We Love What We Love

I’m not afraid of getting older. Sure, I put anti-aging neck cream on my salads (creamy, like Ranch).  I exercise twice some days, not out of vanity, or health concerns, but because I really have nothing much better to do.

Pushing 66, I am the only guy in my circle to have retired, though I keep busy sending you these weekly mash notes, like radio signals to deep space.

Hello? Hello? Anybody out there?

I have so much time on my hands lately that I was listening to a Carpenters’ medley the other day.

True story: I have been in love five times in my life, three of them to Karen Carpenter.

Yes, I realize what a stiff I am, how uncool. Listen, we love what we love. Since when is passion a conscious decision?

I love my granddaughter. I love goal-line stands. I love the way Marlon Brando snorts and stomps and sneers at authority. Love is love.

To this day, Karen Carpenter is a micro-obsession. I have a lot of them — popcorn balls, long boards and re-runs of “Taxi.” I wad up all my micro-obsessions till they have enough heft to qualify as an actual obsession.

In Karen Carpenter’s case, there is only one song that really floats me:  “Superstar.” It is hauntingly spectacular, the equal of any ballad from the ’70s. And that voice, that chocolate pudding ….

Carpenter’s version of “Superstar” is rock ‘n’ roll noir, standing the test of time better than anything by the Doors or David Bowie, or any other noirish performer with a knack for dark moments.

Long ago, and, oh, so far away
I fell in love with you before the second show…

To this day, “Superstar” is the only song I could listen to 10 times in a row and not start to hate. Perfectly orchestrated — an oboe, a harp and a thousand gooey French horns — stunning till that last plaintive chord, a sigh in D minor.

Like wind in the sails, like the distant plea of a passing train…

Penned by Leon Russell, the Carpenters chose “Superstar” after seeing Bette Midler perform it on “The Tonight Show.” “Superstar” is a song made for fall evenings. It is a song for lovers, alone or otherwise.

Smoldering and rich, “Superstar” hinted that the bubbly singer had – as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote – the same “instincts that guide mortal men to evil.”

At 16, don’t we all?

Lore has it that she once performed at my favorite dive bar in Glendale. Talk about noir.

Some evenings, I stand at Avignone’s and imagine Carpenter mewing under a stage light in the corner — most probably still a teenager, aspiring to stardom, which seemed almost predestined from the moment she first spoke.

I’d trade my car for a clip.

Lately, I find myself swooning over corny, mawkish stuff. Maybe it’s the changing seasons, the cozy nights, the spearmint dawns.

Maybe it’s all the seasonal touchstones to our youth – the costumes, the Snickers, the pumpkins – all the playful harvest traditions that refuse to go away, thank gawwwd.

October really is our most-American month, and I’m sorry to see it go. It raced by as if late for a flight. August seems 20 weeks long, and October goes by in three frantic innings. All those sports, all that camaraderie. November’s almost as good.

I’m a typical weirdo Scorpio. Of course I love November.

November is wistful. It’s Karen Carpenter tilting her head, closing her eyes…confessing.

Loneliness is such a sad affair
And I can hardly wait to be with you again…

Pure desire. Pure magic.

OK, I really need a real hobby, don’t I? And please don’t say pickleball.

Been biking a lot lately, and soon I may start my own line of neck creams. I’m still putting that electric bike together for Suzanne. Might take years, especially if we do it together. Don’t care.

See, retirement is pretty weird, even for a Scorpio. You need to re-set, re-program, to embrace the fact that no one needs you any longer — not the kids, not the boss, not the world.

That itself is rather haunting. Then you realize how liberating your new situation actually is. You realize how great Sunday nights can be when your mind doesn’t wander to what’s ahead at work. For 45 years, every Sunday around 4 pm, I’d flash forward to those awful staff meetings.

Now I flash forward to …well, I don’t know yet. But the world is a big popcorn ball right now, and there’s time for travel, reflection, French horns.

There is time to sing.

My pal Steve Lopez just finished a book about retirement, when to go, what to expect. The title: “Independence Day.” Check it out here. Meanwhile, one of my favorite parts of the Rose Parade are the small-town entries, funded and built by volunteers. Please join me and my buddy John Cervenka to help raise money for La Canada’s Rose Parade float, from 4-6:30 pm Saturday, at the annual Wine & Roses Gala at the Flintridge Riding Club in La Canada. Info here. Cheers.

34 thoughts on “We Love What We Love

  1. Hate to contradict you, but you are oh so wrong. The world DOES need you. We need you. Who else could come up with “spearmint dawns” and such an evocative piece about what makes one song so instantly memorable? You are MY micro-obsession. Carry on.

