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Short Stories - Harry Chapin Web Site
HARRY CHAPIN -
Until now his success has been concentrated on his home ground, although he did have a minor hit in England with W.O.L.D a couple of years ago, and the New Seekers recorded his Circle in 1972. Despite the comparative success of W.O.L.D, it's hardly surprising that Chapin has found England a barren land, with singles that are anything between five and ten minutes long-not ideal air play for Mr Blackburn to woo his housewives. However with the chance of an upcoming tour of Europe in the New Year, perhaps Chapin will gain the success that has eluded him for the last five years.
Certainly he is hopeful. "I think my music is very much in the English tradition. The old ballad tradition. I'm the only contemporary writer who's doing story to the extent that I'm doing them. Admittedly there are not that many story songs in England; people don't seem to do that kind of music, but I really think there's a good potential for us there."
Chapin has just completed work on his seventh album at Elektra Studios in Los Angeles, with a new band line-up and production duties this time being taken by his brother Steve. "I think it's going to be the best thing I've done so far. It's got some major new story songs, it has some interesting new combinations of different kinds of sounds that the group is making and we've gotten to the point where we're really playing well together. So there's a kind of quality that a group of people who have played songs live has when they record that's different from even the best studio musicians.
"As far as the songs go, there's The Mayor of Candor about nine minutes long and about a little town I went to called Candor, and I'm sure the mayor there lies, you know? Cory's Coming is about a guy who's always dreaming and everybody thinks he's a bull-shitter and then, one day, his dreams come true. Blues Man is about a young kid playing a guitar who gets turned on by this old black blues singer. The Rev. Gary Davis is a guy I used to know when I was a kid, and I used to go up to his place in Harlem. Parades Go Passing By is about Phil Ochs. There are a couple called Fall In Love With Him and Rollin' Down The River. Kingdom Come is a song I wrote in Kansas City Airport, when I got pissed at everybody, so it tries to insult everybody. Laugh Man is - well I met a bunch of comedians in the last couple of years, and they have a weird ambience. Some of their personal lives are not funny at all. There's another number called My Old Lady, and it's about a friend of mine whose old lady went out partying one night, and he was all shook up, so I wrote a song for him."
Chapin began his musical career after several years in documentary film making, culminating in an Academy Award nomination in 1969. He was forced to look for work elsewhere after the first Nixon recession in late 1970 and as he couldn't find anyone to sing some songs he had written, he decided to try them himself. "I put together a group from some ads placed in the Village Voice in New York. We had a cello player, a guitarist and a bass player; we started rehearsing and then we opened at the Village Gate, which is a club we rented in Greenwich Village. We did thirteen weeks there, and about six weeks in, we got some reviews and a girl named Ann Purtill, who was with Elektra, not only told them about us but also told other record companies. So there started to be a regular influx of people down there, and it got to be a bidding war between record companies, so we got a tremendous send-off from the record industry. We really were doing something different what with these story songs, and the cello in the group."
Chapin's debut album, Heads and Tales, which featured the hit single Taxi, was a remarkable record centred round his intensely personal lyrics and Tim Scott's melodic cello playing. The follow-up Sniper And Other Love Songs confirmed the excellence of the previous album, although it's probably his most inaccessible album to date. His next three albums - Short Stories, Verities And Balderdash and Portrait Gallery were recorded under the production talents of Paul Leka, who first came to fame as writer for the Lemon Pipers' Green Tambourine. Although the albums were commercially successful, they had lost the originality that brought Chapin attention in the first place. The stunning effect of the simple cello, guitar and bass parts went under in a self-indulgent wallow of string arrangements.
Chapin realises this only too well. "I think it's very important to my career that we get back to the group sound. The last three albums got a little stringy, and so we decided to go back to a more basic acoustic sound as opposed to heavy production."
Chapin's most recent release, Greatest Stories Live, captures exactly that. But why do a live greatest hits album? "Elektra wanted us to think about doing a Greatest Hits album at some point. I had been told by a lot of people that some of the things we do live have never been captured on record. I didn't want to put out retakes of the old tracks, so I thought it would combine three things at once. It seemed like the best thing to do."
Chapin is obviously a man not content with resting on his laurels. Last year he wrote an experimental musical review - The Night That Made America Famous - which had a short run on Broadway.
''I felt that modern folk/rock/pop music had not really been properly utilised on Broadway. There was Hair of course, and there had been concerts, you know Neil Diamond, Alice Cooper or Bette Midler, but no one who was a major artist had brought a concept show to Broadway. So I decided to do a show that was part theatre, part concept, part multi-media experience. It was a real shock test for the critics - everyone under 40 loved it, everyone over 40 hated it. I think that basically that's my fault, because a really persuasive artistic experience is able to seduce all age groups, and I think Cats In The Cradle can turn on kids of seven and grandfathers, and hippies and hard hats, and college professors. So I think that there were some things for me to learn, and, I think, the next time I do something like that I'll be closer to having it make a real major impact." His first book of poetry has just been published in America, and he has written a couple of screenplays for Warner Brothers Pictures - as yet they haven't replied.
As story songs require such a unique style of writing, how did Chapin
decide to do them, and why is it that no one else has really tried?
"People say it's because of my film making, but my father wrote the
first story song I ever heard. It was called Stonewall Jackson,
about the Civil War General, and it was an eleven-minute song for a show
he was writing that never happened. But in documentary film making you
have to have interesting people going through interesting situations,
which is basically what a story song is. I think the only reason that no
one else has written story songs is because they're not dumb enough.
It's not a very economical way of writing in both ways. Most of it is
too long for AM radio; also it takes a long time to write a story song,
both in terms of effort and in that you can't tell a story like Taxi
in three minutes. Nobody has proved apart from me that it can be
commercially viable. I guess Ode To Billie Joe was one song like
that. Then there's always stories. I'm living and always experiencing
things. The exciting thing for me is that I've become a category - in a
recent review of an Elton John album it said it contains a 'Chapinesque'
tune, and when they sort of use you as an adjective it's sort of
"My basic message has always been involvement. Selfishness doesn't score. History isn't changed by a bunch of people sitting safely in their little rooms. It's always been made by an active minority." - Harry Chapin has always said with his biting lyrics what other bands have been saying lately with physical action. Long before it was fashionable to be hurling insults to the 60's survivors, who were sitting back on the royalties, Chapin was lashing out. He described Dylan in a recent song as "the king who melted down his crown to try to get the gold out".
Chapin is by no means denying his roots, just jostling them. Three years ago in this paper I named Chapin as Phil Ochs' natural successor. Chapin's songs are churned out like proverbial blows below the belt. W*O*L*D drew a painfully realistic portrait of an ageing disc jockey trying to hide the fact under a toupee. Cats In The Cradle, taken from a poem his wife wrote, is about the American pastime of giving the kid everything but love and attention. One day when you grow old, the kid gives it back to you. When you need him he ain't around.
"That was the kind of song that people bought to deliver to other people" says Sandy Chapin. "We were really surprised to find out that it had been used in church services and marriage counselling. American parents seem to think they can buy out their relationship with their kids. The song proved them wrong".
