My son had his thirteenth birthday this past weekend, the last of my children to hit their teens. We tried to make it a memorable one; we booked a few hours at a local paintball facility, and he invited about a dozen of his friends to engage in birthday-related combat at the outdoor arena there, interspersed between intervals of pizza-eating, cake-cutting and present-opening. For almost all of the boys who attended, it was their first paintball experience, and after a little initial nervousness, everyone really got into it. All in all, it was an outstanding afternoon, one that I hope my boy and his friends will always remember.
Thirteen seems to be a big birthday milestone culturally, bar mitzvahs notwithstanding. It's a transitional birthday, the day supposedly when the world starts opening up for you, and you're no longer considered a "boy" per se. and also the time (at least for me) when you begin to notice things in your life changing. What may have looked steady and seemingly eternal when you're six or eight - home, friends, family - suddenly all of that seems to be in flux with the advent of your teenage years.
With my son's big day come and gone, I can't help but reflect back on my own thirteenth, so many years ago. I remember it well - at the time, it was the best birthday I ever had, and one of the best days of my life. But in hindsight, it definitely and clearly marked a point when things shifted in my own life, and a major presumption of my boyhood fell away.
But first, let's go back a few years earlier . . .
As I've mentioned before, my dad was a career Navy officer, and as such we moved a lot when I was a kid, as his duty stations changed every couple of years. The first place we lived that I was consciously aware of was in Norfolk, Virginia, my fourth home by the time I turned three (Both of my parents were born and raised in Norfolk, and most of my immediate relatives - aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, etc. - still lived in the city).
It must have been the summer of 1969 when Ricky, a new boy exactly my age, and his family moved in a couple of doors down from me. Ricky's dad was in the Navy as well, and had just been transferred to the Norfolk area from Minnesota. In addition to his mother and father, Ricky also had a older sister, Diane. As little kids do, we had no hesitation or trepidation regarding meeting and getting acquainted, and by the end of that summer we were inseparable friends.
Crown Point was bounded by Broad Creek to the west, wide open play fields to the south, and woods to the east. As such, there were multitudes of places there for children to play and explore, and Ricky and I were familiar with all of them. We would splash ourselves in the stinking mud on the shores of the creek, or go running pell-mell through the woods, swinging sticks at each other and playing "swords". At five and six years old, we thought nothing of walking several streets over to visit our other friends, or spending the entire afternoon far from our homes and our parents' sight, doing activities like climbing trees and balancing along high walls, locales and actions that would give today's parents (myself included) no end of anxiety. Looking back on it now, it seems amazing to me now how much freedom we had as little kids, and how much mischief and trouble we were able to get into.
Once Ricky somehow came upon a pocketknife, and he and I decided that it would be a good idea to "prune" the young sapling in front of his house with it. Well, "pruning" quickly turned into carving our names into the trunk, then stripping the bark off the tree, then eventually gouging at it. We had just about finished our "work", and were headed over to do the same job on the tree in front of my house, when Ricky's mother happened to glance out the front window to see what we were up to. Two six-year-old boys had managed to chop down all but about a two-foot stump of the tree! Both Ricky and I were sent to our respective rooms for the afternoon, and when his dad came home, he uprooted the pitiful remainder of the tree, never to be replaced. So if you ever find yourself on the middle block of Marlfield Drive, and wonder why one of the townhouses on the north side of the street doesn't have a tree in front of it, now you know!
Diane was already a teenager, several years older than Ricky, and her room was strictly off limits to her little brother and his pesky little friends - which of course made the lure of it irresistible to us. We sneaked into her bedroom several times when she wasn't around - not really looking for anything, but moreso just reveling in the "forbidden" nature and adventure of it all (if sneaking into a teen girl's room could be called that . . .). In only one instance did our surreptitious excursions into Diane-land bear fruit; Ricky and I discovered - and were genuinely shocked to find - MENTHOL CIGARETTES (horrors!) hidden away in the back of one of her bureau drawers! The main thing I recall about her room what her music collection, generally late-'60s/early-'70s AM radio fare, stacked in vinyl on the top of her bureau - Simon & Garfunkel, Bobby Sherman, Three Dog Night, The Hollies . . . and especially The Carpenters. Diane owned every Carpenters album then released, and had a big poster of the duo up on her wall.
