Ian and Sylvia, Karen and Richard

This is going to be a meandering piece, and I only know generally where it is going. I do know it ends with Karen Carpenter, so if you do not care for her music, I urge you, GET OUT NOW!

My music preferences have shifted dramatically over my life. When a kid, I liked the Beatles and 60s rock and roll, of course, though I now avoid anything remotely Beatle. The music of that period was a contrived force, the product of pretenders, performed, for the most part, by the Wrecking Crew (or a British equivalent).

I used to do a Public Access TV interview show in Billings, Montana, in the early 1990s called Piece of Mind. That’s why I named the blog as I did. Also, though I did not save anything from my school years, I oddly have an essay I wrote, eighth grade or so. It was not very good of course, not well thought out or directed. At the end I wrote that all I wanted was “peace of mind.” I had an unquiet mind, even then, I guess.

I did not know at the time, would not know for decades, about the true underlying nature of my dysfunctional birth family, which was comprised of four boys and two parents. Tom was the first, (1941), then Steve (1942), Joe (1948), and me (1950). Two of us were pre-war, two post, as Dad was in the service during those years. All are dead now except me. Two of the four, Tom and Joe, were said by professional psychiatrists and other pretenders, to be “manic depressives.” I did not know to question the professionals until many years later, but now think it very odd that they claim such mental states just arrive, striking people down like St. Paul off his horse. Just out of nowhere, my brothers became crazy. It arrived out of the blue, an illness arriving on a rocket ship. “Tommy got sick,” Dad said one time, as if he caught a cold, or cancer

Tom went off to Denver for a few months around 1960 or so, and when he came back he was changed. He had electroshock therapy, and it destroyed him. I was angry at Tom for most of my life because, by the way, he used to beat me up. Nine years older than me, he had an age advantage. He did not hate me, but when I did the annoying things that young children do, like banging on piano keys while he tried to sleep, he would cold cock me. Interestingly, all I remember about being knocked unconscious by Tom is waking up after. No pain, no Mom, no Dad. Just me, all alone on the floor in the middle of the living room. Everything else was blacked out of my mind. That’s how it works for most abused children. The mind is a powerful defender.

Tom and Joe, between the two of them, did not have ten minutes of happiness in their entire lives. They were miserable, never married, worked very hard and otherwise just suffered alone. Why? They were not “crazy.” They were normal humans arriving on a planet where forces would act on them, knock them unconscious, and then expect them to act like it was all their fault, not someone else’s. I am guessing that they didn’t remember much of their early childhood.

I will bet, at this point, that you are expecting me to go after my father. I wish it were that simple. Dad was a guy, driven by grief, who beat up his children. Tom and Joe caught the worst of it. I think, though I was not there to witness things. Mom was a woman who allowed it, or at least pretended it did not happen. Dad was a drunk who would yell at her when in the cups, and Joe and I would just lay in bed silent, not a word passing between us. She “enabled” him, as that kind of talk goes. Dad was very hard on Joe, where I was more a fair-haired kid, and so caught a break. Joe, I am told, reminded Dad of his own father.

But Dad also had a past life. He had issues. He grew up on a dairy farm near Great Falls, Montana, and one day he walked into the barn early morning, and found his father, also named Joseph, swinging from the rafters. That’s gotta sting.

Here’s what I know about that event: Everyone was affected. There were six kids, and none would talk about the event. Instead, they all got out of the house as soon as possible, marrying too young or just getting on a train and leaving. These people like Grandpa who bail out like that leave nothing but pain and guilt and debris behind them. My Dad got hit hard, deep in guilt, perhaps thinking, as kids do, that he somehow caused it to happen. In a non-Catholic cemetery in Great Falls (Catholics did now allow suicide victims to be buried in their cemeteries), is a memorial to my grandfather financed in total by Dad, who could not afford it. It is a large tombstone with a glass-encased photograph of him, said to look like my brother, Joe. He does not look like Joe, as I see it. People say that, I suppose, because they think that Grandpa Joe and my brother Joe were crazy the same way, hit by the same bolt out of the blue. My brother Joe was normal. We were close in age and I loved him very much. His was a gentle and kind and humorous nature. And tortured. He just forgot to duck. I never met Grandpa. This all happened before I came along. I can only imagine that Grandpa had a Dad who beat on him too. These things do get passed down.

