Harry Chapin’s Epitaph

On December 7th, 2009, singer/songwriter/philanthropist Harry Chapin would have been 67. I had the joy of seeing Harry perform at The University of Western Ontario in 1980. He came back to the university every couple of years so when I had a chance to see him play a solo coffee-house in Banff, Alberta that summer (for $7!), I passed, having spent my meagre savings on a girl before I received my first paycheck. I’d only been in Banff a couple weeks and when given the choice between seeing/hearing Harry again or maybe (hopefully) losing my virginity, Harry lost. Actually, I lost because Harry came, played, left and never came back. He also never made it back to my university.

The following summer I was back working at the Banff Springs Hotel and on July 16th I stopped into the King Eddie pub for an afternoon pint with my roommate, Jim, and his future ex-girlfriend. While we sat and sipped, Harry’s music was being played over the sound system. At the time we simply assumed it was a DJ who had the same musical tastes as us.

We finished our pints and wandered back out onto Banff Avenue to stroll back up to staff residence. As we passed the Greek painter selling his wares in front of the hardware store, he had his radio on and a Harry song was playing. We stopped and I commented on it. At that moment the announcer reiterated the report of the day: “Harry Chapin, dead at 39.” To say that I was stunned would not do justice to the effect Harry’s music has had on me. The summer before I had been truly homesick (and still a virgin for the first few months!) and did a lot of hiking on the mountain trails in and around Banff. I had a Walkman-type cassette player my grandfather, Poppy, had given me for my birthday and I wandered the trails, inhaling the fresh air and natural scents I just didn’t get back home in Toronto or London. I was accompanied by Harry’s Greatest Stories Live, Jim Croce’s (another great loss) Photograph’s & Memories, Phil Collins’ Face Value, Pat Benetar’s In the Heat of the Night & Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. They were my best friends, and still are.

In the 30 years since I was first introduced to Harry’s music by friend David White, I have literally listened to Greatest Stories Live thousands of times. For months at a time it played over and over and over. If I was awake and able to listen to music (ie not in class or at work), it was playing. I love not only the lyrics, but the interplay of Harry, Big John Wallace, Tom & Steve Chapin and the rest of the band. “Harry, it sucks” needs no explanation to Harry fans and I’ll give none here. If you want to know what it means, listen to that album. If you don’t laugh when you hear it (and you’ll have to turn up the volume to hear it) then I don’t know why you’re reading my blog, because you and I have very little in common. Sorry.

Quick note: I don’t love the whole album. There are one or two tunes that just don’t do it for me, but since I didn’t put them on the home-recorded cassette when I made it for my portable player, I only got the best, for me.

Harry’s music can still reach into my heart and wring laughter and tears out at the same time. I’m almost ten years older than Harry was when he died. My own mortality and life choices feature prominently in my thoughts, awake and asleep. This post is about the words from Harry’s epitaph. May they stir your curiosity and get you downloading his tunes. If I have to recommend an album to you, I will recommend two. Obviously, Greatest Stories Live is the first. The second is the posthumously compiled The Gold Medal Collection. This collection, selected by Harry’s widow, Sandy, and other members of the family, includes not only tracks from Greatest Stories Live and his other albums, but it also includes bites of radio interviews Harry gave. He discusses Feeding America’s Children, his musical and personal inspirations, and what it meant for him to play for his fans. I will go so far as to say that if you buy and listen to The Gold Medal Collection in the next week, it will be the best Christmas/Chanukkah gift you get. First time around, don’t listen with people around, no matter how much you love them. Put the headphones on and go for a walk, or close the door. Remind the people that you do indeed love them, but you’ll be back in an hour or so. When you get back, hug them. Then go online and find all of the other great Harry music out there, especially The Bottom Line Encore Collection and Harry Chapin Tribute (Harry’s songs recorded by musical greats who knew and admired Harry, including Bruce Springsteen, The Smothers Brothers and Pat Benetar). No one sings Harry like Harry, but the stories they tell about their lost friend will bring Harry that much closer to your heart, especially The Boss’ tale.

Although I never met Harry, I did have the pleasure of meeting his brother Tom a couple years ago and thanking him for everything Harry and the band meant to my life. In fact, I knew of Tom Chapin through his kids show Make a Wish (1971-76 on ABC), long before I’d heard of Harry. Little did I know (until just today!) that the music I heard on Make a Wish way back when was written by Harry himself, including Circle. In 2006 or 2007 I was also lucky enough to meet The Smothers Brothers and thanked them for taking Harry’s song, Six String Orchestra, to a whole new level (Harry Chapin Tribute).

I once wrote down the lyrics of Harry’s Cats in the Cradle in a journal with a note that I hoped my own father and I never became like the father and son in the song. Three years later Dad died. We didn’t exactly grow apart, but I certainly could have done a better job of being his son while he was here. Before I finally give you Harry’s epitaph, I’ll let you know that my favourite Harry song is actually Old College Avenue. It simply brings back memories of another time, lost in the mists. Oddly enough, I didn’t discover this song until long after Harry was gone. It’s on The Gold Medal Collection. For more information about Harry, check out The Harry Chapin Foundation (www.harrychapinfoundation.org) or the detailed listing on Wikipedia.

Taken from his song, I Wonder What Would Happen to This World. Something to make us all think, especially me on this morning when the night’s dreams bring mortality to the forefront.

Ciao for now,

Tim.

Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world
-Harry Chapin. 1942-1981
Except for Harry’s words above, all words and images here are Copyright Tim Reynolds.
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2 Responses to “Harry Chapin’s Epitaph”

  1. Ed Young Says:

    Hey brother, the words you wrote are as powerful to me as the lyrics Harry wrote in his songs. My best friend (Pat) and I grew up together reciprocating as the number one and number two fans of Harry Chapin & Jim Croce. During our 1980 senior high school year, we cruised up and down Main Street in Pat’s 1970 Monte Carlo with the fancy Alpine stereo listening to Harry Chapin as loud as a live concert. Can’t believe we didn’t pick up more women with that. During our drinking age years we stuffed the jukebox 1 hour before closing time with all Harry Chapin songs. The bartender was never happy about that nor the patrons until we performed our drunken two man sketch to “A Better Place To Be”. It left the after hour audience half crying/half laughing. Crying to the story magically sung by Harry and laughing to my expert dual role as fat waitress/lovely lady. It is difficult to write a great song. It is creative to tell a wonderful story. It is uniquely talented to put them together and originate new emotions inside a person. That is what Harry Chapin does for me. Pat died this last January and I saved all my crying until I would listen to Harry Chapin songs. It helped me a lot in the grieving. Two weeks before Pat had his fatal heart attack, I emailed “Sequel” to him. I was surprised Pat never knew that song existed. It is on my mind right now. Thank you writing your blog. It moved me.

    • Thanks for sharing your own story with me, Ed. I have a buddy who is as close to me as Pat was to you, and every day I hope he outlasts me because as a firefighter he knows death and he’d survive mine better than I’d survive his.

      He’s as big of a Harry and Jim and Gord (Lightfoot) fan as I am. The storytellers. They own our hearts, musically. I’m glad Pat got a chance to hear Sequel before he died.

      All the best,
      Tim.

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