Originally from Connecticut, Richard Carpenter and his younger sister Karen spent their teenage years growing up in Downey, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Richard showed interest and promise at the piano at an early age, and in the mid-60s enrolled at Cal State - Long Beach to study music. Karen was more of a tomboy in her youth, but while in high school got into drumming, and by her early teens was considered good enough on the kit to play professionally. Richard formed his first band (without his sister), a jazz combo called the Richard Carpenter Trio, and had some local success, winning a "Battle of the Bands" competition at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966 that led to the group being signed by RCA. But the demos the trio recorded that year were deemed unsatisfactory and the label quickly dropped the group without producing them.
Later in 1966, Karen tagged along with Richard to a demo session he was participating in at a ramshackle L.A. studio. On a whim, the session producer asked the sixteen-year old to sing a few bars - to everyone's shock and surprise, Karen was fantastic; "This girl can sing!" The producer, Joe Osborn (a bass-playing member of the legendary and prolific group of top Los Angeles session musicians famously known as The Wrecking Crew) immediately signed Karen as a solo act onto his personal label, and in 1967 produced her first release, a single featuring two of Richard's compositions. Sadly, the record flopped, and the label went bust soon afterward.
With their recording life seemingly stalled, the siblings hooked up with four of Richard's old college buddies to form Spectrum, a sort of 'meh', generic jazz-pop combo with mild psychedelic trappings, that played in and around the Los Angeles area wherever they could find - everywhere from supper clubs to the Whisky a Go Go; just another one of hundreds of area bands trying to 'make it' in showbiz. Here's a sample of what Spectrum had to offer the world in 1968:
In the meantime, Joe Osborn was cool enough to let the Carpenters continue to use his garage studio to record demos to submit to record companies. In early 1969, they had the good fortune to have one of their demos heard by the founder of A&M Records, the legendary Herb Alpert, who liked Karen's voice enough to sign the duo in April 1969 (as "Carpenters", as opposed to "The Carpenters" - at the time they thought the former sounded 'cooler'). They immediately entered the studio to begin work on their debut album.
A&M gave the group near-total independence in the crafting of their first long-player, hoping to recapture some of the magic that Alpert heard on their demo. The disc, to be titled Offering, contained ten Richard Carpenter originals and three cover tunes - by the Youngbloods, Neil Young and The Beatles ("Ticket To Ride"). Richard's songs, written mostly during their Spectrum period, for the most part consisted of E-Z listening jazz-pop and Flowery-Powery fluff. In addition, Richard sings lead vocals on almost half of the record, with Karen singing lead on the other half - an arrangement they planned on continuing.
The Carpenters fully expected A&M to drop them, as RCA had done three years earlier, and by all rights in the cutthroat commercial landscape of the time, the label would have been justified in doing so. But Alpert, the label head, was fully invested emotionally and financially with the group, and as such he was determined to help them succeed.
To that end, he took a more active role in the crafting of their second album - recommending (more like "insisting") on the inclusion of cover songs by more successful, established composers. During the recording sessions (which began in late 1969 and ran off and on through May 1970), Alpert pointed Richard towards several songs written by '60s pop giant Bert Bacharach . . . including an old Bacharach/Davis chestnut called "(They Long To Be) Close To You", a song that had been kicking around for most of the decade and recorded several times by various artists without appreciable success.
While the recording sessions were progressing that winter, Richard happened to be at home one evening, watching the tube, and came across a TV commercial for Crocker National Bank featuring footage of a young couple getting married and just starting out (of course, with the unstated implication being that Crocker Bank would be financing their progress):
The ad included an appealing theme song, sung by an unidentified vocalist, who Richard quickly guessed was a friend and fellow musician at A&M, Paul Williams. A couple of days later, Richard ran into Williams in the company parking lot, where he confirmed his guess as to the authorship and vocals, and also learned from his friend that he had written a full song, not just a commercial-sized snippet. Permission was granted to include the full-length version of the tune, called "We've Only Just Begun", on the upcoming Carpenters album.
