Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something

At the Movies Blog

Singer/songwriter Harry Chapin says “Taxi” was only 60% true.

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I have a weird, long-running joke with my wife. It’s not a joke, per se. Just something I do. It started early in our relationship when she made the mistake of saying she didn’t like Harry Chapin. I only had one of his albums (Heads & Tales, with the song Taxi on it), but I was a fan. I loved his story songs. She thought he was schlocky, even though she saw him in concert the year before he died (“It was a free ticket my friend had”). 

So because I was so perplexed by her not liking this genius songwriter, if I ever saw a taxi, or someone mentioned San Francisco, or it started raining (all rather infrequent in San Diego), I’d break into song singing, “It was raining hard in ‘Frisco/I needed one more fare to make my night…”

And if anyone was ever having a baby, whether that was one of her nieces or a famous person on TV, I’d start the opening lines of Cats in the Cradle: “My child arrived just the other day/He came to the world in the usual way…”

Sometimes she’d ask follow up questions about the lyrics. “Does that mean cesarean section?”

Most times it would just be her covering her ears and yelling, “Make it stop!”

So when I told her about the documentary we’d be watching on Harry Chapin, she was less than enthused. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Well, on the way to the living room. She became a fan. Not just because of all his humanitarian work (she remembered at the concert she attended, having to bring canned goods for a donation). She learned to appreciate just how hard he worked to make it in music, after being kicked out of The Chapin Brothers band by his own brothers. 

I was only 12 when Chapin died in a car crash in 1981, and don’t even remember the story being on the news. I do remember around that time, always playing my crappy Radio Shack transistor radio in bed, when I was supposed to be asleep. The DJs sounded so cool, and I loved the music. I had already been a fan of Cats in the Cradle, but I heard the song Taxi for the first time. It was so interesting to hear a story in a song. The bizarre falsetto vocals (which I had assumed were a woman). Hearing a cello. It blew me away.

I never really learned all that much about Chapin, so it was great to be filled in by this documentary. Although I did find it odd that I only knew one story on Chapin, and the film didn’t cover it. While they showed a montage of him on various talk shows, and we see Johnny Carson throwing a Frisbee out to the crowd after introducing him…the story I love is when Chapin first performed Taxi on The Tonight Show, they had gotten so many calls about how amazing he was, more calls than they had ever gotten for any guest — that they immediately brought him back the next night. And to think, comedians thought it was a success when Carson called them over to the couch.

Another montage showed the various movies and TV shows that have had characters talking about Cats in the Cradle, or singing it humorously. And what a thrill for Harry’s widow Sandy, who actually wrote the chorus as a poem that Harry turned into a song.

She already had three kids and was older when they met. As he explained from the stage, “I gave guitar lessons, mostly to meet women. And I met her…”

That’s what got him to write the tune “I Want to Learn a Love Song.” Since most people don’t know the tune, the lyrics:

I come fresh from the street/Fast on my feet

Kinda lean and lazy.

Not much meat on my bones/and a whole lot alone

And more than a little bit crazy.

The old six-string was all I had/To keep my belly still

And for each full-hour lesson I gave/I got a crisp 10 dollar bill.

She was married for seven years/To a concrete castle king

She said she wanted to learn to play the guitar

And to hear her children sing.

So I’d show up about once a week/In my faded tight-legged jeans

With a backlog full of hobo stories/And dilapidated dreams.

She said, “I want to learn a love song; won’t you let me hear you sing?”

She said, “I want to learn a love song, I want to hear you play.”

She said, “I want to learn a love song, before you go away.”

So I tried to teach her a couple of chords/And an easy melody

But it always turned out she’d rather listen/To my guitar and me.

I could hear her old man laughing in the den

Playing stud poker with the boys

While I sang so soft in the living room/Too scared to make much noise.

I came one week and the den was dark/And she met me at the door

And we sat on the couch and we sang and talked

Till I could not sing no more.

The silence kept on building/Her eyes grew much too wide

And I could hear both of our heartbeats/But there was no place to hide.

She said, “I want to learn a love song full of happy things.”

She said, “I want to learn a love song, won’t you let me hear you sing?”

