Dear Leon & Karen,

Preface

As all “good” music obsessives know, there are many, many factors that cause a song to really resonate with a listener. If we can momentarily suspend the fact that any given song will or will not appeal to any given listener based off of a myriad of human factors which are too amorphous and varied to even attempt to quantify such as; life experiences, quality of hearing, interest in particular topics or themes, recording quality preferences, size of ear holes, etc. etc. etc. then for the sake of this letter please just allow me to focus on two factors, the song writing and the recording.

This letter is addressed to the song writer (Leon Russell) and the performer (Karen Carpenter) of one version of “A Song For You.”

The Carpenters: A Song For You

Those of us who voraciously devour music know that sometimes amazing songs are written but that often recordings and/or artists are fallible which results in the recorded version of a song somehow just missing the mark. Conversely, sometimes the actual song writing quality is questionable but with cool production tricks it suddenly morphs into something really great (think songs being played on Top 40 radio at any given moment in any given decade). “A Song For You” as covered by The Carpenters is, in my opinion, a grand slam, because the recording/performance is so beautiful (dare I say perfect?) and the songwriting is so strong. With no further musical nerdiness, here is my letter to Karen and Leon.

Leon,

I am so embarrassed. I didn’t know who you were until I listened to “A Song for You” and then read the liner notes. I’m so ashamed because as someone who has been obsessed with music since childhood, and particularly older, less modern, music it seems that I most certainly should have known about you. Oh! But! Leon! I bet you already know this, but this is one of the joys of being obsessed with music. You can constantly discover new artists, who actually aren’t new at all.

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Leon Russell in the studio

So, now I know who you are, and you can’t escape me. I have yet to delve into your recordings or discography because The Carpenter’s cover of your song “A Song for You” has been more than enough as of right now.

When I talk about music with people who really like to talk about music I have certain preferred topics that I believe never get old. One of these topics is the concept that if a person writes one good song in their lifetime that this might be enough. Maybe not enough for them personally as an artist, but enough in terms of contribution to the world. I’m sorry to even have to write this next line Leon, because clearly you already get this, but there are other people who will be reading this letter so forgive me. MUSIC IS POWER. One song, one recording can have so much impact. I truly believe this. And again, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but once a song is recorded and distributed there is no limit to what it can do. In some way, songs are like viruses, they could lie dormant and undiscovered for years, but once they are revealed there is no controlling the impact they might have.

We are so lucky to live during the age of recorded sound Leon! Do you agree?

Ok, I need to focus here. I don’t want to waste too many words on the glories of recorded sound (save that for another letter). I want to acknowledge to you that I am blown away when I think about the art of being a song writer. I like to imagine song writers as conduits for THAT SOMETHING that is transcendent and bigger than all of us puny humans. When it comes to serving as a dowsing rod for that unspoken/unseen magic in the world, you’re a darn good one Leon!

I feel both envious of and sorry for the person you were focusing on when you wrote “A Song for You.” The lyrics are so honest, a real heart snatcher. If I imagine I’m the focus of the song I don’t know if I can even tolerate listening to it. Too many feelings! You manage to capture a combination of self-deprecation, nostalgia, regret, indebtedness, love, an acknowledgement that life is time limited, and the experience of being in the moment/connected to someone else in less than 200 words. How Leon?!?!?!? This is magic Leon!!!!

I’m going to reign in my wonderment for the sake of sanity and trying to be succinct.

You did it Leon. Per my perception, you wrote a song that would win a gold medal if writing songs was an Olympic sport. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but you cracked the door between the mundane human world and transcendence.

I’m in awe, and I thank you.

Karen,

I’ve been interested in you as a person and have enjoyed your music since the age of 10. You see, in 1989 they released a made-for-TV movie about you called The Karen Carpenter Story and I watched it with my family.

