The Stranger with the Melodies

There aren’t many musicians or bands my father, brother, and I all agree on. My dad is a jazz and classical guy predominately now, but he used to be a bit of a deadhead, and once got mad at me for implying he might not know who Keith Richards was. My brother has somewhat similar tastes, with plenty of overlap, but more often than not when we’re driving in a car together he spends a lot of time skipping songs that come up on my mixes.

The two biggest artists we all agree on are Neil Diamond and Harry Chapin. I occasionally think it’s funny as someone who goes to a lot of punk rock shows, how many Neil Diamond songs I can sing off the top of my head, not just Sweet Caroline. My brother is the same way. Of course our love of Neil Diamond comes from my father listening to him all the time when we were kids. I don’t have a good story about discovering him, he was just always there. I don’t know how my dad got into him, but I would guess he doesn’t have a good story about it either. I even went to see Diamond play in Philly a few years ago, and I’m willing to bet I was the only thirty-something guy there by himself. The music may be wrapped in nostalgia for me, but I will always be a fan. Something about Diamond’s music just makes me happy.

Harry Chapin is a little different. If Neil Diamond’s music is cotton candy, all light and sweet and fun, then Chapin’s music is gin, something to drown your sorrows in that still tastes of flowers. I asked my father how he got into Chapin and he wasn’t sure, but he thought it was probably an old friend of his playing him ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’.

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‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ is Chapin’s most famous song, by a large margin these days. Based on a fair amount of conversations, I’m also sure that most of the people reading this blog thought ‘Cats’ was a Cat Stevens song originally. Outside of my family, I’ve only met one person who even knew who Harry Chapin was, and that was mostly because they liked his brother Tom Chapin’s children’s music music.

Chapin was a folk singer from New York. His father was a jazz musician, and his brothers sang in choirs and played in a rock band. Harry originally wanted to be a filmmaker but eventually in the early 70s began focussing on music and garnered a sizable contract. He released a string of hit albums during the decade, with a few hits that charted pretty highly. In 1981 he died in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway. Despite being a popular artist back when folk rock and eight minute story songs were a viable option on the radio, he to some degree disappeared from popular consciousness. His legacy may be stronger based on his charitable works. He focussed his humanitarian efforts on ending world hunger and was awarded a congressional gold medal posthumously.

He has a song called ‘Old Folkie’ that’s about Pete Seeger, but when I listen to it now, it feels like it’s about Chapin. It’s about a folk singer who just keeps going and sticks to his beliefs and to music. That was true of Chapin right up until he passed away. The song also makes me think of my father, who is another old hippy still going strong and fighting the good fight.

peace sign

The album I know the best is ‘Greatest Stories Live’. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a collection of his best songs played live. It was recorded over a couple of nights in California in 1976 and I couldn’t begin to tell you when I first heard it. My father had it on tape and we used to listen to it a fair amount when we’d visit him on weekends. I remember it as one of the soundtracks of my childhood, which is kind of funny because I don’t think I understood most of the songs until I was a teenager, and I don’t think I REALLY understood the songs until I was in my twenties. Frankly, listening to the album as I write this, I wonder if I don’t relate to them more now than I did then.

A kind of funny thing about the cd version is that it has fewer songs than the original vinyl and the tape. Among the songs missing from the CD is one called ‘She is Always Seventeen’. It’s about a woman who is an activist and talks about what she’s done down through the years while always maintaining hope and staving off cynicism. It begins with a few lines about Kennedy and Camelot, and then about the assassination. My mother has told me a few times about where she was when she heard the news. She was also an activist during the 60’s and has always been on the side of justice. She was present at the Paris peace talks among other things. She has always yelled at me for being too cynical. The song has always made me think of her and the cd version never sounds quite right without it.

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It’s on the record.

The rest of the album is a collection of songs about loneliness, sadness, dreams fulfilled, and dreams long since gone. Oh, and also bananas.

My favorite of the songs on the album is ‘I Wanna to Learn a Love Song’. Unlike a lot of his songs it’s on the happy side, mostly. I learned this week it’s also a true story. It’s about a young man giving guitar lessons to make ends meet who is hired by a woman who is married with kids and unhappy in her huge home. He shows up each week and ends up playing and singing more than teaching, until eventually they get together. Turns out it’s about how he met his wife. I’m not entirely sure why it always clicked with me, I think it’s to do with the idea that love is where you find it and that what looks like the perfect life isn’t always so perfect. It’s also catchy as hell.

Life not always being what it looks from the outside is a theme that shows up again in another one of the songs on the album that happened to be a bit of a hit – Taxi. Taxi tells the story of a cab driver who picks up a woman he used to date. They split in the past to follow their dreams and both ended up worse off. She wanted to be an actress and he wanted to be a pilot. The song closes with the line:

And here, she’s acting happy
Inside her handsome home
And me, I’m flying in my taxi
Taking tips, and getting stoned

It’s a sad song, as a lot of his are, but also just feels true. We all have dreams and not all that many of us achieve them, so we try and find what happiness we can.

lighted taxi signage
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Trying to find happiness, or at least fighting off the loneliness for a little while is what the song ‘A Better Place To Be’ is about. It’s the story of a guy working in a dead-end night watchmen job who goes into a bar in the morning and tells the waitress there of a one-night stand he had. It’s a genuinely beautiful and moving song. I never quite got it as a kid, but as I got older and had long bouts of loneliness and depression it was a song I listened to a lot. The name ‘A Better Place To Be’ refers to finding small reprieves as the night watchmen does in the song.

