[Chapin’s] was a warts-and-all genius, singing about and for the luckless, the lonely and the dispossessed, but he matched it with a stroke of often black humour as wide as you could wish. You can forgive a man for his occasional misses when his ‘hits’ are as life-affirming as some of the music within this box. It’s a fitting tribute.
Mention the name ‘Harry Chapin’ to anyone these days, and nine times out of ten you’ll get a blank stare in reply. Mention ‘Cat’s In The Cradle’, however, and you’ll get a whole different reaction. Such is the curse of a songwriter who is almost entirely known (at least in the UK) for a single song, and for many of those people only owing to the successful cover version by the band Ugly Kid Joe. The fact is, however, that there was a whole lot more to Harry Chapin (who passed away tragically young in 1981) than just that song. In the US, and even more so Canada, he is also remembered for his other hits WOLD and Taxi, but only the former might be remembered by a significant number of UK folks. The fact is, however, that those particular songs are a very accurate guideline as to his catalogue as a whole, as he specialised in vignettes of characters and ‘song-stories’ which tended to share a world-weary and often cynical slant. He also had another gear to shift up to, however, when he wished to stretch out for longer and more ambitious pieces with more complex and dramatic arrangements, and this gave him an edge which many of his contemporaries lacked. A sweet-voiced, slightly syrupy James Taylor-type Harry was most resolutely not! This release packs no less than nine albums (including two which were originally double vinyls) onto six discs and, while I am not a great fan of splitting albums between discs, this is clearly an example when the approach makes sense.
Opening proceedings is Chapin’s 1972 debut Heads And Tales. Aided by the success of the hit single Taxi in the US and Canada, this was a strong seller, and deservedly so. The six-and-a-half-minute Taxi itself is a beautifully observed story of a taxi driver who picks up an old flame as a fare, and reminisces nostalgically and slightly wistfully about his life and hers, and how never the twain shall, sadly, meet again. It shows an eye for detail and the building up of a musical picture second to none, and the delivery of a natural raconteur. Any Old Kind Of Day is full of aching emptiness, as is the closing Same Sad Singer, but the revelation on the album is the nearly eight minutes of Dogtown, an astonishingly harrowing and dramatic tale of the whaling town which is so named owing to the fact that the men are so regularly killed on the incredibly dangerous missions, that the women (the ‘three-time widow’ who partly narrates it) are left behind with the dogs and their loneliness. It’s a tale of tragedy, terror, loss and descent into disturbed and troubled mental trauma which haunts the listener long after it finishes. This is most assuredly not a folk song. The remaining tracks may be simpler but none are poor (Greyhound is a grinding picture of the boredom of long road journeys, while Sometime Somewhere Wife is quite bewitchingly melodic). and the album was a deserved success. It seemed that Harry was out of the traps and into a successful career right away.
Except he didn’t exactly follow the script and come up with a nice safe follow-up. Instead he released the extraordinary Sniper And Other Love Songs, which was a rather harder pill to swallow than ‘that nice Taxi song’ which people loved. The album ploughs some dark furrows throughout, with the harrowing and hard-rocking Burning Herself addressing the ahead-of-its-time subject of self-harm and unheeded mental problems in an uncompromising way. In the same vein, Woman Child gives us the unpalatable subjects of hushed-up unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion, which was never going to get Middle America nodding their heads and smiling at each other in comfy sweaters. There are, however, two towering standouts which elevate the album to greatness and, in one case, torpedoes its chances of mainstream success. The eight-minute A Better Place To Be, a bar-room tale of remorse, loneliness, doomed one night stands and the desperate company of strangers is effectively the template for what Billy Joel would use to create his own Piano Man. That latter classic song may be the better of the two, but I simply refuse to believe that it could have been created in the first place had Joel not both listened to and absorbed Chapin’s gin-soaked tale of being alone in the proverbial crowd. Even better is the ten-minute title track, Sniper, which is as adventurous, brave and shockingly graphic as you could wish to get. Inspired by a real-life story, though with details and names changed, it tells the unflinching tale, via three different viewpoints, of a loser whose endless failures, lack of love and perceived ignoring at the hands of his family and the world at large, eventually lead to him climbing the steps to a clock tower in the early morning, and announcing, almost to himself, that he has ‘questions’ that he has been waiting to ask the townspeople, and that this time he will make them listen. These ‘questions’ are expressed as bullets, as people begin to fall beneath the hail of shots he unleashes, accompanied by his own dour, unfeeling commentary, the horror of an observer watching events unfold, and chillingly upbeat and false jollity of episodes when we look back at the events of his childhood and youth as they turn him slowly and inexorably into the remorseless killer who is, eventually, and with quiet satisfaction, shot dead by the police who break into his barricaded position. We even get the matter of fact details such as him counting out the ammunition that he thinks he will need for all of the ‘questions’ he has to ask. There is simply no way this would get airplay on commercial radio, and even less back then, so it is no surprise that the album sold poorly in comparison to its predecessor, but if Chapin had never written another song this remarkable piece would, for me, cement him as a genius.