I don’t remember full details of the plot, but I do remember the feelings I experienced during and after the movie. Per the events depicted in this film (and perpetuated in popular culture) your story is tragic. Here is someone young, talented, and driven who has one of the world’s best singing voices and yet she cannot accept herself. This lack of acceptance manifests as an eating disorder which eventually kills you. Sad, sad, heartbreakingly flawed human stuff here. We want you to be as perfect as your voice. Maybe you wanted to be as perfect as your voice too? Did you even know how good you were? But, you’re a human and therefore you can’t be perfect and therefore you’ve got a level of darkness that eventually takes that voice away. There are certain moments in the lives of those of us who ravenously consume music, movies, art, and other pop culture that are light bulb moments. Seeing your story was one of these for me. At 10 I began to realize that you could be supremely gifted and successful but that didn’t mean what people saw on the outside matched what was going on the inside. I was shocked. You, and your story, broke my heart even though you had already been dead for 6 years when I first learned about you.

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Karen Carpenter and Richard Carpenter

Well Karen, your capacity for heartbreak is, ironically, still alive and kicking some 27 years later. This summer I bought your album “A Song for You” on LP for 50 cents at a used media sale. Side one, track one is the title track and oh, it’s a killer! I almost hesitate to say this out loud, for fear that it sounds melodramatic, but I want to be honest with you Karen. You deserve honesty. When I heard this song it was a good thing that I was laying down on my couch because otherwise I feel like I might have fallen down. There are so many things that make it good. The production, the studio musicians playing on the track, the song progression, the lyrics, but the best part of course is you, or to be more specific, your voice. Smooth, sad, and in this particular case there is a tone (maybe real, maybe imagined on my part) of presage. There is something about your annunciation on the line, “And when my life is over, remember when we were together,” that is too much to take. The sound is beautiful, the sentiment is nostalgic, but the feeling…goosebumps.

I will tell you that I’m really sad that you’re gone, but that’s also just me being selfish, wanting more of a good thing. I will also tell you that I am so happy that you ever existed. Not only that, but you existed at a time when recording sound was possible. What if you had been around pre-recording technology? Your voice would have been heard by so many less people, if any at all, and that would be a crime. Furthermore, you were recording music post-Les Paul which meant that your brother was able to use the technique of overdubbing to really capture and highlight the beauty of your voice.

Anyway, I’ve been really obsessed with “A Song for You” for the past couple of months. I think it might be one of the best songs ever written/recorded. I cry a little bit every time I hear it. When I’m in the car I listen to it via YouTube, but I have to be careful because it can be dangerous to drive and cry at the same time. I’m trying not to wear it out because it feels so powerful and I’m trying to sustain the experience of feeling those feelings in a controlled way.

Music is so powerful Karen. You were an amazing conduit. One of the best.

APRIL

My dearest friend – whom I’ve never met – Conor Oberst,

How are you, old friend? Been a long time since I’ve heard your voice—the distinctive voice that makes me question the true meaning of the word “beautiful.” It’s almost like we need to create a new word to describe your delightfully wonderful and fantastic voice. It’s so shaky, frightened and remarkably unusual that you can’t call it beautiful, yet it truly is. 

Let me remind you, in case you forgot, that the first time I heard your music was back in the Bright Eyes days. On the album Fevers & Mirrors, I believe that “Something Vague” and “The Calendar Hung Itself” captured my attention. “I kissed a girl with a broken jaw that her father gave to her. She had eyes bright enough to burn me, they reminded me of yours. In a story told she was a little girl in a red-rouge, sun-bruised field and there were rows of ripe tomatoes where a secret was concealed…” 

You are one of the most brilliant songwriters I have ever heard. One of the things that amazes me most in this world is how artists can be so goddamn creative. I guess I just can’t comprehend because I’m not very artistic, but seriously, how do you come up with your lyrics? Sometimes I have to stop the track and listen to them again and again. I envy you and think you are extremely intelligent. 

