Just before the summer holidays, one by one, we all fell under a mysterious spell. Maybe twenty or more of us, pubescent girls on the cusp of teendom, in a nervous frenzy became obsessed with the 1989 TV movie about the life of Karen Carpenter.
The Karen Carpenter Story, shown on RTE on a drizzly, too quiet post-Glenroe Sunday evening, shook something hidden deep inside of us all. From the opening of the oxygen mask being affixed to her ashen face to the infamous critic’s (fictional) description of young Karen as ‘chubby’- we drank her in. Lunchtime tin-foiled sandwiches were pushed to the side, not as practice or a tribute, but just so the more gory details could be pored over and dissected – we needed to untangle this shocking mystery from our over-heated brains.
At that time, our stars were safely sanitised. Kylie & Michael Jackson may have been worryingly thin but Smash Hits carefully shielded us from any tabloid notions of the taboo subject of their diets- Kylie even once proclaimed to love eating chocolate sandwiches for breakfast such was the pop magazine’s day-glo jolly nature.
For most of us, it was the first time we’d ever thought about having a relationship with food other than whether you could wangle a burger from the chipper out of your Mam on the Friday afternoon walk home. The Karen Carpenter Story arrived at the right time for us; she appeared before us as an apparition – a hollow-cheeked saint benignly feeding our curiosity, revealing a sombre truth previously hidden from our cosseted world.
At that time we were living in unvoiced fear of the loss of control over our own bodies, the time bomb of doom that was our menstrual cycle ticking loudly inside us; skin erupting, breasts appearing (or not), everything pushing through too fast or not fast enough. Legs weren’t just made to be a sprinting champion or to perfect handstands anymore. All physical actions somehow felt confusingly duplicitous. Our bodies seemed like they were being transformed for someone else’s fun – for someone else’s attention, it was as if we were letting our bodies go from us, like absent-mindedly releasing a balloon into the air.
Every day for what felt like months, we spoke again and again about the disappearance of Karen, (who was at the height of her fame and who died before we were even born). It was a real story, a true horror tale untouched by our afternoon Australian soaps, where a hint of an eating disorder was erased by some trips to the diner and a chat with Harold. There was something compelling about her duality, the outward image of the obedient, sweet and loving almost docile family girl living with this intense fury within her that not even her lustful golden syrup voice could heal. We knew all the songs but never knew the darkness. With The Karen Carpenter Story, the curtain was torn down and the cheap, disappointing reality revealed, the wizard in actuality a snake oil salesman. Something changed irrevocably – as girls we were about to enter the world of ‘otherness’ that we were only beginning to recognise. There was something truly special, sad and secretive about those months huddled together in the classroom, half- singing ‘Superstar’ and ‘Solitaire’. Wondering what would happen to us next, where these rapidly changing bodies would take us.
It was the first time I felt bewitched by the ideal of the ‘damaged’ icon. I felt a kinship with Karen’s unbalanced temperament shielded from public view. Madonna (who I adore) did not fit into this mould. Instead, she fed my threadbare confidence. Her ego was impenetrable, and she spoke sharply and loudly without vulnerability, tirelessly working to be pop culture top dog. Later I would discover the unhappy, ferocious brilliance of Courtney Love, who shouted and exploded with rage; as damaged as they come but with the wit and intelligence to be almost self-depreciating about her pain. All my heroines and obsessions DID something, they were in bands like the Kims Deal and Gordon, or Justine Frischmann who said she would rather be Pete Best than Linda McCartney. They were distinctly alternative actresses like Drew Barrymore and Winona Ryder, eschewing cookie-cutter girlfriend roles. These were the pictures that littered my homework journal, inspiring and filled with substance. Not one of them could be described in that vacant term, the ‘muse’ – they were busy creating art, not content to simply and passively ‘inspire’ their men.
I knew that the idea of the muse sat uncomfortably with me. I could not imagine an intelligent woman being held in that limited esteem. It seemed so antiquated, like the thinking artist’s groupie. The muse – the girls that stayed quiet at parties, the girls trapped under glass – a snow-globe of feminine perfection waiting for their own Henry Higgins to curate their cultural lives for them.
A girl like me could never inspire this blank desire. I am too loud, too opinionated and too confrontational. I once threw an ashtray at a boy’s head because he dared wonder aloud how I knew a certain Marvin Gaye song. I cackled obnoxiously in the face of the silent muse. And then I fell in love with Edie Sedgwick.
By rights I should hate or at least have a firm dislike or worse, no feelings at all for Edie. It would be easy to dismiss her as a slim slice of nothingness. She has become a doe-eyed template for the sour breath fashion set, the endless blur of perfectly manicured images gracing everything from make-up compacts to awful tattoos, her pronounced features as ubiquitous and meaningless as the Rolling Stones sigil of full lips and waggling tongue. She is now everywhere out of context, Tumblr-ed into silence, folded up neatly between Francoise Hardy & Jane Birkin as a Breton top-donning reference point. Edie does not fit in amongst the brave, tough female iconoclasts I hold so dear. She is something else. Her story grasped hold of me in the broken visceral way of The Karen Carpenter Story. I discovered her at the end of a pre-internet breadcrumb trail from interviews with Evan Dando that led to Lou Reed to Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground.
