Sniper & Other Love Songs

Portrait Gallery

Living Room Suite

Short Stories

Heads and Tales

Short Stories - Harry Chapin Web Site
Rolling Stone Reviews

Harry Chapin
Sniper And Other Love Songs

Elektra, 1972
Rolling Stone

"I been feeling sorry for myself, but you know I was only lonely, like everybody else." That line, from "Sunday Morning Sunshine," Sniper's opening cut, pretty much sums up Harry Chapin's vision of life. No singer/songwriter, not even Rod McKuen, apotheosizes romantic self-pity with such shameless vulgarity. Not only does Chapin write about it obsessively, he will, at a moment's notice, trash his own lumpish songs by bawling in a voice that is both ear-splitting and off-pitch. The most that I can say for this kind of wretched excess is that it is impossible for one to remain emotionally neutral to it. Chapin has the courage of his convictions, and the sheer insistency with which he advertises his case of emotional diarrhea does carry some energy and invoke some sympathy.
Unfortunately, the enormous success of his first album, Heads and Tales (it was on the charts for well over half a year), has had the effect of further exacerbating his worst tendencies. Here, he goes the limit in presuming to project his own maudlin sensibility onto other personae. The album's grotesque nine-and-a-half-minute piece de resistance, "Sniper," is an incredibly pretentious sub-musical "epic" based on the notorious Texas tower incident of a few years back. Replete with tricked-up sound effects, interior monologue, flashbacks and pop Freud (it all goes back to Mom, of course), "Sniper" must represent some kind of all-time low in tasteless overproduction. Just as awful is "Better Place to Be," a seven-and a - half - minute Saroyanesque barroom soap opera in which Chapin's fictional "common people" wallow mawkishly in shared loneliness (Harry invariably pronounces it "lawwnliness"): "And if you want me to come with you then that's all right with me 'cause I know I'm going nowhere and anywhere's a better place to be." Then there is "Burning Herself," the story of a woman who compulsively scars her body with lighted cigarettes: "Or was it that the pain slicing through her like a knife was easier to take than the emptiness of life?"
No doubt some will find all of this socially meaningful and even personally cathartic. Harry goes to great lengths in trying to evoke a dark, inchoate strain of American life and make it "art." What does him in is his own overweening self-pity, which distorts and demeans his apparently sincere intentions. (RS 123)
Page Index

Harry Chapin
Portrait Gallery

Elektra, 1975

If you're expecting to find another "Cat's in the Cradle" on this album, forget it. Portrait Gallery finds Chapin at the peak of his powers with a collection of story-songs as mundane, vacuous, overblown and cliché-ridden as any he's ever written. Even Sandy Chapin, Harry's wife and collaborator on the unusually good "Cat's in the Cradle," plummets to her husband's level by contributing to the abysmal "Tangled Up Puppet."
But enough of this. A single verse from "Bummer," side two's 9:57 soap opera, says more about this album than I could ever hope to say:
His mama was a midnight woman
His daddy was a drifter drummer
One night they put it together
Nine months later came the little black bummer.
Really, Harry. (RS 199)
Page Index 

Harry Chapin
Living Room Suite

Elektra, 1978

A "Living-Room suite" seems like a perfect idea for Harry Chapin, since he's tailor-made for family entertainment anyway: who else could have written such an innocuous song about a sniper that you wouldn't mind playing it for your grandmother? A born pedagogue, Chapin peddles big ideas' that invariably amount to no more than middlebrow homily, but his stage-Irishman's flamboyance gives them a flashy melodramatic gloss which—when he's at his best—can pass for tough-minded authenticity, even passion. This gritty, streetwise style is wackily, out of sync with the sentimental message, but he'd probably be lost without it.
Living Room Suite at first suggests an interesting new direction for Chapin. "Dancin' Boy," though it's a simple father-and-son tune, is unpretentious, capably sung and has some real feeling. Two of the love songs, "Jenny" and "Poor Damned Fool," work because for once Chapin isn't reaching for larger meanings where they don't exist. Elsewhere, however, his grandiose showmanship returns to drown the sentiments in a welter of pronunciamentos. The underlying notion of "Why Do Little Girls" ("...little girls grew crooked/While the little boys grow tall"—a bad business, the singer thinks) is hardly earthshaking, but Chapin pumps it up with swirling Byzantine horns and a vocal that sounds like he's going down with Moby Dick. Harry Chapin's peculiar genius is to make humanitarian platitudes sound like apocalyptic kitsch—he's Cecil B. DeMille gone Kennedy liberal.
The LP's virtues—apart from Chuck Plotkin's eminently clear-headed and intelligent production—are in those songs where Chapin gets off his pulpit and lives up to the intimacy of the album's title. Yet he can never stay there for long. It's not that he's without talent: he's got a nice flair for melody, and his sprawling verbal facility often leads him into images that are intriguing even when they don't go anywhere ("I've seen the City of Angels/With the names of its dead in the
streets"). But some-how a man who treats the idea that there are bad people in the world as if it were a novel and disturbing thought just doesn't make a very convincing visionary. And that's what Harry Chapin wants us to believe he is. (RS 283)
Page Index