I want to touch on another Bright Eyes album, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. When you released it and its companion, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, you drew comparisons to Bob Dylan. What a compliment that must’ve been. Dylan is one of the best songwriters of our time. Each time I listen to I’m Wide Awake…, I pick out pieces that I never noticed before. Your albums might get older but to me they will never age. 

Lastly, recording as Conor Oberst, I appreciate all the music you create and get excited every time you contribute to another artist’s album. I have seen you perform live twice, plus once as Bright Eyes. How extraordinary it all was. As long as you continue to tour, I assume I will see you another handful of times. Even though we have never met, after listening to you for so long, I feel like we are good friends. I have a tremendous amount of respect for your work and hope to continue to connect with you many, many years from now. 

Gregory

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Dear John,

How these three albums came out of a man that should have been completely jaded with the record business at this point in his career is something miraculous, and a true testament to perseverance. I’m talking about American Fool, Uh-Huh, and Scarecrow by the man of many monikers, John Mellencamp.

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Listen to “Cheap Shot” from Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did and you would never expect his next album to be a commercial breakthrough. (Actually, American Fool was almost totally scrapped by his label.)

Who would question the output of a wise ass such as this:

Labeled as heartland rock and the next Neil Diamond, while this totally mocks a culture and barely anyone got the joke.

That being said, American Fool kicked (and still kicks) some serious ass, in listenability, lyricism, and sales. Fitting for him, the title track was among the songs that were nixed from the initial release. Nose-thumbing and still succeeding in the business—admirable today, much more so then. My tender ears could feel the honesty in all three of these albums, which were a large part of my 80s listening pleasure. In “honesty,” I mean the evidence of his love/hate for what he’s doing. I think there are a bunch of singer-songwriters out there that owe a nod to this dude, but refrain for odd reasons. Maybe they’re waiting until he kicks the bucket, in true industry fashion. Regardless, I love this man. As a child, I wanted to be him, he was the shit. Anyone who listens to “Weakest Moments” and hates it is a person I’d rather not speak with.

In walks Uh-Huh. This one was the kicker for me. I can still remember my parents showing my sister and I how to turn on the receiver, place the record on the turntable and set the needle. This album has a special place in my heart, I can remember jumping around to “Crumblin’ Down” and “Authority Song” like it was yesterday. And the delightfully playful “Jackie O,” which was done with John Prine. I used to stare at the album art and wish I was cool, not even fully comprehending the messages in the songs. Now, I like them even more. “Forget all about that macho shit and learn how to play guitar.”

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And then, Scarecrow. Another beast of an album, telling people everything they should already know within an awesome rock and roll album. From the horse’s mouth in 1985: “I wrote a song called ‘Stand For Something,’ but I never did say what you should stand for— except your own truth. That song was supposed to be funny, too, and I hope people got that. But I think that’s the key to the whole LP —suggesting that each person come to grips with their own individual truth—and try to like themselves a little bit more. Find out what you as a person are—and don’t let the world drag you down. People should have respect for and believe in themselves.”

This is the reason his music resonates and transcends generations. I know people decades older and decades younger than me who appreciate his work as much as I do. You can’t put a price tag on that.

Johnny Cougar, John Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp, John Mellencamp, whatever—I love you. Thank you for being a part of my life.

Dan

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To Misters Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman,