Richard reworked all of the tunes by these outside composers. A&M released "Close To You" in June 1970, as a teaser single and table-setter for the upcoming album release . . . and it exceeded the label's and band's highest hopes. In a month, "Close To You" had vaulted to #1 in the nation, and it stayed there for the next four weeks, the Carpenters' first bonafide hit single and gold record.
I used to watch all sorts of non-kiddie fare back then!).
Suffice to say, the Carpenters were all over the airwaves in 1971-72, in heavy rotation of all of the AM stations. In hindsight, it's sort of weird that in an era of turmoil - Vietnam, domestic terror groups, political assassinations and the like (with the Watergate scandal waiting just offstage) - this soft-rock duo and their music could be so universally successful and accepted . . . Actually, maybe it's not so weird; for some, in many ways. the Carpenters' poppy, soothing sound was a comforting throwback to music and vocals of a bygone, less frenetic age. So they drew in both old and young fans - including my friend's sister Diane. Although the poster was in her room, somehow I began associating The Carpenters and their music with Ricky.
In the summer of 1972, when I was eight, we moved away from Norfolk, ending up in Wisconsin for two years while my dad attended graduate school in Madison. I was thrilled with discovering all there was to know about a new place and meeting new kids, but still, I missed my best friend back in Norfolk. Ricky and I wrote one another constantly during my first year in the Upper Midwest; I told him about my new school and the new friends I had made; he told me about what was happening back at our old elementary school and about the old neighborhood kids we used to play with.
In the summer of 1973, during my dad's school break, we went back to Norfolk for a week to visit relatives, driving across Indiana and Ohio, stopping occasionally at Stuckey's along the way for drinks and their famous peanut brittle (remember those places?), and listening to Carpenters songs on the radio practically the entire way there. During that summer vacation back in Virginia, I got to spend a glorious day with Ricky back at Crown Point. Just like old times, he and I played in the woods and in his front yard with some of my other old friends from the year before, like Craig & Paul and Marlena and her little sister Gee. It was loads of fun, and it felt like I'd never left. It was one of the more magical days I'd had in my life up to then - to paraphrase a Carpenters song that was a big hit during that summer, it really was 'yesterday once more' . . . and despite the time and the distance, I knew that Ricky remained my best friend, and always would be . . . at least that's what I thought.
Shortly after my family returned to Wisconsin from our Virginia vacation, Ricky's dad received transfer orders to a new duty station, and later that summer they moved to Massachusetts. Ricky wrote me to tell me of the news, and during the latter part of 1973 we exchanged several letters, telling one another of our new lives, friends and adventures in our current towns.
Then, late in the winter of 1974, I sent off a letter to Ricky . . . and a week or so later, it was returned, marked "Addressee Unknown" - which, needless to say, was weird. I quickly sent off another letter to my friend, apologizing for taking so long between replies and explaining the curious case of the previously returned letter. But that one too came back a few days later, also marked as undeliverable. Worried now, I got permission from my parents to call Information, to see if his father had a phone number registered with them. But no luck - there was no such listing under his name in that area. Ricky and his family had seemingly disappeared, and without a forwarding address or any contact info. I was heartbroken, but also determined to find him - after all, we were best friends.
Thus began my multi-year quest to discover the whereabouts of my buddy. For the next three-plus years, the mission of my young life was to discover where Ricky was - no mean feat in a time without search engines or social media or online people finders, like we have nowadays. I had to make do with the tools and methods of the time, as primitive as they were. Public libraries used to have rooms full of local phone books from across the nation - mainly for the large urban centers, but some smaller communities as well. At every library I visited in my travels, I scoured those White Pages, searching in vain for Ricky's dad's name. I mailed letters to addresses that I thought were close to his old "addressee unknown" one, a couple of numbers above or below his street address, hoping for a response containing any news regarding their erstwhile neighbor - I never received any replies. I also tried contacting every military base I could find in Massachusetts, then New England as a whole, trying to find out if Ricky's dad might have worked there - again, no responses. I even found an advertisement in the back of Boy's Life magazine, claiming to be a "People Finder" service that could find the location of anyone - I quickly sent the address some of the money I had saved from my paper route, hoping for good news. After three months, I received a letter from the company with several random addresses across the nation for people whose name were similar - but not identical - to my friend's father. In other words, it was a complete waste of money.