Harry Chapin
Short Stories

Elektra, 1974

With this album Harry Chapin solidifies his position as one of our most literate songwriters. He tackles subjects too weighty for the common pop balladeer and does it with impressive urgency. But in approaching his subjects morosely, he imbues the work with a depressing quality of desperation.
Chapin describes the plight of his characters in an often moving manner. The pathetic disk jockey at "W*O*L*D" is true to life and can be found at stations from Banger to Albuquerque. The guy is balding, he has a spare tire past the point of being love handles, and he makes spending money hosting record hops. "Feeling all of 45, going on 15," the morning man has no future, and one inevitably feels for him.
Even more graphic is the fate of "Mr. Tanner," a cleaner who sings in his store. "Music was his life, it was not his livelihood," and when he tries to make a job out of it, egged on by enraptured customers, he fails. He returns to his hometown in shame, and sings only when alone late at night. Frustrated rockers may well relate.
Paul Leka's arrangement on these tunes and "Song For Myself" are remarkably faithful to the spirit of the lyrics, appropriately dramatic and melancholy. And yet, for all Chapin's talent there is something seriously wrong here. Bad enough that there is so little humor; more troublesome is the lack of warmth. Chapin often bemoans life and berates humanity. The characters are victimized, not sympathized with. And outside of the woman Chapin occasionally writes to, there is no love in these lyrics.
"It seems our generation should have something more to say," the writer snorts. "No one's wrote a protest song since 1963." (Evidently Chapin never heard "Ohio," "Something in the Air," or even "Woman Is the Nigger of the World.")
"What is it about you, mother of a country, that makes so many change our minds? ... For your dream I would die; now I would not even cross the street...." That may be true, but in "Mother Country" John Stewart proved that loathing a nation's politics does not preclude loving its people. Thus, Harry Chapin's greatest shortcoming is that he seems to care so little about the people he brings to life so well.
But Short Stories remains a major achievement. Unfortunately, because it repels people, it may not be heard as widely as it should. (RS 154) PAUL GAMBACCINI
Page Index

Harry Chapin
Heads & Tales

Elektra, 1972
Rolling Stone 05/25/1972

Driving a taxi was never anything you could consider special; it's the easiest job in the world to get, the hours are flexible, and it provides an acceptable interim form of employment. Until a few brief months ago (I think that's how it goes), Harry Chapin was a taxi driver, and in the minds of AM listeners, he will be fixed as that forever. To Harry's record company, to many of his listeners, and probably to himself, driving a hack is a glamorously proletarian occupation, and Harry is irresistable for it, which is another way of saying that Harry Chapin is pop's most recent manifestation of radical chic.
Radical chic, however, is not the only current phenomenon Harry is a party to. Harry's father was a drummer with Tommy Dorsey, and has written a definitive drumming manual; his brothers have a group called (natch) the Chapins, and one brother helped make the documentary Blue Water, White Death. Here then we have a family, like the Simons, like the Taylors, whose parents and children are individuals of accomplishment, and musical, too. By some coincidence, the Chapin brothers even used to play with the Simon Sisters. By something less than coincidence, Harry often sounds an awful lot like Livingston and James.
"Taxi" is, of course, the most famous song on Heads & Tales, and that's unfortunate, because it's the album's second or third worst song, and a veritable textbook of lyrical, melodic and production errors. The opening melody is merely banal, but, more seriously, Harry doesn't know how to construct a story. (Interestingly, Harry's publishing company is called Story Songs, and the word "tales" is part of the LP title.) His method is to build up an accretion of superfluous and irrelevant detail which effectively halts any narrative momentum. Lines like "She got in at the light," "She just looked out the window," "And she didn't say anything more" describe things which simply don't require description. Harry is relating a chance meeting between parted lovers, and how their present lives compare to the lives they once dreamed of.
The melody of "Taxi" takes as many twists and turns as those lives themselves, and the transitions among the lyrics are equally tortuous. There's a teeth-gnashing bridge ("There's a wild man wizard he's hiding in me") and another stanza, sung by countertenor and bassist John Wallace, which completely stands outside the body of the song ("And I'll tell you why Baby's crying/'Cause she's dying, aren't we all?"). As compensation for this musical incoherence, Harry attempts to tie the literary knot in the last stanza where Sue, who planned to be an actress, is "acting" happy in her handsome home, and Harry, who wanted to fly, is "flying" high in his taxi, "Taking tips and getting stoned." It's too bad Harry's literary artifice had to lead to the most embarrassing line of the year.
Harry's story songs are his worst. "Greyhound" has the same narrative problems as "Taxi" ("Later on, the bus arrives"), the same musical lack of structure, the same vocal exaggeration, and a similarly inadequate resolution–"It's got to be the going, not the getting there that's good"–a contrived summation, which, nevertheless, the Greyhound Bus Co. could make good use of in their next ad campaign.
"Dogtown" certainly extends the range of subjects singers have heretofore been limited to. It's a New England whaling saga, but here Harry's attention is focused not on the whalers themselves, rather, like "John Riley," on the wives, who are left alone for months on end while their husbands hunt blubber. Things start getting ominous when one whaler leaves his eager bride of ten days with the words, "Farewell my darling, I'm gonna leave you with my dog." The idea is that the dog should act as protection in the husband's absence, but gradually the canine comes to take the husband's place in other ways. As the music swells with excitement, the bride admits that this "midnight horror of a hound ... has been my only husband," that to suffer her existence, "You need the bastard of the mating of a woman and a dog." Harry's portrayal of sodomy in a Massachusetts fishing village is certainly vivid, and exposes a chapter of American history which has been timidly left in the shadows for too long.
Not everything on Heads & Tales is this preposterous. "Could You Put Your Light On, Please" is contemporary rockabilly in the fashion of Joe South or B.J. Thomas; "Empty," probably the album's best song, reminds of Liv and Paul Simon. Tunes like these are Chapin's best. They are simple evocations of mood, and though they still seem to be songs which have no compelling reason to exist, other than to provide Harry with something to do with himself, they succeed better because, in their orderly alternation of verse and chorus, they risk less.
Certainly you shouldn't be prejudiced against Harry on the basis of the unavoidable "Taxi." Harry's comprehensive resume also includes some time spent as a stockbroker. Maybe his next album will tell us a story about that. (RS 109)
Page Index