Well, now we know Joe and Tom, beaten up by Dad, and me, the youngest, catching only the tail of the comet, getting beaten up by Tommy. How in the hell does that explain Fr. Steve Tokarski, who, according to almost all who ever knew him, was a perfect man?

It was so difficult growing up … which legacy do I follow? Am I like Joe and Tom, manic depressive? I for sure had mood swings, aka, being a teenager. I hated living in the household, having no friends over, Joe and Tom an embarrassment. So I wanted to be not “like” Steve, but rather to BE Steve. Steve announced at the end of high school In 1961, seven years ahead of me) that he was going to be a Catholic priest. He went off to the seminary. I idolized him. He was my father figure.

This is nuts. I was born on April 20, 1950, and on April 19, 1969, my brother Steve said his first mass as a Catholic priest. We were a (half) Irish-Catholic family, aunts and uncles and all, and Steve was a rock star. I decided on 4/19/1969 that I too would become a Catholic priest. God this is embarrassing. I had assimilated so little of my own identity that I wanted to be Steve, and so entered the fucking goddamned seminary. (I almost typed here, no kidding, “cemetery”.)

It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t belong there. I liked girls and wasn’t very religious. I didn’t know what to think about religion, and still do not embrace it personally. But I gave it a go. I didn’t fit then, never would. Many, if not most of the seminarians I knew were gay, though it was unspoken. In those days, the priesthood was a comfortable hideout for gays. (It was a tough life for gays back then, and being a priest was a great cover story. No judgment from me.) Steve, as I see him, was not gay, but rather celibate, part of his pursuit of perfection. The most important fact of my year in the seminary was that it got me out of that crazy fucking household. God rest their souls, Mom, Dad, Tom, Steve, Joe, all dead now, but that was a tough house to grow up in! There was weird stuff going on all around me, and I understood none of it.

Steve grew up in the same violent household as Tom, Joe and me. His adaptation was to assume the role of perfect child, the super achiever, thus avoiding the beatings. Mom and Dad adored him, as did I. That is how that works. That need to be perfect is a defense mechanism, for some anyway. That Steve turned out to be a good and kind man and an excellent minister, even better. But his early life dictated his future. Without the violence, he would have done something else for a living, perhaps married. I might have nieces and nephews!

The seminary was in Seattle. After that year I returned to Billings even as I should have made my way in Seattle. I had chances to escape. The economy there was in deep depression, 17% unemployment, Congress voting not to fund the SST so that Boeing was suffering. Even so, I could have gotten on a fishing boat north to Alaska and been part of deadliest catch. How different a life! I could have just wandered, ended up maybe in Oregon or in California, maybe gotten jobs, gotten some schooling, met a girl, all that stuff. I could have ended up blissfully stupid. Instead I returned to Billings, got a job, met a girl, returned to school, and ended up blissfully stupid in a hot and boring prairie town. I was on a fast course to a big pot belly and early death when a horrid event changed my life. I was slapped in the face, woke up, and slowly became sentient. (And I do mean “slowly.”)

I don’t know much about music. I liked the Beatles too much. I liked songs that had strong back beats, and loved good drummers, most of whom turned out to be Hal Blaine. But after a disastrous marriage with too many kids and a welcome divorce, after the slap in the face and awakening, my new wife (we met in 1995, married in 2001, twenty years ago this week) turned me on to classical music. I like much of it, but not most of it. Recently I wrote a post about a Montana sunset we saw at Steve Kelly’s house, and I mentioned a song about Charles Russell written and performed by Ian Tyson. It was called The Gift. Do not go there, or if you do, mute the sound and enjoy Russell’s artwork.

Ian Tyson was part of the folk duet Ian and Sylvia, and he ended up marrying and later divorcing his partner, Sylvia Fricker, who kept the name Tyson. I knew about them because of my brother Steve, who played their music on the stereo when he came home during school breaks. If Steve liked it, I liked it. I lost track of Sylvia, but Ian became something of a thing himself, a solo performer who sang some nice songs, but had no stage presence. I’ve seen him perform twice, and each time he sat singing his songs like a dead head. He did not otherwise interact with his audience. (He’s now 87 years old, living in Alberta, Canada. Both he and Sylvia are Canadians.)