"Look", insisted Chapin, who knows nothing of new generation attitudes, "The Stones are establishment, they're the Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald's of this decade. Almost everyone who opened their mouths ten years ago has become a sheep and doesn't understand why. It's not the money and success. You can channel those into something beneficial.
"It's these singer/songwriters who almost died to pay their dues. They were desperate to have an audience to communicate with. All of a sudden they get the audience and what happens? They start hanging around upper class parties, with expensive dope dealers and worrying about their limousines. The high point of the week is going to Cher's party. And they wonder why they dry up?"
Chapin has had a string of American hits, has a strong following and is currently the subject of a stage show in San Francisco. It's like Side By Side By Sondheim or Jaques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris. The show acts out his various songs. Why, with things on such an even keel, would Chapin want to lose time and bread to break the European market, kicking off with dates here next month. "Because I know I'm not a significant factor here. I got $30,000 for a one nighter in Chicago", he smiles. "Last year I went to a club in Copenhagen and the singer didn't show, so I did a little bit. The owner liked me so much that he offered me $20 plus the chance to work regularly at a similar fee! I was so excited I could have given up my day job", he howls. "But seriously, I want to pay my dues and win an audience. The language barrier is going to be a healthy challenge. We tried it out in Germany with no problems. Things didn't work out perfectly, but audiences understand imperfection. If the audience understands period, you've communicated. That's what I we're on about, right?"
Chapin's outspoken philosophies will again I grace his new album Dance Band On The Titanic, which is a metaphor to the current political apathy that aggravates the singer. When the famed Titanic hit the iceberg, the band was told to play on. The people from the third deck down raced to the top to get into lifeboats and were instructed to go down to the third level again to get their own lifeboats. "Except there were no life boats on the third deck", says Chapin. "And that's what's happening now. the rich on the top deck are getting-richer and richer. And the bottom two thirds are in worse shape than ever.
So we're all hiding in our first class cabins thinking we're safe.
"People say there is no reason to be an activist. Stay in your
cabin, decorate it to your heart's content and convince yourself there's
no iceberg. Carter has made the rhetoric for us to walk into. Stevie
Wonder writes lovely songs, but they're happy propaganda. Being a
singer-songwriter doesn't give me a pulpit to lecture from. When I write
my songs you notice. I always put the asshole parts in the first person.
I'm the douche bag disc jockey or the idiot villain. I'm no angel but at
least I'm doing something besides staring at my gold records."
He managed it triumphantly after thirty-four years and six superb albums at the New Victoria last Thursday. The hall was not quite full, which will not happen again. No one who was there can fail to persuade six other people along next time.
Chapin's gifts are liberally in evidence on his albums, of which the last three (all Elektra) reveal the most: Verities and Balderdash, Portrait Gallery and On The Road To Kingdom Come. They show how his inspiration springs from the daily encounters of American living, yet also how the situations he depicts are often allegories for the universal modern condition. 'Cat's In The Cradle', about a father-son relationship, is typical Chapin. The son worships the father, wants to grow up like him. The father is too engrossed in business. 'There were planes to catch and bills to pay, he learned to walk while I was away.' Suddenly the boy is grown, married; the father is alone. Now the son is too busy to visit. 'He'd grown up just like me, as the painful punchline observes.
As dramatic narrative alone, that song is compelling. Similarly, Chapin observes a meeting between an old man and a waitress in a cafe, a chance encounter of old flames in a taxi; a crucifixion by metropolitan critics of a singer from the sticks who never opens his mouth in public again. 'Music was his life,' sings Chapin. 'It was not his livelihood.'
Chapin has an unerring and pitying eye for life's losers; not heavily tragic losers, but those for whom the pieces never quite fall together. Simultaneously, he celebrates the strength of the human spirit which survives loneliness, discovers the comic moments of episodes with which his listeners can continually identify. In that coincidence lies the secret of the best popular songs.
Chapin sings in a clear, pleasant voice, using unfussy melodies and arrangements played by a small backing group within which a cello provides haunting counterpoints. His stage personality is captivating. He did as he wished with Thursday's audience. As he hunched dumpily in his chair, tousling his hair, talking wittily and relevantly about the circumstances of his songs, himself, and his musicians, not a soul stirred, except to laugh or applaud. The final standing ovation was spring-heeled and genuine. London will see no more absorbing concert this year.
Earlier last week, at the Albert Hall, Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb had a larger audience, without stirring them so deeply. Campbell is excellent at what he does, in intonation and style as true to his Western roots (born in Delight, Arkansas, once a cotton-picker) as Chapin is to his Greenwich Village background. Yet where Chapin gets inside every song he sings, Campbell seems too often a spectator, smoothing out tunes and meanings alike. Few shocks, few insights - just a pleasant flowing countryish sound.
He can, it seems, do anyone's music. Still slim and lithe, he was once a Beach Boy (I965), and revived their hits fluently. He imitated Elvis. He rocketed through the William Tell Overture on guitar with the finesse of a computer print-out.
He has the great good fortune often to sing Webb's fine songs -
'Wichita Lineman', 'Galveston', Macarthur Park' - and here performed
several. Webb himself sang 'Didn't We' which, like the others, is
already a modern classic. But the gloss of Campbell's breezy performance
will not endure like the grittier I50 minutes of Harry Chapin's.
Seeger's uncompromising commitment to a variety of causes over a long period of time has evidently rubbed off on Chapin, who is rather more than the lyrical pop songwriter with folk connections you might have assumed from his British hits, W.O.L.D. and Cats In The Cradle.
He is, for example, deeply involved in the issue of world hunger and campaigns against the wastage of resources by the big companies - "one tenth of the population of America are hungry", he says. "But I'm not a propaganda artist. I do a few benefit concerts, but I don't believe I should have a pulpit to lecture people from when I'm on stage."
Chapin is 34, a tall, broad man of immense energy and a seemingly endless store of conversation. He's in London preparing for his concert at the New Victoria, which he promises will signal regular visits in future. He wants to come to Europe three times a year, he says, which seems ambitious considering the extraordinary number of pies he's got fingers in.
In San Francisco at this very time there's a stage show running based on his songs, there's an upcoming movie screenplay (The Flow), and a new double album, Dance Band On The Titanic, on the way, as well as quite a rigorous touring schedule.
"I've, made an ass of myself more than anybody else, I think - you may notice all the people in the songs are written in the first person, but I'm learning all the time.
"The thing that frightens me is that when I'm 70 years old I may wish I'd done this or that. I always remember my grandfather - three weeks before he died he said he'd wanted to be a painter all his life and he was happy because he'd done it. The fact that he was peaceful facing death was the most comforting thing I've ever experienced in my life. I've made a good start. I've done a lot in my 34 years."
The Dance Band On The Titanic title of his next album is in itself a symbolic reference to public apathy in the face of disaster, and the fact that musicians are so often used as a frivolous distraction to what's really going on - when the Titanic hit the iceberg the band were told to play on so that the people wouldn't panic."
"We're supposed to laugh a little and forget about everything. We're the ones in first-class cabins. But the bottom two thirds of the human race is worse off statistically than it's ever been before. Right now we're in a syndrome where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."
