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Words & Music
Heads & Tales
Because these songs are intensely personal, they also have a quality of realism -- and the personal touches seem to make each song more universal. Harry Chapin sings, almost lightly: "Everybody's lonely/That's what it's all about" and it's true. Everybody at some point or other faces that moment of complete isolation, or that moment of discovery that it's that time again, whether the moment comes before a set of rusty railroad tracks, as it does to him in "Sometime, Somewhere Wife" or during a long lonely ride on a Greyhound bus.
The songs are handled with the sensitivity and finesse they deserve. The music itself if full of surprises, with subtle changes of key and rhythm, or sometimes, as in "Could You Put Your Light On, Please", with a kind of rocking spirited rhythm which accentuates the pathos in the lyrics by contrast.
Harry Chapin's first album should earn him a following. It is as
solid piece of professional music as was ever laid down on wax, and the
production itself is excellent. But this isn't just excellently
produced, beautifully arranged and performed second-rate material. All
of it falls second to the material. These songs are a kind of trip into
self-discovery land, and somehow, after hearing the album, one emerges a
little bit wiser.
Harry Chapin is no exception to their rule, consequently Heads and Tales is a fine personalised collection, well worth having for those moments of rare calm in your life.
Chapin plays acoustic and is aided on the album by brother Steve on
keyboards and recorder. The album includes Everybody's Lonely,
which was released as a single, the gentle painful Could You Put Your
Light On, Please and Greyhound.
"Taxi," he said, was written during a train ride near home in New York. Now, the song makes Chapin, a first-album artist, look like a winner.
Chapin looks like an Art Carney, just now growing a beard to complete the encirclement of a warm, squarish face. He wears sweater and slacks, and he nurses a glass of milk here at Elektra's offices, not at all fitting the image of Harry Chapin, creator of such allegorical tales as "Dogtown" or "Greyhound." His style is traditional early folk set in the context of today's concern for an overall sound, and he owes something to both Bob Gibson and Gordon Lightfoot. But Chapin's face does not exhibit the lines and scars of the loneliness, pain and searching found in his album. Instead he has confidence - a fact he allows to creep through slowly after a spell of humility and apparent awe at his new found success.
His is a family of individualists. His father, Jim Chapin, was one of the better known jazz drummers, and his grandfather, Kenneth Burke, is just now being recognized as an important figure in philosophy, responsible for such works as "Terms for Order, Perspectives by Incongruity, and Language as Symbolic Action". "We're all successes," said Harry, "but we've got to do it on our own."
Harry joined the Air Force at the tender age of 17. He lasted only three months. "I would have graduated from the Academy just in time to go to Vietnam and get my ass shot up. It was a bad decision to join [one of the many bad decisions he claims to have made]. I just didn't realize to what degree I didn't dig the military way of life."
After that, Harry did six months at the New York Stock Exchange, three months at Cornell, a week at a bank, Cornell again for two years, some film editing, poetry writing and finally, in 1965, some professional singing in a group with his brothers and father. "We sang up and down the East Coast and did some concerts with Phyllis Diller but then my brothers had to go back to school or be drafted, so I went back into films."
In six years, Chapin took part in the making of some 300 films, as a crate-packer, sound technician, cameraman and eventually film editor, winning an Academy Award nomination and prizes at the New York and Atlanta Film Festivals for a documentary on old time boxers titled Legendary Champions. He wrote and directed a TV show, and composed material for his brother's group, the Chapins. But as he developed the style and the type of songs found on Heads and Tales, his brothers became less interested.
"It was frustrating, and so on June, 1st, 1971, after finishing up three films I figured I had enough in the bank to give professional singing another go. My brothers had rented the Village Gate in New York for the summer so I opened as their second act. It's the first time I've planned something that's gone like clockwork - in fact, it's outrageous - but we started making money. Soon the record companies (eight, to be exact) became interested in me and I finally opted for Elektra."
Harry says his professional life is somewhat checkered because he's a creature of enthusiasm. "I'm always sticking my neck out, sometimes making an ass out of myself - a fact of life you have to accept if you're going to be a performer. But occasionally it works out for me, this seems to be one of those times."
The group didn't come by its contract with Elektra without considerable effort. "We were beating on record company doors, making phone calls and sending our reviews to all the companies. We just bombarded the bastards, and since there was more than one outfit competing for us it was fun to watch the dollars soar and the president's egos get involved. I tried to approach the problem of getting a contract as hardheadedly as possible. It depends upon talent, of course, but other than that it's pure logistics."
This type of attitude reveals Harry for what he really is, a tactician constantly in control and completely aware of what it takes to get where he wants to go.
"Before I wrote what I did, there was no demand for Harry Chapin music product; but then again if I was writing 'product,' 'Taxi' would never have made it because for a single it's 6:44 long, has no chorus and has a drug reference That's pure suicide in today's market. But I haven't had to compromise one damn bit, and I've been able to write exactly what I want to.