But still I persevered, continuing my search, past our move from Wisconsin to Maryland in 1974, through 1975 and 1976, and into 1977 - hoping against hope that I might find Ricky again someday. Now, this might not seem like much time now, at our current respective ages (I'm assuming that most of you reading this are well along in years . . . ) - but when you're eight/nine years old, three years is an eternity. Yet I stuck with it, and never lost faith in my quest.
. . . I would sometimes imagine what the day would be like when I finally found him, what our reconciliation would look like. We would meet up somewhere, either his house or mine, or maybe at a restaurant, and at first sight on one another we would shout, laugh and approach each other to shake hands, while someone like my dad or brother would say something like "The best friends are reunited once again!" Then we would run off to play somewhere, and everything would be just like it was years before - of that I was certain.
While I was doing all of this during the middle of the decade, the Carpenters' hit machine was began to wobble a bit. Changing music styles may have had something to do with it. However, a more likely cause were the constant demands on the duo and their relentless touring schedule; it began to take an obvious toll on the siblings. Karen began to obsess about her appearance; her weight fluctuated wildly, and eventually she developed anorexia nervosa. Richard was under constant stress to come up with that next chart-topping hit; he started taking Quaaludes to calm himself, but quickly became heavily addicted, frequently dosing himself into a semiconscious state.
By mid-1977, my family was making a change as well - we were moving again. My dad's tour at the Naval Academy was winding up, and a new position awaited him at a Naval Air Station on Massachusetts' South Shore. My folks went up to the new location a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to leave Annapolis to do some house-hunting, while my grandmother came up from Virginia to watch over us kids while they were gone. Of course, I asked my dad to keep his eyes open, to see if he ran across any signs of Ricky's family, as that area was their last known location. I wasn't really expecting anything - it was more or less just a hope.
So I was jolted when I received a phone call from my dad a few days later - he'd found them!
On his preliminary check-in at his new duty station, my dad discovered that Ricky's father was still deployed at the base, so he looked him up and spoke with him one evening. They were still living in the same house they moved into three years earlier; it seemed that the post office had misdirected my letters to them in 1974 due to some faulty/erroneous information they had on file. I had assumed that he had changed addresses, and therefore never tried to write to his old one again after those two letters came back to me. And by the time this postal faux pas was discovered and Ricky tried to respond to me with this news, we'd moved away from Wisconsin, so his letters to me were also returned as undeliverable. Government bureaucracy was therefore the cause of all those years of childhood angst! In any case, plans were made for Ricky and I to meet up in a couple of weeks, when we moved to the state - my birthday was shortly after our scheduled arrival time there, so it seemed like the perfect time to reunite.
We motored up from Maryland to Massachusetts in mid-July 1977, in the midst of a blistering heat wave, finally making it up to temporary family quarters at the air station that evening, as my parents weren't scheduled to close on the house they had chosen for a few more days (just as we settled into our rooms that night, we learned that New York City, the place we'd spent a miserable, sweaty afternoon crawling through on our way up north, had just been hit by a citywide power outage - we just missed being plunged into the middle of the Great New York Blackout of 1977 by mere hours). A day or two later was my birthday party; my parents had made reservations at the Ponderosa Steak House in nearby Hanover. On the way there, we picked Ricky up from his home nearby, the first time I'd laid eyes on him in nearly four years.
The guy who climbed into the Dodge van that day looked a lot different than the kid I'd known back in Norfolk - like me, he was no longer a little boy, but just a gawky tween, on the cusp of being a teenager. But to me, at that moment, he was still good ol' Ricky, and he grinned broadly as he settled into the middle seat of the van, next to me. I stuck out my hand, and he shook it warmly as my family looked on, and over the driver's seat my dad said, "The best friends are finally reunited - at last!", just as I'd always dreamed someone would say at that moment. Three years of diligent, focused effort had paid off, and that instant, that handshake, was by far the best moment in my life up to then.
