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The tape of Karen Carpenter's solo album had been buried for three years, behind the colonnades of stuffed animals, Disney memorabilia and "I Love Lucy" videos that lined her deluxe Century City condo.

These were the appurtenances of a time when she was pop music's own cuddly toy.

As one-half of the Carpenters, she was queen of the lovelorn, an Edith Piaf in Tricia Nixon's clothes, and for a few years in the early '70s practically the most popular singer in the world.

But now it was the '80s and the Carpenters -- Karen and her older brother, Richard -- and their toothsome ditties had become fodder for David Letterman jokes.

So Karen retrieved the tape that only a roomful of people had heard, an album that she made in 1979 and that was conceived as her exit visa from a stultifying goody-two-shoes image.

She had been talked into abandoning the album on the eve of its release, the first blow in a three-year series of career and personal disappointments: a bad marriage, dwindling record sales and a protracted battle with anorexia nervosa.

Karen played the tape for friends during the early weeks of 1983. And on Feb. 2, a month before her 33rd birthday, she called her friends Karen Ichiuji and Phil Ramone. Talk wound around to the solo album, which Ramone had produced.

"Can I use the F-word?" Karen asked.

Ramone replied: "You're a grown woman. Say whatever you want."

"It's a (expletive) great album."

She died 36 hours later. Anorexia, in the end, claimed victory over her body and her name, which became practically synonymous with the affliction.

And the solo album went back on the shelf.

Now A & M Records has released "Karen Carpenter," 16 years after she delivered it to the label and 13 years after her death. Its 12 tracks are love songs, only leaner and less naive than her previous hits.

The last of America's great virginal sweethearts was even, in her own polite way, singing about the joys of sex, and finally catching up to women's liberation.

Releasing the album in 1996 can seem like an exercise in necrophilia. But it's a retro world. "Brady Bunch" movies generate robust box office and bands such as R.E.M. and the Gin Blossoms continue to reposit '70s riffs and stances. And so "Karen Carpenter" makes a lot of sense.

It will almost certainly be the crowning prize for what has become a Cult of Karen. Lambasted by the pop elite during her life, she has become a mascot to the pop underground.

First, the avant-garde director Todd Haynes cast Barbie as the tragic singer in "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," which became something of an outlaw hit, traded back and forth on bootleg video. The film was withdrawn from theaters because Richard Carpenter refused to authorize the use of the music.

In 1994 bands such Shonen Knife, Sonic Youth and Dishwalla lent their grungy guitars and voices to "If I Were a Carpenter," a tribute album that revved up and amplified the duo's dulcet hits.

And the 1995 off-Broadway comedy "Party" ended with seven naked gay men swaying to the gossamer strains of "Close to You."

As with the "Brady" movies, part of the appeal is kitsch nostalgia, the acute geekiness of the brother-sister act. But overriding the high-yuk quotient is an identification with the profound melancholy in Karen's singing.

"She had," says one of the "Party" boys, "the voice of an angel."

But not until age 29 did Karen Carpenter work without Richard Carpenter, her producer, arranger and frequent songwriter -- the master carver of her sound.

She had become a musician only as a tag-along to Richard, a piano prodigy 3 1/2 years older. When they started out, she was the drummer. Her deeply pining contralto was discovered almost by accident, when it became clear that her brother's voice wasn't commercial enough.

"Richard's contributions were enormous, and underrated," says Herb Alpert, who signed them to A & M Records in 1969, when Karen was 19 and Richard 22.

Karen's opinions -- or the inclination even to have them -- were subsumed not just by Richard's but by the duo's success. With songs emphasizing melody and washed by sudsy strings and four-part harmonies, the Carpenters appealed to a country disenchanted with the Vietnam War and campus unrest. These songs were played at weddings and graduations.

When "We've Only Just Begun" or "Rainy Days and Mondays" came on the car radio, kids and parents would turn it up. This was musical white bread, to be sure, but it was feeding masses of a biblical proportion.

Karen was suddenly being painted as the poster girl of the young, gifted and square. And as she was squeezed out from behind the drums she found her appearance under constant scrutiny. Big-boned and tomboyish all her life, she cracked under the pressure and developed anorexia.

Complicating matters was her troubled relationship with her mother, Agnes, who, according to friends, unabashedly favored Richard.

"Karen's mother never told her she was a good singer," Franklin says.

Her brother's property

If anorexia has classically been defined as a young woman's struggle for control, then Karen was a prime candidate, for the two things she valued most in the world -- her voice and her mother's love -- were exclusively the property of Richard. At least she would control the size of her own body.

Strangely enough, it was Richard's illness, not Karen's, that prompted Karen to try a solo album. Around 1976, his divining rod for hit material started coming up dry. Americans would continue to be sucked in by love songs but had started to forsake the snail's-pace, hyperglycemic Carpenters for harmonic disco groups.

Richard became addicted to Quaaludes and by the end of 1978 was unable to perform. When Karen told him she wasn't interested in remaining idle, he considered it practically an act of treason, especially when she asked for his blessing. After months of pleading and tugging on his sleeve like the loyal little sister she had always been, he finally gave in.

There was one caveat, according to his biographer, Ray Coleman: "Don't do disco."

Though Ramone, now approaching 60, had been a fan of Karen's voice, he was not interested in making any sexually clueless songs.