Tyson’s song, The Gift, became an ear worm, and I hated it. The sentiments were smarmy, the music catchy and annoying. I wake up in the morning with it playing in my background. It’s awful! I could not get it out of my head. It was then I decided … I have like 180 classical music pieces on my iPhone … that I would add something more current. I sent away for the Carpenters’ Greatest Hits. I added fifteen new songs to intersperse with the classics. I now get Karen Carpenter ear worms, but that’s not bad. There’s a lot of music there to choose from, all of it melodic, some romantic, some sad. I am at an age, a time in life, when all I want is a gentle background sounds going on in my unquiet mind. She provides them.

Karen Carpenter was born one month before me in March of 1950. She is now 71 years of age, like me. Don’t be fooled, she did not die in 1983 at age 33. When I went to Taos to meet Miles Mathis in 2016, we discussed her. He used the photo seen below to demonstrate how even as it seems two people are together, they are far apart. It is fake. The forgers are deliberately trying to make her look emaciated, as she would officially die of anorexia. They placed her head on someone else’s very skinny body, someone wearing a track suit.

Mathis eventually wrote a nice piece about her death, which means to me that he too liked her voice enough to write about her. He thought perhaps she was used to make a market for some old songs and aging songwriters. For whatever reason, she was retired in 1983, leaving behind an impressive body of work. Music was to change, and she would not be part of the changes. So they faked her death. She most likely had no choice in the matter. Celebrities are chosen to be famous, and do not appear organically, even as many of those chosen for fame, including Karen, have real talent.

I say “She”. Her brother, Richard, was kind of a weak backup for her amazing voice. That is why “they” were the “Carpenters.” But do not be fooled. It was all and only about Karen Carpenter. He did play keyboard and piano. Lots of people can do that. Karen had that magnificent voice. That’s why they were famous and had a huge following. He is also said to have written the song below, featured below in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.

So these past few days I’ve been using Karen to get rid of Ian. She is amazing. I’ve now got 14 ear worms, and if I must have them, I take Karen over Ian, no disrespect. Voices like that come along once in a generation. I’ve been thinking about things, my life and past, my brothers and parents, forgiving everyone, and just swimming in Karen’s amazing singing voice. That is what I’ve been doing lately.

So now I repeat my opening words: If you can, GET OUT NOW! I am linking you below to the deadliest ear worm of all time. You have been warned. I give you Karen singing Top of the World. Run away!

I told you this piece would meander.

PS: Just noticed that Depp’s character as he lashes out at the TV is overdubbed, maybe Spanish or German. He says in the English version something like “Come out of there tiny dancer!” [Fixed. He says “What sorcery is this? Reveal yourself tiny songstress!”] And, at the end of the video, is that actress breaking the fourth wall?

18 thoughts on “Ian and Sylvia, Karen and Richard

  1. Oops! This piece was not supposed to be published yet. I hit the wrong button. There’s a great discussion going on in the post below. I did not mean to write over it. So I will stick the piece below to top of page for now.

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  2. I took the plunge. Karen Carpenter was a bit before my time, but she certainly did have a spectacular voice. The song itself, though, reminds me of something the Brady Bunch kids might have sung for a local talent competition (a reference that’s probably a bit after your time).

    I have an antidote to the song’s earworm effect, though, if anyone needs it. For some reason, this song reminded me of Ronee Blakely’s lovely performance of “My Idaho Home” in Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville. In the film, Blakely’s character is assassinated on stage shortly after singing this song. Years later, an interviewer would ask Altman if he thought this fictional assassination disturbed him in light of John Lennon’s assassination five years later. Altman’s weird reply was, “They should have listened to me!” No idea what he meant by that. Since the Lennon assassination was as fake as Blakely’s fictional one, maybe he meant they should have had Lennon fake-killed on stage the way Blakely’s character was. I don’t know, but the song is nice. And though it’s schmaltzy, I think it’s slightly less dopey schmaltz than that Carpenters song. No offense.

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    1. Nice – that sounds like something Dolly Parton would nail.

      No offense taken. Top of the World is the greatest guilty pleasure of all time. I do like the way Tim Burton used it in contrast to the darkness of Johnny Depp’s vampire character. Burton is a talented man.

