Another Love Story
“There’s no tick-tock on your electric clock,
But still your life runs down”
— Harry Chapin (song: Halfway to Heaven)
The Long Island Expressway is often called by its acronym LIE, and seldom by its assigned number ID: I-495. It is also often called the Long Island Distress-way, a tribute to its notorious snarly traffic jams that can go on for miles and miles and several hours each weekday.
Monday through Friday the expressway turns into a slothful snake, slithering on the cold concrete as it stretches from the Queens Midtown Bridge out east to Suffolk County. Late in the morning and early in the afternoon, the LIE wakes up. The traffic drops below a volume threshold, and — voila! — cars can often zip along at 65mph (105 kmh), sometimes even with a few car lengths between them.
I have a confession to make. During my high school and college years, I didn’t like the contemporary popular music as much as I let on. Sure, I learned the words to many of the more popular songs and was, thereby, able to fit in. I faked it.
The songs that attracted me were more earthy. Songs with words that could be understood; songs with words that told stories; songs where the words were more important than the music. The music was simply the walls upon which murals were painted; murals that told stories of a vast range of “ordinary” people, trying to do their best, survive the world’s vagaries, and just – somehow – get along.
Thirty or forty-five years ago a guy would rather die before admitting that Barry Manilow’s songs about a washed up show girl (Copacabana) or a man who mourns that he is no longer in love (Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again) were his preference. Include Gordon Lightfoot’s saga of a doomed freight ship (Edmund Fitzgerald). Or maybe worse, “chick” songs: Judy Collins singing a ballad about someone who did all the right things in life, except the important things (Send in the Clowns), or acknowledging that everything important we think we know about life might be wrong (Both Sides Now).
At lunch hour the LIE offers an enticing route for mid-day errands. Clients to meet. Lunch with friends. Errands to run. Doctor appointments. In the summer, pick up or drop off kids at camp, make an early get away to – or late return from – the outer beaches. Trucks are out making deliveries and pickups. Noon hour traffic usually zips, but it’s a crap-shoot: sometime it’s a bit tight for 65mph, and – with just one accident, or breakdown, or a little precipitation – it can return to “the Distress-way”, slowing to a sudden and unwelcome complete stop.
Shoot, I even liked some ballads, like Marty Robbins’ cowboy ditty “West Texas town of El Paso” and Simon & Garfunkle’s “The Boxer.” Among the “story teller” singers and songwriters, by far I liked Harry Chapin the most. He wrote and arranged his own songs. His voice was just bad enough that anyone could convince themselves they could sing them. But the stories — the lyrics — captivated me.
By Chapin’s own admission, he was a delusional dreamer. His first songs (he often joked) went something along the lines of “If only everyone could hold hands and hum along to the wonderful songs I am singing, the world would be a wonderful place and we’d have peace and friendship and boundless goodwill.”
Born to a musical and theatrical family, Chapin even made a brief yet successful foray into movie making, writing and directing a documentary for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legendary_Champions]
Harry found his stride in music in his own form of ballad, telling stories of life. His breakthrough song, in 1972, was Taxi, a story about a taxi driver who has lost his life’s dream and purpose — and then, without warning one night, he picks up a fare who turns out to be a former lover needing a ride home. Her life has also not turned out so well. They briefly reminisce. Among his many studies:
- Sniper – a confused and frustrated young man seeks notoriety ·
- Better Place to Be – a midnight watchman fills his empty life for one night, and then, maybe, for the rest of his life. ·
- WOLD – a washed up DJ is still trying to make something of his life and career
- Mr Tanner – A dry-clean shop owner with a talent for singing ·
- Corey’s Coming – an aged railroad worker still hangs out at the rail yard
- What Made America Famous – Hippies living in a communal hovel survive the scare of a life [which he also wrote into a full length musical play,The Night that Made America Famous; it ran a full season at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Manhatten]
- Dance Band on the Titanic – title tells it all
- 30,000 Pounds of Bananas – a young truck driver negotiates the hills of eastern Pennsylvania
- Dogtown – Life in the old whaling town of Gloucester, MA ·
- Mail Order Annie – Life on the North Dakota Plains
- Vacancy – A Motel Keeper’s Life
- Six String Orchestra — Harry makes fun of his guitar abilities
- Tangled up Puppet — A father’s love for his daughter is clouded by the mystery of transition from young girl to young woman
It was in telling the stories of simple salt-of-the-earth people’s lives that Harry made his mark, but it took a while before he made it really big. Most of his good songs were quite long, six to ten minutes. That makes good concert material, but doesn’t get you on the radio. After a few years, with the help of his wife, Sandy, he finally made it really big.
