Harry Chapin: The Story of a Life

40 years after tragedy struck on the Long Island Expressway, Jim Sullivan reminds us why the beloved singer-songwriter was so much more than one hit song

Harry Chapin illustrated on the cover of his 1974 LP Verities & Balderdash (Image: Amazon)

It was June of 1981, around midnight and I’m in Boston’s Chinatown district eating a late dinner with Harry Chapin.

It’s about a month before the horrendous car crash on the Long Island Expressway that would kill him. I don’t know for certain whether this was Chapin’s last interview of substance or just one close to it. 

But here he was after a preview of “Somethin’s Brewin’ in Gainesville” at the Charles Playhouse, where Harry Chapin, master of the longform story-song – or self-described as “the only guy dumb enough to be using the extended narrative form” – is transitioning to Harry Chapin: Writer of the gently satirical, Southern religion-skewering musical. It was a folksy New Testament rewrite, set in the Bible Belt, asking the question: “What if Jesus were born 40 years ago in Gainesville, Georgia?” It was later renamed Cotton Patch Gospel and it ran through 2011 in various locations.

Chapin had been a pop star, a most unlikely one. In the early-mid ‘70s, Chapin had big Top 40 hits, ballads like “Taxi,” “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “W.O.L.D,” and over his decade of music-making he sold over 16 million records. He had a certain cachet in the world of popular folk/soft-rock music, up there with Cat Stevens, John Denver and Gordon Lightfoot. He wrote long, emotionally wrenching songs that somehow broke the AM radio rules of the day and got played in heavy rotation. Were they mawkish? A case could be made and was. I’ve been on both sides of the divide and probably thought so it the throes of punkdom, while admitting all three of those aforementioned songs have brought me to tears, damn him.

 

VIDEO: Harry Chapin performing “Cat’s In The Cradle” on ABC’s Good Night America, 1974

Over time, “Cat’s in the Cradle” became a cross-cultural, cross-generational reference point, popping up in The Middle, Two and a Half Men, The Simpsons, The Goldbergs, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Black-ish, Friends and The Office, among other TV shows and movies. 

It’s about a hard-working dad with little time for his young son; over the years, the roles reverse and the retired dad aches for his adult son to visit. The son sends his best, but is too busy, the father realizing, “He’d grown up just like me.” 

This was not exactly Harry as a dad, but there were elements of him in there. Harry wrote the music, but his wife, Sandy, wrote the lyrics.

There was much more in the Chapin realm than just music and musical theater. There was Harry the activist, which most people knew already at the time, and if they don’t know now, it’s been made crystal clear in When In Doubt, Do Something: The Harry Chapin Story, a 93-minute documentary directed and co-produced by Rick Korn, which was released last autumn and streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV. (More on that later.)

Most notable among Harry’s causes: He was co-founder (at age 33) of World Hunger Year (WHY), a nonprofit education-resource organization that aimed to both donate money and elevate consciousness about the plight of the starving. Why World Hunger Year? Is this year worse than other years? No, Harry says, every year is world hunger year.

Chapin was very much a man of action. Before Bono, before Sting, before Don Henley, before Live Aid and Farm Aid, there was Chapin. He formed WHY in 1975 with ABC Radio host Bill Ayres. (It is now called WhyHunger and Ayres is still on the board and serves as ambassador.)

 

VIDEO: Harry Chapin’s Fight for the Hungry

Back to our Boston nosh. It’s not exactly ironic – I mean his day is done and he’s starved – but I had smile in noting the man had a voracious appetite, and was in the process of devouring spare ribs, sprouts, rice, rolls and whatever else comes his way. 

Chapin notices that I, who can barely keep up with the verbiage, haven’t held up my share of the food consumption. And so, going over to a nearby table where some friends and participants in the Gainesville project are dining, Harry puts together a plateful of food for me.

“Harry,” I ask, “don’t you think you’re carrying this hunger crusade to an extreme?”

Tom Chapin, Harry’s brother and the musical director of Gainesville, laughs heartily and offers a handshake: Welcome to Harry Chapin’s whirlwind world.

When does this man wind down?

“Never,” is the simultaneous response from two members of the adjacent party.

Harry tells me about the more than $4 million he’s raised in seven years for charity (much of it for WHY), the 100 benefit concerts he does each year and the 100,000-plus women he figures he kissed last year – all for the sake of raising money for charity. Contributions rise 30 percent, Harry says, when he stays after shows and parcels out handshakes and kisses.

Chapin’s got a lot on his mind. He’s thinking about adding three songs to Gainesville, the play that asks the question, “What if Jesus were born 40 years ago in Gainesville, Georgia?” It liberally satirizes religions that put money-gathering above Jesus’ message; it also transposes the Gospel According to Matthew to the modern Southern United States and, says producer Philip Getter, eating at a nearby table, “makes Jesus the kind of guy you’d have a beer with – out of the sanctuary and under the earth and sky.” Chapin’s considering adding a song that deals with the 18 missing years in Christ’s life. Possible title: “It’s Tough Growing Up Being Jesus.”

 

AUDIO: Harry Chapin “Somethin’s Brewin in Gainesville”

He’s musing about his 12th album, tentatively called The Last Protest Singer, which will deal with protest singers Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and others. Its theme, Chapin says, is “what it’s like to be a musician and a man of conscience as society goes amok.” (It came out posthumously in 1988.)