"My major stuff like 'Taxi' has no lines to tell the listener how 'he or she' in the song feels, but there's no doubt about their feelings. I create a textural reality which causes the listener to experience it for himself because all feelings are only implied. When it works right, it's a subtle but effective difference.
"I'm also uniquely a city writer because I want to come to terms with the city. I don't feel escape to the country is necessarily the answer, especially for me, because the country doesn't provide me with the inputs I get in the city. Besides, I like to write about things that are the city equivalent of standing in a muddy field feeling the earth ooze between your toes."
Onstage, Harry surrounds his music as it surrounds him. Backed by his old Brooklyn Heights Boys' Choir buddy John Wallace, on bass, lead guitarist Ron Palmer, and cello virtuoso Tim Scott he takes the audience up, down and then suddenly up again, often leaving wet eyes and aching hearts, throughout the room. "I'm a storyteller and a communicator and I try to figure out better ways of performing all the time. I've found the best thing you can do as a performer is to give clear signals yourself in order that you receive clear signals back. I'm not a completely unconscious lifestyler type of musician, and I'm gratified that the majority of critics like me."
Chapin is married and has four kids (one of his own, three by his wife's previous marriage). "I'm 29 and I've been around a lot, he says. I know who I am and I'm just trying to perfect my craft."
Harry writes the music for his brother Tom's Peabody Award-winning children's TV show, Make a Wish, and is now doing the music for a new film, "Cutting Loose." He is also working on a musical of his own entitled "The End of the World", about the breakup of a major rock group. "It's got some gimmicks in it that are really revolutionary," confided Harry, "but I don't want to talk about them now. You can be sure though that they've never been done before.
"The major thing I'm afraid of," said Harry, stretching and
downing a last cup of milk, "is being 65 and saying, 'Gee, I wish I
had done that and that and that.' I want to face old age knowing I've
tried all I wanted to try."
Chapin joins the winners'
I guarantee they will come. Perhaps it's because he's been a film director good enough to be nominated for an Academy Award or perhaps because he's so conscious of the singer-songwriter's story telling role that his music publishing company is called Story Songs Ltd.
They come, even with a schlock song like Circle which suddenly becomes less of a schlock song and more of a, well, philosophical statement when Harry Chapin himself sings it, rather than the New Seekers.
" Frankly," he said over tea, croissants and pineapple juice in the lobby of the Westbury Hotel the day before his first British concert. "I don't like the Seekers' version of it very much, even though the song only took a couple of hours to write. My brother Tom is MC of a TV quiz show called Make a Wish, and I wrote a song for each of the 32 programmes in two and a half weeks. Each programme was built round a word - you know, fish, wall, ball. The producer said I was to write adult songs even though it's a kid's show, but I resisted the temptation that last word gave me.
"Anyway, I was sitting in a greasy spoon cafe at 3.30 in the morning and I had to have this song ready so that Tom could sing it on the programme, on camera, at 7 a.m. the same morning. That's how I came to write Circle. Jac Holzman passed it over to the New Seekers because Elektra release them in the United States. Naturally, I'm pleased it was a success, but I think their version is rather slow."
"So far I've written 64 songs for that TV show, so there are probably some other hits there, one or two anyway."
Although the song had no success over here as a single, Harry Chapin really broke big, as they say, in the United State with a 6 minutes 44 seconds story song called Taxi. That's why he's seen on the cover of his first album at the wheel of a New York yellow cab.
Since taxi driving isn't among the list of past occupations on his official Elektra bio - it includes making film documentaries, stock broker, pilot, banker, beatnik, teacher, pool shark, philosopher and gigolo among them-I asked him about this. A publicity hype?
"As a matter of fact, not. I have a New York hack driver's licence," he said. " I'd been doing quite well as a film maker until the recession hit the film industry and for six months nothing. Since I have a wife and kids I decided to try and get some other kind of work so I got the cab licence. But on the day I was supposed to start driving I got three film jobs.
"Anyway, before that happened I met this old girl friend of mine. She'd meant to be a big actress but she'd married some rich guy, settled down and settled for that sort of life instead of what she'd always planned to do, and I flashed on the possibility of us meeting some time, this rich chick getting into the cab and me seeing her in the rear view mirror and us recognising each other. So that's how I came to write the song.
"But I'm not at all surprised it wasn't big here. I was surprised it did well in the States. It sold 700,000, they tell me, though I don't know if they are telling me the truth. You know how much hype there is in this industry."
" But look at the things it had against lt." He held his hand and ticked off the song's disadvantages on his fingers, one by one. "One, its length. Two, it doesn't have a chorus. Three, it's not about young kids, it's about this old guy and this old married woman. Four, there's apparently a drug reference in the last line, though as a matter of fact I'm no druggie."