Sandy had already been in an unhappy marriage and divorced with three children – and nine year Harry’s elder – when they met. [Of course, Chapin adapted their meeting and falling in love to a song: I Want to Learn a Love Song]. When they married, Chapin adopted her children and became the loving father that they never had.
The Chapins’ marriage and coming together as a family began a happy story just as it ended a sad story for Sandy — a sad story she wrote into a poem … and Harry turned into a song. All at once the story describes both the relationship between her first husband and his father, as well as the relationship between her first husband and her children. The song was poignant, touching and of the right length, under four minutes. Harry had his only #1 hit with Cat’s in the Cradle. Now he wasn’t just famous and well off, he had a substantial cash flow.
There is a lot to do to set up a benefit concert. Especially when you have to — okay, maybe when you insist on — doing most of it yourself. Better leave plenty of time, just in case the LIE gets all jugged up. After a few hasty phone calls and a quick check to make sure that the contracts, music and guitars are all packed – oh, and a fast food lunch – it’s time to hit the road. The LIE is remarkably smooth. To heck with that silly 55mph speed limit, 65 is plenty safe. And besides, the oil crises are long over.
Born exactly one year after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, perhaps Harry Foster Chapin was destined to great things. He surely had great visions. Great aspirations. Harry was out to change the world. He received a commission to the Air Force Academy. But he dropped out: the military was certainly not his style. He transferred to Colgate in his home state of New York to study music and theater, through which he — of course — intended to change the world. He soon learned it wasn’t so easy. When his music couldn’t change the world, he figured out another way: he would use the money and notoriety that his musical success provided to change the world.
Among Harry’s many concerns were the inanity and the evil of Hunger. And not just hunger, but hunger on a global scale. Harry founded and funded the WHY (World Hunger Year, which is now called Why Hunger … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Hunger_Year).
The foundational beliefs of WHY are: 1) that the world produces every year more food than we can all possibly eat and, yet, people suffer in hunger around the world, and 2) that most causes for hunger are local, and therefore can be solved locally. But he didn’t just think globally; he also founded the Long Island Food Bank.
Harry was in love with the human race; and wanted to make a huge positive impact.
I saw Chapin in concert only once — at Arkansas State University. I think it was April, 1977. He was alone. Perhaps one of his brothers Tom or Steve came out to do a few songs with him. He had a rather large band and following at that time, and I wondered why he was mostly alone. Well, it turns out that by this time most of the concerts Harry did were benefits, usually supporting a combination of local charities (philharmonics, theaters and food banks were often favorites) as well as his world causes. He was WAY ahead of his time; before FARM-AID and LIVE-AID he was putting together concerts with other save-the-world types like John Denver and Elton John. Turns out he often had a falling out with his band, and they wouldn’t perform with him – sure his causes were great, but they wanted to be paid. Harry didn’t care about the money and couldn’t figure out why they did.
At least two of his songs were views of his own life. One an overview: the appropriately named Shooting Star, in which a man lost in his own visions is given meaning to life by his wife. And another song was a portent: 30,000 lbs of Bananas, in which a young distracted driver must negotiate a potentially deadly situation while driving a truck.
Harry lived fast and hard, always on a mission. He wrote and performed constantly. Even with a large income, he gave so much money away that he had no idea how much money he had. He lived simply, driving a 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit, eating quickly and horribly. Nonetheless, he had the ear of President Jimmy Carter, and lobbied congress on the president’s behalf to get support and funding for the Commission on World Hunger.
The LIE is really moving now. Not much farther now. The concert will be just past the next exit; from there to East Meadow, near Levittown, the humble first post-war planned community — the one that set the model for suburban sprawl.
The 1975 Rabbit has moved to the center lane, preparing to exit soon, as it shoots down the expressway, when — suddenly — it slows from 65 mph to 50, then to 40, then to 30. The emergency flashers come on. Cars are whizzing by on both sides.
