Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Sonic Youth – "Tunic (Song for Karen)" (1990)

I feel like I’m disappearing
Getting smaller every day

The five-foot, four-inch Karen Carpenter weighed 145 pounds when she was 16.  She went on a low-carbohydrate, low-fat diet and got down to 120 pounds, which pleased her family and friends.

But Karen continued to lose weight with the help of thyroid medication (which increased her metabolism), laxatives, and ipecac syrup – an over-the-counter drug used to induce vomiting.  By 1975, when Karen was 25, she weighed only 91 pounds.

Karen Carpenter in 1977
Karen eventually sought treatment for her anorexia nervosa from a psychotherapist, but continued to lose weight.  She was hospitalized in 1982 and fed intravenously until she had gained 30 pounds.

But a few months later, Karen went into full cardiac arrest and died while visiting her parents. The Los Angeles County coroner blamed her heart failure on Karen's chronic use of ipecac syrup.  (Her mother and brother denied that she took ipecac, but admitted she abused laxatives to help maintain her low weight.)

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The previous 2 or 3 lines featured Sonic Youth’s 1994 cover of “Superstar,” a song made famous by the Carpenters.

A few years earlier, Sonic Youth released today’s featured song.  In “Tunic (Song for Karen),” a happy Karen Carpenter addresses her family and friends from heaven, where she is playing in a band with Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, and Dennis Wilson:

Hey mom! Look, I’m up here – I finally made it
I’m playing the drums again, too
Don’t be sad – the band doesn’t sound half bad
And I remember mom, what you said
You said, “Honey, you look so underfed!”

 A lot of people assumed the song was a goof, but Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth – who was a big Carpenters fan – says it was completely sincere.

Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth
Gordon was haunted by what happened to Karen Carpenter.  She once wrote an open letter to Karen:

Thru the years of the Carpenters’ TV specials I saw you change from the innocent Oreo-cookie-and-milk-eyed girl next door to hollowed eyes and a lank body adrift on a candy-colored stage set.  You and Richard, by the end, looked drugged – there’s so little energy.  The words come out of yr mouth but yr eyes say other things, “Help me, please, I’m lost in my own passive resistance, something went wrong.  I wanted to make myself disappear from their control.  My parents, Richard, the writers who call me ‘hippie, fat.’  Since I was, like most girls, brought up to be polite and considerate, I figured no one would notice anything wrong – as long as, outwardly, I continued to do what was expected of me.  Maybe they could control all the outward aspects of my life, but my body is all in my control. I can make myself smaller.  I can disappear.  I can starve myself to death and they won’t know it.  My voice will never give me away.  They’re not my words.  No one will guess my pain.  But I will make the words my own because I have to express myself somehow.  Pain is not perfect so there is no place in Richard’s life for it.  I have to be perfect, too.  I must be thin so I’m perfect.  Was I a teenager once?. . . I forget.  Now I look middle-aged, with a bad perm and country-western clothes.”

I must ask you, Karen, who were your role models?  Was it yr mother?  What kind of books did you like to read?  Did anyone ever ask you that question – what’s it like being a girl in music?  What were yr dreams?  Did you have any female friends or was it just you and Richard, mom and dad, A&M? . . . Who is Karen Carpenter, really, besides the sad girl with the extraordinarily beautiful, soulful voice?

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“Tunic (Song for Karen)” was released on Sonic Youth’s 1990 album, Goo – the first Sonic Youth album I’ve owned.  

I now own at least a dozen Sonic Youth albums.  The band is one of my favorites, even though its music – which is characterized by dissonance (the band plays guitars with nonstandard tuning) and feedback and off-key vocals (especially Kim Gordon’s) – isn’t easy to like.  

SPIN managing got it right in its review of Goo:

For the uninitiated, a Sonic Youth performance can sound and feel a lot like a tornado being pulled through one ear and out the other.  Some people don’t like this, but an increasing number do.

You have to work a little to appreciate a song like “Tunic,” but I think it’s worth the effort:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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