"Seventy million people in the USA have a food problem, and there are millions of people who are obese. We tried to get publicity for hunger in Newsweek and they said 'Oh, we did hunger in 1974.' How can they say 'we did it.' So that's it'? People give their five dollars to CARE, and that's it as far as they're concerned.
"Our goal is always to be successful and rich, but that goal
doesn't imply we're going to be happier and more generous people, so why
do we want that goal?"
Yet for all Chapin's sharp focus on the morose aspects of American living, he is not a sentimentalist, more a detached Campfire story spinner. He stands alone among contemporary singer-songwriters, with an incomparable gift of pin-pointing the fallibilities of the human condition, the modern malaise, for example, of loneliness going hand-in-glove with material gain.
His concert at London's New Victoria last Thursday was one of those momentous occasions which happen only too rarely when an artist of unique talent, who has been on the rise for several years through thoughtful albums, transcends the climbing process to establish himself at the top of his ladder. Chapin played probably the concert of his life, dramatically reliving the pungent songs he'd written so long ago and which might have come across with staleness in a lesser talent.
And his standing ovation was heart-warming, for Harry manages to step just that little distance outside the realm of pure singer-songwriter, seizing on fairly obvious themes, but never falling into the cliché trap, to deliver himself independent of the system.
Song For Jaime and Cat's In The Cradle revolve around his daughter and son, and both succeed in that most dangerous of territories analysing the weakness of parental relationships.
His melodies, economical and uncluttered, act well as backdrops for songs which point, for example, to a father's hurried business life allowing him to miss seeing his son grow up, even learning to walk. He realises when it's too late. Then the son suddenly hasn't even time to speak to his father on the telephone. 'He's grown up just like me ...' mourns Chapin.
There's the unfulfilled friendship of a man and woman finding an unexpected reunion in a taxi the man is driving and in which the woman is a surprise passenger; the musician supposedly from the American outback whose work is cruelly derided by a major newspaper critic - and here Chapin paints a vivid picture of another artist's sadness at lack of recognition: 'Music was his life, not his livelihood.'
There's an inevitable, but fresh, tale of the US railroad; the horrifically accurate story of the disc jockey as ageing groover - 'Feeling all of 45, going on 15' - who thinks he'll pack it in and run a record store; and the spine-chilling new single from his forthcoming album, Dance Band On The Titanic, a weirdly pessimistic commentary, which seems to bemoan the fact that rock and roll continues, while the West appears to be sliding. Ah, the cynics say, we've heard all this before. An opportunistic musician exploiting people's inability to express emotions, and getting a career out of it.
But Harry Chapin rings true with astonishing literary clarity - as a writer first and musician second. His backing group, featuring an outstanding cellist and his brother, Steve, on piano, are sparingly used.
Chapin could not be said to be plying a voice or personality of any significance, and he relies totally on rapier-like observation of city and suburban life to make his mark. His stage presence, slightly self-deprecating and pleasingly engaging, has a neat line in how- this- song- came- about.
If he fell into the time honoured lapse at the end of saying what a fantastic under-capacity audience we'd been- "give me quality audiences rather than quantity any day" - it was, this time genuine, a real thank you to a crowd absolutely thrilled by a three-hour show which had touched many raw nerves.
This was one of those exhilarating, moving concerts one remembers
forever. Rare and touching, honest and searing. Not comfortable, but
probing. Amazing. Enthralling. If you missed it, don't dare skip Chapin
The concert basically followed the lines of Chapin's double live album, released last year - a 'Best Of' taking in all the other records, but concentrating on the 1973/74 period represented by Short Stories and Verities And Balderdash, from which came the best known song in America (Cat's In The Cradle) and the same in Britain (W.O.L.D).
But the point to put across is that for 95% of the time this was a rock show as opposed to the middle of the road experience which many might have expected. At one point in the second half, (no support act, therefore close to two and a half hours of Chapin, which never became tedious until the encore), the drummer sang a fractured opus entitled I'm The Horniest Rock Drummer, and was followed by guitarist Doug Walker with a composition called Vinyl Ain't Bad In Bed. Horrified looks among the more staid members of the audience, but they seemed to get the joke.
Throughout, the backing musicians were exemplary. John Wallace, on
bass and a variety of octave splitting background vocals, was even
better this time than the last Chapin visit in 1972, and his counterpart
vocals during "Mr. Tanner" were taken to perfection. Doug
Walker, while having few opportunities to stretch out, showed on the odd
occasions when he went into overdrive, that he's quite capable of guitar
pyrotechnics. He chooses to restrict them - and the same generally
applied to drummer Howard Fields. It's cello player Kim Scholes who
turns the head, though he's apparently quite new, but he's as able as
his several predecessors in the group at creating eerie effects which
enhance the theatrical aura that surrounds all Chapin's songs. On piano
was Harry's brother, Steve Chapin, a recording artist in his own right,
although so far unreleased over here. The only jarring note was an
over-extended encore of Circle, a song which Chapin wrote some
time ago, which was recorded in the most brutally insensitive manner
imaginable by the dread New Seekers. While that provided a major downer
right at the end, the rest of the gig was a delight, and word of mouth
alone will ensure that upon their return (scheduled for the autumn)
Harry and his group will have a completely full house with people
One of his favourite techniques is to take over a radio station for a 24-hour 'Hungerthon', in which there are no commercials [he pays for it all], but instead there's an on-air teach-in, an incredible way to reach millions of people.
When not lobbying in Washington, Chapin has gone against other rock styles in building up a highly successful career. He says his record company still doesn't understand him, because he insists on releasing 'uncommercially long' songs, which may not all have been best - sellers but have won him a vast concert audience. He gave his first major London show in April with such success that he is now back for a tour, starting at the Rainbow tomorrow.
Those who are impressed by him for the first time may be surprised to find that Chapin has already recorded eight albums of his own work and though he may have been over-prolific at times, the overall standard of these melodic, carefully written, and finely-balanced 'story songs' is very high.
His early influences were jazz [his father was drummer for Tommy Dorsey] and then the east-coast coffee-house circuit, but for six years his main occupation was as documentary film maker [he was in fact nominated for an Academy Award in 1969]. When he decided to return to his original interests of singing and songwriting in 1971, his work had developed the narrative line and sense of place, atmosphere, and detail of a strong, realistic film.
"Philosophy is bullshit in the abstract. Art's strength has always been that it can emotionalise. Take Cat's in the Cradle - that's a very political song, about family politics. If I'd done it in an obvious political way it would have been 'parents pay attention to your children, or they won't pay attention to you' - a goddamn boring song. But done on the emotional basis with the same implication - bang! The most interesting things to human beings are stories of other human beings.
The latest collection of such stories has just been released on his double album Dance Band on the Titanic [Elektra K62021]. It starts and ends with the jolly title song, with the obvious bleak implications of the sinking of Steamship Earth, and in between there are a series of carefully crafted tracks looking at a gallery of Chapin's everyday losers and worriers; from the real-estate hustler selling plots of the country he'd secretly like to settle in, to those with a variety of personal relationships under stress.