"I said to her: 'A lot of your fans aren't teen-agers anymore. Why don't you grow up with them?' " Ramone says.

From the outset Carpenter agreed that a sexier approach could help win those fans back. Her good friend Olivia Newton-John had, after "Grease," transformed herself from pop Kewpie doll into a kind of slut-next-door and was ringing up the charts.

So Ramone recruited a bunch of relative ruffians -- Billy Joel's backup band -- as well as Rod Temperton, who wrote Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall."

Meanwhile, Karen Ichiuji, Ramone's wife and a glamorous, street-smart singer, became Karen Carpenter's cultural compass.

"This really was the girl next door," Ichiuji says. "She didn't know how to hail a cab, wasn't comfortable even ordering for herself in restaurants."

Karen encouraged glam photo sessions for the album cover. When she saw the proofs of one shot, which showed her elegantly coiffed and made up and wearing an oversize white sweat shirt -- a precursor of the "Flashdance" look -- she ran to Ichiuji in a rare outburst of self-worth.

"Look at me, Itch," she said. "I'm pretty. I'm really pretty."

Ramone had been warned about Karen's illness but was unschooled in the wiles of the anorexic. When she returned to New York in the fall of '79 to resume recording, Ramone says, he was faced with an 80-pound "Auschwitz figure" and then started finding laxatives all over the house.

He suspected that Karen had played the first solo tracks for her parents and they had disapproved.

As Franklin explains, it offended them to hear their daughter, who a few years earlier had been hailed by President Nixon as "young America at its best," singing a line such as "I remember the first time/I laid more than eyes on you."

As her anorexia intensified she became too weak to travel, and so Ramone had to fly to Los Angeles to complete production.

"It was almost militaristic there," he says. "She would meet Richard at the same restaurant at the same time for breakfast every day -- you know, Belgian waffles at 0800."

An unexpected sound

They finally finished in January 1980, delivering 11 of the 21 songs they recorded. Newton-John invited Karen to sing on her latest TV special. All that was left was the routine playback for the label presidents, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the A and M of A & M. Also in attendance, at Karen's request, was Richard Carpenter.

The silence was deafening.

"She was expecting them to come up and hug her after every track," Ramone says. "But they just sat there."

It's unclear what everyone was expecting, but what they clearly weren't hearing was wedding songs.

"It was an attempt to get as far away from the Carpenters as possible," Temperton says. "Some of it didn't ring true."

Richard's criticisms of the album were the sharpest. According to Coleman, he said the songs were weak and the keys were too high for Karen's voice. At another point he accused Karen of "stealing" the Carpenters' sound, because of some Carpenters-like harmonies on a few of the songs.

Richard began to pressure Karen to start the next Carpenters album, and then, at what Franklin calls her "most vulnerable point," she met Thomas J. Burris, a real estate developer from Beverly Hills.

"He seemed nice," Ichiuji says. "Karen really thought he was going to be her knight in shining armor."

With Richard in one ear saying, essentially, "Come back, all is forgiven," and Burris whispering a fast proposal in the other, her conviction on the solo album wavered. On May 5, 1980, it was officially jettisoned.

Karen told all involved that now that Richard was healthy, she wanted to return to the Carpenters. Besides, she was getting married.

The reunion album, and the marriage, failed in short order. Richard later said that anything he and Karen put out was doomed because of their image -- a problem Karen's solo album was designed to fix. The details of the marriage are murkier. She and Burris separated after a mere 14 months.

Faced with a triple dose of rejection in less than two years, Karen finally sought treatment for her anorexia, eventually agreeing to hyperalimentation, an intravenous feeding procedure that alarmed her friends as a quick fix.

"I knew something was all wrong when I went to the hospital and saw that she had gained 10 pounds in a week," Ichiuji says.

By Thanksgiving 1982, she was back above 100 pounds and returned to Los Angeles, blatantly gorging at the holidays in front of her family. She gave what turned out to be her final live performance -- at her godchildren's school, two months before she died -- without Richard.

Unanswered questions

The initial coroner's report showed an abundance of ipecac, a common vomit-inducing syrup, in her system. Taken in high quantities, it can cause a potassium deficiency, which can lead to heart arrhythmia. But neither her family nor her friends have ever been satisfied with that explanation.

"I talked to the coroner myself," Ichiuji says, "and he said it was only a matter of time. She had just starved her organs for so long."

Richard Carpenter, 49, still lives in Downey, Calif., near his mother. In 1984, the year after Karen died, he married his cousin Mary Rudolph and is now the father of four.

In 1987 he made his own solo album, "Time," a critical and commercial failure. Since then he has spent most of his time overseeing the repackaging of Carpenters recordings -- and making a handsome living.

After declining several requests to be interviewed for this article, Richard said through his manager, Sherwin Bash, that he had steadfastly refused to release Karen's solo album out of respect for what he understood to be her final wish -- that she didn't like the album and didn't want it released.

"He only acquiesced," Bash says, "when fans and writers kept begging him for this last piece of her legacy."

In a note to the New York Times Magazine, Richard wrote, "I wish it nothing but success."

When Richard called Ichiuji last spring to say he was releasing the album, he asked if there had been a dedication. She unearthed her notes and found one: "Dedicated to my brother Richard with all my heart."


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