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    2. By the way, the real earworm song in Altman’s Nashville film is called “It Don’t Worry Me,” supposedly written by Keith Carradine. Everyone in the movie is involved in the music business, and over the course of the film, we hear multiple versions of “It Don’t Worry Me” performed by various people, including a rousing gospel version that plays over the closing credits. I’m not a very musical person, but this is one of the few songs that regularly plays in my head. I often sing it when I’m alone. I think I’ve been singing it more over the past year and a half.

      The price of bread may worry some, but it don’t worry me.
      And tax relief may never come, but it don’t worry me.
      The economy’s depressed, not me,
      My spirit’s high as it can be,
      And you may say that I’m not free,
      But it don’t worry me…

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      1. That is a good song, Scott. And yes, Mark, masked and vacced Dolly would crush it…I have been singing the Clash’s “I’m Not Down” often over these last 18 months. Thea Gilmore does a good cover…
        Speaking of covers, Mark, do you know about “If I Were a Carpenter”, a 90s cover-compilation tribute to the band? Some meh stuff, but I like Shonen Knife’s (a Japanese all-grrl band) “Top of the World” and Sonic Youth’s, “Superstar”…thanks for the post!

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        1. I will look for that! I love that kind of stuff. And, today at the gym, my phone on random play, out of the blue I was hit by KC. Really, really relaxing, Goodbye to Love, she was either in love or in the dumps. the one song they did that I do not like at all is Ticket to Ride.

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            1. Talk about your guilty pleasures! I was a 19-year-old conservatory composition student in ’86, and (yet) this song obsessed me for at least a semester. Of course, it wouldn’t have been as captivating without the video — in other words, without Corinne Drewery’s Audrey Hepburn-esque visual charm, enhanced by the retro-fantasy context — but it’s also an objectively well-written song, and quite skillfully arranged and produced. I remember it being stylistically surprising at the time, an unexpected gust of ingenuous nostalgia; it seemed to fill an otherwise unoccupied cultural niche, whether or not it really needed filling. But it worked potent magic on some of us, in any case.

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  3. Incidentally, your childhood home sounds a lot like the one my father grew up in. There were four kids instead of six–all boys–and he was the second youngest. His older brothers were much older, and were physically abused by their father–my grandfather. By the time my dad and his little brother came along, my grandfather had mellowed a lot, but he and my grandmother also become neglectful, devoting most of their time and attention to their church. So my dad and (to a lesser extent) my youngest uncle were abused by their older brothers, one in particular–the second oldest–who was a pure psychopath.

    My youngest uncle became the “Steve” of our family. He’s the saint–the liberal preacher who actually practices what he preaches. Everyone in the family talks about him in the same reverent tones you describe your family using for Steve. His three older brothers, including my dad, were all hypocritical rascals who continued the family business of leading churches, but whose careers ended in infamy and disgrace, and in their old age they were (actually, my oldest uncle still is) isolated, alone, and deranged with drink.

    What strikes me as particularly tragic about my dad was that he truly idolized those who were considered the great leaders of his day: Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFK. I believe the stories of those men’s philandering (which MM speculates, in JFK’s case at least, was meant to cover up homosexuality) helped my dad justify his own hypocrisy, deception and dishonesty. His shitty behavior didn’t necessarily mean he was shitty; maybe this is the way all Great Leaders act in their private lives. As I’ve learned what total fakes my dad’s heroes were (he also revered Elvis Presley), his deeply personal identification with them gives me a unique sense of how ruinous, humiliating and dehumanizing propaganda is.

    In the spirit of your post, I started typing that comment with no idea where it was going. I still don’t know, but I’ve run out of words. Anyway, thanks for sharing all of this.

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  4. Ugggggh. So many parts of your story sounded like my life growing up, I don’t think we’re alone either. I don’t know how it happens but my brother snapped at about age 20 or so. It seemed like it was overnight but maybe over weeks? I remember like it was yesterday, i was in the backseat of his car his girlfriend sat next to him up front , he told us he could turn the street lamp on and off when he wanted too, mentally, just thinking it. I told him show me. Nothing happened. It scared the shit outta me because he was frantic to prove to me he could. It’s been 30 years and he’s still tortured.

    My dad got beat by his dad. My dad’s mom drank. So did my mom’s mom and dad. So did I until agre 44 or so when my stomach could barely take it anymore And on and on and on. I have some suicides in there too, with distant relatives. A cousin in fed prison doing 20 years I think for dealing. As my old boss used to say almost every day,, It ain’t easy kid.

