Karen & Olivia: Another Place and Time
A small boy in an Italian film, projected-age marriage calculus, and a scorched wooden bridge (repost)
(This is a repost from last fall when I had two subscribers, and they both had the same last name.)
When I was seven years old things got so musically out of hand, I was forbidden to play the Carpenters when other family members were present in the home.
“The Singles 1969-1973” was my first record. It had an all-brown cover with an embossed logo that I ran my fingers over. There was an air-brushed picture of Karen Carpenter where her hair was so powerfully backlit she approached solar eclipse.
On an inside lyrics pullout there were, alas, only two pictures. I enjoyed them in endless alternation. One was a picture of her in a car with her brother and another one taken on an arched wooden bridge. It was in a garden. She smiled softly, demurely at someone.
It was my first album, and I was on top of the world. I loved that album completely, utterly, purely. I played it endlessly, in a looping continuum that would humble the most diligent iPod. Endless days of “They Long to Be (Close to You)” ultimately drove my mother to the breaking point, and the edict came down. No more, sweetheart.
There had been an earlier rumbling. We had visited a family friend’s house, and their teenage son had a copy of the same Carpenters album in his record stack along with much cooler rock stuff like Peter Frampton and Elton John (let’s not argue about it), and before I looked-both-ways, I blurted out that I, too, loved the Carpenters, that I had this exact same album and play it all the time. Really, all the time. He needed to understand.
That burst of joy did not last. It wasn’t his album. It was his sister’s. He immediately let me know he hated the Carpenters and that they sucked a word I wasn’t even allowed to say. Everyone laughed in a not nice way.
I don’t know if I came to Karen’s defense or just took it, but I realized that day that the world was hostile to my corner of happiness, and it was at least in part Karen’s fault.
By the time the “No More Carpenters” edict was announced, I was ashamed of her and the super-soft feelings. My musical skin had begun to thicken, and in time, I knew what sucked shit, too. Keenly. And, of course, there was no returning home after the Fall.
But there was a rebound romance.
It was with Olivia Newton-John – ONJ, as one of her albums was cleverly titled. Please, Mr. Please. Don’t play E17. She was different. She was no Karen Carpenter that everybody hated and made you feel stupid hanging out with and just go away will you? I don’t like you anymore. Get out of here. I mean it. Go!
Olivia Newton-John was 26 at the time and single which was at least technically promising. The projected-age calculus to get me to 16 and then within marriage striking-range in at least some states was discouraging, but not romantically impossible.
But from the start with Olivia there were problems. If I had resented Karen Carpenter’s do-nothing “arranger producer” brother – whatever that was (he certainly didn’t deserve to make the Carpenters plural) then I knew from ONJ’s thank you notes that there was going to be trouble in Olivia Land too. In her liner notes, she thanked somebody named Farrell or Farley or Ferret, her “manager” with verbal gush that even an 8-year-old rival could divine was not good.
The fact is, for a while there, other than the fact that I didn’t like her music as much, ONJ couldn’t have been a more perfect replacement for Karen. I had a photo cutout on my wall from People magazine where she’s standing next to a horse at a stable. She was even on the cover and there was a whole three-page article about her.
So much to say about Olivia Newton-John! She was all photo-shoot cowgirl in her jeans, boots and judiciously unbuttoned plaid shirt. Her hair is backlit (and she’s not hanging out with her John Boy brother in all the photos like Karen always was). The article mentioned she was related to Sir Isaac Newton which would make her smart, a plus in marketing her to the family. She had the achingly beautiful parted-in-the-middle 1970’s hair and a soft, confident smile for someone. Perhaps for me?
Not for me.
I sent her a fan letter the length of the Barrier Reef. You can imagine, with the information I’ve given you already, what might have been in there. Even now, I’m too proud to revisit the contents.
We had a family post office box, and I walked into the post office every day after school for two months and asked at the desk for the mail like some boy in an Italian film.
« È ci una lettera da Olivia? »
« Non ci è oggi posta per voi, ragazzino.»
Foolishly, I waited and hoped, but Olivia Newton-John, the Australian Goddess of Song, did not write me back. Not even a mass-produced, machine autographed headshot. Nothing. The brutal, unrequited void.
It was love poured into the yawning, indifferent vacuum. It was the Ferret guy. It was me. It was Life. When I think back on it now, I should be happy she didn’t take out a restraining order.
The non-response from her, my first brutal dead-end from a woman, was a turning point, though, and there was a definite takeaway. I deliberately stopped liking her music soon after and, as I like to think about it, broke up with her in my eight-year-old fashion. I stopped buying her records, and shortly afterwards her whole career fell apart.
Take that, Xanadu.
When I was in my mid-twenties living in Los Angeles, Olivia Newton-John had a boutique on Melrose Avenue where she sold koala t-shirts and pastel-colored soap. I waited on tables in swank Beverly Hills. She came into the restaurant one afternoon, and I waited on her.
She looked much older than in those People magazine shots, well-lined now, and no longer so tantalizingly blonde. There was no horse. No plaid shirt. No backlight. She didn’t seem Isaac Newton smart.
But there we were together. Me, at twenty-four years old as handsome as I was ever going to get, and her on the wrong side of forty. Another impasse.
She put it best: “if we both were born in another place and time this moment might be ending with a kiss.” But there was a time when I honestly loved her, and she honestly loved me. It was our song. It was her song, but it was o-o-o-ver. I did not take the opportunity to follow up on my letter.
Karen has fared much better, and I’ve tried to make up for dumping her so shamefully. I have a seven-year-old daughter for whom I purchased that same Carpenters album last year before my wife and kids summered in Maine. When I came out to visit, my daughter had fallen completely in love with it, the darling, and you couldn’t drive thirty feet in our rental car without playing “Sing, Sing a Song” for her and watching her innocent face explode in a burst of joy.
So, I guess you can say Karen and I are gingerly closing the gap, and in my own way I’m trying to make it up to her from the other side of my burned wooden bridge.