The next one up, in 1974, was the descriptively titled Short Stories, which is, effectively, that. Eleven of them. The best known track is the hit WOLD, which has the ‘morning DJ on WOLD’ outlining his broken marriage, career failure and ultimate disappointment and underachieving life – to a deceptively catchy tune, which it is certain that many would sing along to without ever giving a thought to the whole lyric. There are other beautiful pen pictures throughout, on an album which may be more musically safe and straightforward for the lack of a Sniper or Dogtown, but is meticulously put together. Mail Order Annie is a catastrophically lonely pen-picture of a farmer and his ‘mail-order’ bride, as they meet for the first time in the bittersweet knowledge that while neither may be remotely perfect, they are all they have to stave off lives of loneliness and remorse. Mr Tanner, meanwhile, is a small-town man who runs a dry cleaning shop and sings beautifully to enrich his soul as he works. He is eventually persuaded to try to sing professionally and, with the help of an agent, sinks his savings into a trip to the big city and a showcase performance at a theatre watched by critics and a half-full audience. Predictably, the critics decry him as not being up to the standard required for the business in the long-term, and he goes back to his shop, his dreams smashed but never talking of it again, as he sings only for himself late at night. There is just so much tragedy in these songs it is palpable, and yet they are never depressing and miserablist for the sake of it, such is the depth in the characters.
The following album, the oddly yet somehow marvellously titled Verities And Balderdash, was Chapin’s best seller yet, perhaps largely to do with the presence of that single at Track One. It surely must be the only major label album release ever to contain the word ‘Balderdash’ in the title, but sadly that probably had little to do with its success. As for Cat’s In The Cradle, few of us probably need to hear it again owing to its familiarity, but there is no denying that it is a quality piece of songwriting and then some, marrying a winsome and catchy melody with a clever father-son lyric dripping with pathos, which is perhaps only bettered in that regard by Cat Stevens’ Father And Son. If anything, I have to admit to a slight preference for the Ugly Kid Joe cover, but there isn’t a lot in it. The album overall perhaps suffers from lack of a harder or more penetrative edge to the writing , but that isn’t to say it is one-dimensional at all. In fact, one area it shows development in is humour in the writing, with both the vehicle-collision cinema-verite of the remarkably titled 30,000 Pounds Of Bananas (based on a true story, but exaggerated for darkly comic affect) and the closing would-be-musician tale of Six String Orchestra raising a hefty smile and being very entertaining. I Wanna Write A Love Song is notable as being Harry’s own account of how he met his wife, Sandy. The high point of the album to these ears, however – and the one place where that old edginess and hard-hitting writing really comes through, is the powerful and timeless What Made America Famous, which contains a message as relevant today as it was almost fifty years ago.
We’re into Disc Three of this set by now, with the last album split across two discs, and next up it’s 1975’s Portrait Gallery. which is another good mix of nicely observed stories-within-songs and sharp character observations. It is highlighted by the two most dramatic pieces, the darkly suspenseful storytelling of The Rock and, most of all, Bummer, the savage indictment of crime, poverty, parental neglect, poor education and the military in America at the time. Its depiction of certain characters as literally ‘black’ and ‘white’ makes it sound unusual in today’s different climate, but to accuse the song of any sort of racism would be to miss the point by a country mile. It’s a piece of bleak, unsettling and utterly uncompromising socio-political documentary in which nobody comes out of it untainted by blame or responsibility, and has lost none of its relevance today. Elsewhere, however, some sort of sameyness is starting to creep in, and something different was certainly called for.
