Balderdash, Charities & Cab Rides
by Peter Crigler
Over the last few years, many people have realized that '70's singer/songwriter Harry Chapin wasn't as cheesy or terrible as say Bread or Poco. When he died of a heart attack in 1981 after getting into a car accident, his career was basically down to the level of Lobo or Atlanta Rhythm Section: playing whatever venues would have him. In his last years, he essentially worked himself to death playing benefit concerts for all types of charities, doing whatever work he could to fight against world hunger, helping local Long Island companies and theatre even though both were financially in the toilet. But still he fought on and played his music.
After getting his start in the late sixties playing folk music with his brothers and co-directing an Oscar nominated documentary about boxing, he started getting serious about a solo career and in 1971, he signed with Elektra Records. In an unprecedented occurrence, he was given free studio time for however long he was signed to the label, which meant that he never had to pay for recording costs. Shortly after signing the deal, he went into the studio and recorded his debut album. In 1972, Heads & Tails was released; at first, it didn't do much but then the single "Taxi" began to take off at AM radio. It was on this album that he began to perfect what called 'story songs.' Before he knew it, he had a top twenty pop hit and expectations for him to become the next big thing were through the roof.
For his follow-up act, he ended up writing, what I believe is one of the coolest songs ever, the almost ten minute "Sniper." The song is basically the firsthand account of University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman and what was going on in his mind. The album that followed the song, the cleverly titled Sniper and Other Love Songs didn't perform nearly as well as its predecessor when it was released in 1972 and that's when critics began to decry him and say he was a one hit wonder and nothing else. The album also contained one of his most loved and most covered songs, "Circle." Deep down, Chapin was trying to be a folk/protest singer but try as he might, he ended up being a pop songwriter whose songs got longer and stranger.
His third album, released in quick succession was Short Stories, released in 1973. The album did much better than Sniper and spawned another minor hit single, the tale of a radio DJ called "W.O.L.D." It also contained one of his most adored songs- "Mr. Tanner" is the story of a small town shop owner who dreams of a singing career. When he finally achieves his dream of singing, the critics devastate him and he decides to never sing publicly again. Chapin's tales of everyday folk had a way of transcending the radio and touching his fans in seemingly unheard ways; that was the type of power he had. But his record sales weren't up to par and he realized that he needed a hit in order to have a future.
Sometime in the past, his wife Sandy had written a poem about the birth of their son. She had showed it to Harry and told him he should use it as a song. But he ignored her until finally, she persisted and he agreed to take a look at it. Thus was the birth of "Cat's in the Cradle." When it was released, it became an instant AM radio smash and quickly climbed the singles chart until it hit number one. The record dealt with his personal life in a way he hadn't written before. "I Wanna Learn a Love Song" was based around his courtship with Sandy and remains one of the most endearing love songs I've ever heard. Another song, "What Made America Famous?" is probably one of Chapin's most successful songwriting endeavors. The album these tracks came from, 1974's Verities & Balderdash became his most successful, peaking at number four. But it was also this record where Harry started getting pretentious. One track, the live favorite "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" remains one of the weakest, strangest songs of the seventies. It clearly has to be heard to be believed (ED NOTE: I have a soft spot for it!).
After this, Harry's career began to falter; his fifth album, Portrait Gallery, released in 1975 contains two of the most self-deprecating tracks ever heard on vinyl: the almost ten minute "Bummer" and "Stop Singing These Sad Songs." None of the songs, save "Someone Keeps Calling My Name" were very memorable and consequently, the record ended up in the cutout bin not long after its release. As a stopgap measure, he released the double album live set, Greatest Stories Live in 1976. It quickly became one of Chapin's most loved and most worn out albums. Then the same year, he released his sixth studio album- On the Road to Kingdom Come is a largely indistinguishable record, save for one song: "The Parade's Still Passing By," a loving tribute to recently deceased folk/protest icon Phil Ochs. This was another of Chapin's talents: while others were mocking him and decrying him, he was able to look at someone who was going through personal problems and humanize him in a way that perhaps no one other than Springsteen could've been capable of.
Alas, by this time, his record sales were basically nonexistent so he decided to try doing something else. His wife had told him that he needed to be involved in some kind of charity. So he looked at world hunger and decided that that was going to be the thing he was going to help. This was long before it was cool for a 'rock star' to get involved with charity so he was immediately looked upon as very square. But he pressed on and started World Hunger Year. But as the years wore on, all of this philanthropic work would take its toll.