He says it's a concept album. "The iceberg's up ahead and, whatever deck of the Titanic you are on, it's got to be dealt with. The last lengthy song is more autobiographical than anything I've ever done. It's about my life now that I'm 34, and the state of the music business, and America at the Bicentennial. Then there are often repeated themes in other songs - everyone's worried about their personal problems, love, and jobs. These are what we're considering on the decks the Titanic ... but the answer is not to have no look-outs."
Mr Chapin takes his work as a long look out very seriously, and dares to say so. A large amiable, highly energetic man who talks fast and expansively, and is likely to digress to discuss nuclear energy, Beowulf, or chicken farming ["only five states grow their own"], he talks of his songs in terms of historic tradition.
"The people who chose to matter are those who do. Great art through the centuries has not propagandised, but has sensitised people to the issues of the time. Music was once the lifestyle, but is not in the vanguard now. Right now it has the same function as junk food - it satisfies the momentary urge, but if you belch afterwards you lose the nutritional value. The question is very simple - do we want to matter? Lots of people write and don't want to matter. That's fine, but I'm egotistical and dumb enough to think differently."
Talking to Chapin, he seems an energetic optimist, but totally at variance with the mood of the ordinary anti-heroes of his songs - the depressed disc-jockies, waitresses, or taxi drivers. He says there's no contradiction. "Anyone coming out of my concerts doesn't come out depressed, though I do depressing songs. Optimism has to be based on a sense of reality - see the world clearly, including the negatives, and try to do something better. I'm a philosophical pessimist and an actual optimist. I think individuals can make a difference."
But he is depressed by many of the current generation. "You've got to be greedy, ask for a lot and don't cease being an in-put mechanism. As Dylan said, 'he not busy being born is busy dying.' Kids come out of school now with the world in front of them, and only worry about their pension plans - on the Titanic."
It comes as little surprise to find that he's depressed with most
rock stars ["the counter- culture has become the new
establishment"], but admires Pete Seeger ["I'd like to have
his qualities, but that's approaching sainthood"]. He also admires
Phil Ochs, one of the most outspoken sixties songwriters, and his next
project is a musical based around him. "His three gods were Che
Guevara, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan - the pure revolutionary, the
commercial public hero and the man wavering between the two. I'm going
to have them as Och's band - the dialogue between those three would be
But this time, when he appeared for two hours at the Rainbow last Saturday, it was the return of the conquering hero.
He has become a star and deservedly so, with little of the media hype that has managed to pack our major concert halls. He has done it, let it be said, on his talent alone.
Well not quite. His musical associates have helped. The first time he played London, as mere support to Mickey Newbury and Ian Matthews' Plainsong, he had this tight, little band with him, featuring off beat things like cellos that usually get left behind in the recording studio at this point in an artist's career.
But the sound of his songs is as important to him as the words and tune, which is, I suppose the thing that marks him out very much a seventies phenomenon. There is no reason except economics why today's songwriters should appear with less accompaniment than on record, as we have learned from the example of Al Stewart.
Success has not spoiled either Chapin or the band, though it has made both of them a hundred times more powerful than they ever used to be. At times, the sheer confidence radiating from the stage becomes just a mite too powerful, and one has the impression that he could sing the telephone directory right now and get away with it.
This is a dangerous position for any artist to be in, though naturally he's got to ride the wave while it's in flood. There were one or two danger signs on Saturday: a tendency to oversell the songs so that his voice grew well-night incomprehensible (notably on the powerful Sniper, with which he ended his first half), occasional weaknesses creeping into the lyrics, and tunes reminiscent of past successes.
But the best of his new songs are the best he has written. Dance Band On The Titanic, the title song from his new album, is typical of these, with a catchy chorus that sticks in the brain and makes the mind attend to the seriousness of the message - especially when, as in the opening of his second half, he ties it in with his epic There Was Only One Choice, a wide-ranging panorama of American life and music that is as telling in its own way as Don McLean's American Pie.
After the show, he spent a full hour in the Rainbow lobby signing
copies of his book of poems and T-shirts and things. More superstar
phenomena? Not quite. All the proceeds from the sales went to the war
I felt something akin to his mystification at Harry Chapin's performance. "What's this all about?" I kept asking the friend I came with. She equally uncomprehending, grew so bored she took to mentally adding up the number of calories she'd consumed during the day.
Chapin was the central figure in one of those rituals in the dark, through which his following applauds hysterically with delighted recognition at the very first bar of every song (not only his UK biggie Cat's In The Cradle, but even the new ones from the brand new Dance Band On The Titanic), sings along, vibrates with rapport and participates in interminable humorous routines. Meanwhile the journalists whisper down the aisles at each other: "What's this?"
Audiences are my favourite part of gigs. I like to try to imagine where they live and what they do and who else they like and all that stuff. This time I was completely stumped.
Chapin is a hearty, energetically congenial New Yorker with obvious roots in both the Greenwich Village folk scene and the Broadway musical tradition. He is so overwhelmingly American in that open, larger than life, concerned sort of way that he is predictably big in the States with moderately hip, middle class, liberal-thinking, sort of sensitive and aware 25-35 year olds. Yet he went down a storm with a full house of people to whom I would have thought both the material and the approach was alien.
Now, you never can tell beforehand what effect these intensely personal types are going to have on you. When I went to hear Dory Previn, for instance, I expected an evening of musical pre-menstrual tension and instead was entranced. But Chapin affected me like those US cabaret giants whose gigs at places like the Palladium are padded out with uniquely corny raps about their wives, children and pets, the state of the nation and the plight of the underprivileged.
Chapin comes across as one hell of a nice man. He even puts his money where his mouth is and flogs his poetry in the foyer, with the proceeds going to feed starving people (the ones in America, I hope). Nevertheless, if you were born to boogie, suffer from teenage depression or are just looking' after number one, most of the evening would have meant zilch.
Musically Chapin utilises a guitar, bass, drums, piano and cello ensemble imaginatively. The sound was lovely, the intricate arrangements and harmonies highly effective. His very theatrical savvy in the delivery of his narrative songs invariably found its mark in the audience.
So perhaps it's a failing in me that I was just embarrassed by such earnest songs as the one about how he met his wife (she, married to a building contractor, took weekly guitar lessons from him, then a poor but romantic young fellow, and said 'I want to learn a love song, Harry'), while many of his less intensely personal songs - about a soldier and a prostitute; a 19th century plains farmer and his mail-order bride; a whaler's widow country and western pastiches - seem to me to bear a relation to the real thing similar to that which Californian TV cop shows do to law enforcement.
Yet sometimes others, such as the sad Taxi (the song that was one of the main inspirations for the film Taxi Driver) and the chilling Sniper are very real, articulate and dramatic portraits. Mr Tanner effectively hit at critics by describing quite poignantly a man who just sang because he loved to and was destroyed by prosey put-downs.
I'm not putting down Harry Chapin at all, honest. He does what he
does with charm and strength and obviously strikes a chord of
recognition in his fans. It was just uncannily like walking into the
wrong party, that's all ... or waking up in the wrong country.
