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The Sun, January 1973
Stories - Harry Chapin Web Site
The mood changed, the rhythms spun round, the singer switched voices. Now he was the man on the roof, the man with the gun, looking back on his life. He always had questions, but nobody would answer them. Not even his mother. 'He was such a moody child; he was kinda strange.'
So now he was going to put his questions to the townsfolk below him, with bullets. 'The first words he spoke took the town by surprise. One got Mrs Gibbons above her right eye. It blew her through the window...'
The absorbing and rather timely story of Sniper is on an Elektra LP from Harry Chapin, the 30 year-old American singer who wrote the New Seekers' hit, Circle.
Unlike James Taylor and all those other singer-songwriters, Chapin comes over primarily as a storyteller. The 10-minute 'Sniper' is full of musical moods; very clever. And Chapin sings it with a wide musical range. But it is a kind of condensed modem opera in construction.. an operetta.
Harry Chapin's sniper is a combination of Oswald, Sirhan, Manson. "I've tried to capture the nothingness of the man's life," he explains.
Harry has just grown a beard to strengthen his boyish looks; has a wife and four children; drinks milk; and laces his conversation with four-letter words.
Sniper, to my mind, is the best story-song since Alice's Restaurant. And it's not the only thing on the wryly titled LP Sniper and other Love Songs. Two other tracks, Sunday Morning Sunshine and Burning Herself, are out as a single.
Keep an eye open for Harry Chapin. He is likely to hit a lot of you
between the ears before he is finished.
HARRY CHAPIN: " Short
Chapin shows great economy of writing in these songs compressing whole biographies into a few lines, by his power of suggestion. He can also come up with some tough, sinewy poetry, like "It was just another night and I was out on a limb/ looking for someone to help me back in." ("They Call Her Easy").
Unfortunately, though, his melodic inabilities let him down. There's nothing as remotely habit-forming as "W.O.L.D.," and consequently music and lyrics generally fail to gell successfully; the real indicator is that ultimately one's forced back onto reading the printed lyrics inside as the mind becomes bored with the music. Even clever little touches like the brief snatch of Elton's "Your Song" introduced as an illustration of his own attempt to write a song to a girl, can't overcome the dreariness of the melody on "Song Man".
However, after you've played it all through once, just go back to
that single. Beautiful craftsmanship, catchy tune and a bleeding
heartful of pathos. If he can write something as good as that and not
have a hit, there's no justice.
HARRY CHAPIN: "W.O.L.D"
Short Stories of Harry Chapin
On his last two albums the words to the tracks weren't even written in verse. They were paragraphs like passages from books each recounting some tale from Harry's imaginative mind. In many cases they were true - or truths embellished a little along the way.
His first big song, "Taxi' sprang from a personal experience. The song, or story tells of a cab driver who picks up a fare that turns out to be a long lost girlfriend.
On his second album there was a song about a sniper which was based on the personalities of the assassins who have plagued the Kennedy family over the last decade. It was a pretty picture of Lee Harvey Oswald or Sirhan Sirhan.
And the highlight of his third and latest release is a piece entitled "WOLD " based on the life of a disco jockey at a fictitious radio station in the midwest.
WOLD is the name of the station, the story tells of the jock who left his wife and kids to be on the air and whose career is slumping as he moves from one station to another drinking too much all the way.
Chapin is no newcomer to music. Actually he's been around for 15 years starting with a band in the days of rock and roll quitting music in favour of the film industry and moving back into music again three years ago when the film industry slumped.
He's 31 today with a wife and two sons aged nine and ten. He thinks 31 is an ideal age to be achieving some success with the music he plays.
He leads a band on the road who've been at his side since his first album and the profits are shared four ways (it's a three-piece).
Harry was born in Greenwich Village and his first musical steps were with a band that was comprised entirely of his brothers. He discovered like so many others that girls liked guitar players so the Chapin Brothers Band was hastily formed in the late sixties to play folk music.