One of the reasons that Harry Chapin songs have stuck with my my whole life is how true they feel. ‘A Better Place To Be’ is one of the best examples. It’s not maudlin or mawkish. It doesn’t have a happy ending per se, but it doesn’t have an overly sad ending either. It’s a story that just feels like life. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not, but we just keep going on and trying to find light where we can. They are very human songs, rooted in true things. When I listened to ‘A Better Place To Be’ when I was 23 and struggling, it made sense to me. I could relate to it, and sometimes that’s all you need. I didn’t need songs to cheer me up, I needed songs that understood how I felt and didn’t whitewash it. Chapin’s songs did that.

Some of the songs that I loved then I think I love more now. Specifically ‘Mr Tanner’ and ‘W O L D’. Back then they were good songs but I didn’t relate to them as I do now.

WOLD is the story of a radio DJ who bounced around between gigs and is talking to an ex wife. It’s the story of a nomadic career and trying to stay young while your paunch grows and your hair thins. He sings about talking to kids and trying to stay relevant in a business that looks for ‘That young sound’. I go to a lot of concerts and still pick up and listen to a lot of new music. My friends occasionally kid me about going to shows and ‘trying to stay young’ and similar things. The protagonist in the song is in a similar boat. The crowds get younger and it takes me longer to recover. My hair isn’t thinning yet, but the song speaks to me more now than it ever did before.

vintage music antique radio
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‘Mr Tanner’ is the story of a man who runs a laundry in Dayton, Ohio. He is a good singer who sings in local shows. All his friends and family push him to try and make it a career, but as the chorus goes, he just loves to sing. It’s not a job. Eventually he gets talked into it and puts on a show in New York. He is savaged by the critics and stops singing. It’s about how the things you love to do aren’t always what you make your living at. The line in the song is “Music was his life, it was not his livelihood’ and how that’s ok. It’s a beautiful song and features Chapin’s longtime bassist ‘Big’ John Wallace singing the chorus of ‘Oh Holy Night’ in a falsetto. As someone who loves to write but does not do so professionally full time at the moment, I can relate to the song in a way I couldn’t when I was younger. It’s a sad song, but as I’ve mentioned before, it’s also a very human one.

‘Mr Tanner’ was one of the songs I heard played live for the first time a few weeks ago when I went to see Harry’s brother Steve play in Sellersville, PA. Steve Chapin on keyboards and vocals, along with Big John Wallace, Harry Fields on drums, and Jonathan Chapin playing drums performed as ‘The Harry Chapin Band’ to do a tribute to Harry.

The Sellersville Theater is a relatively small and intimate venue in the middle of nowhere, PA. I’ve been there to see Jesse Malin and Ed Kowalczyk – two rock shows – and it was a weird place for that. It’s a seated venue and I’m never comfortable sitting down to listen to rock and roll. It felt much more right for a folk show. It’s about an hour and a half away from me so while I like the place, it has to be something pretty special to get me out there. Seeing Harry Chapin’s songs performed live was a no-brainer.

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Nice venue

It was a great, if a bit odd, performance. Steve’s voice isn’t particularly similar to his brothers, although the accent is the same. Wallace’s voice sounded the same as it does on those 40-year-old records, which was amazing. It was on in that it was somewhat raw and honest about the hole that Harry left in their lives. Steve talked about coming to terms with Harry’s death a couple of times, and it was just very honest. I guess given the nature of Chapin’s songs, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.

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Big John Wallace

The setlist was lovely. Hearing those songs live was a special experience, even if they weren’t quite as I’ve grown to know them. They played most of his big songs, with the possible exception of ‘30,000 pounds of Bananas’.

Bananas is a weirdly fun song about a terrible accident in Scranton, PA involving a shipment of bananas. I was shocked they didn’t play it to be honest, especially since they must have seen the kid in the crowd dressed as a banana. It’s fun, but it has never been one of my favorites, so I didn’t really miss it.

There were dozens of songs I would like to have heard, but I loved what they did play. They played most of the songs on ‘Greatest Stories Live’. Taxi, Mr Tanner, Cats in the Cradle, WOLD, and the closing song, Circle. I wish they had played ‘I Wanna Learn A Love Song’ but I understand them skipping it, knowing now that it’s a true story.

Another thing that struck me was how casual a show it was. There wasn’t a lot of pre-set banter or lighting effects or anything. It was just a three old musicians and one young one playing some well-worn songs on stage for people who’ve heard those songs a thousand times, but wanted to hear them at least once more. They even brought out Steve’s dog who just hung out on stage and seemed totally nonplussed by the whole thing. Somehow the whole thing feeling so familiar was perfect. It was down to earth and quiet and a bit melancholy. Exactly how you would honor a musician who made his career by singing songs about the ups and downs of being imperfect vessels in an imperfect world.

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Steve Chapin and very nonplussed dog.

There’s a song called ‘The Stranger With the Melodies’ off of another of Chapin’s albums – ‘The Legends of the Lost and Found’. It’s a song about a man in a boarding house trying to get some sleep who listens to a man in the next room play the same little song on guitar over and over again. He eventually bangs on the wall to get the old man to stop, and the old man tells him he can’t because he needs his music in the ‘dark hours of the night’. The old man goes on to tell him the story of breaking up with his old partner and how fame and fortune are fleeting. It’s the story of a man with nothing left but the memory of tapping into magic for a little while and then losing it.

‘Stranger with the Melodies’ is about how in those dark hours, when the loneliness and sadness of the world feel the most overwhelming, we need something to get us through. Harry Chapin sang songs that were sad and true, songs that were human, songs that could be the light in the darkness for us all.

Chapin’s time on earth was cut short, but his legacy of singing that ‘bound for glory’ song lives on.

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4 thoughts on “The Stranger with the Melodies

Add yours

  1. Jacob, I’m an old friend of your dad’s from GBGM days. I saw this on his Facebook page. Harry Chapin has been one of the most important artists in my life. You nailed his music and legacy. Thank you.

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