Monday, September 30, 2013

Remembering Harry Chapin

Have you ever heard a song that hit so close to home it felt like it was written about you?  Ever come across a musician who could do that to you repeatedly?  Well, that's how it was with me, and the music of the late Harry Chapin.  When I was attending broadcast journalism trade school, it was "W.O.L.D." a song about the life of a disc jockey.  Later when I became a new father for the first time, Harry was there with "Cats in the Cradle"- and of course there was "Taxi" for when I did my year long stint as a cab driver.  It felt like he was reading my mail!

 Naturally, when I began working at KRBD-FM radio station in Ketchikan Alaska, the music of Harry Chapin was standard fare along with the other artists I was listening to at the time.  Chapin was more than just another singer; he was a song writer and story teller whose music offered us a way to better understand the human condition, and ourselves.  His songs were about everyday people, be it barmaid, soldier, father, lost love or deranged madman; and he always managed to touch the heart.

One of my co-workers at the radio station was a kindred spirit by the name of Tom Miller, who also ran the local talent booking agency named Muskeg Magic, and was responsible for booking some of the better entertainment on the island.  One day when I was visiting his place I asked Tom, rather jokingly, if he could please book Harry Chapin for a concert in town.  We had us a good laugh at my optimism for the improbable and then went on to other things.  I guess it was about a week later when I passed Tom in the hallway at the station, and he pulls me aside with a huge Cheshire cat grin on his face, saying "You'll never guess who I booked for a concert... ask and ye shall receive, Harry Chapin's coming next month!" 

As it turned out, Chapin already had a gig booked for Anchorage when Tom inquired, and readily agreed to do a one man, one night show in Ketchikan on his way to that engagement.  Now, I suppose I could have been very content with just seeing him perform live, but as his biggest fan on the island I saw it as my responsibility to meet him at the airport and drive him to his motel room the day of the concert. 


It was a late summer afternoon in 1980 when Harry Chapin came to town, and of course it was raining as bad as I'd ever seen.  Unfortunately, he had no idea my wife, daughter and I would be there to meet him, so a little strategy was called for.  The airport is on an adjacent island across the channel from town, and serviced by ferries which run every hour.  Rather than risk missing him in the terminal I decided it was better to wait for the ferry; as passengers always disembarked pretty much single file.  The only part of my plan that was sketchy was the transportation itself.  At the time the only vehicle I owned was an old beat up Dodge of those pick up trucks with the front end of a van, and the engine resting between the two someone couldn't decide whether to build a truck or a van.

There we were straining our eyes as the windshield madly wipers tried to keep the view clear.  There were  a goodly number of folks departing the ferry, all jostling one another as each tried to calculate to shortest route to cover.  Suddenly some car headlights flashed across a familiar face, carrying a bag and guitar case, and totally drenched.  I hopped out of the truck and walked toward him, thinking for the first time I should have made a sign with his name on it.  As I approached his personal space I extended my hand in greeting and said "Mr. Chapin, Your ride is waiting over here..."  By the time we got to the truck my wife was sitting on the engine cowling with our daughter in her lap.  As I plopped myself down in the drivers seat, Harry jumped in the passenger side.  I was about to Introduce everyone but before I could, Harry pushes back the hood from his jacket and asks; "This isn't an abduction, is it?"  I replied, "Nope, this is a Fanbulance, and it is at your disposal while you're on my island....where to first, sir?"

Without missing a beat, Harry says, "Super, I have reservations at the 'Hilltop Motel'...lets head that way."  Winding our way thru the traffic in the ferry terminal parking lot we made it to the street and when traffic permitted I drove across the street, parking in front of the Hilltop Motel in full view of the terminal we'd just left.  Harry had the same exact look of cognitive dissonance on his face that I'd had when I first saw a sea level motel named the hilltop.  "Don't ask, it's better that way." I said, and we all laughed.  With about four hours until the show now, Harry said he wanted to rest for a while, then get a bite to eat, and asked me to pick him up in two hours. 


When we returned for him Harry looked like a crisp, new hundred dollar bill.  Although the motel had an acceptable cafe adjoining it, we took Harry downtown to the Harbor Inn where the food and folks were both a bit more authentic.  Over a meal of fresh caught local halibut steaks we talked about many things from music, to some of the more colorful local lore...stuff most tourists never hear about.  I found this man to be relaxed, engaging and not the least bit impressed with who he was.  He was real people, and as we conversed, it felt easy and natural, as if we'd known each other for years.  Here was the same voice I'd been listening to for years, just shooting the breeze with us in this little hometown diner.  It was way better than I had hoped for, an indelible memory. 

