Back in the seventies I listened to quite a few singer-songwriters as I made a feeble attempt to be one myself. Wrote a few tunes, performed at a few threadbare church-connected coffee shops, gave it away (both the church part and the songwriting). But along the way, I listened to some artists who really were the biz. Jackson Browne, Janis Ian, Larry Norman, a bit of Dylan (mainly Blood On The Tracks). And briefly, I got into Harry Chapin. This was entirely due to the success of “Cat’s in the Cradle” from the 1974 album Verities and Balderdash.
We had Harry’s records in the shop so I got to spin them and make cassettes. It wasn’t home taping, you understand. I wasn’t killing music; it was in the shop, so it didn’t count. Learning the stock, expanding my knowledge; customer service, really.
Chapin was a classic story-teller, weaving tales of losers, locals and the love-lorn into folk-rock epics across a dozen albums. Except his losers had human loss for their backstories, the love-lorn tried and failed and tried again, and the locals were skilfully drawn vignettes of any town, anywhere.
Verities is a good example of Harry Chapin’s work. The songs are well-crafted, beautifully played (guitar by John Tropea, keyboards by Don Grolnick) and delivered with a storyteller’s confidence in Harry’s well-rounded baritone.
What makes Chapin unusual is the powerful humanism and social awareness in his songs. Here was a man who deeply loved his country but was not willing to let that sense of belonging cloud his eyesight. Less poetic than Dylan, less acerbic than Tom Lehrer, Chapin wrote from the heart; a heart containing love and anger in equal measure.
On Verities, this is exemplified in “What Made America Famous”. The arrangement is a bit over-the-top, but the story is fabulous. Here Harry’s voice is the outsider, the “long-hair” in a do-or-die struggle with small-town authority. All is suspicion and sneering, the citizens will let him do-or-die… except for the plumber. It’s what we share that heals, it’s what we do that matters. Elsewhere Chapin writes about madness (“Shooting Star”), loneliness and isolation (“Vacancy”) and closes with some fun in “Six String Orchestra” (a live recording, well received). The only real miss is the shaggy dog tale of “30,000 Pounds of Bananas”.
Listening to Verities and Balderdash again, I’m reminded what a craftsman Chapin was (he died after an automobile accident in 1981 at age 38). I’m also reminded how his big arrangements and dramatic delivery can be exhausting.
But a song I never tire of, despite it being a massively over-played radio hit at the time and having a second life in the 90s with a hit cover version, is “Cat’s in the Cradle”. Doesn’t get played much these days, as I can sing it myself, mondegreens and all, but in the right place at the right time, it still connects powerfully. Guess being a dad adds resonance to the lyric.
My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there are planes to catch and bills to pay,
He learned to walk while I was away.
I don’t talk much about daily life here at Vinyl Connection, partly because we’re here for the music, and partly due to a protectiveness towards the boy and Ms Connection. The writer’s past is fair game, as the ‘memoir’ pieces readily attest. Yet the store of stories is not endless, nor is my satisfaction with writing about music untrammelled by a certain restlessness. That’s why I’ve started a new blog. Not to replace Vinyl Connection, but to augment it.
Lonely Keyboards may take off; it may fail miserably. Most likely it will plod along like a million other blogs about life, the universe and everything. The first new post is here, and is a companion piece to this one. It’s about fatherhood and “Cat’s in the Cradle”.
So, a new venture. If you are interested, check it out. But don’t feel obliged. There will be precious little in the way of eternal verities, but there’s certain to be balderdash.