That something duly arrived in the form of the (mostly) live album Greatest Stories Live, which showed another side to Chapin’s talent, that of his wit and humour in his interaction with the audience. Musically it shows that he could deliver the goods on stage, as a sparse band (including his brothers Tom and Stephen, who both contribute a song each as writers as well) produces excellently delivered versions of Taxi, Mr Tanner and A Better Place To Be, while the highly personal I Wanna Learn A Love Song from the Verities And Balderdash album is more poignant than the studio original. Two of the songs (the final live recordings on the record) are in some ways the best here, if only for the way they capture that artist-audience rapport so brilliantly. Circle was a nice but relatively unremarkable song from the Sniper album, but here is transformed into a magnificently orchestrated mass celebration with Chapin, band and audience together, in such a way that one cannot help but feel the warmth of the occasion just from the audio, and almost feel personally involved. 30,000 Pounds Of Bananas, meanwhile, is simply glorious: delivered with its humorous tale masterfully played up for maximum effect both musically and vocally, it is extended to ten minutes by the addition of a hilarious section exploring ‘alternative endings’ for the song, and some priceless asides to the audience (‘Sounds like the Mormon Tubercular Choir is in tonight’). It ends the live portion of the album, but when originally released it was bolstered up to double-vinyl length by the addition of three new studio cuts, absent from many CD releases but here reinstated, which are significant for different reasons. She Is Always Seventeen and Love Is Just Another Word are both exceptionally good pieces of his most cutting social commentary, and harder edged and grittier than most of the previous couple of albums. The final song, however, the brief two-minute The Shortest Story is gut-wrenchingly dark, and perhaps the single most disturbing piece of songwriting I have ever heard. Shining focus on the issue of poverty and starvation in the Third World (Harry himself was involved in the creation of World Hunger Day), essentially it tells the already bleak and upsetting story of a baby who goes hungry after being unable to be breast-fed by its starving, and dying, mother, and ends up dying alone from starvation after three weeks. As if this wasn’t enough however, this harrowing tale is delivered from the point of view of the baby itself, finishing with the beyond-disturbing ‘I opened my mouth but I was too weak to cry… there is nothing else to do but die’, as a tolling funeral bell fades out. It’s something which stays in your head long after it finishes, possessing incredible emotional power, but emphatically not a pleasant listen. But then again, that was the point. People have written online of being moved to volunteer for famine relief work simply after listening to this song. Very, very black indeed.
Coming up after this one is On The Road To Kingdom Come, with the first two tracks on the same disc as the previous album – and I highly recommend not carrying straight on, as I found I had to go back to the excellent title track, having scarcely noticed it going by the first time, so shocking was the afterimage of The Shortest Story. It’s another album full of beautifully judged character studies and his trademark song-stories (the lengthy The Mayor Of Candor Lied being an example with a heavy twist in the tail). A highlight is the superbly judged and thought-provoking The Parade’s Still Passing By, written following the demise of folk musician Phil Ochs, but universal in some of its observations about the nature of fame, inspiration and legacy. Elsewhere there are some of his sharpest-observed lyrical strikes to date, such as If My Mary Were Here, about a man whose world collapses and leads to a spiral of drink and depression after he is left alone, with the brilliantly incisive ‘I’m a sad sack Sir Galahad whose sword’s around his knees / With a Grail no longer holy, and a prayer that’s saying ‘please”. Elsewhere, in the world-weary Fall In Love With Him he cuts to the heart of his own muse with the realisation that ‘A singer’s just another traveling salesman / Another night, another town to sell my wares’. The album is one of Chapin’s most varied and fleshed-out musically overall, and gave the impression that something special might be on the horizon if his development and progression continued. The world didn’t have to wait long…
The 1977 double vinyl album Dance Band On The Titanic was such a leap from Chapin’s previous work in its scope that it instantly defined all elements of his craft. Almost every one of its fourteen tracks is an absolute winner, with several of the songs being right up with his very best work. The title track is a small wonder of a song, delivering the serious story of the band on that ill-fated ship playing on as it sank, but couching it in such infectious musical accompaniment and wry humour that you aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry, and end up just enjoying it enormously. The line about the lifeboats being launched to the sound of the chaplain exclaiming ‘Women and children and chaplains first!’ is still a wonderful one. Elsewhere there are such many and varied styles as Bluesman (the story of a young man becoming a student of, and mentored by, an old blues player, delivered with fine humour and some cracking blues guitar soloing), the faux-Gospel/spiritual of One Light In A Dark Valley (An Imitation Spiritual) – here miscredited as In A Dark Alley, and the return to his storytelling roots with the darkly provocative Mercenaries, all of which illustrate the breadth on display over this superb recording. Country Dreams contains a brilliant chorus which takes a pitch from a telephone salesman and somehow makes it both catchy and dripping with pathos – telling of a man who cannot afford his own country dream, and ironically ends up selling it to others (‘Hello sir, I am the Pocano Land Development Company…’ begins the chorus), and you feel for him so much you almost want to buy the damn land! This is what Chapin could do better than almost anyone else. The best two tracks on the album, however, are the two which end the respective discs. The melodically haunting I Wonder What Happened To Him turns the idea of the typical love song on its head, with Chapin the lover of a more experienced and worldly-wise woman who gives little away about her former partners, leading him to torture himself by wondering what happened to his predecessor, and whether he himself will end up a silent ghost overlooking some future relationship. Her photos are ‘like detective leads’ while there are letters he cannot bring himself to read, as he muses that ‘Your past is a canyon. I’m a stranger on the rim…’.
