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Short Stories - Harry Chapin Web Site
ALL MY LIFE'S A CIRCLE
Childhood in New York City in the 40's-- on West 11th Street by the Hudson River Piers. Lived in a 3 room apartment above a longshoreman's office on a block halfway between the Maximum Security Federal Penitentiary and the M&M Trucking Company. But each summer, for three magical months, we escaped to Grandfather Burke's farm in New Jersey. No extra money was available in a family of artists, but still all the kingdoms of the mind were opened early-- where every mental space was touched upon, except boredom.
The 50's brought changes; Father Jim, a jazz drummer who played with the likes of Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman, was on the road, and the marriage wasn't working. A stepfather appeared on the scene and we moved to Brooklyn Heights. I joined the Grace Church Choir with younger brothers Tom and Steve, and started taking trumpet lessons. The summer of '57 brought two gigantic discoveries, girls and guitars. At my cousin's barn a copy of "The Weavers at Carnegie Hall" played constantly, and the trumpet lessons faded away. I find an old banjo in the attic and start playing. Tom buys a guitar, and Steve starts playing four string tenor guitar, tipple, and finally a stand-up bass. My older brother James, although an occasional piano and bongo player, foregoes the music craze and goes on to a career in American History and politics. But folk music, the ultimate social weapon, becomes my full time passion.
In 1958, the Chapin Brothers, singing 3-part pubescent harmony, go public for the first time. Reaction is generous enough to sink the hook in deeper. Soon there are $20 gigs at neighborhood parties, band breaks and society dances. The Chapin Brothers become junior folkies, on the periphery of the Greenwich Village hotbed of an exploding folk boom.
In 1960, high school is over, and in the next three years I manage to spend 3 months in the Air Force Academy before resigning, 3 terms at Cornell before busting out, one week punching checks at a bank before terminal boredom, and packing film crates at Drew Associates, film-makers, where I work my way up to Assistant Film Editor. However, by the end of '63, I am in love and thinking I should give one more shot at finishing college. But my second attempt at Cornell, and my first attempt at a love affair follow the same pattern-- pyrotechnic beginnings followed by gradual decline. Ironically this educational and emotional merry-go-round makes a fertile climate for my first songs. They fall into the usual categories for young prophets: protest songs and lugubrious ballads of unrequited love. It takes 4 terms to bust out this time.
By 1965 I'm beginning to realize that I am not going to progress through life following the normal patterns. My brothers and I decide to get serious about our music. All the guitar playing that has been a crutch to our social lives, that has made us a couple of bucks on the side, that has given us something to do besides drinking beer on street corners, now is put to the test. We resolve to become full-time professionals. It's a summer of airborn dreams, potentials and performances, and yes, it felt like somehow, somewhere, sometime we were going to make it.
Dad joined the group that summer and backed us up on drums. We were still green but we were definitely different; part folk, part rock, topped with Grace Church harmonies and a jazz beat from the old man swinging in behind. But in September, Vietnam forces Tom and Steve back to College, and I'm back at square one.
A film job surfaces and it's 6 months in L.A. making airline commercials. Then back to N.Y. to work on boxing films with Cayton, Inc. For the next 2 1/2 years I immerse myself in the history of the fight game and by the Spring of 67 I tackle a major project, "Legendary Champions," a theatrical documentary feature. It later wins the New York and Atlanta film festival gold prizes as best documentary and is nominated for an Academy Award as best feature documentary.
Then its off to Ethiopia with Jim Lipscomb for a documentary on the World Bank's impact on the underdeveloped world. But again, I leave the film business, this time to try writing a Broadway musical. During that summer and fall I write the first four versions of a musical (the ninth version opened on Broadway in 1975).
November, 1968, Sandy Gaston and I are married and set up house in Long Island with her three kids, Jaime, Jono and Jason. I try a career as a free lance documentary film-maker and spend my time producing and directing short films for IBM and Time-Life. When the 70's begin, I team up with Jim Lipscomb again for a one hour film, this time about the America's Cup 12 meter yacht international sailing competition, "Dual In The Wind."
By late Fall, 1970, out of work, I start writing songs again, although in a completely different style. My cinema verite experiences and the quest for interesting film stories leads me into a narrative form of song writing. it is fun writing again, and my brothers Tom and Steve, having formed their own group, are willing to perform some of my material. The end of 70 arrives, there are no film jobs and the movie industry is an economic disaster area. My daughter Jennie is 6 months on the way to being born and I panic. I set into New York City to sign up for a hack license. On the way I meet an old girlfriend who has married money instead of becoming an actress, and I contemplate the irony of "flying in my taxi." But the day I'm supposed to start driving fate again intervenes and I'm offered three film jobs. Relieved, I plunge back into work, but find that the songs are still coming.
