Writing this post scares me a bit. I want to choose THE right song, the one that will be the gateway song to get you interested enough to listen to other songs? But what if I choose one you hate and so you never go on to the next one? C'est un disastre! (Not sure if that's grammatical.)
But the idea behind these posts was to share songs that I particularly enjoyed or have been important to me, and therefore, of all the Harry Chapin songs, I'm going to post this "Story of a Life" at the top.
I got introduced to Harry Chapin when I was 12 and in 8th grade in 1985. It was my first year at boarding school in Jersey and my housemaster (the teacher who was in charge of our "house") was an English teacher with a cool attitude who played guitar. And he would sing, "All My Life's a Circle" by Chapin. I later found some cassette tapes and was moved by a lot of songs. I remember quite clearly some time first year of college or so talking to the llama some late night and telling him I suspected that this song would be my story of a life. Once you hear the song, it might be a bit surprising that an 18 year old would identify with it already, but there you go.
That clip is supposedly from 1981, the year he died in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway. Chapin was first a documentary film maker in the late 60s and won an Oscar. Then he had a hit record with "Taxi" in 1972, and he was a fulltime musician from that point on.
That song was a bit unusual because what Chapin is best known for is his story songs, and I really do think that his songs could work as a model for many a short story writer. In under 10 minutes, he can make you bawl like a baby. At least I was close to it when listening to these songs again tonight after about a year's break.
Here's a selection of some of my favorite songs of his with teaser lyrics (and remember that since he's often telling stories, the lyrics are a character's thoughts).
Better Place To Be
It was an early morning bar room
And the place just opened up
And the little man run in so fast and
started at his cup
The broad who served the whiskey
was a big old friendly girl
who tried to fight her empty nights by
smiling at the world.
Mister Tanner was a cleaner from a town in the Midwest.
And of all the cleaning shops around he'd made his the best.
But he also was a baritone who sang while hanging clothes.
He practiced scales while pressing tails and sang at local shows.
I was quite surprised to find out all the places that he knew
So I asked the townsfolk if his stories were true
Well they said, "Old John was born here, he's lived here all his life
Never had a woman, let alone a wife
And very soon you'll find out as you check around
That no one named Corey's ever lived in this town"
Some of Chapin's most affecting songs are about children and our raising of them. Here are three.
Flowers are Red (Someone's taken this song and set it to pictures of art at MOMA in NY. You might prefer to close your eyes and just listen to the song, but hey, your call.
The teacher said, "you're sassy!"
There's ways that things should be
And you'll paint flowers the way they are
so repeat after me
Tangled Up Puppet (Definitely close your eyes on this one, or you'll be watching some random images from a soap opera or something of dads and their daughters. I think this song is somewhat overblown, but it's worth it for the final few lines.)
What I mean is,
I have watched you take shape from a jumble of parts
to find the grace and form of a fine work of art
Hey you, my brand new woman newly come into her own
Don't you know that you don't need to grow up all alone?
And if you know the name Harry Chapin at all, you've likely been waiting for the ultimate dad-son relationship song, his major hit:
When ya comin' home dad?
I don't know when
But we'll get together then son
I know we'll have a good time then.
But no list of Chapin tunes is complete without Taxi itself.
It was raining hard in Frisco
I needed one more fair to make my night
A lady up ahead waved to flag me down
She got in at the light.
But not all of his stories end poorly and several years later, Chapin wrote
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."
If you want to take a laugh break, here's William Shatner "singing" Taxi. After that, the song's dead, Jim.
If you are interested in Chapin, the man, I posted an obituary about him a couple years ago, which is here. Harry gave 150-200 concerts a year, so almost playing every other night. And around half of them were benefits. His main cause was fighting hunger around the world. Despite being a straight up liberal who campaigned for people such as Patrick Leahy in his first election, he was able to transcend party such that Robert Dole, the Kansas Republican, lionized him on the Senate floor. Quoting from the obituary:
"On the floor of Congress, the reaction was very similar. No other singer -- not Bing Crosby, nor Elvis Presley, nor John Lennon -- has ever been so widely honored by the nation's legislators. Nine senators and thirty congressmen paid tribute to Harry Chapin on the floor, and not all of them were the kind of liberal Democrats on whose behalf Harry had campaigned so long and hard last fall. No less a conservative than Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, not exactly known for his political generosity of spirit, called Chapin 'a liberal, and a liberal in the best sense of the word. He possessed a spirit of generosity and optimism that carried him through his various commitments with a great sense of seriousness and purpose... What he was really committed to was decency and dignity.' Harry Chapin was just the sort of man who would inspire tributes even from ideological foes. He believed deeply in all those corny virtues and ideals that the rest of us are too cynical, jaded, or just plain scared to admit that we, too, cherish."
There was a tribute concert several years after his death, and Bruce Springsteen does a nice job here. (Besides with several female readers right around the age of 40, I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't a couple of Springsteen crushes going around.) And here's a 3 minute tribute to him using Harry's own words.
To finish this off, why not post Circle, the first song of his I heard.