By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It was on Carol Burnett in 1972 that Cubby met the Carpenters. "Our show was going on hiatus, and Richard [Carpenter] asked me if I would be interested in going on tour with them." O'Brien played with the Carpenters on and off for the next nine years. He saw Karen Carpenter deteriorating as a result of the then-unknown eating disorder, anorexia, "but none of us really knew it was as bad as it was. We knew she had problems, because you know all sorts of personal things about people when you're on the road with them. Her body wasn't functioning right for a long, long time. When she finally did get to New York and saw a specialist, not only was it too late, but they didn't know enough about the disease. She gained too much weight back too fast, and it put a terrible strain on her heart."
O'Brien says he saw Karen just four days before her death. "They had gotten some action on a new record, and we were going out on tour for the first time in two years, but it was too late for her, I guess. It really is sad, because she was such a sweet, warm girl. She never was temperamental or did any of that star stuff. We got along great, because she also was a drummer; I was much closer to her than I was to Richard. He's a great guy, but he has always been a little distant. He was the boss, and Karen respected whatever he said. He was a brilliant orchestrator and would write string parts for the orchestra, but as far as the rhythm section--his guys--we had to learn everything by heart!"
Had Karen lived, O'Brien says, the Carpenters' "place would be exactly what it was before: The reviewers would hate them, and everybody else would listen to them and buy their albums! Their music was some of the best music of the '70s."
Although he knew that the Carpenters currently are big in Japan, O'Brien says he was unaware that the Carpenters are retrocool now; he hasn't heard If I Were a Carpenter, the 1994 tribute album of Carpenters covers by groups such as Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife, and Dishwalla, nor did he know that Richard Carpenter--who supervises his sister's estate--had finally consented to the release this month of a 1979 solo album by Karen produced by Phil Ramone, which one critic called Karen's "bold attempt to liberate herself."
O'Brien plays down notions that--as one critic said--Karen's "halo, like her brother, would prove impossible to shed" or that the solo album was her "emancipation proclamation." According to O'Brien, "It's not as big a rift as they are making it sound like, although her anorexia was definitely a control problem. Her parents and Richard basically ran her life. Of course, nobody runs your life unless you let them run it. She was outwardly a very happy person, as far as I could tell."
The Carpenters' current popularity doesn't surprise O'Brien. "Karen's like a cult figure; she deserves that. She was one of the most popular singers in the world. When I was with the band, we used to get rapped a lot because we weren't rock and roll or disco, but whenever we played an auditorium that held 25,000 people, it was packed!"
Shirley MacLaine is another celeb with whom O'Brien has traveled all over the world. He has been mentioned in her books and says that although she seeks out the spiritual aspects of every place she visits, you don't have to be a "true believer" to be in her band. "Oh, no. She's very low key about all that. We were in Rio de Janeiro, and she went into the jungle and saw some people being operated on with only [bare] hands. She's very interested in all that, but she does it by herself; she doesn't bother anybody. She comes back and tells us all about it, and you either believe it or you don't."
O'Brien is still an active Disney alumnus and says there are a group of about eight ex-Mouseketeers who are still pretty active. "I do lots of things for them, like the Disneyana convention each year. Thousands of people come, and they buy everything in sight!" When he was on The Mickey Mouse Club, he says, the actors had no idea the show would have such an impact on an entire generation of Americans. "[Some fans] have named their kids for their favorite Mouseketeer," he reports. "Some tell me, 'You started me playing drums,' or they'll say, 'What's Annette really like?' 'Oh, I loved you! You were my favorite!'"
Disney has tried to update The Mickey Mouse Club a couple of times since the 1950s, but O'Brien wasn't too impressed. "It was slick, it was in color, and they used kids from New York [rather than California]. It's hard to do those things over, because it was a different era, a different time."
O'Brien didn't envision that the Disney he knew would become the omnipresent megacorporation it is today. "It's so different now...When I worked at Disney studios, Walt himself was there, and he was the boss. He walked around and smoked his cigars, and it was a real studio like the old days, when the studios were run by the people who owned them, not lawyers and bean counters." O'Brien hasn't a clue as to what "Uncle Walt" would think of Michael Eisner's Disney. "I don't know how he would have reacted," O'Brien says. "I'm sure he wouldn't have let it get that far away from him. I don't think he ever would have given up the control."