This letter concerns your 1970 LP, Nilsson Sings Newman.
First of all, I would like to inform you that this LP played a large part in breaking up my former band, Ezra Furman & the Harpoons. Don’t worry, I’m not going to sue you. I’m actually writing to thank you.
I was the titular front man of Ezra Furman & the Harpoons from 2006 through 2011. We were a great band and I had a great time. However, we were very unsuccessful (which was, to be honest, probably a larger factor in our break-up than your record was), and this caused some unpleasantness. We were on tour all the time and were very poor because we didn’t have jobs and being on tour barely paid. A common story, one we’ve all heard. I loved playing rock and roll with my band. As you put it in NSN‘s opening song, “Vine Street”: “That was me / Third guitar / I wonder where the others are.”
ezra-harpoons
But after about five years as a loud rock and roll band, one starts to wonder about a softer kind of music. Amid the crashing cymbals and rowdy crowds, I ached for gentleness, and found it on Nilsson Sings Newman. Before our third album came out, we took a long chunk of time off touring, and that’s when I heard it. I was so ready for it. I must have listened to it a thousand times over the course of a couple years.
Harry: I know some people scratch their heads trying to fathom why, at a relative peak of your own career as a brilliant singer/songwriter, you decided to make an album of Randy Newman covers. To me, it’s very clear. Randy Newman has got to be one of the best and most original songwriters of the twentieth century. Which is saying a lot. I love your commitment to him, and your devil-may-care about what was “right for this moment in your career” in the face of the realization that you could make something idiosyncratically great.
Nilsson-1970
Randy: In 1970, you must have seemed criminally underappreciated to people who loved your work. You’d written tens, maybe hundreds of great songs for others to sing, but had only made one record of your own. That record was so weird that it could never have been a hit, but it was so good that it should have been one anyway.
Anyway, R., you’d be the first to admit that you’re not what anyone would call a dazzling singer. In the midst of my love for the records under your own name, I occasionally wish I could hear someone belt our your words and melodies rather than charmingly mumble them the way you do. And Harry’s one of the better singers that’s ever been recorded, so to pair these two people together was an exciting idea.
Newman 1970
The record turned out way more satisfying than even I would have thought, being a massive fan of both of you. Harry, your voice is like honey, and never better than on this album. It’s seriously medicine. Just to hear you go “whoa-la-la-la” in harmony on the first track can turn my whole day around. You are a genius interpreter of others’ songs, and the rare singer who’s not just a virtuoso technically, but emotionally as well.
When the singing/writing combination really fires on all cylinders, there’s just nothing like it. It’s so emotionally and musically powerful, but without any of the bad writing that so often goes with the saddest music. “Living Without You,” for example, makes me feel the pure beauty of depression, a self-aggrandizing blind withdrawal from the cruel world, in a way that very few songs are capable of. “Everyone’s got something / They are trying to get some more / They’ve got something to get up for / But I ain’t about to. / Nothing’s gonna happen / Nothing’s gonna change / It’s so hard living without you.”
It’s a little bit awkward to gush about this album, because part of what makes it so good is its insistence on understatement. For one thing, it’s only just over twenty-five minutes long. The songwriting is wonderfully concise. Understatement is one of the key tricks to Randy’s effectiveness. He couches his satire in so much casualness and everyday talk that when you get it, it’s like a sneak attack. And it makes you feel clever, too, because you know that someone not listening as close would have missed it. “Love Story” tries to disguise itself as something utterly average, but if you pay attention you are smacked in the face with absurdity, tragedy, dramatic irony—all the good stuff of depressing art. “We’ll play checkers all day / ’til we pass away,” it ends. A meaningless and banal slow death disguised as a happy ending.
I know I’m describing all the sadness of the album, but it’s clear after the first five minutes what a joyful thing it is. The pleasure factor is so strong here that I can hardly have a serious conversation when one of these songs is running through my head.
Part of why this record derailed my band is because it is so clearly an insular creation. You guys made this album alone in a studio, and put in all these self-conscious references to the fact that it is a studio creation, not played live. You end the record with “So Long Dad,” where multiple versions of Harry are instructing someone to turn up one or another of the singing voices. I read that you did upwards of 100 vocal overdubs on some of these tracks. That’s insane, particularly on pre-digital recording technology.
So I ditched my band and made a studio album with almost none of it played live, and sang complex harmonies with myself. I thought I’d come back to the Harpoons and we’d keep on playing together, but by the time I resurfaced they’d all gotten into law school or started selling real estate or otherwise living happy and interesting lives. As for me, a solo career was born. Now if I only I could sing and write as well as you two, I’d really be getting somewhere.
Thanks for the album, guys.
Ezra
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