We called one another a couple of times during the summer break, and made plans to meet up again. But those plans always seemed to fall through for one reason or another. I wasn't too worried about it, though - we made promises to hang out at some point in the coming months. But those promises quickly fell by the wayside as the summer ended and classes began. I guess we both got busy, with me settling in to my new surroundings and all, and Ricky doing his thing. My family ended up living only a couple of towns over from Ricky's, but far enough away to make it inconvenient to visit. As the weeks and months progressed, we contacted each other less and less. As Halloween approached, Ricky faded more and more into the background of my life.
Although the song was a major hit in the UK, it stalled at #32 here in America, and the album was the first by the band that failed to reach Gold status (500,000 copies sold). The group's glory years were pretty much at an end.
About a year or so later, I went with my parents to Hanover Mall, to check out the wares in Musicsmith and Booksmith while they visited some of the other stores there. While browsing through the racks, I was surprised to hear someone call my name; I looked up, and there was Ricky. If he hadn't have said anything, I probably wouldn't have recognized him - it had been that long. Anyway, I said "hi" back, and we chatted briefly, but to this day I can't recall anything specific that we talked about; it was all pretty inconsequential. We were both polite to one another, if a bit reserved. We didn't make any plans to hang out or meet up again later; in the end, we shook hands and sort of said "see ya", and both wandered off in our separate directions. Before I walked away, I recall turning and watching him leave, and feeling like, "Well, that's that . . ." - the old, intense friendship and devotion of our youth was fully gone, leaving just two geeky teenagers, now strangers to one another, trying to make it through the rest of their lives.
That was the last time I saw Ricky as a youth, and the last I knew of him for many, many years.
After the release of a compilation album and a disc of Christmas standards in 1978, the Carpenters went on a two-year hiatus while Richard and Karen left the music scene to battle their respective illnesses/addictions. Seemed sort of fitting that a strong link to my childhood would begin to fade away at that particular time . . .
Even during their early Seventies heyday, The Carpenters were scorned and widely dismissed as inconsequential by a vast majority of the record-buying public, and generally, their music was critically derided as formulaic AM-radio pap. This critical dismissal of their being too syrupy, bland and "white bread" continued even after Karen's death, and that assessment was assumed by the industry to be the final word on the duo until the late '80s.
"There had been more than twenty years of jibes and sneers - two decades of dismissing even Karen's best recordings as bland, homogenized, and saccharine sweet - but with the airing of this low-budget dramatization, prejudice against the Carpenters' recordings began to fade, revealing an extraordinary change in perception... At times, it seemed almost cool to like The Carpenters. "Maybe it's just an overdue appreciation of a singer who, despite some terrible material, always had a pure pop voice," wrote Stephen Whitty in an article for the San Jose Mercury News. "Or maybe it's simply a twinge of '70s nostalgia. For baby boomers in their twenties, 'Close To You' was part of their AM radio childhoods..."Schmidt nailed it with that last line. What the critics never seemed to take the time to understand was that the Carpenters were ingrained in the early years of many baby boomers, and their music was part of the soundtrack of our youth. Even now, a Carpenters tune is a reminder for many of us of a more almost-carefree time for kids, when playing with your friends outside all day was standard and being allowed to ride your bike on the neighborhood streets was a big deal . . . when Halloween and Christmas were HALLOWEEN!!! and CHRISTMAS!!! . . . when you could walk to school through the woods and wander far from home without being afraid or causing your parents undue anxiety . . . when families, friends and people actually interacted and engaged with one another face-to-face, rather than through a smartphone screen or not acknowledging anyone at all while constantly searching the web. Even in that age of political scandal, gas shortages, economic worries and war - both hot (Vietnam) and Cold - most of those issues didn't really affect the lives of children all that much. Our memories from that time (at least mine) tend to focus on the fun times and good stuff, which the Carpenters were part of.
It seems that more than a few folks in my generation, now involved in the music business, felt the same way. If I Were A Carpenter came out in the mid-90s, part of a spate of tribute
Here's the song lineup:
1. Goodbye To Love - American Music ClubRichard Carpenter himself approved of this tribute and the artists involved in its making, even making a guest appearance on Matthew Sweet's cover of "Let Me Be The One". And he was sure that his sister would have been pleased and thrilled with it as well. "She's like it for the same reasons I like it," he told HITS magazine. "The people involved thought enough of our music or her talent to take time out of their schedules to contribute, and that there continues to be, after all these years, so much interest in our music."
