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Date: 16/07/06

Remembering The Short-Story Man

On July 16 1981, there was a traffic accident on Long Island, New York. A collision between a small car and a truck.

There was one fatality: the car driver.

Photo of Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin was a songwriter, singer and political campaigner.

In an all-too-short recording career (his first solo LP, Heads And Tales, had come out in 1972), he had nonetheless fitted a remarkable amount into the last decade of his life: eleven albums (including two live double LPs), a Broadway musical based on one of his own songs, endless concerts (the proceeds of which were given, more often than not, to the causes he supported), and endless, tireless campaigning on land reform, hunger and more.

There were artists who sold far more records. There were artists who made far more money. There were certainly artists who won more critical acclaim than Harry Chapin. The snobs of Rolling Stone and other organs of the self-important thought his work 'overwrought', 'sentimental', 'preachy'. As ever, they spectacularly missed the point. For what Harry Chapin did was not sing songs so much as tell stories. He was, in the words of the journalist Tony Kornheiser, a novelist. So many of his songs were short stories: about taxi drivers having a chance encounter with a lost love (Taxi, and its sequel called...erm...Sequel); about the gap between the generations (the famous Cat's In The Cradle, subject many years later to a most dreadful cover version); about the downcast, the disregarded, the marginalised, the outsider (pick a number - any number!).

Consider one of his most remarkable songs, Sniper (1972). Based on the true story of a young man running beserk with a shotgun at a Texas school, Chapin tells the story largely from the gunman's point of view. What motivated him to carry out such a slaughter? An upbringing without affection; shunned and considered 'strange' by his classmates; unable to articulate his feelings...except by making people answer his questions by his last, despairing act:

"Listen you people, I've got a question.
You won't pay attention, but I'll ask anyhow.
I've got a way that will get me an answer,
I've been waiting to ask you 'til now,
Right now!

"Am I?
I am a lover who's never been kissed.
Am I?
I am a fighter who's not made a fist.
Am I?
If I'm alive then there's so much I've missed.
How do I know I exist?

"Are you listening to me?
Are you listening to me?
Am I?"

He gets his answer when the SWAT team arrive at the clock tower he has holed up in, and in all of the attention his actions have garnered. His story will go on after him, because there will be more whose disaffection and estrangement from 'normal' society will lead them to follow suit:

"Am I?
There is no way that you can hide me.
Am I?
Though you have put your fire inside me.
You've given me my answer, can't you see?

"I was.

"I am.

"And now, I WILL BE."

The stories Harry Chapin told were so often about those on the outside. But there were many others which dealt with the standard themes of love, life and loss. Many of these were written in the first person, and there is little doubt that a great many of those were at least semi-autobiographical, since his personal life was often, shall we say, complicated. Indeed, the male protagonists in the songs are often shown to be emotionally unlearned to the point of outright klutzhood (think of the ageing DJ in another of his most famous stories, W.O.L.D.), rescued only by the strength and forbearance of the women in the stories.

This is not to say that, for all the emotional power in his songs, he lacked a sense of humour even in songs about relationships: Dirt Gets Under The Fingernails is a delight, telling of what happens when, completely by chance, both husband and wife decide to be what they really want to be. Similarly, 30000 Pound Of Bananas, although telling another true story about a fruit truck crashing (a savage irony in retrospect), is enlivened by the way in which the tale is told:

"And he sideswiped nineteen neat parked cars,
clipped off thirteen telephone poles,
hit two houses, bruised eight trees,
and Blue-Crossed seven people.
It was then he lost his head,
not to mention an arm or two, before he stopped.
And he smeared for four hundred yards
along the hill that leads into Scranton, Pennsylvania
all those thirty thousand pounds of bananas."

Harry Chapin was at his very best in live performance. I envy those who had the chance to see him in concert, gigs which could last up to three hours as he performed with his customary power and commitment, and where he would spend the whole of the interval and some considerable time afterwards talking with his fans.

Those of us not fortunate to have been of an age or at a location to have witnessed him first-hand have the consolation of two live double albums, the earlier of which, Greatest Stories Live, is probably the closest we are ever likely to get to experiencing the real thing.

Objectively, Harry Chapin was not a great singer from a technical standpoint (rather like the character in another of his classics, Mr. Tanner). The arrangements (many by his brother Stephen) are sometimes over-egged. Such a prolific output over a short period time was always likely to be of uneven quality. But what shines through always is his passion, his humanity and his ability to go straight to the heart of the listener.

Like many, I'd known about Chapin from his 'hits' in the mid-seventies. It was only about seven or eight years ago, at a record fair in Chester, that I started collecting the LPs. I still don't have them all: 1978's Living Room Suite and the ultra-rare effort from 1966 with his father (a noted drummer) and his brothers (under the title Chapin Music) still elude me. I'll get there some day.

I've been listening to the ones I do have while putting this piece together (which may explain a certain disjointedness: I keep having to break off to turn the records over), and the songs (even on the umpteenth listening) still have the power to move. There are so many which I start singing along with, but have to stop because I start to fill up. No-one else has ever had the ability to do that to me. Harry Chapin connects, in a way no-one else can match.

Twenty-five years after he was grabbed from us on the Long Island Expressway at the obscenely young age of 38, he still moves and inspires. Few have that talent during their lifetimes, let alone a generation after their passing.

Harry, it sucks that you've not been here to entertain and energise us through these strange, confusing, exasperating years. But we're still grateful for what you gave us while you were here, and the inspiration you still provide.