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  5. Leo Tolstoy starts out Anna Karenina ” All happy families resemble one another , but each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.” Ain’t that the truth? My family is plagued with alcohol, violence and incest. Anyone remember the victim fashions of the 90s? Adult children of Alcoholics, Narcotics Anonymous, etc support groups, self help books, revelations of the stars about their “Mommy Dearest” Bing Crosby, Bob Hope Michael Jackson etc nightmare families stories in the tabloids. Fashion for a short time comforting us that the stars are just like us, but their stories are more notable and terrific.
    We all smoked and drank. I said to my mom once, I feel like my family is a drinking club. I got the hairy eyeball for that. My dad lived and died in an apartment adjacent to the Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse. For years I believed that 2000 miles away and a mile high, next to Alcoholics Anonymous, he was living a different life, until I cleaned up his apartment after he died of an esophageal hemorrhage. Then, I lived in that city and found that it wasn’t the real world either. My stepdad died about the same way years later in a trailer park in Florida. His mom was a 13 year old girl in Kentucky, and I was told that she and her kids were beat by his dad, not even allowed an outdoor privy, but left to use the barn, like animals. Sure enough, they behaved like animals, like rats in an overcrowded cage in those experiments to prove that humans are like animals…
    So, it takes a whole life to shake one’s self awake from the nightmare, distance one’s self from memory, process what happened, grieve it, and grieve the trajectory of planned happenstance, if you can see the future. What I wanted is to change it. As it turns out Now is the eternity that William Blake was talking about. What a joke, after a whole life spent in survival mode with the other unfortunates I landed with here in hell. More survival mode, more war, more busy ness, more fire with fire, more thinking cannot change it. Bill Clinton was right, insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result.

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  6. PS: Just noticed that Depp’s character as he lashes out at the TV is overdubbed, maybe Spanish or German. He says in the English version something like “Come out of there tiny dancer!”

    This scene is at 2:10 in the video, but it is neither Spanish nor German. It sounds more like Japanese, or another east Asian language, none of which I understand, so over to someone who does.

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  7. Personly, I think the “video” ruins it. Not necessarily this particular video…but any video.

    Not all music needs, nor requires, moving images.

    Music should be allowed to be music on occasion.

    And yes, she definitely has a beautiful voice.

    Regarding the search for “peace of mind”, I think many can relate. I most certainly can. Both childhood and adulthood can be a Hell. Best to find an inner peace, a sanctuary where the mental illness is not allowed to enter and disrupt one’s beauty and tranquility…where rage, violence (verbal or physical) and trigger-prone freaks (related?) are not even a distant memory.

    You know, I had a basset hound as a kid. He never exhibited such garbage. 🙂

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      1. Haha, I didn’t give it enough time (20 seconds max) to arrive at any message, hidden or ironic :). I just turned it off!! Haha, maybe there was an ironic message…if so, it was over my head.

        🙂

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        1. If I were fully employed, I think that would be a great song to wake up to each morning 🙂

          I hate alarm clocks, but that would be a very pleasant way to be nuged out of a peaceful slumber.

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  8. Mark, have you seen the PBS documentary on the Carpenters? They run it during their fund drives. Richard comes off very oddly and almost robotic. Being featured on PBS is a sign of “intelligence” IMHO. There are a lot of clues left.

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  9. I was just about to say the same thing as commenters above – it’s striking how many parallels there are with (one side of) my family born in that generation. Same decade, same number of children spread across those years (except one girl in the mix), part Irish Catholic, their dad with drinking issues (though no physical abuse that I’m aware of), one of them “treated” with electroshock therapy (though not completely derailed by it), the oldest son on a path to enter the priesthood…

    In the case of that golden child though, as I heard the story, just around the time he would have to decide to commit to the priesthood (I think he had already spent some years in seminary? Or maybe this was before entering seminary) he went out on a date – with a girl! Not sure if the timing was just happenstance, or if he was actively questioning which path he would take.

    In any event, after his priest advisor heard about this date, he was only concerned with one thing – did he kiss her?! Yes, they had kissed. Well, that was all the priest needed to know – he wasn’t cut out for the priesthood, and that ended that.

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