On top of making records, touring and being so charitable, he also tried his hand at Broadway. His first venture was the very unsuccessful "The Night that Made America Famous," which was based around several of his songs and ultimately was a massive failure on the Great White Way but writing the music for the travelling show "The Cotton Patch Gospel" made his name in the world of people who had no idea who the heck he was. Returning to his pop career, he made a concept album about the Titanic, called Dance Band on the Titanic, released in 1977. Aside from the title track and the epic final track, "There Only Was One Choice," the album was also ignored but over the years, it has gone down as one of his finest works.
Despite his ever-slipping sales, he continued working tirelessly and in 1978, released his eighth studio album, Living Room Suite. The record was his worst selling in years and spawned no hit singles but several songs including "I Wonder What Would Happen to This World" and "Flowers are Red" became extremely popular after his death. Although his record sales were at an all-time low, he continued working with World Hunger Year and tirelessly campaigning to bring the arts to Long Island. It has been alleged by various books that his wife had pushed him into all this charity work because she wanted him to be different than all the other rock stars. This has never been proven but either way, it began to have a negative impact on his musical output.
By the end of the seventies, Elektra's patience with him to crank out another hit single had worn thin and so when he put out a second live record, Legends of the Lost and Found: New Greatest Stories Live, Elektra hardly did anything to promote it and it quickly sank like a stone despite containing live versions of ten new songs. By this time, his vocals had begun to sound weak and cracked, certainly a byproduct of doing so many live shows and benefits. This situation had gotten so dire that by the end of the seventies, over a third of the shows he played in one year were benefits with most of the money going to whatever charity he was promoting. This was also the beginning of his downfall.
He had become consumed with World Hunger Year and even more consumed with the Performing Arts Foundation of Long Island (PAF), a foundation that had long been struggling with cash flow. He had it in his mind that it was on his shoulders that everything was riding on so he kept pushing himself to do more to make everything successful. But PAF and several other things he had going on in Long Island began failing and it got to the point where several of them were hemorrhaging money. So he did more benefits but eventually even the people of Long Island no longer cared and stopped pledging their support for his many business opportunities. But he kept pressing on regardless.
In 1980, he began looking for a new record deal as he and Elektra had finally parted ways. Unfortunately, new deals were hard to come by for a folksy singer/songwriter in the early eighties, so he ended up settling for a one album deal with Neil Bogart's new upstart label Boardwalk. That spring, he released Sequel, which included the title track, which was in essence, a sequel to "Taxi," reuniting the song's characters and updating their lives. The song managed to become a marginal hit, peaking in the top thirty on the singles chart, his first major hit in God knows how long. So for the first time in quite a while, his career was on an upswing. So to celebrate this upswing, he was able to support his charities for a bit longer. But the financial pressure was starting to mount and several of the Long Island interests ended up closing down and a lot of the blame was put on Harry because he probably hadn't been able to do enough to save everything. But Harry knew the truth! He kept on going and continued doing benefits for everything under the sun.
It was one of these benefits that Harry was travelling to in July of 1981 when he tried to pull his car off of the Long Island Expressway. He started swerving and ended up colliding with a tractor trailer, the impact of which caused the fuel tank to burst into flames. After the accident, Harry was pulled from the car and was rushed to the hospital where it was determined he'd had a heart attack. To this day, it's still disputed as to whether the car accident had caused it or the other way around. Either way, Harry was pronounced dead at the hospital. It's been rumored that when the crowd at the benefit concert were alerted as to Harry's death, they all started singing "Circle."
Over the years, Harry's legacy has been remembered in various ways. In 1987, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for all his charity work and he was also feted by metal band M.O.D. with their track "Ode to Harry," which mentioned his terrible driving habit. The same year, his final collection of original material, which were mostly demos he was working on when he died was released by a small indie label under the title The Last Protest Singer. Unfortunately, the collection was panned for its shoddy production value (even though they were demos).
In the last twenty years, critical reaction of Chapin and his music has gotten a bit better as people have actually listened to the songs and what they mean. So many of his songs hold a special place in people's hearts. For instance, "Sniper" is my favorite song because of the attention to detail and vivid description it contains. The power and intensity of the song just can't be matched by any other singer/songwriter of the same period. Others have taken songs like "Circle," "Mr. Tanner" and "Better Place to Be" as their own personal mottos and mantras and have used them to perk themselves up when they're feeling down.
For anyone looking for more information on Harry Chapin, might I recommend seeking out the book Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story by Peter Morton Coan, a warts and all biography and one of the best 'rock biographies' I've ever come across.
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