Back in the day we lived in the Haight; our neighbors used to tease my mom sans mercy about her full-volume thing for singer/songwriter Harry Chapin. Frisco had its own home boys, after all, and the walls were thin; their patience zilch for her daily, repetitious plays of an east coaster’s drawn-out, emotional tunes. But my mom clung tight to her passion for Chapin’s story-songs and with surprise contribution from one Johnny Carson, she converted some our apartment neighbors and my brother ‘n I to Harry’s reality of lyrical gestures.
His greatest hit per rock historians, Taxi was a 6 minute, 44 second orchestration on a chance meeting with a former love that lacked closure. Chapin debuted this work comfortably on the Tonight Show in the summer of 1972 which resulted in a blitz of calls/telegrams to network execs demanding more of him. This scored an unprecedented “first” for the show with Johnny Carson bringing Chapin back the very next night for an encore performance. Taxi thus front-lined his defining work.
The fears in human experience that the media still refuses to address seemed Harry’s forte. Old enough to have been reared in a Superman society, he nonetheless tackled the ‘taboo’ of aging, explicitly in an environment (recording industry/DJ) where said is not an easy process and rarely brings wisdom unless the last chapter in a self-help book! Harry bluntly strummed it as was and W.O.L.D. spent 23 weeks on the charts, again a rarity due to the length (4:46).
“The major thing I’m afraid of” he informed once to a Rolling Stone reporter “is being 65 and saying ‘gee, I wish I had done this and that’. I want to face old age knowing I’ve tried all I wanted to try.”
(3) Cat’s in the Cradle
A socially sensitive narrative about a boy’s craving for “dad time”. Those with Chapin insight valued the melodic tale while critics boo’d him for assigning “personal perception” to familial time. Fortunately critics often steer off-mark and this unique piece was a number-one single that continues to be performed by today artists such as Sarah MacLachlan and the hard rock group Ugly Kid Joe (1992) who actually topped the charts with it.
(4) Flowers are Red
Chapin introduces yet another tune from his catalyst stage, the Tonight Show, about the responsibility schools have to prompt creativity. Viewer feedback again was instantaneous, voluminous and positive and Chapin morphed up to social-activist status in addition to being performer. It’s been hinted (by critics posthumously) he was one of several that bricked new route for rock stars that are today’s social icons effecting change from said platform.
(5) I Wonder What Would Happen to this World
“Oh if a man tried
To take his time on
And prove before he died
What one man’s life
could be worth
I wonder what would
to this world”
Speaking to that slice of Chapin hidden behind the bulk of his down-in-the-dump epics (Taxi, Dogtown, etc.) this track was verbal awe to the possibility that could/would?! leap forth if folks walked faithful with individual, inherent potential. His epitaph (as above) was byte from this song.
(6) Dancing Boy
So not cool to sing of baby boys discovering expression through dance and earned, natural attention
“Telling stories of our time, building a lasting body of work, new songs, new records, new audiences, new challenges” he wrote about himself “and still that painfully exciting process of growth that can make one’s life into a richly woven tapestry is where it’s at for me”.
The frizzled hair and tunics, donned routinely for concerts, signaled “don’t givva dam for aesthetics”. The message was thee purpose and delivery was spontaneously passionate.
(7) Tangled Up Puppet
The relational weave of children throughout one’s life was common theme for Chapin. This song spoke to the labyrinth of loss over a daughter’s growing up ‘n out from her dad. This genre of work earned Chapin an Emmy for contributions to ABC television children’s network Make a Wish show which was hosted by his brother Tom. His awareness on children issues was further peaked by a local Roman Catholic Priest who illustrated for him how many U.S. kids got to sleep every night hungry. This rolled up to Chapin’s co-authoring World Hunger Year, a charity to raise money to fight famine. The charity grossed $350,000+ its first year, in part due to Chapin’s diligence in pushing it.
(8) Commitment and Pete Seeger
A glorious tribute to a friend/colleague credited by Chapin as “mentor”. If you were fortunate enough to have attended a Chapin concert wherein this song was sung, you would have been gifted word bouquet by Chapin as to “it doesn’t matter whether you win or loose (social issue); getting involved puts one in touch with the good people of this life”. Call me ‘sensitive’ but Chapin could conjure an atheist “believer” with his captivating between-song chat.
(9) A Better Place to Be
The stand-up point for me is that diversity pretty much didn’t exist in Chapinland. The bulk of his music dealt with the more somber sides of loving and marrying and simply getting by on a second-to-second basis.
A Better Place to Be is the story of a midnight watchman; a rotund waitress listening to his going on about a girl he picks up one night. It’s not about “settling” for what life flips-up but more so a why-to take a chance on the moment. For all the melancholy this song purports, its ending is a magnificent guide for putting one foot in front of the other.
That his final Top 40 hit was titled ‘Sequel’ appears ‘karma-like’ to fans like my mother who to this day remain devout audience. A postscript to his start line ‘Taxi’, this saga proffers what most of us have yet to experience from a past interaction: closure.
“She said I’ve heard you flying high on my radio
I answered “It’s not all it seems”
That’s when she laughed and she said, “It’s better sometimes
When we don’t get to touch our dreams.”
That’s when I asked her where was that actress
She said “That was somebody else”
And then I asked her why she looked so happy now
She said “I finally like myself, at last I like myself.”
*Chapin’s closure to this life was July 16, 1981.