In today’s world, it’s tough to feel positive let alone inspired by anything. It’s all too easy to think that the worst of us represent all of us. It seems like heroes only ever existed in comic books and today even they have been reinterpreted as deeply flawed creatures.
But true heroes do exist in the world. Singer, songwriter, and activist Harry Chapin was one such real life hero. I was reminded of this when I watched the marvelous documentary about Harry called “When in Doubt, Do Something” on Prime Video (see here).
If you are still a huge Harry Chapin fan, you should watch this documentary. If you are wondering if Harry Chapin is the guy that did “Cat’s in the Cradle,” you should watch this documentary.
Harry Chapin was a musical genre all to himself. Although a few other artists might be identified as storyteller musicians, I doubt that even they would feel worthy to be placed along side Harry Chapin in that category. He told emotionally raw stories, set to the backdrop of sweeping cello strings and ethereal falsettos that bore right through the heart to the soul of the listener. Real, basic, everyman stories that anyone can relate to. His story songs ranged from comedic to sappy to dark but he told all his stories fearlessly. He didn’t pontificate. He was never so obvious as to entreat us to “give peace a chance” or “love one another right now.” He didn’t tell, he showed us universal truths by showing us the everyday people he brought to life through his music.
If you are interested in my recommendations, I’d suggest “Mail Order Annie,” “Mr. Tanner,” and “A Better Place To Be” as just three. If these don’t make you emotional you may have trouble passing the “I am not a robot” test.
Besides being a prolific songwriter and tireless performer, Harry was also a pragmatic idealist who devoted his energy and creativity to combating global poverty, hunger, and homelessness. During the Carter years he gave everything one could possibly give in service of his fellow human beings through both his music and through his dauntless legislative lobbying on behalf of humanity.
One thing that the documentary illustrates vividly is that everyone who interacted with Harry Chapin, and Harry reached many, many people, has their Harry Chapin stories that they can never forget. It is not undue hyperbole to say that most anyone who heard his music was deeply touched. Those who saw him in concert or in more informal performances felt forever connected to him. And those who lived and worked alongside him were transformed by him.
I’m no exception to that. Although I’m only one of millions that were profoundly touched by Harry Chapin, my own Harry Chapin stories are still unique. In true Harry Chapin tradition here are two of them.
I was tending bar in my early twenties. It was one of those local corner family-owned dives there I mostly poured beer for regulars. Every Friday night this young couple would come in and sit at the bar. I never actually learned their names but we had a ritual. At some point during the night they would play “Taxi” on the jukebox and the three of us would share six and a half intimate minutes while we sang Taxi along with Harry Chapin. Like honoring some reverent moment of silence, none of the other working-class patrons would so much as shift on their stool until we were done.
To appreciate my second Harry story, you have to understand that I always went to see Harry Chapin in concert whenever he played in the area. One week, the radio stations kept promoting his upcoming concert at the local Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee where I lived. On concert night, the DJ mentioned that the Harry Chapin concert was to start shortly and I realized that for some reason I had never bought a ticket!
Just out of hopeless desperation I drove over to the PAC. There was no one in the lobby as the concert had already seated. I nevertheless walked up to the ticket window and inquired. Of course there were no tickets left. Sad but unsurprised I turned to walk away but hesitated when I noticed another employee come in from the back and whisper to the agent. The agent turned back to me and said that there was a no-show and they were putting the ticket up for sale. Of course I snatched it up!
It turned out that the ticket was row AAA, the very front row, dead center. I had the best seat in the house to enjoy that Harry Chapin concert. Eventually, Harry came out for the encore. He did Sniper. Now you have to understand, Sniper is a 10 minute magnum opus, exhaustively relating the gut-wrenching story of a clock tower sniper. It was probably longer in concert.
And for this song, Harry came and sat on the edge of the stage with his guitar, feet dangling just inches from my knees. At the finish, exhausted and sweat covered, Harry ended the epic climax of the song. While the audience cheered he just sat there, looking directly at me the entire time, spent and flushed, yet with the kind of connection one only imagines experiencing in feeling of true love at first sight.
I found I just couldn’t clap along with the rest of the audience. I couldn’t call for yet another encore. I feared he might think badly of me, so I just pursed my lips and nodded as if to say, “It’s OK. You have given it all. You don’t have to give any more.” Harry nodded back, every so slightly, and I could see he understood and appreciated my holding back as perhaps his loudest applause of all.
Well, that was my Harry moment was back then. The documentary brings back those memories and shows me how very common my moment was for anyone who interacted with this exceptional human being. But that doesn’t make my moment feel less special. On the contrary, it makes me appreciate him even more.
Harry, you taught me to look at people with all their flaws and quirks and see them as worthy of love, understanding and respect. You taught me to look at all the darkness of the world, to expose it, even to battle against it, and not become jaded or disheartened by it but rather embrace it with compassion and even humor.
I wish there were more like you in the world, Harry, and it is our loss that you died so young. But the fact of your life makes me confident that we all can be better as well.
Harry still reminds us that we are all not just represented by the worst of us, but that we are all also represented by the best of us.