It’s a brilliant piece, but the true highlight, both of the album and Chapin’s career, is the closing fourteen-minute epic There Only Was One Choice (again, here mistitled as ‘There Was Only One Choice’). Over its sprawling length, almost filling up the last side of vinyl, it mixes in the autobiographical tale of a young singer-songwriter, who ages and fears losing his potency along the way, with a deeply caustic swipe at the state of America. The 1976 Bicentennial had just taken place (‘B.U.Y. Centennial!’ as the song cynically exclaims), and this provides some stunning lyrical and musical content. It shouldn’t work, but it does, seamlessly, ending up in poignant fashion with the protagonist looking worryingly at his muse as he enters his mid-thirties (‘I’ve got this problem with my aging I no longer can ignore / A tame and toothless tabby can’t produce a lion’s roar’), but finally seeing his legacy carried on by his own son (‘There he’ll make the silence listen to the dream behind the voice / And show his minstrel Hamlet daddy that There Only Was One Choice…’). It’s lengthy, extremely verbose, it veers from folk to country to rock to jazz and all points inbetween, and it is career-defining. By any standards, this is Progressive Music par excellence, and Harry’s personal high water mark to my mind.
This set, as well as (almost) the 1970s and Harry Chapin’s Elektra contract, is wound up by 1978’s Living Room Suite, which studiously avoids the sprawling breadth of Dance Band, stripping back to simpler lyrical and musical song structures, and does suffer accordingly. The biggest casualty here for me is the lack of depth to the songs – even when there is a fuller arrangement (the closing Somebody Said borders on hard rock), there is a greater preponderance of simple, repeated choruses, and the broader lyrical brushstrokes definitely blunt the effect of his unquestioned excellence as a wordsmith. There are pleasant songs here, but none which stop you in your tracks. Ironically, after the grand declaration of the previous album, this is as close as he got to that ‘tame and toothless tabby’, and it’s something of a shame. Mind you, it occupies the same disc as the second half of Dance Band, so in that sense it can be looked on as a bonus. Out of nine albums, one miss isn’t a bad swing rate…
Sadly, Harry’s career would not last very long after his departure from Elektra. After one more studio album was completed and released, 1981 saw him involved in a fatal road accident when his vehicle was hit by a supermarket delivery truck – a desperately sad tragedy, but it is nice to think that he would have smiled at the irony of the accident considering the 30,000 Pounds Of Bananas song! A far more sobering irony was that he was on his way to play a charity concert that evening in New York – he was playing well over a hundred shows for charity every year by this point, and it has been estimated that he gave around a third of all his music income away. mostly in the area of famine relief. He should be celebrated today far more than he is in terms of his humanitarian work – he was widely recognised at the time as a key player in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger (under President Jimmy Carter), and was the only member of that commission to attend every single meeting. In that career-defining song There Only Was One Choice, he sings the chillingly prophetic lines ‘When I started this song I was still thirty-three, the age that Mozart died and sweet Jesus was set free / Keats and Shelley too soon finished, Charlie Parker would be – and I fantasised some tragedy’d be soon curtailing me’. Four years later, it did.
This set isn’t perfect, just as Harry Chapin wasn’t perfect. He couldn’t possibly be, his was a warts-and-all genius, singing about and for the luckless, the lonely and the dispossessed, but he matched it with a stroke of often black humour as wide as you could wish. You can forgive a man for his occasional misses when his ‘hits’ are as life-affirming as some of the music within this box. It’s a fitting tribute.