I first started enjoying Harry Chapin in the late 60’s. I remember listening to Taxi and it stood out from all of the other music I enjoyed. The melody was catchy and the words ………… oh, the words. It was the “words” and was always the “words.” It was so easy to identify with the Taxi Driver. “…. She said Harry ‘keep the change.’ Another man might have been angry, another man might have been hurt, but another man never would have let her go, I stashed the bill in my shirt.” After dropping off Sue, back down the driveway, past the fine trim lawn and out the gate, getting stoned, trying to feel no pain, knowing he will never see her again (or at least thinking he would never see her again), I felt it all. I was too young to appreciate what else Harry might have done, but over the next several decades he entered my heart often.
The next thing I knew, it was the late ‘70’s, school finished, married and on the road to what I thought I wanted and hoped for. I know I remembered “Cats in The Cradle,” and not necessarily identifying with it, but as in the case of Taxi, I felt it. Harry’s gift of storytelling, made me understand the poor old father, who simply screwed up his priorities.
Then boom! Harry Chapin Was Dead. On the spring day in 1981, there had been a horrible accident on the Long Island Expressway and Harry died.
I watched the news coverage and listened to a lot of his music as tributes were played on the radio. I taped one of his concerts (from the radio) onto an “8 Track” tape. During this concert he played his popular songs “Mail Order Annie”, “W.O.L.D.” and other songs I never knew. During a break in the concert, Harry was taking questions and having a good time with his audience. His responses communicated his philosophy, great appreciation of what he became and his super sense of humor. I remember one comment in particular, where Harry conveyed the importance of sticking your neck out and possibly making an ass of yourself. This way, he conveyed, you won’t look back and regret that you didn’t at least try to do something fun and meaningful. He was also asked if his stories were about his personal experiences, and he indicated that they were to a certain extent, but the ones that weren’t, he was able to identify with the characters in his stories. He felt what they felt, which was obvious when listening to his music. Harry defined his stories as “Cosmic events in non-cosmic lives.”
The next several years breezed by, as most of my attention was geared to my two incredible daughters and trying to make as much money as I could. In 1987, we remodeled our house and I was forced to clean everything out of the closet and I found a box of thirty-six 8-Track Tapes and my old 8-Track Player.
I listened to the tapes and recorded my favorites onto Cassettes. My kids laughed when they saw the 8-Tracks. It was the same look they had when they found out that television used to only be in black and white.
I had some great tapes including: James Taylor; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Grand Funk; The Who; Sly and the Family Stone; Elton John; The Beatles; Simon and Garfunkle; and too many others to mention. I also found some of my Harry Chapin tapes, including the Concert I taped, and subsequently rediscovered Harry. From that day in 1987 to today, my passion for Harry, his music and his passion for life has become part of me.
I listened to the Cassette over and over again. Then, I went out to stores and bought a lot of his Compact Discs and could not believe how many great stories (songs) of Harry’s that I didn’t know existed. I bought his double disc which I listened to day and night. On one of the discs, Harry sings “Circle” and during the song, he speaks about the importance of giving. He conveyed how much he had given to feed the Hungry and how important it was for all of us to help. His generosity is well documented (to say the very least). He also spoke of his poetry book and the “Harry it Sucks” tee shirts. I remember the first time that he mentioned this, I wanted to get the poetry book so badly. I searched bookstores and libraries and could not find it anywhere. I was so determined, yet I didn’t know where else to turn.
One day, I believe in 1994, I noticed a flyer taped on a window in front of a store indicating that Tom Chapin was coming to my town for a Concert. I bought tickets and attended the Concert. After the Concert, Tom was signing autographs, so I lined up with the other children (I am 6 foot 3 and was over forty-four years old) and waited my turn. A friend had bought me a great songbook years earlier called “Harry Chapin A Legacy in Song,” and I brought it with me. I told Tom of my strong feelings toward Harry and asked him to sign the book. He said that he would sign it on Harry’s behalf and wrote “Keep the Change!” then he signed his name below that.
I asked Tom how to obtain one of Harry’s Poetry Books and he directed me to the Harry Chapin Foundation in Long Island. I immediately contacted them, ordered three or four books (wanted to give some to close friends), and sent a check. I sent in more than the cost of the books to help the cause of the Foundation and was sent a lot of great information including outstanding photos and literature. After waiting so long to obtain the Book, I was so excited to finally receive it.
I read the Poetry Book “Looking … Seeing” and was overwhelmed with my feelings. I loved Harry’s work and the illustrations done by Rob White were a major bonus. In the back of the book, were words to some of his songs, which I really enjoyed.
After I read all of the poems, I really read the lyrics to the other songs I thought I knew. However, songs like “What Made America Famous;” “Halfway to Heaven;” “A Better Place to Be” and all of the others enlightened me to really appreciate the importance of all the words to the actual respective story.
Because of Harry I am pursuing a dream of my own. There are two of his songs and one speech that is driving me forward. Making a long story as short as possible, I, by profession am an Insurance Agent and have been for almost twenty years. I have made too good of a living from it to walk away as I, like everyone else, have to pay bills. I sell Insurance because I have to (for now) and honestly have never experienced a day where I looked forward in going to work.
My true, unquestionable joy is writing and I am determined to pursue this passion. Harry’s songs that have influenced me the most are “Mr. Tanner” and “Taxi.” When it comes to Mr. Tanner, I switch the word “music” to “writing” and it pretty much sums up my situation (although I hope the results will differ). The words in “Taxi” that hit me are “I got something inside me not what my life’s about, ‘cause I been letting my outside tide me over ‘til my time runs out.” I am through letting my outside tide me, it is time for my inside to take over! The speech I eluded to had to do with Harry’s Grandfather. Harry talks about his Grandfather who taught him the importance of being “good tired,” as compared to “bad tired.” He goes on to say that “good tired” could be a day you lost, but you lost your battles. “Bad tired” could be a day you won, but you won other peoples battles. This speech really hits home.
The good news is that I am on the road to being “good tired.” I set up a ten year goal when I was forty (I am now forty-five), that by my fiftieth birthday, I will be out of the Insurance Business and write full time. During the ten years, I would drive myself towards the goal. I am way ahead of schedule as I have had three articles in a Parenting Magazine published and fifteen articles published in the newspaper, and recently finished a book. I really think Harry would be proud of me if he knew how much he influenced my life and giving me the direction I need to be “good tired.” I also wrote an article for my newspaper about Harry, on December 7th, 1997, Harry’s 55th birthday. I emailed it to Bob Marr, who was kind enough to include it with other stories on his “Harry’s Friends” web page. When I am writing full time, enjoying any and all success I might have, when asked who inspired me, the answer will be simple, Harry Chapin.
As a gift to friends, in an effort to bring Harry into their lives, I created a ninety minute cassette of my favorite Chapin songs. After I choose the songs (which was extremely difficult because there are so many), I gave a lot of thought to the order I would place them in. I then wrote a Synopsis to the tape, which included an Introduction and a little bit about each song.
I often think what the World would be like today if Harry was still alive. It is hard to imagine. However, since he is gone, the best we can do is remember how special he was and cherish the legacy he left behind.
Thank you Harry.
Copyright 1999, Steven M. Cohn
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