Soon the films are finished, and with a couple of dollars in the bank I put together a group to give life to my songs. With a cello player, a lead guitar, and big John Wallace on bass we started rehearsing. The perfect opportunity to play presented itself when Tom and Steve decided to rent the village Gate for 10 weeks of the 1971 summer season. I opened the act, playing at first to about 10 people. This led me to treat performances like a gathering of old friends sharing stories. Gradually the audience grew, there were good reviews, and record company representatives dropped by (after much prodding). Unbelievably, the possibility of a large record contract loomed, as companies jockeyed for positions, and by November we signed with Elektra. The next 6 months were a whirlwind, flying to L.A. to produce the first record, playing the first Elektra convention in Palm Springs, the release of the "Heads and Tails" [sic] album, playing the prestige club racket around the country, and then "Taxi" breaks into the tight AM airways and becomes the most requested song in America for 10 weeks in a row. Songs, albums, concerts and benefits followed in 73 and 74. By then my son Josh was born, Sandy wrote the lyrics for "Cat's in the Cradle" and in December 1974 it became the #1 record in the country.
So here I was, a new career going strong, faced with the questions of what to do with it. All my brave words of the 60's about the social responsibility of successful people became bluffs to be called. I believe that success brings responsibility. It also does not bring immunity to the consequences of o ur quickening march toward oblivion. The bottom line is that all of us should be involved in our futures to create a world that our children will want to live in. I met Father Bill Ayres in 1973, and after 15 months of meetings and planning sessions we founded World Hunger Year (WHY), a non-profit organization dedicated to giving a greater visibility to and higher priority for the solutions to mankind's greatest problem, world hunger. A year long effort that began in 1977, by WHY, the Food Policy Center (our Washington based lobbying organization), and myself, has resulted in the formation of a presidential Commission on World Hunger. I have been appointed by President Carter to the Commission whose mandate is: why, after 20 years of programs and expenditures of billions of dollars, has there been no significant progress in dealing with the hunger problem?
This commitment to end world hunger, and my music and story songs,
are ways of dealing with the world as I see it. I'm playing 200 concerts
per year-- half of them benefits-- all of them attempts at getting
across the footlights to people I would enjoy spending time with in
non-concert situations. And over the past 4 years of musical fun,
millions of dollars have been raised for things I believe in. Telling
stories of our time, building a lasting body of work, new songs, new
records, new audiences, new challenges, and still that painfully
exciting process of growth that can make one's life into a richly woven
Chapin: The Chaucer Of The Now
That Harry Chapin's personal, introspective musical statements are popular with today's audiences is no accident of promotion or advertisement. He's the Geoffrey Chaucer of the Now Generation, stringing together modern Canterbury Tales of bittersweet personal ballads that reflect the obsession with the individual that became the hallmark of the late 1970s.
His heroes are old toilers living in a world they don't understand and trying to make sense of the hollow senselessness of individuals struggling against one another to find fulfilment. Their search for the good life creates new emotional gaps that leave them lonely, afraid, and unhappy with themselves.
But Chapin is not so much a singer of laments as he is an examiner and revealer. His performing style, as shown in a smooth, well-paced concert at Poplar Creek last week near Chicago, is an exercise in musical intimacy. He communicates with his audience on a very personal level, creating a living-room atmosphere that would fail if he were pretentious or cool like some other performers.
Tragedies in Chapin's world are individualized and narrow, reflecting the growing introspection of the American spirit in response to the overwhelming tragedies of society. He sings of lost love, neglectful parents, and the anguish of faded dreams.
At the same time that Chapin decries alienation in his songs, he reaffirms the problems of the day. He sings of lost souls to other lost souls. That may be nothing-new, but it fits the current climate well. Such sociological observation isn't the first thing that comes to mind when watching Chapin perform, but the mood of his performance is striking compared with the brash, rebellious 1960s folk music style represented by Arlo Guthrie, Chapin's opening act.
Guthrie was the heir apparent to the folk music throne before the improve-the-world movement fell victim to the improve-me movement. Son of the legendary Woody Guthrie, Arlo has been an important folk singer in his own right since his early 20s, though he has labored in relative obscurity for the last decade.
