Did you ever have a love/hate relationship with a song? There are several songs that are like that for me. This is about one of them.
I have always loved Karen Carpenter’s voice and style. It’s smooth and effortless and soothing, like a warm cup of hot chocolate sipped peacefully in front of a crackling fire and a twinkling Christmas tree. Her vocals are so smooth and so perfect it’s sometimes hard to believe they’re real. And they are real, long before the time of autotune and digital editing. Karen started out as a drummer, and her timing is so perfect that her doubled (and tripled and quadrupled and more) vocals sound like one impeccable voice in harmony with itself. It just melts me.
The trouble with this song started more than a decade ago, when I was living in Atlanta. I went through a couple of really awful, sad, lonely Christmases. My previous marriage ended just before Christmas of 2004. Christmas of 2005 was spent in the death throes of another relationship, a long-distance one that also had no future. My parents were both gone and I had no family or friends very close by, so both those holiday seasons saw me feeling very, very alone and unhappy.
And as fate would have it, in those years, each time I went to Publix to shop for groceries in those two cold Decembers, I would hear Karen Carpenter singing “Merry Christmas, Darling” before I could collect what I needed and get out. Every time! It was almost as though someone were watching for me to come through those glass doors, ready to push a button and play that song.
It’s a beautiful song, with gorgeously arranged music by Richard Carpenter and the kind of lyrics only an eloquent but lovesick artist can write. And each time I heard it, that song would reach into me, grab my heart, and give it a good hard yank. Leaning against a rack of Christmas cookies and straining to hold back tears is no way to go through the holidays. I love Karen and I love the song but the damned thing wouldn’t stop making me cry, and I actually shopped a few times at other supermarkets just to avoid the emotional land mines at Publix. I took the song off my iPod (yes, we had iPods then.) I just couldn’t hear it.
I hated it. It was SO good. But I hated it.
Life improved a lot in 2006 when Allison came into the picture, but in some ways Christmas was still a big open wound for me. Ten years later I’m still not fully recovered despite some very merry Christmases in the intervening decade. I’m far happier and I try to count my blessings, but flashbacks happen, and Karen has been a known trigger.
I volunteered recently to handle sound for a gig at a small club, welcoming a couple of New Bern’s beloved artists, Von and Abbey Lewis, home for the holidays. My friend John Van Dyke was hosting, and two other friends, Jenn Wiggs and Bethany Kenyon, were special guests. At first John wasn’t even sure he needed a soundman for such a small event, but at the last minute he changed his mind, and I’m very glad he did.
It was a really special show, an intimate coffeehouse sort of gig. Allison came with me. It wasn’t terribly challenging from a technical standpoint, which was nice because I was able really to enjoy the music and the performances.
And there it was, smack in the middle of the second set: Merry Christmas, Darling. And in spite of myself, I actually rejoiced. I couldn’t wait to hear it. I’d never heard anyone but Karen Carpenter sing that song, and I have to tell you, it was magic. Abbey owned it, as I expected she would, delivering it with both talent and heart, and to my very great surprise, my eyes did not fill with tears. I realize that’s not much of a compliment to an artist and performer, but it was a breakthrough for me. Hearing another enormously talented vocalist sing that song somehow blessed it, and allowed me to love it again.
So this morning, driving to work and feeling a little raw and tired and down, I found the song — the deadly Karen Carpenter version of the song — on Spotify and played it.
It actually cheered me up. There may be hope. One of these days, and it might not be very long, Christmas might just feel exactly the way Christmas should feel again. I think I can even see it from here.
So to Abbey, Von, John, Bethany, Jenn, and everyone else who took part in the show that helped break the curse and make this year’s holiday season a little merrier for me, I am eternally grateful. Merry Christmas, darlings. 🙂