's memory, but this is a whole different animal from the Carpenters records." You might say he's cashing in. "They're my songs you know" he retorts defensively in particularly Darren-like fashion. "I have as much right as anybody to record them, I knew as I was making it that people would be popping at me. But if I tried to spend my life pleasing everybody I'd be in a loony bin." Would Karen approve? "Absolutely - I can't stress strongly enough how much she would. She was my number one supporter. She would love some of the changes I've put on. She is in it in spirit without a doubt."

In November there's another compilation album, Carpenters: The Love Songs. With so much energy still devoted to songs that he wrote many years ago perhaps he worries that's his lot?

"Of course I do. I guess Kismet had me making it at a younger age. I don't know. I don't think the well's run dry. You see I haven't really tried a great deal. When I do sit down and try it turns out to be something that doesn't really satisfy me. I think a number of people go through that though. Tchaikovsky had it."

That he says is about to change. He's now working to a deadline and has a new song "rattling around" his head. "It's a tribute to Karen - as a human being and as a singer." He has never wanted to work full time with another singer. "I've worked with the best," he says simply. "If people are really talented it comes out sounding effortless. But it's not easy." Demonstrating this, his eyes focused on some point into the middle distance, he sings the whole of the first verse of "Goodbye to Love", poking the air as he reaches "All I know is how to live without it".

When their biopic was being made Richard informed the producers that, at the same time Karen had been struggling with anorexia, he had been addicted to Quaaludes. "It was a big deal for me so they revised the script and the word came back, `If Richard feels he has to have this in here then we'll put it in.' There was nothing I wanted more than not having it in there but I felt it was the honourable thing to do. I was coming off like a boyscout and I wanted to be an upstanding guy and not have everything blamed on Karen."

Richard Carpenter: Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Conductor is out now. Carpenters: The Love Songs is released on November 10th.

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