But who or what then, is Harry Chapin in this parable? The lead guitar player in the band? "Just go back specifically to that event," he says, "39 seconds before the boat hit the iceberg, the look-out spotted it. He called down. It took 29 seconds for the boat to react. At that moment the boat swung a little bit to the right, but it still struck. It was a glancing blow, but what happened was that it peeled a three-foot wide strip over 305 feet long into six watertight compartments. If it had only done five, the boat would never have sunk.
"I think that one individual can have a tremendous impact, if you're willing to make long range commitments. I see my function as that of art all the way through the ages, as sensitising people to things that maybe they already know. I'm not saying anything new. I mean, God almighty, we all know there are a lot of major problems around. The problem is most of us are playing ostriches.
"So my job is a little bit different from the look-outs, but somewhat analogous. The job is to show in the most graphic terms the reality of the iceberg. Not in the sense of saying if you hit the iceberg at so-and-so, it will create this and this, that's for the scientists, that's for the politicians."
"But musicians and artists of every kind through the ages, the meaningful ones, have created a tonality so you realise the impact - not m.p.h, but the human impact - of those kinds of short range decisions of ignorance and their implications. "A perfect example is a song like Cat's in the Cradle, a non-political song externally. If it was done politically, you know, the politics of relationships, it would be 'fathers pay attention to your kids, or else they won't pay attention to you'. Well I did it a different way. I did it from the point of view of me being the father. It came from a poem my wife wrote. And I took it and made it an emotional thing."
"It's not telling anybody listening something that they didn't know, but it's clarifying the fact that if you don't make this investment in your kids now, later on, all of a sudden you're going to be talking to a kid who's going to say 'Nice talking to you Dad, but I'm sorry I haven't got the time'. Then the ultimate irony of saying 'Well, I paid my dues, he's growing up just like me'."
"So I would like to think that, on the new album, the first song is literally about the Titanic, but the thing about the other 11 songs is that they are songs of the human condition, dealing with the kinds of problems that we deal with when we're not looking forward. Most of them are about male-female relationships, a couple of them about relationships between friends, but even in those there are constantly triggers towards larger issues."
"I think our external political decisions, in the final analysis, come down to a bunch of realities that we make in all the mini-political decisions we make in our relationships. I think for example, that the sort of person you are is very much reflected in the sort of relationships you have with your wife or your girlfriend or your kids or your parents or your friends or your business. '
That, more or less verbatim, was his off-the-cuff but hardly ill-considered reply to a simple question about the aptness of a single metaphor, and it says a great deal about the man.
Part of it came almost too pat - I had read the remark about the political significance of Cat's in the Cradle the previous day in his interview with the Guardian - but the way his mind swept back and forth like a radar antenna, from the particular to the general, the way that for him the metaphor wasn't just a metaphor, but a freeze-frame of reality, the part standing for the whole, reminded me that before Chapin took up music seriously, he was a far from unsuccessful film-maker.
It's no surprise to learn that his early Taxi was in part an inspiration for the film Taxi Driver, for instance. What is telling is the way that the images of his songs-movie are actually more concrete, more specific than the allusive shifts of camera angle in the cinema movie, and, ultimately, more powerful in the aftertaste they leave in your memory centres.
Seeing Chapin as a film-maker, who uses sounds instead of visual images, also illuminates the way in which he and the other contemporary writers of story songs differ from the old ballad makers. For though in conversation he is apt to cite his admiration for Pete Seeger, Guthrie and the rest, his presentation of reality as a montage of flashes, as if illuminated by lighting, in which the persistence of vision in the mind's eye supplies the continuing thread, owes more to the cinematic tradition of Eisentein and Griffiths, as well as the great pre-film scriptwriter, Charles Dickens, than to the creator of Pretty Boy Floyd.
The ballad-makers presented reality as a series of set pieces, usually one to a verse, in which the continuity was supplied by the continuing characters, masked with their identities like players in the mumming charade: the outlaw, the sheriff, his faithful wife, the traitor.
Interestingly, the closest modern parallel to this approach is not the songwriter or novelist, but the film-maker. For this is very much the approach of Jean-Luc Godard, whose episodic cutting breaks away from the quantum flow of the editing is familiar from classics like Birth of A Nation and Battleship Potemkin.
Though the success of Harry Chapin in the past year - two years at least - since his last and only hit - and his own self-identification with the lookout, rather than the musicians on the Titanic, seems to isolate him from general trends in the music industry, he is far from remote from what is going on inside it.
"The line I quote all the time is Bob Dylan's," he said. "I think it's the greatest line he ever wrote: 'He who is not busy being born, is busy dying'. I think there are too few of us in our society busy being born. I think for instance that in some ways the punk phenomenon is probably more realistic than the southern Californian soft-rock 'sail off into the sunset', Desperado kind of theme. In one sense, it's not articulate at all, but in another sense it's probably more articulate than anything."
"The American version of punk rock right now is bull - it's really just bad old rock 'n' roll. Some of the lyrics I've seen from the English bands though are really, in a basic sort of way, trying to deal with that frustration.
"Now that, without any new system of beliefs, is nothing. But recognition is the first step towards positive action; recognition of the fact we're all emperors with no clothes, as we trundle along on our preordained routes, pretty much - the middle class on up. I think the punkers have got something to say, in that sense."
"It's obviously, what's going to happen, as my brother Tom once said. We were doing a Hungerthon on WNEW, which is the number one FM station in New York and somebody was asking him what happened to the revolution. He said 'Warner Brothers own the revolution'. You know when Clive Davis and a whole bunch of record company moguls went to the Monterey Pop in 1967, they bought up the revolution, they signed 'em, the Grateful Dead or whatever. Well I'm sure that within the next six months or a year, not only will punk be merchandised as it is being, but you will then find that all the fashion people will be merchandising it, all of a sudden, even though it's a healthy breath of fresh air, the genius and the curse of our societies is that as long as it sells, they'll sell anything.
Whatever happens, there'll still be that important against-the-grain
phenomenon of the minority who don't sell out like Pete Seeger, Chapin's
great hero, has not sold out, and I suspect Chapin himself will not sell
out. Even if he does, in fact, work for one of the companies which have
bought up the revolution and sold it back to us at bargain rates.
It's a double album this, with a sufficient variety of material to
keep you entertained. Even a 14 minute track like There Was Only One
Choice, a warning of the inherent perils of a rock 'n' roller's
life, manages to sustain interest throughout and the title track moves
along at a fair lick, containing one line which most people remember
when they hear it in 'I heard the Chaplain say Women and children and
Chaplains first'. I enjoyed it, but I didn't have to buy it.
Chapin is in his early thirties and hails from New York where, so the press release tells me, he has been lauded for his story-telling songwriting style. You've probably heard him often enough without knowing it for his two most famous songs 'Late Night DJ On WOLD' and 'Cat's Cradle' were long turntable hits on the Tony Blackburn and Michael Aspel morning radio shows.
So his crass count is pretty high, right?
Except being crass is Chapin's real strength. Forget his joys-of-playing-an-electric-guitar specials. When he tries his hand and band at anything akin to mainstream, gut reaction rock Chapin simply soils his pants. Things like 'Bluesman' and 'Paint A Picture Of Yourself (Michael)' are bad jokes.