The group stayed together for several years becoming increasingly more professional and moving from folk to rock and roll.
In 1964 his father, who was a professional jazz musician joined Harry and his brothers Tom and Steve to make the group into what Harry describes as a "hip Partridge Family." Actually Harry is one of six brothers.
Today Tom hosts a Sunday children's TV show called Make A Wish and Harry contributes a musical backdrop to this.
The draft situation broke up the Chapin Family Band. It was a case of going to college or being conscripted so Harry took the former and then moved into the film business. Like all prospective movie moguls he also went to live in Hollywood.
Between 1965 and 1971 Harry worked exclusively in the film industry. He was involved with over 300 films in one way or another starting outpacking film crates and ending up a script writer and director.
His film career reached a peak in 1969 when one of his documentaries, titled Legendary Champions, was nominated for an Oscar. The film was about old prize fighters.
"A lot of people say that script writing has been the major influence on my music and they're probably right," says Harry. "I was writing short stories for films and they translate into songs. In '68 and '69 I was writing a little music mostly good time for my brothers' group.
"I started writing these longish story songs and they weren't interested in them so since the film business was going through a recession I decided to try it again myself.
"Actually I applied for a hack licence just around that time and while I was waiting for it to come through I heard that an old girlfriend had married a rich guy instead of becoming an actress. That's where 'Taxi' came from."
Three film jobs turned up the day Harry was supposed to begin his career as a taxi driver so he never did work as a cabbie, and when those were finished he turned to songwriting full time. He formed a band who rented the Village Gate in New York's Greenwich Village and ran their own show.
Harry agrees that the lyrics to his songs are more important than the music but points out that all his stories are written from some personal or true experience no matter how vague that reference may be.
"I try to have some emotional reality. That's the key. It doesn't necessarily literally have to happen to me. It's something that I understand. The quality I look for in my songs is what I call a grounding which is having the person in the song knowing about what he speaks.
Surprisingly he prefers working live than working in the studio. The band he feels is his strong point. The line-up brings in Michael Masters on cello, Ron Palmer on lead guitar and John Wallace on bass. Palmer and Wallace take care of harmony vocals.
At present he only does live shows at the weekend which gives him
time to work on his next project - a musical which he hopes will be done
on Broadway later this year.
A SHORT STORY
My cabbie raced down Lexington Avenue conveniently avoiding the other traffic by mere millimetres. The singer told of how he picked up a well-to-do girl late at night and how it came to pass that they knew each other from time gone by. My cabbie listened intently, now avoiding the horns of the cars behind. "Shaddup, creeps." He turned the volume up. "We'll go down dis way, cause if I go the other way," he tells me, "I won't be able to pick up da station. I wanna hear what happens to da guy.
The song continued, and both the cabbie and I were all ears. He played me the ultimate compliment of trust, and slid back his bullet proof safety glass divider, so that I could hear as well. The wealthy girl gets out of the cab and gives her old friend the cabbie a twenty dollar bill for a few dollars ride and says 'Harry, keep the change. My driver smacks his fist to his forehead. "Jeez, it only happens in songs." The singer continued as my excited cabbie nearly-missed a pedestrian. 'Now another man might have been angry,' went the radio. "Gowon?" yells my cabbie. 'And another man might have been hurt.' "Jeez, don't give it back" howls my driver. 'I took the twenty dollar bill and stuffed it in my shirt'. My cabbie hit nirvana and bumped another cab. "Tony, ya gotta hear dis tune, Tony ......."
The singer of the Taxi song was Harry Chapin (pronounced to rhyme with lay, not lap, Noel Edmunds.) And two years ago, Chapin had lots of people talking back to their radios in disbelief at the hippie cab driver who kept the twenty dollar bill. By hit single standards, Chapin disappeared, only to resurface again this year with W.O.L.D, the pathetic story of a dee-jay that has made self-sacrilegious radio men throughout the Western world break down and cry. The truth hurts, boys.
