Today is the birthday of one of the greatest Singer/Songwriters of our past. He is also my idol. Unfortunately, he died in a tragic accident on the Long Island Expressway on July 16th, 1981. He would have celebrated his 55th birthday today.
Harry Chapin lived the life he was born to live and considered himself as one of the luckiest people in the World. He was known for his songs “Taxi” and “Cats in the Cradle,” however, except for his followers, few knew how many other incredible songs he wrote and sang including “Sequel”, which followed the lives of the Taxi Driver and Actress in the song “Taxi”, taking place ten years after their first encounter.
I have heard Harry interviewed many times, and he conveys that he writes songs (which are essentially short stories) about “Cosmic events in non-cosmic lives.”
Examples of these, include; a dry cleaner, Mr. Tanner, who lives in Dayton, Ohio and ” … . of all the cleaning shops in town, he made his the best.” But, he also was a baritone and “Music was his life, it was not his livelihood, it made him feel so happy, it made him feel so good, and he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul, he did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole.” As it turns out, his friends pushed him to singing full time, so he happily spent all of his money to go to New York for a recital. “The concert was a blur to him sputtered by applause, he did not hear how well he sang, he only heard the flaws.” The critics printed five lines about his (Mr. Tanner) recital indicating “….it was good, but not up to contemporary standards.” He returned to Dayton “.….and was questioned by his friends but, he smiled and just said nothing and never sang again.” The song finishes that he did sing softly to himself late at night when no one was near. It is a very sad situation, which way too many highly talented people can easily identify with.
There are so many other great stories which include a midnight watchman at a steel factory in Watertown, New York who “Watches the metal rusting and watches the time go by.” This guy was at a diner one day and a beautiful woman sat next to him and he decided to “Give her a try.” To his amazement, she agreed to go with him to his place and “The clothes all tumbled around, he could hear his heart.” The next morning he woke up before her and went to buy some food for breakfast only to find her gone. She left a six word letter “It’s time that I move on.” He tells this whole story (song) titled “A Better Place to Be” (which is Harry’s favorite song) to a rotund waitress at a bar who is horribly sad for this guy. She wants to console him and says “I wish that I was beautiful or you were halfway blind, I wish I weren’t so god damn fat, I wish that you were mine and I wish that you’d come with me when I leave for home for we both know all about loneliness and living all alone.” He went with her.
Other great stories in which Harry totally identifies with people who just lived everyday lives include: The truck driver who missed a sign, carrying 30,000 pounds of bananas; the young man who was teaching a married woman to learn to play love songs on a guitar; a man who has been married fifteen years and is now tempted by a new and young secretary; and the kid who is forced to color flowers only red and green, are just a few. His stories and incredible melodies along with his passionate voice put you right in the lap of these everyday people. He was truly a Master of Empathy.
More important than his music, Harry was a true Humanitarian. During his career, Harry raised over five million dollars for various causes. Primarily, the causes were directed to World Hunger and the Socially Disenfranchised. His accomplishments are way too many to list, but there were twenty very prestigious honors between 1969 and 1979 of a musical or charitable nature. His highlight occurred in 1978, when President Carter appointed him as a Member of The Presidential Commission on World Hunger.
I can quote limitless lines from his songs, but my favorite is “Good dreams don’t come cheap, you’ve got to pay for them. If you just dream when you’re asleep, there is no way for them to come alive, to survive…” I also remember an interview where he conveyed that if you do what you are truly meant to do, successful or not, you can face anything including “The implacable wall of death.”
I remember the day in July of 1981, when Harry was killed in the automobile accident on the Long Island Expressway, on his way to a Benefit concert. It was a shock to everyone who enjoyed this great artist and another example as Billy Joel puts it “Only the good die young.” He left a legacy which will carry on forever.
Steven M. Cohn, Copyright Dec.1997
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