No, listen instead to 'My Old Lady', 'We Grew Up A Little Bit', 'Country Dreams', 'I Wonder What Happened To Him' and 'Mismatch' and sit on some real Mary Tyler Moore Show drama. Yeah, right, Chapin inhabits a world of wives and kids and clean shirts and electricity bills and Sunday morning car cleaning. But he is anything but trite.
He's a fatalist. He accepts the existence of pain. He realises the necessity of change. He recognises that there is anguish and indecision out in the suburbs same as there is in hip city circles. This double album puts his finger firmly on the angst of the middle class, silent majority with a collection of songs that are both tortured and often hauntingly beautiful.
The trouble is though that our Mr Chapin is such a master at his particular craft that his music itself is totally middle class, boring and as bland as the outward appearances and the public lifestyles of the men and women in his songs. His voice is warm and cosy, but with a distinct edge that is frequently reminiscent of Loudon Wainwright. A whole host of star session musicians, including Steve Gadd on the drums, put down some soft funked cocktail lounge folks with clarity, precision and lashings of good taste. But they rarely if ever catch a fire.
So what is Chapin trying to do? Express suburban boredom and frustration in realistic photographic detail? He does that alright. With the flair and skill of a great descriptive novelist.
Or is he suggesting that life has more in store for a nine to fiver
and his family if they only know where to look? If he's doing that his
work is about as successful as those serialised romances in Woman's Own.
The latest of the ilk is Harry Chapin, whose "Dance Band On The
Titanic" (Elektra K62021) is one of the finest double albums from a
singer-songwriter to grace my turntable in a very long time. Chapin's
title song would, at first hearing, appear to be straight run-down of
the events that happened on that fateful night of April 15th 1912. But
Chapin's compositions frequently have something in common with icebergs
in that there's more below the surface than is at first apparent, and as
he explains in "There Only Was One Choice", a marvellous
marathon of a song, we're all somewhat akin to those steamship
syncopaters, playing merrily while disaster threatens the world in which
we live. However, Chapin is neither only historian nor, like Jimmy
Cricket, a singing conscience. He's also a exceptional storyteller who
can reel off well-crafted stories of lovers who are mismatched, inept or
just plain bored, or he can spin a yarn about a pallet-on-the-floor
meeting between people who sell their bodies for vastly different
purposes, as he does on a song titled "Mercenaries". One of
the most literate songwriters around today, Chapin is deserving of far
wider audience. Here's hoping that Dance Band On The Titanic helps him
Harry Chapin comes to the kitchen door carrying a small notebook that he has opened to a page containing one sentence written in a child's scrawl that says, 'Harry, I Love You.' The words are written by Harry's 4-year-old son, Josh.
"Isn't this great?" Harry asks. His smile lighting up the room. Harry says, "I wrote a song about it."
These are the first of the approximately 11 million words that Harry Chapin will say this day. If one had to pay taxes on the spoken word, Harry Chapin would be sentenced to debtor's prison within an hour. He is a compulsive talker and a compulsive writer. If the words are out there--in thin air or in black and white--there's always a chance that someone, somewhere, might pick them up, that they might change a life, or at least help someone through the night. If Harry is afraid of anything, it is not words.
The words come out in torrents.
You are advised to bring hip boots.
Harry Chapin is the Broadway show that nobody liked--except the people. The critics left him for dead. The AM radio stations don't play his songs because they are too long. The FM stations don't play his songs because he isn't cool. Yet somehow the people hear the songs, and they spend money on his albums and his concerts. He is unique in the music business in that he remains a popular artist without the benefit of the commercial airwaves. He is the most overground underground singer in captivity. He is a category of one.
The children are scattered throughout the house. There are five of them, three from Sandy Chapin's previous marriage and two from her marriage to Harry. Sandy and Harry are in the kitchen on this Sunday morning. She is making coffee, he is swatting flies, sneaking up on them, anticipating their upward flight and crushing them--two and three at a time--by clapping his hands together.
"We had a barbecue last week," Sandy says. "I think the flies liked the food so much that they stayed on after the guests. It got cold, and they moved inside."
Harry listens to the words and smiles. An idea for a song?
Clap. Two more.
"Pretty good, huh?" Harry asks, showing off his catch before he dumps them into the garbadge pail.
"We're probably the only family in Huntington with flies," says Sandy. "I think there's a zoning ordinance against them."
Clap. Three this time.
That reminds Harry of a story. Almost everything reminds Harry of a story. It seems that Sandy and Harry used to live in a house in Point Lookout, a tiny community east of Long Bech jammed up against the Atlantic Ocean. The Chapins were the local radicals; politically, Point Lookout is somewhat conservative. Anyway, the Chapins put out a sign--"Another Family for Lowenstein"--in 1972. Allard Lowenstein, a liberal politician who is now part of the United States delegation to the United Nations, was running for Congress at the time, and that sign was pretty funny, because it was unlikely that there was even one family for Lowenstein there, let alone another one. The sign didn't endear the Chapins to their neighbors, and Harry remembers that one of his neighbors had the class to put out this sign: "Another Family for Lowenbrau."
An idea for a song?
No, Harry already wrote about Point Lookout. It was the town that made America famous in the song, "What Made America Famous?" As Harry wrote, "...the churches full, and the kids all goin' to hell... the fire department showed dirty movies."
"I get the feeling," someone says to Harry, "that anything I say might show up in one of your songs. That true?"
Harry just smiles.
Clap. Just one. Harry is thinning out the herd.
Harry hit the big time in 1972 when his song "Taxi" made the charts. But he had been writing songs long before them. By his own count, he wrote 400 songs before anyone paid attention.
"The basic problem," he says, "is that all of them stank."
Since then, only two of his songs--"Cat's in the Cradle" and "I Wanna Learn a Love Song"--have received saturation airplay, but his influence on the music scene in particular and contemporary pop culture in general has been such that he has been the subject of scores of articles in the straight and rock press.
As one reviews the material, two of Chapin's favorite targets--Mike Nichols and T.S. Eliot--get whipped in almost every interview that he gives. Chapin has no use for their art. He thinks Nichols represents a smug school of thinkers who worship the god of cynicism and preach inaction, a trendy, laidback contempt for society. Eliot, according to Chapin, is the high priest of gobbleygook. Chapin blames Eliot for all that is wrong with modern poetry.
To offer proof, Harry excuses himself for a moment, then comes back down stairs with a volume of Eliot's work. Harry turns to the foreign phrases, calling them "mental masturbation... why can't he say it in English, who's he showing off for? Art is communication"; this kind of thing "led to all those poets who think that if they write a few German phrases, or some Turkish recipe, that they're making some kind of definitive statement."
Harry is incensed.
He slams his fist onto the table, causing the last remaining fly to leave the room, probably forever.
"This kind of writing," Harry says, "is so destructive, so delibrerately pretentions, so, so..."
"What about James Joyce?" someone asks him in protest.
Harry ignores him.
Harry goes on ramming Eliot.