When queried about his pessimistic view of life, Chapin effortlessly bounced back. "The good times take care of themselves. But defeat and disillusionment are interesting things to study. I'm not telling people answers, I'm just asking myself the questions. I want people to think about what I'm saying. What they think is their business, but that they think is what's important. The apathy that's coming out of this new generation is almost as bad as the fifties. Suddenly music is not supposed to look at major problems. You have to approach the bad times."
Harry Chapin and brothers Tom and Steve started playing together in the late fifties. Tom is currently the star of Make A Wish, the award winning American Children's television show. "Our Dad was an old time jazz trumpeter. At about fifteen, sixteen, I had discovered that girls liked guys who played guitar rather than classical trumpet, so the three of us formed a group. We started out following the style of the Weavers. Of course our voices hadn't changed yet, so we sounded more like the Chipmonks.
"As time went by, we sounded like a hip Cowsills (The real life American singing family, who were the basis for The Partridge Family) and eventually the draft situation got worse. I had finished off my military obligation, but Tom and Steve hadn't, so they promptly attended college, and received their student deferments. I went into films and was doing documentaries between 1969-1971, I wrote one that got an Oscar nomination and also won the New York Film Award for the year.
"At the end of '71, the recession hit and a lot of film people were put out of work. So, I got a hack licence and went to work as a cabbie. I wrote the song about a real experience, and began to peddle it along with some others to any crazy record company that would have them. I couldn't find anyone else who would sing the dumb songs, so I had to sing them myself. I landed three film jobs, which ended my career in the cab, and decided to give the songs a full effort. I booked up the Village Gate theatre for six nights and had wives and girlfriends helping out to sell tickets and things. Every time we heard one of the record companies were coming down, we'd paper the house with every friend and relative we could find, all of whom would cheer and applaud for an encore to make it look impressive. In the end we went with Elektra because Jac Holzman said he'd produce the album as well as the rest of the usual contract deal. To me that type of commitment was beyond any money figures, so I signed and Taxi was a hit."
Chapin's Short Stories is currently being turned inside out by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Although I'm still not sure if I would play it after a hard day of work (only time will tell), but it contains several songs guaranteed to make you stare at your stereo. One in particular is Song For Myself in which Chapin asks 'Do I believe that the answer's still blowin' in the wind?', to which a female chorus belts back 'I don't believe it. The door of the past has finally been closed and sealed, it seems.
I am the morning DJ on WOLD
Harry's reaction to this threat of legal proceedings is remarkably calm: ''I'm not worried at all. There's no way they can win that case. Before they filed the suit they were even asking me if I'd give them an interview. The funny thing about that station is they haven't even got a morning DJ.''
OK so Harry didn't pinch those four cryptic letters, so where did he get them from?
"Every radio station in the States adopts three or four letters as its name. The ones in the east start with the letter K those in the west with the letter W. All I did was to take the word OLD - because the song is about a DJ ageing - and add it to the letter W."
Those of you who are familiar with the song W.O.L.D. will doubtless know that it takes a somewhat unromantic look at the life of a radio DJ. Harry has no DJing experience himself, though he's seen plenty of others at work.
"It's a lot less glamorous than it seems. You spend all your time in some tiny room eight feet by ten trying to hold a one-man party on the air. No matter how bad you feel you've got to sound exciting.
"Apart from the occasional phone call from a listener you don't get any feedback, so you have to wait three months for the ratings before you know whether you're doing OK or not.''
It's a life style which the American singer has a lot of sympathy for. He himself can see many similarities between his lot as a performer and that of a DJ.
"Both deal with audiences younger than themselves and both face a tremendous strain on their life as a result. They also share a certain sense of insecurity arising out of the fact that neither have much longevity in their careers. There are three types. The newcomers who are all set to go, the ones in their prime and the older guys who are just hanging on by their fingernails." So grim is the tale that unfolds in the song that one or two US . radio stations have taken to banning the record. "The story line is so close to some of the DJs lives they couldn't play it. No one complains it's inaccurate, the biggest complaint is it's a bit too accurate.