2. Top Of The World - Shonen Knife
3. Superstar - Sonic Youth
4. (They Long To Be) Close To You - The Cranberries
5. For All We Know - Bettie Serveert
6. It's Going To Take Some Time - Dishwalla
7. Solitaire - Sheryl Crow
8. Hurting Each Other - Johnette Napolitano with Marc Moreland
9. Yesterday Once More - Redd Kross
10. Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft - Babes In Toyland
11. Rainy Days And Mondays - Cracker
12. Let Me Be The One - Matthew Sweet
13. Bless The Beasts And Children - 4 Non Blondes
14. We've Only Just Begun - Grant Lee Buffalo
I picked my copy up at the old CD and Tape Exchange in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC sometime between 2006 and 2008. I used to visit that store a lot, looking for bargain gems, and came across this during one of my visits - couldn't purchase it fast enough.
In early 2009, I received a Facebook message from out of the blue, from some guy stating that he lived near a kid with my name in Norfolk, VA in the early 70s, and who was wondering if that person and I were one and the same. It was Ricky - now known as Ric; the first I'd heard of him since that day in Hanover in the late '70s. I was glad to hear from him after so long, and in the following weeks we exchanged a series of messages telling one another about how our lives had progressed since our high school days.
Shortly after we reconnected, he invited me to a party he was throwing at his home near Boston. I drove up I-95 on a warm summer night, searching for a decent radio station and feeling more than a little anxiety and trepidation over my first meeting in over three decades with a guy who was now a veritable stranger, but who once was the best friend I had on this planet. Would it be weird? Would it turn out to be cool? What in the world would we talk about? I finally settled on the local oldies station, and listened distractedly to 'classic' rock and pop tunes from the '60s, '70s and '80s while I concentrated on the road and tried not to think about the destination and evening to come.
It turned out to be a wonderful evening, full of laughs and memories. Ric treated me like the guest of honor, introducing me to all of this friends and regaling them with our story. His dad also attended, the first time I'd seen him since I was nine, and he was still as nice and gregarious as I remembered. Everyone was cool there, and I ended up having a great time. I took my leave just after midnight; Ric walked me out to my car, which was parked around the corner. We chatted about nothing of note for a couple of minutes, then we shook hands warmly. As we shook, I couldn't help but recall another handshake between us, many years before, which ended up symbolizing something a lot different from what I thought it would - an ending, rather than a new beginning. Then I got into my car, put it in gear, and quietly headed for home.
I drove away from Ric's house pleased with the events of the evening, but also more than a little sad and regretful. I thought about what might have been if we had kept in touch throughout our youth, if there had been no break in communication. In an ideal world, Ricky and I would have, should have, been close friends throughout our lifetimes. I like to think that we would have gone on being long-distance buddies, sharing stories, thoughts and adventures into our teens, and as we got older meeting up for drinks or having occasional visits together with our respective families every once in a while - stuff like that. It's funny how seemingly the smallest quirks and vagaries - a missed appointment, a word said or not said at the right time, a misdirected letter - can have such huge consequences in our lives. The guy was once my very best friend, and if not for a random error, a slip in the vast machine that is our postal system, he might have very well remained so. But who can really say? All I know is that it would have been nice to have had that opportunity.
About halfway home, I flipped on the radio, which was still set on the oldies station. Now, what I'm going to say next sounds like bullshit, the contrived ending to a Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-TV movie, and you all have every reason to doubt this . . . but I swear to you all this is 100% true:
The song that was playing on the station at that exact moment was the Carpenters' "Close To You".
Kismet . . . the world is a very weird, odd and funny place sometimes.
In honor of Ricky/Ric (who, I might add, I remain friends with to this day) and our many years of acquaintance, I'm pleased to present to you all the If I Was A Carpenter compilation, featuring interpretations of the duo's classic songs by several alternative bands of the era, released by A&M Records on September 13th, 1994. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.
Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP: