Everyone who knows me on more than just a cursory level probably has heard my story: In October of 1977 Harry Chapin performed a benefit solo concert to help raise money to save from the wrecker’s ball what is now known as the Landmark Theatre in my hometown of Syracuse, NY.
Harry, best known for his story songs Taxi, and Cats in the Cradle, was my idol. I loved his music. Still do. It was because of Harry that I picked up the guitar and learned to play myself. And because the Landmark Theatre stands to this day it is perhaps the only one of his many philanthropic causes that actually went fulfilled during his short life or in the many years since his death.
But I digress. My story is this:
I was fifteen years old in October 1977, and I was excited beyond belief to see Harry’s show. I convinced several friends and family members to come too. The concert was general admission and sold out, so we arrived early and sat in the second row.
I was a bit disappointed that Harry would be performing solo, but before the night was through I discovered that the absence of his band would only serve to enrich my experience.
See, some of Harry’s songs require two people to sing. The best example is Mr. Tanner, a song about a baritone voiced dry cleaner from Ohio whose ultimate dream is to become a professional singer (music was his life/it was not his livelihood). During the chorus, Harry sings the story while in the background the voice of Mr. Tanner singing ‘O Holy Night’ builds as a counterpoint. The song tells of Mr. Tanner’s New York City debut as a singer, which is panned the next day by a newspaper music critic in four lines (ending ‘Full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.’) And so with no band to rely on, Harry turned to the audience to help him perform the song.
He got me first, and then another boy, and then a girl (Peter, Paul and Mary, he quipped). I was the first to arrive onstage. Harry asked me my name and we shook hands in that 1970’s style with the fingers over the palm. He took us through the chorus once as a rehearsal right there onstage, and then began the song. I, Kevin Pristash, stood singing onstage in my hometown alongside my idol. It wouldn’t get much better than that for quite a while.
Anyway, for as much of a thrill that it was to sing with Harry in concert, one thing I always regretted was that none of us had thought to bring a camera. In 1977 it was commonplace and legal for audience members to bring cameras to concerts, so it really wouldn’t have been a big deal, but no matter. My teenage moment onstage with the greatest performer I’ve ever seen has had to live on solely in my memory and in the memories of those who accompanied me that night.
Over the years, and by virtue of being somewhat associated professionally with the concert business, I’ve heard that at least one audiotape of that particular concert exists. I’ve even had a contact with the company who provided the sound system that night search through their personal audio collection, but to no avail. Any and all posterity recordings seemingly were out of my reach forever.
Then Al Gore invented the Internet! In 1996 I finally became ‘wired.’ Fifteen years after Harry’s death I truly felt that I was his only true fan left, so one of the very first queries I entered into my browser’s search engine was Harry Chapin.
I was astounded at all the sites that popped up on my screen.
The fans! They’re out there! All over the world! I discovered a Harry newsgroup, several tribute pages, and a message board on the Harry Chapin Fan Page that facilitated discussion on everything Harry. It was Harry Heaven! And because of these Internet sources I have been able to acquire several recordings long out of print, many of which I never thought I’d have a chance to hear. The Chapin Brothers mid-60s album flop entitled ‘Chapin Music’ is but one example. But what are also out there available for trades are those tapes affectionately (or not) known as bootlegs: homemade recordings of performances legally (or not) made by concertgoers. And so, of course, for my performance I had only to wait.
Just recently I’ve acquired in a trade with another fan a tape of horrendous quality labeled ‘HC – 10/11/77 – Syracuse.’ The last song on the B-side of tape #1 is Mr. Tanner. I gave it a careful listen and there it is…Harry asking for a volunteer…Harry introducing me and the other boy, This is Kevin and Paul, the Righteous Brothers!...And, finally, the three of us singing with Harry. Amongst the supportive applause there is quite a bit of laughter from the audience too, and I remember most of it was directed at me, the spaced out kid who was just so pleased to be singing and standing there able to watch Harry so closely and to have the right to brag about it later.
And because of this Internet, this technology that so many believe sucks our humanity from us, I am tonight able to pull my wife Teresa, and children Brian, Sarah, and little Teddy Chapin into the music room, and although admittedly my young children are far more interested these days in Tom rather than Harry Chapin, have them listen to the one time, 23 years ago, when their Daddy – a kid himself – became Mr. Tanner because Daddy’s idol Harry needed his help.
And there I am! They hear me, their father, sweetly singing (or not), “Fall on your knees; Oh hear the Angels Voices”.
Kevin Pristash June 2000
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