"When I first wrote it I guessed that some DJs would look upon it as a downer, but fortunately most accept it. Some even go so far as to say it's about them."
Taken as a whole, Harry has only praise for the American broadcasting network.
"They're opening up a lot more now. The fact that they play records like mine proves it. Nowadays there are far more specific interest radio stations in the States. Audiences are more fragmented than they used to be. Now you can get stations for hard rock, soft rock, nostalgia. novelties and so on. Whereas in the old days everybody played the same thing."
When it comes to categorising Mr Chapin's music, problems start to arise. Admittedly he does have a background of folk music, but nowadays his material has a far wider range of styles. As he himself confesses.
"My sound is really unlike anything else. Its developed from several things, with the result that I like to write all different kinds of songs.
"Lyrically I find I must have some experience of what I'm
writing about, if not literally, then at least emotionally. The people
in my songs must know about what they speak. I have written songs where
that inate honesty doesn't come across but I've never released
BANGLA DESH REVISITED
Thus did organization for three 'Concerts for Africa' get underway, and it has progressed, if somewhat fumblingly, to the point that dates are being negotiated for the Astrodome [August 22nd], the Los Angeles Forum [August 23rd] and Madison Square Gardens [August 25th]. Chapin, vacationing in Greece, and Father Ayres, involved in diocesan work, turned the reins over to Michael Viner, President of Pride Records [an MGM subsidiary], who is chairman of the event and co-chairman of the planning committee with promoter Bill Graham. Viner hopes to have 30 to 35 performers at each of the concerts, which are being co-ordinated through the United Nations Association, a non-governmental agency, at the request of US Ambassador to the U.N., John Scali.
Concert plans were announced at a press conference on June 18th at the U.S mission to the U.N. in New York. Scali, who stressed that he was involved as a private citizen, not as an official of the government, said the hope was that the concerts would not only raise money [the U.N. estimates that $2 billion is relief funds is needed], but also "focus world attention on this tragedy. I hope the concerts can bridge the communications gap in a way that no governmental organization can." The Sahelian Zone, site of the drought, stretches for 600 miles along the southern edge of the Sahara. More than 2 million people live in the zone, into which the desert is advancing at a rate of up to 30 miles a year. Rainfall in the area has been subnormal for almost a decade.
Graham says that he will lend his "experience and advice on the logistics and staging of the concerts," but that because of his FM Productions' other summer commitments his staff would not be completely involved. Several of those involved expressed off-the-record reservations about Viner. "He's not my style guy. Frankly he's a square," one said. Viner, who produced children's records for MGM under Mike Curb, organized six events for the 1973 presidential inaugural.
Some performers whose names were listed on the telegram that announced the press conference had more serious reservations concerning the use of John Lennon's name in the announcement. Viner apologised for it, explaining it as "an oversight", and when pressed at the conference, said Lennon had wanted to be involved but had withdrawn at the request of his lawyers. Lennon associates said all Lennon ever agreed was to listen to the idea.
Other names on the telegram were Helen Reddy, Roberta Flack, Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, Garfunkel, Richie Havens and Richard Pryor. Seals & Crofts confirmed their interest in performing. Reddy's husband and manager, Jeff Wald, expressed dismay over the Lennon dispute, saying "It leaves us with mixed motions." Flack's management said that they were unaware that her name had been used until a week after the press conference. "Of course she's in favour of the cause," publicist Henry Hecht said, "but nothing was cleared with her business manager and attorney." The others on the list were unavailable for comment at presstime.
Scali and Viner say the benefits will help raise money in five ways:
ticket sales [a probable $10-$25 price range]; sale of close circuit TV
rights; the broadcast of a TV special; record sales [a double album];
and sale of merchandising rights for items such as T-shirts. Viner added
later that a film deal was also in negotiation. The planners hope to
avoid the money disputes that have held up disbursement of some of the
proceeds from the Concert For Bangla Desh. Viner said Scali and U.N
Under-secretary Bradford Morse have "gone to great extremes to walk
this through with Internal Revenue, to make sure it gets the best
possible tax breaks." And, he said, artists would be paid only
expenses, including transportation and accommodation.