Following dinner we all piled back into my dyslexic vehicle and headed up the hill to the auditorium, it was almost time for some music.  Back in the day I was making my daily bread as a freelance professional photographer when not otherwise occupied.  I'd asked Harry if it was OK to grab some concert shots of the performance, and gotten his approval; as we approached the stage entrance Tom had indicated.  At this door there were two people, a representative of the school, and a door guard.  I was more than content to just hand him off to these capable folks and go find us a good seat, because the guard didn't look like he wanted to let me pass.  To my astonishment, Harry tells the guard, "He's with me, he's my PR guy..."  so we got in without needing our tickets, and had the best seats in the place.

There was a much bigger crowd flowing in than I had imagined there might be, and as much as my ego wanted to think my radio show had something to do with the turnout; I suspected it was more due to cabin fever.  On that island any excuse to get out of the house & break the routine was valid.  By showtime there were 250 to 300 people in attendance, roughly 8% of the towns population!  It was a huge turnout for a dinky town, and it made me feel good that I'd had a part in making it all happen.


At just after eight pm the lights dimmed as Harry strummed his 12 string acoustic guitar, opening the concert with "Dog town" a story song about a sleepy new England fishing town not at all unlike the one we were in this night.  After a couple more songs I was all hunkered down and feeling fine, enjoying the experience even more than I had anticipated I would...which was exactly when the power failed and the place went pitch black.  Undaunted, Harry continued singing; and between his voice and the acoustics of the auditorium, everyone could still hear just fine.

As event staff scurried about with emergency lighting etc, Harry just kept on going, that is until he broke a guitar string in the middle of the blackout.  As if it were part of the show, Harry began digging into his case for a spare string, with a stagehand holding a flashlight for him.  As he was replacing the string he told the audience a true life story about the Christmas the family cat passed away.  The children were of course very upset over the death of their beloved pet on Christmas eve, and he knew he needed closure quickly if ruining the holiday was to be avoided.  They had arranged to drop the cat's body off at a local shelter to be cremated, and the kids decided the box should be wrapped in holiday paper, for reasons that only kids understand.  As the string replacement nears competition, so does the story.  Harry explains that he had to stop off at a relative's place to deliver gifts, and left the box with the cat on the front seat of the car, as he climbed the many, many steps up to their house.  Just as he got to the door, he heard his car door open down on the street...and turned around just in time to see someone stealing the Christmas Package on the front seat.  After the laughter died down he says, "I don't know who he gave that present to but I would have loved to be there to see it go down."

With the string replaced he continued his solo blackout performance a while longer until the power was finally restored and we could once again enjoy a well lit show.  Seeing my favorite Chapin songs performed live was the fulfillment of a long held wish, and rather than detracting, the power outage just made it all the more magical somehow.  An hour later he finished the concert off with "I wonder what would happen to this world." - which I am certain gave everyone food for thought as they slowly made their way to the exits.


Beyond the music, I admired Harry Chapin even more because he was a true humanitarian in this world.  His central cause was ending world hunger, but as his wife Sandy once said of him: "Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, 7 foundations, and 82 charities.  Harry wasn't interested in saving money, saying it was for people, so he just gave it away." 

"And I dream that something's coming
and it's not just in the wind
it's more than just tomorrow
it's more than where we've been
it offers me a promise,
it's telling me, begin." 
In 1977 Harry Chapin was the inspiration for and a key participant in The President's Commission on World Hunger.  Four years later, on July 16, 1981, less than a year after I met him; Harry died from a heart attack while driving on the Long Island Expressway.  Because of his charity work and philanthropy he didn't leave a lot of money behind, which made it hard to maintain the causes he worked so hard for; leading to the forming of The Harry Chapin Foundation, and the Harry Chapin food Bank to address world hunger and related issues.   


A decade after his death Harry Chapin was posthumously awarded The Congressional Gold Medal for humanitarian work.  What a lasting tribute, that the recognition of his passionate efforts still feeds the hungry all these many years later.  Very appropriately lyrics from his song "I wonder what would happen to this world" are inscribed upon Harry's gravestone.