"In fact," added his petite wife, Sandy, "if you really listen to the words of the song, it's an anti-drug song."
"Right," he said, with enthusiasm, and the sedate American businessmen and their blue-rinse ladies, who are the normal inhabitants of the Westbury coffee lounge at 11 in the morning, looked up with a mixture of interest and irritation at this ebullient young American. "Both of the characters in the song are escaping from reality in some way."
And he quoted the words, just as if they were a natural part of his conversation, not the very singable lyrics they are: "And here she's acting happy inside her handsome home and me I'm flying in my taxi, taking tips and getting stoned."
Inside the sleeve of his second album, not yet available in Britain, the lyrics of his songs are printed the way he quoted them, as if they were prose stories, and, you know, they stand up very indeed like that.
With the money he made from the three films that saved him from a New York hackie's job, he decided to get back into music. He'd been in it seven or eight years ago in a band with his brothers Steve and Tom and his father, Jim, who was really a rather good jazz drummer. "We called ourselves the Chapin Brothers and we were a sort of hip Partridge Family, playing very exuberant folk-rock. We did quite well and we made an album for a minuscule label, Rockland." As it has done to so many other things, the American draft laws broke up that particular activity, and the brothers didn't get together again until 1969. Harry didn't join them, though he wrote songs for them.
"They were a goodtime rock band, but they weren't doing anything incredibly new. When I started writing story songs they didn't want to do them, which is where the compulsion to perform them myself began. It's extremely frustrating to write songs and not hear anyone doing them.
"I had just finished those three films and I had some money in the bank so I decided 'what the hell', I'll try it myself. I hired the Village Gate for 400 dollars a week so we could go on every evening after the Jacques Brel show finished and I advertised for a guitarist and a cellist." A cellist? In a rock band? "I always planned to have a cello. You see my voice has got messed-up sort of masculine sound compare with which the cello is feminine, lyrical, and the two qualities add up to something very evocative.
"You know the cello offers you an awful lot of different tonal colour. It's been used before, of course, but never to exploit all the different things it can offer. It hasn't been used playing pizzicato or chordally, I don' think, to get the driving sound there is on the middle section of Taxi. "As a result of having a cello right there on stage with us we can virtually reproduce the recorded sound on stage although actually it's the other way round, the album is the way we sound on stage.
"Anyway, I got the group together on June 22 and we opened a week later to an audience of three people. The first two week looked quite bad, and every time I heard critic or a record company representative was coming round we rang round all our friends to pack the audience. We didn't get our first review until the end of July, but after about six weeks it began to look better. We ended up playing 13-week gig and Jac Holzman signed us for Elektra and produced us himself. I think it' a long time since he's done that."
Next stop on his rapidly escalating career is a rock musical called The
End of the World he's working on for Warner Brothers pictures, who
just happen to be a member of the same America monster conglomerate as
Elektra. No, it's not a science fiction piece. "It's about the
break up of a rock group. Their name is the World."
I've Been Around The World
Long Enough To Realise That It's Not All Down To Dollars And Cents
Harry found that he was soon collecting various accolades for his striking song stories, and his work has already been compared with that of Jacques Brel. "I guess I write more in the European storyteller tradition, but I'm very flattered by that comparison", he says. "I'm also very pleased that we got a lot of jobs out of the hit Taxi even though it wasn't a huge hit."
But if Harry's songs tend to sound very individual, then so does the musical framework which he uses to exploit them, for the group highlights Tim Scott's beautiful cello. "I really had the idea of using cello before I got back into music again", explained Harry. "The thing is I've got such a f-----d up masculine kind of voice and the cello compensates because it's a lyrical instrument and very evocative on the long story kind of song. It's got so many tonal colours and no-one's really used it the way we've used it - in fact effect wise it's amazing how rich a sound four man group can produce."
Harry's new album Sniper And Other Love Songs is issued on Elektra and it promises to break him as a songwriter once and for all. For aside from the rich structural textures Chapin uses, the humour comes across in the songs just as it does in conversation. Like when he describes how he got into songwriting for instance. "I started writing in order to impress girls and then 1 wrote for my brothers and myself and then I wrote just for my brothers; but then I started writing songs that nobody wanted to do besides me and so out of extreme curiosity it forced me back into the music business."
HARRY CHAPIN: SNIPER AND OTHER
He has a talent for song writing, and he expresses himself in an
individual way. Sniper and Other Love Songs is a collection of
personal impressions of the city. The lyrics are remote, populated by
well outlined shadows, without much hope or gaiety. The sequence is
dream-like, contrasting with the tone, clarity and definition of the
music and arrangements. Strings play a noticeable part, as does Harry's
group- Tim Scott [cello], Ron Palmer [lead guitar and harmony vocals],
John Wallace [electric bass and vocal pyrotechnics], Harry Chapin
[guitar]. Harry's brother Steve played keyboards and wrote the string