"Harry only knows Joyce from the movies," Sandy says.
Chapin earned $2 million in 1977.
He gave $700,000 to charity.
Seven hundred thousand.
"I'm the most committed person in the music business," Harry says. All the critics get off knocking my songs, but I'm the most follow-through guy in the business. I call my own bluff more than anyone. I'm not one of those people who sends $5 to CARE on the week before Christmas and thinks my check means that I don't have to care about starving kids for another 52 weeks."
"I hear all these supposed committed rock stars go on television and say they wish they could do more for the people. Well, who's stopping them? I gotta tell you, the fact of the matter is, when you want a benefit given, you go to Harry Chapin, because Harry Chapin is the only one you can count on. Harry Chapin isn't just mouthing off--he's there when you need him."
If Pete Seeger is the patron saint of socially responsible musicians, then Harry Chapin is at least a faculty member in the College of Cardinals. He has given benefit concerts for the Performing Arts Foundation in Huntington; for Allard Lowenstein; Ramsey Clark; Tom Downey; the Willowbrook School for mentally retarded youngsters; Roosevelt High School, the alma mater of Julius Erving, and countless other causes. He couldn't be more overexposed if he did two shows a night in a bathing suit in Antartica.
Chapin is everywhere. There is no cause too small, but there may be one too big; he is co-founder of an organization called World Hunger Year, which is dedicated to the staggering task of feeding the world's hungry. For his efforts, he has been awarded plaques and trophies; he was named Man of the Year in 1977 by the Long Island Ad Club and the Junior Achievers of New York, and he was named "one of the 10 most outstanding young men in the country" by the United States Jaycees. And when was the last time Mick Jagger took home anything like that?
All of which makes Harry Happy.
None of which makes him stop.
His life is a sprint. It's not just the way he talks, it's the way he lives.
"As a human being, it makes personal, selfish sense for people to be involved in the world around them, to do something." Harry says, "It's enlightened self-interest. It means you're involved with the good people. I'm not noble. I'm doing this for me. Look, we didn't solve the cology problem with Earth Day, and we didn't stop racism with Peter, Paul and Mary singing 'Blowin' in the Wing.'"
"The people who believe that are saps. They're into big events. Everyone in this business is into events. My life is process. I'm out there every day, charging--that's me."
Today there will be two more benefit concerts for PAF. Chapin has pledged himself to raise $575,000 for PAF this year. And he set up a series of benefit concerts at which he would sell anything, including maybe his soul, to reach the figure. On stage with him will be Richie Havens and Oscar Brand Jr. During a break at each concert, and after each concert, the men will sign autographs and sell their albums; all of Chapin's money, and most of Haven's and Brand's, will go to PAF.
"Harry's a great man," Havens says. It is not unanimous.
Many rock critics, including John Rockwell of The New York Times, Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, David Marsh of Rolling Stone and Robert Hillburn of The Los Angeles Times, have been dismayed by Harry's music. Words such as "uncuous," "maudlin," "banal," and "fatuous" have been scattered among the reviews like poison berries. Jon Landau once reviewed Billy Joel in Rolling Stone, and called him "a bad Harry Chapin." The difference at that time was that if Joel was better, he might only be terrible. But these criticisms are of Harry Chapin, the artist."
"He's not a terrible man," David Marsh said, "In fact, he's a damn good man."
Harry is not consoled.
He launched into a tirade about rock critics, the thrust of which is that they all attend the Mike Nichols school--that they are afraid of a simple, declarative statement, that they so prize their ability to criticize that they don't take positive action. Harry contends that all his better songs, including "Taxi" and "Cat's in the Cradle," have gone zipping past them, straight to the public. Harry takes some sweet revenge pointing out that his career is getting stronger every day, without either critical approval or mass airplay.
"I write good songs," Harry says.
"I may be uncool. I may not write that California Cool School stuff they want to hear, but I'm out there taking chances and saying something, and, dammit, I write good songs. I'm not apologizing."
It is time, Harry says, to play football.
The football field is Harry's back lawn. One goal is the back porch. The other is near the sea wall by Long Island Sound. If a person went the length of the lawn, he would run more than 100 yards. Harry's property is not exactly two rooms in the Catskills. There are four children and three adults, who would like to grow up to be children. Because of the uneven number of adults, Harry plays offense for both teams, and in the course of the game he catches four touchdown passes.
When it is his turn to call the plays, he diagrams them on his T-shirt, a shirt with a picture of a taxicab on it. All the patterns he calls seem to intersect in the front seat of the taxi. On the last play of the game he reaches back for a poor pass, catches it and runs for the score.
Interpreting Chapin's songs is redundant; they are self-explanatory. He writes stories about people, often himself and sometimes his family, and sets them to music. Most of the songs concern loneliness and alienation. A psychologist might say they express the middle-class angst, and it may be significant that they are written by a man who resigned from the Air Force Academy and twice flunked out of Cornell University, once as a philosophy major.
They may well be interesting stories and bad songs at the same time, but that is not the point. More than anyone else in the music business, Harry Chapin is overpraised by his supporters and over-burdened by his critics. The fact is that Harry Chapin songs are recruiting posters for the moral crusade. Taken as a collective body, they would form a curriculum for Morality 101.
What bothers him is that they make so much money.
"Harry comes from an extraordinary family of artists," Sandy says.
One of his grandfathers was a noted painter, the other a philosopher. His father is a jazz drummer. His oldest brother is a college professor. Another brother is prominent in children's programming on television, and the last brother is also a musician. Sandy is a doctoral candidate in esthetics at Columbia University. Harry Chapin, at 34 years old, is the least lettered, most successful of the bunch.
"His family seemed to subscribe to the starving artist theory," Sandy says. "It was somehow wrong to make money. Now Harry's making money, and probably some of his neuroses are caused by that. If he has to be less an artist, at least he can be more as a man."
That's why Harry Chapin is out there for all those benefits.
Because he has to be.
"Have you ever noticed, by the way, as soon as you become committed, everyone starts asking you where the money's going?" Harry asks. "If you do your own concerts, and you spend the money on cocaine, nobody gives a damn. But as soon as you do a benefit, people start asking questions. All I'm doing is redirecting my fee, but I guess people are more comfortable with the profit motive."
Harry Chapin is good with words, very good, very very good at times. Interviews with him go in one of two directions--to fillibuster, or to debate, with each exchange growing pregressively animated. He is so convincing with his facts and figures that they tend to have the effect of weight, as if they are coats of paint, the cumulative application of which left no room to breathe.
At one point he throws a bunch around with such dexterity that he seems to have proven that, in 1802, 8.5 million Tappist monks built a railroad in southern Alaska that led irrefutably to Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. Or something like that. The entire encounter leaves one thinking that whole chunks of conversation are being filmed for a primal-therapy documentary, and that the only logical response is to say your line on cue; that line would be, "Great, Harry. Uh, little lady, I'll have a pastrami on roll. Easy on the mustard."
It has something to do with Harry's intensity.
Reporter (turning tape recorder on):
"Hello, Harry. What's new?"