The driver is trying to make it to the right shoulder. Something is terribly, terribly wrong. It slows to 20, then 15 mph. Is there a chance to slide into the right lane? No, a car is there and the Rabbit nearly collides with it; the Rabbit’s driver over-reacts, veering to the left. It hits the car to its left. Careening and over-correcting again, it turns to the right, entering the right lane ahead of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer semi-truck, en route to a delivery at a Long Island supermarket.
<updated> Thirty-six years ago this summer, on a glorious, sunny and beautiful Thursday noon hour, July 16, 1981, Harry Chapin made his way down the LIE, as he had so many times before. Heck, New York City was his hometown. Along the way he passed signs and exits (“that he should have seen“) for parks, buildings and humanitarian institutions that would one day bear his name.
He was a man with a big heart and big dreams. He had spent his adult life giving from his heart, sharing his dreams. Now, his big heart had little left in it; on that sunny afternoon Harry Chapin had a massive heart attack right there on the LIE, and at that moment it became, truly, a Distress-way.
His car came to a nearly complete stop, directly in front of a grocery store delivery truck. The truck was unable to stop. In a cataclysmic collision, the truck not only rammed the tiny Rabbit, it ended up on top of Chapin’s VW Rabbit. Ironically, he was under a truck carrying 30,000 pounds of groceries. Miraculously, brave passersby, together with the truck driver, were able to extract him from the car, through the window, just before it erupted into an inferno. To no avail. Harry left his heart and dreams behind and moved on, aged only 38.
When I heard the news that night, where I lived with two friends in a rented house in West Seattle, I got physically sick. This was a punch to the gut. My intestines roiled and their contents emptied out. As was our custom, when someone famous died, we would have an Irish wake – which meant drinking. For me it was a drowning of sorrow. And at that time, I didn’t know the half of it. I just liked Chapin’s music. I had no idea of what a big dreamer and doer he was.
I don’t think I would have liked his politics much. As a dreamer he had the opinion that every problem should be fixed with a big societal toolbox. He was hanging out with Michael Moore before he was famous, helping keep his little protest-print-shop in Flint, Michigan alive. I’m sure Harry would be touring the “Occupy” protests, going from city to city, country to country, putting on free concerts and offering encouragement.
But Harry was way better than that. He didn’t just demand that somebody else, or government, fix problems. He set out to do it himself. He poured himself into his beliefs and humanitarian causes. And THAT I admire.
My lessons from Harry:
- Life is short, sometimes tragically short. Get over it.
- Get a dream and just do it.
- Tell your stories. Share your dreams.
- Be in a bit of a hurry.
- Enjoy the Music of Life, whatever it sounds like to you.
- Make no excuses for whatever inspires you, no matter what others may think.
- Pick causes greater than yourself
- Listen to your wife
Don’t let this be you:
“Oh, I’ve got something inside me —
Not what my life’s about.
I’ve been letting my outside tide me
Over ’til my time runs out”
— Harry Chapin (song bridge lyrics: Taxi)
Joe Girard ©November, 2011 (republished, slightly edited ©2017)
(1) this essay’s title “Another Love Story” is derived from the title of Chapin’s Album: Sniper and Other Love Stories.
(2) Long Island Expressway: I don’t know why it is I-495. The rule is that the first digit (“4”) is supposed to indicate a loop or bypass to the nominal route (I-95). Not only is it not a loop, it is a spur and doesn’t even formally connect to the I-95. Those crazy New Yorkers.
(3) Disclosure: “Even though Chapin was driving without a license, his driver’s license having previously been revoked for a long string of traffic violations, his widow Sandy won a $12 million decision in a negligence lawsuit against Super Markets General, the owners of the truck.” — Wikipedia
Joe Girard’s other older essays at essays
Final thoughts: Some choice songs:
30,000 lbs of Bananas: (Kind of a fun song, but sort of sad too) …http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGldNpngDws
Harry’s first hit: Taxi …. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qYU9b5OF8M&feature=related
Harry’s only #1 Hit: Cat’s in the Cradle ….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP839hV_aBw
- Circle. Harry’s biggest European hit, and the closing to all his concerts: Circle….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yjxWfyxpqY