They called Harry Chapin a troubadour, but he was more of a novelist. He wore short, poignant, biographical novels and set them to music. Novels about taxi drivers who have chance encounters with their first loves and choose not to go home again. Novels about fathers and children who start out getting close to each other and end up not even getting next to each other. Novels about lovers who get swept away in the heat of the moment. Novels about snipers and disc jockeys and heroic true believers who never lose touch with who they are.
And yesterday, when Harry Chapin died in a car wreck, he left behind the sort of novel that he wrote about so well. A man whose life ended abruptly in the middle. Between the search and the goal. Between the promise and the gift. Not yet there, but on the way.
He'd be giving a concert, and he'd sit on a stool, his guitar resting on his right knee, and he'd joke with the audience about the kind of songs he'd written. He knew that most of the critics though he was a lightweight, and while that judgment offended him, it never discouraged him. He thought it hilarious that one rock performer was reviewed this way: "He was a rich man's Harry Chapin." Harry would laugh and say, ""Look at where they've got me. They've got me as a standard for comparison. If anyone is lower than me, he has to be at the very bottom of the ocean." He'd even use his standing with the critics in his act. He'd blush and tell the audience that when he was younger he had the nickname "Gapin' Chapin." And he'd call himself "a third-rate rock star." And then he'd turn up his energy higher, much higher than his amps, and sing his songs. "Taxi." "Cat's in the Cradle." "I wanna Sing You a Love Song." "Sniper." "W.O.L.D." And in his own way, for his special audience, he was every bit as popular and loved, and even worshipped like Bruce Springsteen.
Harry Chapin could have been a millionaire.
Harry Chapin maybe should have been a millionaire.
But every year at least of his concerts were free, either for charity or as a benefit.
He put his money where his mouth was.
I met Harry while doing a profile on him in 1976, a profile in which I accused him of not so much being a singer-songwriter as being a moralist. I believe the term I used was that he sang a course in Morality 101. He liked that. He laughed very loudly at that.
He had a great and rich and good laugh.
The last time I saw Harry, he gave a concert at Constitution Hall. It was a typical Chapin concert in that his energy was high, and the only reason he stopped singing was because he was told that if he stayed on stage even another minute they were going to have to put the help on overtime. Harry already had gone on for almost three hours and it was closing in on midnight.
And after it was over, Harry went out into the lobby for a typical Chapin post-concert session. And there he would sell Harry Chapin albums and Harry Chapin T-shirts and Harry Chapin song books. And on each one he would sign his typical Chapin message: "Keep The Change, Harry Chapin."
What was so impressive about what Chapin did wasn't so much that he signed every last thing that was thrust at him -- even for people who hadn't bought a thing -- but that every penny he took in from these sales didn't go into Harry Chapin's pocket, but toward charity, specifically toward ending world hunger.
Later that night Harry and I and another reporter took a taxi (what else?) over to the American Cafe' on Capitol Hill and sat around for a few hours solving all the world's problems. I knew how hard he worked for the cause of preventing world hunger, so of course I razzed him about ordering a big, thick sandwich. And he came back at me the way he always did, by saying, "Look, I'm not asking you to starve; I'm simply asking you to try and spread the word that we grow enough food each year to feed the world easily. You've got access to a great newspaper here. For God's sake, use it."
And then we talked about the congressmen he'd seen recently, and how his lobbying effort was going, and how many charities and causes he was pushing. As ever, he was all high energy and optimism. I thought then and I think now that Harry Chapin was a worthy man. That he was a liberal in the very best, philosophical sense of the word. It wasn't welfare he was talking about, it was decency. He used the phrase ""enlightened self-interest." He said it made good sense to redistribute the food. Not because it was the noble thing to do, but because if you remove hunger and desperation you would remove a major cause of crime and violence. If there is such a thing as a practical liberal, Harry Chapin was that.
And when we were all talked out about saving the world, we drank a few more beers and talked about Long Island, where we both were from, and remembered the afternoon we played touch football on his lawn, right next to Long Island Sound, and I insisted I was a better quarterback than him, and he insisted he was a better end than me. And laughed some more, his rich laugh filling the now empty restaurant, and just like on stage he was the last to leave, because if they didn't throw him out they'd have to pay the help overtime.
That night, a sleeting, crummy winter night, I remember him telling me that it was about time I stopped fooling around writing about celebrities and started writing about the people who really controlled the world.
I remember me telling him that it was about time he stopped trying to save the world and started selling out so he could become a rock star.
I remember exactly what he said about that. He said, "Being a rock star is pointless. It's garbage. It's the most self-indulgent thing I can think of. I've got nothing against selling out. But let me sell out for something that counts. Not so Harry Chapin can be No. 1 with a bullet, but so I can leave here thinking I mattered."