"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."

They say that the anticipation of a thing is almost as good as the getting of it, and that's just how I always felt, waiting for the release of Harry's next album.  That anticipation forever gone; I still cannot help but wonder what kind of message he would be laying down had he survived to this time.  What additional greatness was left in this man, what might he have gone on to accomplish?

My thoughts wander now to other musicians of our era who passed before their time, their lives cut short by the great mystery that is life, but whose artistic legacy still lives on.  I think of how this cumulative loss has diminished us all, and the outpouring of love from those whose hearts they touched while with us.  The list just keeps getting longer the older I get, but that's OK, it's just the natural way of things; besides, like The Righteous Brothers pointed out, Heaven has one hell of a band! 

                                                     In Memory of Harry Chapin
                                                       The Last Protest Singer
                                                   "One Light in a Dark Valley"

Until Next Time ~ Be Good to Each Other


  1. I sooo love this post about Harry. I adored the few songs I knew of his esp W.O.L.D! Your post brought him closer. Thank you. I so love your blog Chautauqua. Big hugs xxxx

  2. Replies
    1. Lisa~ So glad you enjoyed the stroll down memory lane (and the blog), and thanks for the link. Tried to find it but missed out, so added it to the others...thanks for the great catch!

  3. Pitch Perfect! Thanks

  4. My grandpa built the Hilltop.

    1. Anony~
      Small world indeed. Did he ever explain why they named a sea level lodge the hilltop?? I have always wondered about that. :) Thanks

  5. No he didn't, and isn't around for me to ask. I was there once when I was younger, at the end of the salmon season. It looked like, or reminded me of another hotel he built, called the Polynesian, on the Washington State coast. Thanks for the memories, including the wonderful piece on Chapin. I almost can't listen to a few songs of his because they hit too hard. Strike that, there are a few songs of his which I cannot bear to hear. Regards, JC

  6. A fine story, Harry would approve. The goal and ideal of the musician is to change the heart and mind to a new state of awareness. Harry did that every time he sang or when his records were played..What more can any hope to do in this life?
    You did it here. You are a musician too.

  7. That is what you call a saint, a person that received joy from giving. Never knew that he was such a nice person. Excellent tribute.

  8. Thanks for an excellent article about Harry Chapin. I really enjoyed the entire story of picking him up at the airport, the rain, dinner, etc. Loved it. Then I spent time just listening to his music. I got to your article from who always has great links.

  9. I saw Harry in Austin around '77 or so. After the show I bought a book of his poetry that he autographed. I think my all time favorite songs are "Mail Order Annie," "Mr. Tanner," "The Ballad of Charles Whitman," and "W.O.L.D." I remember seeing a Rolling Stone magazine cover one time that featured "The Harry Chapin Worst Song of the Year Award." I never understood that sentiment. Harry was an original and has never been nor will ever be replaced.

    1. Hi Gary~
      Your favorites are also on my 'best of' list, along with "the rock"- "Flowers are Red" and so many others. I think the reason for that sentiment you mentioned is because Harry's songs had a way of bypassing our psychological defense mechanisms and hitting us right where we live. For some, that is just too uncomfortable a thing to acknowledge, so they 'dislike' it for that reason. When you listen to the lyrics of "Sniper", the Charles Whitman ballad; you can see how well Harry really did understand the human condition. He was, the ultimate 'profiler'.
      Travel well Mr. Hill and always remember, "It's got to be the going, not the getting there, that's good."

  10. I had no problem with Harry, but I heard he was a chronic speeder, unable to help himself when he put his foot on a gas pedal, that he had multiple speeding and reckless driving tickets,and that he died due to speeding and reckless driving on the Long Island Expressway. I take nothing from him, I commend his work, but you may have the cause of death wrong.

    1. Anony @4:03AM~
      Indeed, friend Harry was a consummate speeder and indeed was driving on a suspended license at the time of his death...due to many tickets. From all the reports I read, as well as the driver of the truck that killed him; it is considered that he had a heart attack while in traffic, and tried to get off the freeway...but didn't make it. A sad end for the singer of so many sad songs. I miss ya today Harry!

  11. thank you for this post, I had no idea he died so young, and did so much while he was here.
    a sad loss.
    but lovely to refresh the memory:-)