Like Jim Croce, another favorite story-telling songwriter of mine, Harry Chapin also left our world much too soon. Chapin died on July 16, 1981 of cardiac arrest that occurred either before or after a car accident on his way to perform a free concert at Eisenhower Park. He was only 38 years old. He never had the huge popular success that many performers crave, yet I don’t think that was his motivation. He wrote very meaningful songs which usually told stories or had lessons for us all. And, he was one of us – a guy we wanted to hang out with and let him regale us with his stories.
If your ever saw or heard him in concert, he was equally known for his story-telling between the songs. He would very often share how this weird story came to be, many that actually came from true events. One of my favorite songs of his – “I Wanna Learn a Love Song” is actually based on the true story of how he met his wife, Sandy, when she hired Chapin as her music teacher. Their family consisted of five children (two together and her three children from a previous marriage). In fact, his most popular song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” was based on a poem Sandy had written about her childhood, but a lesson for her husband and all of us fathers – “when you comin home Dad, I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Son, you know will have a good time then.” As we all know, the Dad/ Son are switched at the end “as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.”
His first big hit was “Taxi” about a man who wanted to be a pilot and is now driving a taxi. He picks up a fare that turns out to be his ex-girlfriend who wanted to be an actress. It is a very melancholy song to which we all can relate. Other favorites include “W.O.L.D” about an old disk jockey who has seen better days and “Thirty Pounds of Bananas” about a funny trucking disaster that spilled boxed bananas everywhere. Yet, my two favorites are vintage Harry Chapin. I will save the best for last, as it appears in this title.
One of my two favorites is called “Mr. Tanner” which is a song about a man who loved to sing while he worked. And, all the shopkeepers nearby loved to hear him sing. Yet, when they encouraged him to perform, the critics were not as kind. As Chapin points out…
“But, music was his life, it was not his livelihood. And, it made him feel so happy and 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.”
You find yourself pulling for this man and are so heartbroken that his joy of singing was shattered. At the end, he only sang softly, so no one could hear him.
My favorite, though, is “A Better Place to Be.” It is a story about loneliness, a midnight watchman and a rotund waitress. The watchman tells the waitress his story as she says “I know I’m not no beauty queen, but I sure can listen good.” He tells how he met this beautiful lonely girl who, surprising to him, agrees to come home with him because “I’m goin nowhere and anywhere is a better place to be.” After the most memorable night of is life, he leaves to get breakfast and when he returns, finds she has left, shattering his dreams.
The waitress dries tears from her eyes and eventually says “I wish that I was beautiful, or that you were halfway blind. And, I wish I weren’t so Goddamn fat, I wish that you were mine. And, I wish you’d come with me, when I leave for home; for we both know all about emptiness, and livin all alone.” After he finishes his last sip, he says “And, I know we both have been so lonely. And, if you want me to come with you, then that’s alright with me. Cause I know I’m goin nowhere, and anywhere is a better place to be.”
This is one of the most true to life, heartfelt songs you will ever hear. The song has many nuances and flavors. I hope I have given you taste of the genius of Harry Chapin. But, let me not stop there. On top of all of his storytelling songs and performances, Chapin was also a humanitarian. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his work on ending hunger in the US and abroad. He started an organization called “Long Island Cares” to combat hunger there and in 1977, Jimmy Carter asked him to be on a Presidential Commission on World Hunger.
So, through his songs and through his actions, Chapin told us how to make this world “a better place to be.” His epitaph is taken from his song “I Wonder What Would Happen to the World” and reads: “Oh, if man tried, to take time on Earth. And, prove before he died. What one man’s life could be worth. I wonder what would happen to the world.” Harry, you live well beyond your 38 years. You keep on teaching us. You made the Earth “a better place to be.” Thank you.