  2. Received your radio signal loud and clear! Thanks for sending it. All the other radio signals from your country are so odd now. 🙂

  3. Lots of us are out here. I think Leon Russell was underrated. He was a wonderful writer and had an unforgettable voice. Elton John rescued him from relative obscurity several years ago and together they made a beautiful record, “The Union”. And during the Concert For Bangladesh (George Harrison’s brilliant idea – you can probably find it on YouTube) watch George singing “Beware Of Darkness” and the spotlight shifts to Leon who sings a spine tingling second verse.

  4. If you’re a “Taxi” fan, you need to read TV Director James Burrows’ autobiography. It’s fabulous and has a ton of details about the show, its casting, etc.

  5. I grew up in Downey where the Carpenter’s family home was (is?). I started working at The Broadway at the mall there when I was 16. Karen Carpenter was one of my first customers. She couldn’t have been nicer. Very patient while I fumbled working the register. For the youngsters, The Broadway was what is now Macy’s.

    1. I also grew up in Downey. It was a huge treat to drive through the Carpenters’ neighborhood on Newville Ave. and see all the homes lit up and decorated with moving figures. I will always recall seeing Richard’s grand piano in the front window. Those were magical days.

  6. Every shalalala every woooaho, only oldies but goodies, its yesterday once more…… loved the Carpenters, love you too!!

  7. “Like wind in the sails, the distant plea of a passing train” would make a great song or poem prompt. And there couldn’t be anything cuter than Catycakes Kahlo.

  8. I was in Catalina on a boat with friends and the 8 track of the Carpenters in 971. The songs played all weekend and drifted across the Isthmus (2 Harbors). My favorite was Close to You!

  9. After I finished reading your writing today, Of course I asked google to play SUPERSTAR… how is it that after 50 plus years the lyrics flow seamlessly still ? Once more I was sitting on the floor of Tracey Harnish’s bedroom and listening to that album again and again and again. Memorizing every single word . Man o man . Thank you Chris for that beautiful nudge to step back into time and make it my present right now. Big hugs to you.

      1. Music? What music. Karen Carpenter’s voice was perfection. Smooth as BR chocolate fudge ice cream. In a cup.

  10. “Raced by as if late for a flight” we’ll said.
    Retirement is wonderful! And very doable!
    Wednesday and Saturday are “funner” with your commentaries🤗

  11. Sigh! Ya just can’t do anything wrong, can you? Not even retirement! You just continue listening to Karen Carpenter and I’ll just continue listening to (make that, reading) you! Creates the same kind of high.

  12. This is another retired and typically weird Scorpio who also loves November – as well as this certain retired Times sports section editor. The world needs ya buddy.

  13. “Don’t say pickleball” made me chortle. I love reading your blog so don’t go away!

    1. That sport scares me more than meth. BTW, you were always my favorite Helgren. Mindy second and Pete third, though he is the only Helgren I actually know. Though I do love the guy. Have known him since the 5th grade.

  14. I too lived in Downey and was in the market when it was announced she passed away. Everyone was in tears. I rode my bike to her memorial service and they piped her music outside for us. Her family owned several apartment buildings in town all named for her songs. Love your writing. Brings back lots of memories.

  15. What else has this conversation ever really been about, but love in its it’s infinite verities and guises? “Since when is passion a conscious decision?”, you say. Amen, I say. Ditto, writing about it; that is a passion of unstoppable generosity of spirit. Our readers’ coven herein, newly energized by Halloween’s boil and bubble, now faces the long cooling run to the Winter solstice with renewed antic energy and continued amorous intent because of pieces like this.

    The emotional reach and lovely nuanced depth of feeling here is what we have come to expect. The visuals seem the best yet, in a can-you-top-this kind of way. The almost hidden ingredient, the lithe, insinuating, beautifully blended enrichment in all of this,
    Is Suzanne. Never was a muse more subtlely demanding of fine and uplifting prose. What a privilege to be able to bask in the golden light of her influence. Two years ago to now? Like night to day. The unmitigated joy in the smallest details of expression now is stunning.

  16. I do LOVE the Carpenters. And these mash notes. Now I know what I’ll be blaring as I drive to the Quad Cities on Saturday for another college football game (plus tailgate and watch my senior daughter dance at the halftime show.) So thank you!

  17. Retirement is FREEDOM, and I also love that song. Just think of all the beautiful songs we missed when Karen died young. Just think of all the great columns of yours that we can read in the future

  18. Another Scorpio who loves you and your writing (musings). We hated it when we picked up the paper from the driveway and you weren’t there. Thankfully, we found you again!

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