Harry’s on a tear. He describes himself as “the most socially and politically committed performer” in one breath and adds, “That’s not saying much,” the next.

“The ultimate failure of performers is when they don’t become political,” he adds. “We’re living in a time when we desperately need public citizens in a participatory democracy.”

Chapin likes nothing better than publicly participating in democracy. Chapin lobbied Congress and President Jimmy Carter. In 1977, he helped create the Presidential Commission on World Hunger. 

On his mind that night was religion – vis-a-vis the Moral Majority, then riding high on Falwellian fulminations. Chapin notes the “lack of concern for women” shown by some organized churches, and the selling of salvation over the airwaves. “I am incensed,” he says, “by the misuse of religion, to have Jesus’ words so blatantly misused and used as a cover for un-Christian attitudes.”

I’m a lapsed Catholic gone agnostic, but I’m with him here.

Gainesville skewers plastic preachers and groups such as “The Electronic Evangelists of America” and a pseudo-holy “Back to the Bible Convention” that plots to lynch this upstart named Jesus. With bluegrass, country and gospel songs such as “There Ain’t No Busy Signals (On the Hot Line to God)” and “Spitball Me Lord (Over the Home Plate of Life),” Chapin adds satiric fuel to the fire.

Did he do extensive research?

“No,” he says. “I grew up in the folk-blues-gospel tradition, and in traveling I’ve seen all the Sunday morning TV shows. They’ve become a major factor – anywhere, America now.”

With songs that flesh out the narrative (rather than being the narrative), Chapin had to apply a different set of criteria to his songwriting. The experience, he says, granted him a tremendous sense of freedom. But did he have to fight the urge to lengthen the songs?

“Absolutely!”

“The thing I learned most about Harry’s music in doing this film,” Korn told me last year, “is because of his film-making background” – Chapin was nominated for an Academy Award for his 1968 doc Legendary Champions – “he wrote songs the way we write films. There’s a beginning, middle and end and you’ve really got to develop the characters. That’s why his songs were so long; they were mini-movies.”

Harry Chapin (Art: Ron Hart)

In 1974, Korn was a junior in high school and that’s where he first saw Chapin, who came to his school, gave an impromptu concert and followed with a long Q/A about world hunger. It was the most inspiring lecture Korn heard in his life. Many years later, Korn’s career as a documentary filmmaker led him to a friendship with Ayres and, at one point, he asked Ayres why no film had been made about Chapin’s life and work. “He said, ‘I don’t know. Why don’t you do it?’,” Korn says. “I wrote the treatment, we met with [Chapin’s widow] Sandy and [son] Jason and filmed her the same day.”

They had access to loads of material, not just concert shots and fund-raising events. Chapin’s uncle, Ricky Leacock, had been a documentarian filmmaker and, it turned out, had shots lots of footage of Chapin’s family when he and his brothers were growing up. “It had been sitting in a barn in Andover, NJ for 55 years,” says Korn. “No one knew it was even there, His son, David, said ‘I know Dad’s got some stuff in there’ and the first box he went to had that tape of Harry.”

In Korn’s film, Bruce Springsteen talks from the stage, joking how when he and Chapin were recording in the same studio complex, he’d try and dodge him because even a casual chat with Harry was a half-hour affair. Chapin told him he’d play one night for himself and the next for charity. ‘Not being bent to extremism, I wasn’t as generous as he was,” Springsteen said, but adding Chapin’s activism-fundraising pushed him in that direction. Springsteen followed the chat with a cover of Chapin’s “Remember When the Music.”

 

VIDEO: Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something trailer

By the early ‘80s, Korn says, Chapin was not well-liked within the music business. “Not by his fellow artists, but the industry,” says Korn. “[They said] ‘Make up your mind. Either you’re in the music industry or you’re a politician.’ He didn’t want to be a politician; he was an activist.”

But the dual roles were causing friction within the Chapin camp, too. There was a strain on the marriage. And in the film, Chapin says, “I’m a man who generates about two-and-a-half million dollars every year and I’m broke.” On July 15, 1981, he was supposed to meet with his agent and his half-brother/co-manager Jeb Hart about restructuring the balance between music and charitable concerns. He missed the meeting. 

“All this frenetic energy and charity work took focus off the concrete planning and maintenance of the career which leverages it all,” says Hart in the film.

“They were going to read him the riot act act because everyone at that point was frustrated with Harry,” says Korn. “It was after [Jimmy] Carter lost in 1980. He started to double his efforts and it was already crazy before that. He was running on all cylinders.” 

The next day, July 16, Chapin was on his way to that rescheduled meeting, after which he would play a show on Long Island at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow. His VW Rabbit has having mechanical trouble and Chapin was on the Long Island Expressway. He pulled into the right lane, slowing down. He was rear-ended by a truck, the car bursting into flames. The truck driver stopped and pulled him out, but Chapin was dead. 

In 1986, Chapin was awarded the Grammy’s President’s Merit award and in 2011 he was inducted into the the Grammy Hall of Fame. The charitable organizations he co-founded live on. A portion of the film’s proceeds will go to WhyHunger and The Harry Chapin Foundation. 

And, yeah, there’s a sobering kicker in the film. Chapin ponders what comes, or doesn’t come, after we’ve exited the planet and what we should do now.

“I’m not sure of an afterlife,” he says, “but what we can do is maximize what we have in this brief flicker of time in the infinity and try and milk that.” 

 

VIDEO: Harry Chapin – The Final Concert

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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