She said, “I want to learn a love song, I want to hear you play.”

She said, “I want to learn a love song, before you go away.”

Well, they got together and he was a stepfather, and they soon had two kids in…the usual way.

It was interesting to find out his dad was a good looking, successful jazz drummer. He cheated on their mom and soon left the family. Harry’s mom raised the big family by herself, until remarrying. That guy ended up physically abusing the five kids, but they still seemed to have an enjoyable childhood with their various adventures. As teens, they started picking up guitars and banjos.

Chapin was a little older, and had made a few documentaries. Surprisingly, one of them was even nominated for an Academy Award. Yet while being away, the brothers decided to kick him out of the group. As one brother said, “I used to say, ‘Two is company, but Harry’s a crowd.’

I always laugh when someone is kicked out of a band and becomes more successful. The ‘80s band Bow Wow Wow kicked out Adam Ant as their singer, as well as Boy George. Both went on to become big successes. The Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek…his brother quit the group because he wasn’t a fan of Jim Morrison. Big mistake. Yet much like when Michael Jordan was cut from the high school basketball team, and then worked and practiced so hard to make the team — it made him great. Perhaps if Harry had stayed in the band with his brothers, he wouldn’t have become such a prolific songwriter.

And just as Chapin threw himself into making it in music, the documentary covers how he threw himself into humanitarian causes. It was interesting to see him signing autographs and talking to a high school crowd about the importance of hunger around the world, and answering questions they had about it. It was also interesting to hear how he pestered Jimmy Carter so much that Carter had to say “I already agree with you on all this!”

I had wondered why Bob Geldoff was one of the talking heads. Then he talks about how Chapin’s commitment to these causes is what made Live Aid and We Are the World possible. 

Among the others who talk about Chapin, we hear from Pete Seeger. Pat Benetar gets choked up talking about him (and we see her perform “Shooting Star”). Bruce Springsteen tells a great story about how much Chapin liked to talk when they’d run into each other in the studio. Billy Joel, who looked…rather odd…tells some interesting stories, including how everyone thought “Piano Man” was a Chapin song when it came out. But my favorite was to hear from Elektra president Jac Holzman (who signed two of my favorite bands — Love and The Doors). He was involved in a bidding war with Clive Davis and another record label over Chapin.

Near the end of this documentary, I felt the same way I felt about the Pat Tillman documentary (he’s the NFL player who gave up the millions in the NFL to fight in a war with his Green Beret brother, and died in battle). Since Chapin died in a car accident while going to a benefit show…I thought about how his manager was going to have a meeting with him, since he was not making any money and doing 150 benefit shows a year. During those shows, he’d keep a few thousand bucks and give all the rest to that charity. While that’s an incredible thing to do, it was keeping him away from his wife and kids, and putting a strain on their marriage. It was costing him millions. It was so baffling that he would do all this. Kenny Rogers even talked about how he could have done a bigger concert and made more money to donate. Rogers added, “He may have been the most unselfish person I’ve ever met in my life.”

I just wonder why Tillman and Chapin couldn’t do a little less, and still take care of their families. Especially if they came from broken families. And by all accounts, Chapin enjoyed being a father and stepfather. 

It was fun to see early clips of Harry in choir, with Joni Mitchell. Chicago singer Robert Lamm also was in the church choir with him. It was interesting to see a concert poster where Billy Joel was opening for Chapin (knowing that Joel would become much more successful). Joel talks about how kind Chapin was to him at that show, too.

The clips of the memorial service are so emotional. Watching his young son get on stage swaying to the music, while wiping tears from his eyes. Hearing Ritchie Havens perform W.O.L.D., Chapin’s song about a radio station and DJ. 

Peter Yarrow performed, and we see Harry’s brother breaking down while trying to sing a song about their childhood, that was on Chapin’s last album.

And the clip of Chapin’s stoic dad, sitting among the crowd…all so heartbreaking.

You can catch this at the drive-in screenings the San Diego International Film Festival is having, on October 16th. That just happens to be World Food Day. Perfect timing considering Chapin’s “WhyHunger” nonprofit is still going strong in their effort to end food insecurity. You can also find the documentary streaming online.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

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