HARRY CHAPlN : "VERITIES
Chapin's not exactly a good singer and his melodies and song structures aren't stunningly original, but there's character and he gives it all its worth. The worth isn't too great and consequently a nothing song like Vacancy sounds faintly ridiculous, while What Made America Famous and all its ironic national pride is overdone to the point that it loses credibility. Some of the backings aren't always ideal either, inclined to the over-dramatic and complicated where often an acoustic guitar is all that's necessary. Chapin's obviously one of America's better writers and he sounds very American, but he doesn't have the maturity or originality of say Albert Hammond.
There's a terrible "joke" song Six String Orchestra,
which is embarrassingly bad coming as it does after the truly poignant
song on the album Halfway To Heaven. The rest generally as an
underlying tinge of sadness hidden behind a catchy chorus line and a
bright tune, yet the lyrics are so bare, and spelled out with such
blatancy, it's hard to take it all too seriously. There's one about a
father who hasn't the time to catch his son grow up ['Cat's in the
Cradle], a touching little affair between guitar teacher and a
respectable wife [I Wanna Learn A Love Song] and a crazy lorry
crash [30,000 Pounds of Bananas]. This is the most memorable
thing on the record, for its unusual chugging beat and its vivider-than-vivid
description of a lorry-load of bananas ploughing through a town leaving
a trail of squashed bananas in its wake. 'Hit two houses, bruised eight
trees, and blue-crossed seven people/ It was then that he lost his head,
not to mention an arm or two before he stopped.' Shades of Loudon
HARRY CHAPIN: "Cat's In
Even when he gets into raps about sex and dope, he has the friendly air of a teacher taking contraception class: "Let's move on now, kids, to position 38 in the instruction manual ..." Harry is a nice person. Really. You could take your mother and she wouldn't throw up.
All the same, Harry Chapin may be a lunckhead, but he's pretty big news in America. He's got a top five single with "Cat's In The Cradle" and a bulleted album "Verities and Balderdash."
People like him, lots of them. The kind of kids who are learning folk guitar at high school. The nice kids from the suburbs. And enough of them, too, to fill up Avery Fisher Hall for two three-hour concerts on a lousy Sunday, when the wind is whipcracking through Manhattan at 50 mph. They had to add a second concert - that's how much Harry's in demand.
And somehow - maybe because it's Sunday, Christianity and all that - Harry begins to get through to me. He may be earnest, and so enthusiastic he turns red-faced from strumming his acoustic, but at least the guy cares.
He's a moralistic writer, and many of his songs take the form of fables, staying mostly this side of preachiness. Occasionally he over-reaches himself, as with a fulminating song about Vietnam which was rather embarrassing in its echoes of old protest numbers. But when he sticks to more prosaic dramas - tales of greasy spoon cafes, affairs of the heart, the personal realities of everyday life - he generally pulls it off.
He prefaced one song with an observation that seems to relate strongly to himself when he said that "growing up, I guess is realising compromises - that you're not going to marry Marilyn Monroe or be Mickey Mantle." Harry is not the greatest writer in the world nor will he ever be, but that middle ground he occupies is very solid. His songs are more prose narratives than poems, and they decisively depend upon hooking the listener with the story; hence the drive for conviction in his style.
The cosy nature of his performance was punctured now and then at the Sunday evening concert by droll ad-libs from his lead guitarist, which put an edge on the show. Chapin, in fact, got excellent service from a three-piece back-up of country-style lead cello and bass, and his bass player's vocal harmonies were remarkable in range.
At the end brother Tom Chapin got up out of the audience and joined
the group for "The Circle Game." The crowd was induced to get
on its feet and sing along too. Harry was so knocked out at the close
gladhanding among the kids.