Chapin: "I'm glad you asked me that." (Forty minutes elapse as Chapin talks, and the reporter has a sandwich and a cup of coffee, and excuses himself to make some telephone calls.) "...and that's just scratching the surface."
Reporter (turning off tape recorder):
He is so intense, so passionate in his speaking and his signing that he could make "Mairzy Doats" sound like "My Way."
"He runs until he sleeps," Sandy says. "He used to be afraid of dying. That's why he makes so many double albums, so many appearances, so many benefits. He wants to leave something behind. He wants people to know that he was here."
Harry fully acknowledges that his credo is: When in doubt, do something.
He doesn't deny that an important word is "guilt."
"Right," Harry says. "I've got some Standard liberal guilt. If all I've done is make money, then I haven't done anything. My work is my coefficient against dying. I can say, 'Here it is. I've done it. C'mon, take a look at it.' "
Harry rides to the afternoon concert it a van with Richie Havens. On the way they talk about roots, where they've been, where they're going. The name Bob Dylan comes up. The legendary Bob Dylan. The freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
Harry Chapin and Richie Havens come out of the same womb as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger were parents to all of them.
"You know," Havens says, "the bad thing is that when Dylan said all the stuff about how he wasn't protesting a thing--that he just was making music in the '60s--the bad thing is that we really were into protesting about social tihngs and nobody took us seriously. Nobody gave us any credit."
Harry smiles. It's a sad smile just the same.
Someone named "Howard the cab driver" emcees the concert.
He introduces Brand and Havens, and then he says, "...and now, the most famous taxi driver in the world, Mister Harry Chapin."
Chapin joins Havens and Brand on stools on the stage at the high school and they take turns singing their songs, accompanied only by one another's guitars, for the better part of two hours. There are some 900 people in the audience, predominately locals, almost exclusively white, probably middle and upper middle class, and they cheer enthusiastically. A typical Harry Chapin audience. They have come for the words. You don't go to see Harry Chapin if you want to do any dancing. He demands your attention, not your boogie.
Backstage, Sandy is discussing Harry and his music. She is a shy woman, and cannot believe she is saying these things. It is suggested to her that the flaw in Harry's music is that all his songs are pat. Each has a message and invariably the last few words wrap it up in a tidy, little box and all but fasten a bow on it; the listener is left without options.
"Harry wanted to be a playwright," Sandy says. "He has a tendancy to add one more scene."
Sandy is asked if she listens to Harry's albums at home.
"I don't have to," she says. "I've lived them."
Back home, there are some 100 people, friends of the Chapins and contributors to PAF, eaiting a modest buffet dinner and making conversation. Harry is circulating among them, engaging in small talk and offering them the run of his home--a home and a setting that he has selected as carefully as he crafts his songs.
Harry Chapin has enough money to live anywhere. He could live in Southern California with the Cool School, or he could live in Nashville with the Country School, or he could live in Detroit with the Soul School. He picked the Island, and he bought into it.
"I grew up in New York, and I'm frankly in love with New York," Harry says. "New York is the energizing place. On the Island, I'm close to it. We move back to a hotel in New York every once in a while and go on a culture binge for three days, but the Island has become the place where I'm going to spend the rest of my life. In my mind, I'm a Long Islander."
The Island is due right, 3,000 miles from the Cool School. Which Chapin doesn't attend.
Harry Chapin's music may be occasionally cloying. His need to expose his most private emotions through his lyrics may be occasionally embarrassing. His tendancy to provide moral direction through his songs, to lead his listeners like sheep, may be occasionally anti-intellectual.
But he is, after all is said and done, an amazingly likable man.
Of course, that's not always enough for Harry.
What he believes in, he wants you to believe in. And because he believes in process, not events, he doesn't want just a donation, he wants a commitment.
"Look, I don't mind being a role model," Harry says. "Sure, I could go into the studio and cut one of those California Cowboy Cool School albums, not take chances and pull back every three lines. The critics would love it. But that's not me."
"O.K., sometimes I go overboard. I'm walking a tightrope, and sometimes I fall off. Hey, I've made an ass of myself so many times they used to call me 'Gapin' Chapin.' But I don't mind."
"I've used this analogy before, but my work is sort of like what Eddie Sachs used to say about driving a race car. I know that the maximum I can take a turn is 193.7 miles per hour, and that at 193.8 I'll be out of control. A lot of guys in this business take the turn at 120, waiving to the crowd. I'm not afraid of being sentimental, and when I hit a "Taxi" or a "Cat's in the Cradle," then I'm pretty damn close to 193.7.
"You know the highest 'Taxi' ever went on the charts was No. 19? But for six weeks it was the most requested song in the country. The same week 'Taxi' was 19, the No. 1 song was 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' by Robert John. Well, I gotta tell you that the next week Robert John was making $1,000 a week playing rock in a roadhouse, and I was making $2,500 a night. It's the difference between a good restaurant and some fast-food place. A good restaurant you keep coming back, but fast food, you belch at the door and the nutrition is gone.
It has been a long day, and it wasn't nearly over yet. There remains one more concert, many more autographs, and still another social at home. Harry isn't even breathing hard.
Run, sleep, run.
His most recent album, another double, is called "Danceband on the Titanic." He picked that title deliberately. It is not just him, it is all of us. He thinks he can see the iceberg. Sometimes he thinks he's shouting "There it is," and nobody's listening.
"Hey, we're all on the Titanic," Harry says, his voice revving up close to 190 approaching Fail Safe. "Look, I've done research. They saw that iceberg 39 seconds before they hit it. They wasted 39 seconds before they did anything about it. If they'd done something just five seconds earlier, nobody would have died. But no, they were indecisive."
"Now, I gotta tell you, I'm the lookout on the Titanic, and if you accuse me of wanting to have some impact on this boat, you're damn right I want it. The reason nobody else in my business has any impact is because they're all comatose. They all end up having their new venue at Cher Bono's parties, and they wonder why they dry up.
"Art, schmart. I'm not trying to do art; art will take care of itself.
I'm trying to communicate some basic truths, like the fact that we all don't have to starve to death, that we don't have to pollute ourselves to death, that we all don't have to serve the masters like Exxon or the other giant conglomerates."
"Now look, we all sell out. The question is whether we sell out cheap or expensive. Spiro Agnew sold out for $15,000. If he doesn't take the money, maybe he's President now. Let me tell you about this scene from 'A Man for All Seasons.' Thomas More's Servant, Richard Rich, has just perjured himself in front of Parliament, giving More's enemies the goods they need to get him. More knows that Rich's testimony is his warrant, and as he sees RIch coming down the stairs, he sees that Rich is wearing a jeweled pendant around his neck."
"More asks, What's that around your neck?"
Rich says, "I've just been appointed Chancellor of Wales."
"More looks at him and says, 'To sell one's soul for England--perhaps. But for Wales?"
"Well, we all sell out for Wales. O.K. But let's not sell out for $15,000, like Spiro Agnew. Let's sell out for $1 million."
Harry falls back into his chair.
For a split second he closes his eyes. It comes and goes so fast that
one hardly sees it. And then he leans forward, hands moving, eyes alert.
The gun is up, and Harry is in the blocks, ready to sprint again.