At first, she was just an image, giant saucer eyes ensnared in black and white. I felt guilty for the emotions I attached to this picture, her impossible beauty and dynamism burning from the page, but I had nothing to justify the connection I felt. It was just a picture of a pretty girl. Edie wasn’t really anything – a dancer, a model, a junkie, a backwards fairytale of a society rich kid living off the opportunities and talents of others – as she is baldly viewed in some corners of culture. Yet she encompasses everything to me. She lives in my mind swinging in between every note of The Velvet Underground & Nico, John Cale’s brooding viola in ‘Venus in Furs’, the wonky backing vocals of ‘Femme Fatale’, the shouts of, “You better hit her” in ‘There She Goes Again’ – the Edie soundtrack of Warhol’s Silver Factory. She is running through the veins of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ unshielded as Dylan spits his vitriolic bitterness. She is the lightning strike fizzing through 1960s New York, taller than the Empire State, looming over those terribly important artists, laughing and tapping ash on their heads, dancing it out until the neon exploded into shards in her hands.
When I finally managed to read her biography more than a decade ago, I ate it in two large fevered bites, the spine collapsing from pages bent back repeatedly. Like a child or an annoying, conceited teenager, I carted this book around everywhere with me – a bizarre talisman, a compendium of my own raw, vulnerability that I just couldn’t express. A collection of friends, family and ‘associates’ memories of Edie, it pieces together her life like a jigsaw puzzle of a ghost. Even in her own biography, her voice is rarely heard. What the story of Edie became was, “The spirit of the Sixties,” as Norman Mailer boldly states on the cover, her life a junked-up morality tale of a reckless juggernaut, of a damaged, tattered heart ascending through the dark glittery world of the counter-culture. A useless fame that left her a forgotten used-up drug-addicted husk, achieving fleeting notoriety but failing miserably at attaining personal happiness or the emotional stability she seemed to so desperately desire.
Mentally tortured by almost every man in her life, from her cruel father to Warhol to Bob Dylan, she could never seem to free herself from idolising men, from craving their domineering presence. This wounded nature made it easy for those around her to not only take advantage of her, but to easily abandon her and untangle themselves from her complex world and her emotional messiness. That tangled nature and aching vulnerability that she so readily expressed is a constant source of comfort to me. Bravery is something I value in most of my heroines, but in Edie it’s the faults that others saw in her that are most akin to my own, that I can recognise and empathise with. She was courageous in her unashamed expression of them.
Her life was relentlessly on the brink of collapsing due to her almost exhausting nature; it was as if she not only burned herself out but managed to burn other people out too, such was the dominating force of her will. Needy and petulant, requiring constant attention and entertainment, the drugs she consumed in eye-popping quantities were the only thing that seemed to momentarily tether her to a space. The striking image, recounted in her biography of fast-living Edie supposedly asleep but her feet twisting in time to an imaginary beat seemed to encapsulate the essence of her. Edie was an unending rhythm skittishly travelling from one scene to the next, picking herself up and reinventing her life as soon as the bottom fell out of her world – always trying to escape, always attempting to find another way out. From her blue blooded background, to the back-streets of NYC to a commune of Hell’s Angels before an attempt to settle into a conventional marriage, it was a life in terminal flux, always requiring distraction from the darkness of her addictions and the mental unhappiness that would eventually engulf her.
Outside of these demons and the destructive behaviour that sometimes mirror my own, it was her undiluted joie de vivre (an underrated virtue), a spark that flooded every room she entered that truly obsesses and delights me. I never tire of re-reading the infamous stories of her insistence on travelling in Joe’ s Limos even when her finances were decidedly less flash, her unique dancing style when forced to wear a cast from hip to toe due to a car crash, or her snappy bright answers when being grilled by a caustic, conservative Merv Griffin about Warhol. This effervescent spirit lives on in all the cleverest good-time girls from Kate Moss to Rihanna, an uncompromising, joyful force that refuses to die no matter how unruly it’s deemed by some sections of society.
Karen and Edie might be polar opposites- the sweet clean cut singer and the kohl-eyed deviant doll – but both float throughout my life as twin fixations on the indefinable melancholy state of a feminine existence. There is a desire within both for a release from the rigid, oftentimes miserable conformity of the corporeal, the willingness for the spirit to explode forth into the world unabashed that echoes inside me loudly.
They are the troubled sparks that live within me, the deep timbre of sadness wrapped up in the gloomy glamour of celebrity; a fandom seasoned with tears and held tightly to the broken heart forever more.
Jenn Gannon is a regular rent-a-gob & pop defending writer for state.ie & other places. Sometimes she’s allowed to rant on the national airwaves & says various inappropriate things about Louis CK on Twitter @jennpops. Only when she’s dancing can she feel this free…