Guthrie, a twangy, hard-edged singer of the Bob Dylan "smooth-isn't-everything" school of music, sang of revolt and "the movement" back when such things were popular. His ever-present "we can change the world" rap, which once had sounded great, but then began to sound corny, has a particular attraction once again, as new solutions have failed to solve old problems.
The most revealing moment of the night came when Guthrie dusted off "Alice's Restaurant," the legendary bit of shaggy doggerel that vaulted him to fame in the late 1960s. The rambling discourse on authority, the draft and assorted peripheral nonsense hasn't been heard from Guthrie for more than 10 years, but now with draft registration a reality, he says the song might mean something again.
If there's a theme that will carry folk music into the 1980s, it will
doubtless be a mix of ringing social commentary and rigorous personal
inspection. Just as Guthrie found that the old fighting folk spirit now
bears resurrection, Chapin will find that the need for a good
individualized social conscience will never die.
Since his unlikely 1972 hit Taxi, a rambling seven-minute musical tale of lost love and broken dreams, Chapin has gained something of a cult following. He has made 11 albums, and he performs more than 200 concerts a year. A rumpled teddy bear of a man, Chapin has wild, curly hair, an engaging grin and throaty raspy voice. He is wearing a rumpled Indian cotton shirt, faded khakis and a pair of well-worn running shoes. He talks rapid-fire, gesturing , able to focus his full attention and rip out the answers in between knocks on the closed dressing room door.
Five men, a contingent from his New York booking agency, ICM, enter the small mirrored room. There are stacks of papers for Chapin to sign: a loan for the Long Island Performing Arts Foundation, which Chapin heads ("I'm signing away my house," he cracks) and some other contracts. They discuss some future bookings ("I'm broke, you gotta keep me working"), past concerts and family, as Chapin flips rapidly through the pages, signing on the dotted lines. They leave, and he picks up the thread without missing a beat. That's the way Chapin's life is. He likes to be the center of the storm, whether it's with his wife, six children and assorted family members at his Long Island home or at his family's hideaway in New Jersey. You can find him most times on the phone, when he isn't travelling or working on one of many projects - from TV specials to political campaigns.
Born into an 'artsy' family of painters, writers, teachers and musicians, Chapin grew up on 11th Street in Greenwich Village. His father Jim, was a drummer with such big bands as Tommy Dorsey's and Woody Herman's, passing along both his musical talent and his social conscience, fine-tuned during the years of the Depression and World War 11, to his sons Harry Tom, Steve and James.
Harry Chapin's past has been nothing if not colorful: A former air cadet, student of architecture and philosophy and college dropout, Chapin has worked in a bank for three, not so exciting, days. "I punched a check for 560 million," he recalls, "and realised I'd probably reach the apex of my banking career. He quit.
At one point in the mid-1960s, he found himself in New York City packing film crates. But the energetic Chapin soon wound up shooting, editing, writing, directing and producing more than 300 films - not all masterpieces, he admits. But one film he wrote, directed and edited, Legendary Champions, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 for Best Feature Documentary. This ability to visualize is at the root of Chapin's story songs - he uses extended narration to tell his sometimes sad, sometimes whimsical tales of alienation, fading dreams, political assassinations, war propaganda, patriotism and cynicism. "My music is all movies, he says. His songs are cinematic. They put the listener in a taxi one rainy night, in the sniper's tower, or in the disc jockey's sound booth. "Most writers write attitudinal songs," he says. "I write about the situation that creates the attitude."
Although his music has been called too emotional, too sentimental, too morbid, Chapin doesn't care. He likes sentiment and thinks of himself as an operating optimist. "Cynics are dead " he once said.
Although he may be philosophically pessimistic - "The world is falling apart" - he is, practically speaking, an optimist- "We can do something about it." And it is from this mode of thinking that his legendary and untiring activism springs. If there's anything Chapin likes to talk about it's his causes. And there are many. But he does more than talk. Of the 200 or so concerts he does a year, fully half are benefits. That's about two a week. There will be 18 in September alone.
Although his primary interest is the problem of world hunger, Chapin has raised more than 3 million through the years for cancer, muscular dystrophy, various political candidates, Ralph Nader's public interest groups and others. As a Long Island resident, he is on the boards of the Performing Arts Foundation, the Long Island Philharmonic, the Andre Eglevsky ballet and the Action Committee for Long Island, and has raised money for all of them.
It was primarily because of his lobbying effort (in suit and tie) in 1978 that President Carter signed a bill creating the Presidential Commission on World Hunger and put Chapin on the commission. All of this, Chapin hastily points out "has nothing to do with nobility or anything like that." It is just what he has to do. But, he continues, "To put your money into yachts and Lear Jets and houses is insane. What makes life exciting is to matter ... I think money is to be used: to pass it on to your children is ridiculous. I believe in the activist life."
He admits that he is, in the words of Gene McCarthy, "Smart enough to play the game and dumb enough to think it matters " Chapin takes this passion onto the stage and his fans love him for it. No proselytizing, though. He comes on stage like a friend you haven't seen in some time, who tells you stories, plays some music, jokes around and fills you in on his life. There's an intimacy and an intensity when Chapin performs and an easy rapport with the band, which includes his brother Tom on piano, a drummer, a cellist, a guitarist and a bass player.
Chapin wants his concerts, which generally last three hours, to be "love-ins". He is one performer who doesn't look down on his fans. "These are the people who allow me to do what I do," he says. They buy the tickets; they buy the albums; they fill the concert halls when he plays. "Whatever I got, I give," he says.
At intermission, anxious fans, arts center employees, press and assorted hangers on jam the narrow hallway lined with dressing rooms. There are a group of little girls waiting to be kissed, a local clergyman with a request, a young boy wanting some advice, and Chapin will attend to them all.
But first, he heads for the pay phone to call home. Above the noise
and confusion only a single snatch of conversation can be heard:
"Did you enjoy yourself today?'' Chapin asks solicitously, as if to
a very young child. "I did very much," he reassures his
Success of Sequel is only one manifestation of a series of changes on the business side of his life aimed at opening up those new entertainment areas for him, but it may turn out to be the key to that transition.
Among the changes is a shift, after 10 LPs, from Elektra/Asylum to Neil Bogart's Boardwalk Records Label, where Sequel was the preem release, a factor which has doubtless helped spark the promotional effort and reception for the disk.
Beyond that, however, Chapin's Boardwalk deal also includes development money for at least one potential feature, The Last Protest Singer, which may also be the title and concept of Chapin's next Boardwalk disk.
There has also been an expansion on the managerial side to include Kenny Rogers' mentor Ken Kragen, who is currently working to package some of Chapin's best-known songs as vidpic properties. At present, there are three such projects in various stages of development, including a combined Taxi-Sequel telefilm.
Kragen's participation comes as the result of his acquisition of Jeb Hart and Bob Hinkle's Sundance Music operation (Daily Variety, Aug. 19). The Brooklyn Heights, N.Y-based firm has two years, dating from the time that Kragen ankled Management III, which formerly repped Chapin, to form Kragen & Co.
Beyond the Taxi-Sequel project, other potential tv pics of Chapin tunes include W.O.L.D and Cat's In The Cradle, which are, like most of Chapin's compositions, 'story-songs' which tell a tale readily transferable to film form. Needles to say, Kragen has experience with that type of material via Rogers. At this point, it's possible, but not definite, that Chapin will appear in at least some of these tv projects, but according to Hart, The Last Protest Singer is "the one he really wants to play."
Abovementioned properties are in addition to five other projects currently on tap for Chapin. Two of these are in the cable-tv area, and Chapin's team is already shopping one of them, a concert taped last August in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. A second cable project in the development stages is an hour-long program of four Chapin songs, performed by the Eglevsky ballet, a Long Island company. Both Taxi and Sequel would be included in this presentation, says Hinkle.
In the meantime, Chapin continues to perform almost constantly, including an average a 100 dates a year for social causes; this election year, the total was closer to 124 such dates, says Chapin, who picks up all his expenses for these appearances.
"For the first time, I'm dealing with people who understand
me," says Chapin. "We've set up a whole organization to deal
with everything. These are the good old days for me."
Among the many singer songwriters born in an age when pop and rock desperately sought intellectual respectability, and when audiences demanded artists with whom they could identify, was one Harry Chapin.
Harry's visit to Fairfield on Sunday showed us the best - and the worst - not only of his own artistic make-up but also of the self-made singer-songwriter genre in general.
His most immediately noticeable quality is his self-assurance and belief that he has an eager audience for the emotional and cerebral self indulgences that litters his lyrics.
His ability to put his caustic comment and acute observation of human nature into the form of cameo stories is undoubtedly his most personal gift.
Yet a lack of economy and self-discipline in his writing makes his songs long - often to the point of tedium. Length can be justified - but only if development takes place and if colours change - and they don't in many of Harry's numbers.
Harry Chapin isn't helped by a repetitive approach to melody and harmony. Occasionally he finds an inspired marriage between tune and lyrics, as in the more direct appeal of songs such as "W.O.L.D" and "Cats in the Cradle," but such moments tend to be oases in a desert of amplified sounds as they were at Sunday's concert.
Despite a mountain of mixing equipment many of his lyrics are sacrificed to the decibels of his five piece backing band a greater restraint in accompaniment was often needed.
The inclusion of cellist Yvonne Cable in their ranks is, however, a masterstroke of orchestration, some of the more moving moments of Sunday's concert being when Harry's hard edged voice moved in duet with Yvonne's soulful counter-lines
I became a little guarded when he sang of the cleaner from Dayton, Ohio, whose simple wish to sing for a living was cruelly crushed by the biting pen of a critic.
I shouldn't worry. Harry says and sings what he wants to. He must
expect others to do the same.
His bluntness and rough edges were there for all to see and hear when he played York University's Central Hall.
He bungled a few lines of his own songs, broke at least four guitar strings with his somewhat primitive playing, and seemed to be suffering the after effects of a heavy cold.
For all that, it was a great gig. By the end of his three and a half hour performance he had generated enough wit, warmth and excitement to send his audience home happy and smiling
Chapin is all about commitment: commitment to his songs, and to the cause of helping those less fortunate than himself. During the interval, he was busy signing autographs and kissing girls in his efforts in his to raise money to combat world hunger.
His concerts are not performances: they're all about Harry Chapin
being Harry Chapin - a talented bloke who wants to give as much , if not
more than he takes.
In a truer, more profound sense, of course, the vein of melodrama and sentiment that runs so bright through his work is something you're likely to stumble across all the time in folk lyric and folk-influenced popular forms of music hall and the blues. Chapin shares his muse with Robert Service, with Albert Chevalier, yes, and also Bob Dylan and John Lennon, who also could have their moments of pathos as well as inspiration.
He is truly a singer of tales, and if he has a technical facility to produce a singable song lyric like Circle, or his current recollection of days that used to be, Remember When The Music, the story songs are more representative, updated Victorian parlour ballads for the most part, in which the sexual mores may have changed, but the urge to moralise has not. This is not to put him down, but to explain why he is regarded as rather unhip, for despite the commitment of various Rock Against groupings, to be for something is still somehow discomforting, and a man who will quietly mingle with his audience after a gig to raise more money for the poor and hungry doesn't fit into a scene where revolt has degenerated beyond style into mannerism. Perhaps this is why he has started writing songs about Pete Seeger, for though they're light years removed from each other in style, they both have the same healthy unconcern with musical fashion.
To Chapin, the words 'old folkie' are not abusive, and he is perhaps
the most appropriate person to turn them into an anthem of praise, for
in his own, strictly individual way, he has earned himself the right to
honorary membership of the Folkie clan. The folk tradition isn't only
the creation of faceless nobodies, but the countless individual
craftsmen, giving of themselves to the music and the people who listen.
Chapin may be a star, but in the sense that his commitment is to what he
has to say, rather than how much he can make out of it, his work
deserves the same measure of respect that we grant to the anonymous
What exactly does that mean? Well, the thirty-eight-year-old singer- songwriter has bent the bulk of his efforts toward supporting World Hunger Year, an educational and research organization (no food is actually distributed) that he cofounded in 1974, along with its political lobbying arm, the Food Policy Center.
He's also been a member of the Cambodia Crisis Committee and until its demise last year (the battle having been won?), Jimmy Carter's Presidential Commission on World Hunger. On Long Island, where he lives, Chapin is a member of the boards of Hofstra University, the Long Island Association, Long Island Cares (a local hunger effort), the Action Committee for Long Island (a convocation of businessmen), the Performing Arts Foundation, the Long Island Philharmonic and the Eglevsky Ballet. Chapin has also raised money for the Public Interest Research Group and Congresswatch (two of Ralph Nader's organisations), CAN (Consumer Action Now) and a pride of right-thinking politicians.
The unfaltering engine behind all this activism is Chapin's career. He played his 2000th concert at New York's Bottom Line last month, and over the past nine years has averaged more than 250 concerts per year, half of them benefits for the above worthy causes. "I've been called the hardest-working white man in America," he says. So what makes Chapin run?
Even he may be wondering. "I've grossed $2.5 million," he
says with a manic chortle, "and yet I'm broke."