Updated: July 17, 2011 2:24AM
Harry Chapin did two things that I’ve never seen a pop singer do, before or since.
The first was at a large outdoor concert at Cleveland’s Blossom Music Center — think Ravinia, only not as nice, and in Cleveland, if that isn’t being redundant.
The show was over, and, having enjoyed myself, I decided to buy a concert T-shirt, as a souvenir and trophy, though I can’t imagine who’d be impressed with a Harry Chapin T-shirt. He was never cool, not even then.
Still, I waited in the big line by the stand selling T-shirts. It was crowded, and when I made my way to the front I could see why: There’s Harry Chapin, the guy who just performed the concert, selling the concert T-shirts himself and signing them, with handshakes for the men and kisses for the girls.
What kind of pop star does that?
If you aren’t familiar with Chapin, and there’s no reason why you should be — he died July 16, 1981, 30 years ago Saturday in a car accident — he was an idiosyncratic performer, a folkie whose downbeat tales of disappointment became improbable hits. “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a song about paternal neglect, and “Taxi,” a lament about lost love. They were poignant songs, which is why I liked them.
Others despised him. Few singers got the kind of savage reviews Harry Chapin did.
“No singer/songwriter, not even Rod McKuen, apotheosizes romantic self-pity with such shameless vulgarity,” wrote Rolling Stone, that benchmark of hip, in a 1972 slam. “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.”
Yet Bob Dylan was a genius.
My T-shirt was red, had his name and the slogan, “Every Year is World Hunger Year.” Chapin founded World Hunger Year in 1975, which raised $5 million by the time he died.
The Blossom concert was in August 1978, just before I went off to college, and right after I arrived at Northwestern, Chapin had a performance at Pick-Staiger, a little hall usually given to string quartets and the like.
I had just seen him, but I was homesick, and tickets were cheap, so I went again.
He was late to the concert — a delay at the airport. A student with a guitar kept the audience entertained until he showed up. Chapin thanked the kid and kept him onstage to sing some songs with him. That seemed big of Chapin, but it wasn’t the incredible part.
Chapin didn’t have a backup band, and one of the songs — this is the second thing he did that I’ve never seen a pop entertainer do — he stepped away from the microphone, to sing not only unaccompanied by any instrument, but unamplified. Just a man’s voice, his fine tenor, a lovely, eerie moment that lingered.
Harry Chapin was far superior performing live than in studio albums. Even he knew that.
“People have been coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re so much better live,’ ’’ he writes in the liner notes for “Greatest Stories Live,” his greatest hits/concert album. His upbeat showman’s personality, cracking jokes, leading sing-alongs with boisterous, hand-clapping audiences, leavens the sadness of the songs, which are only depressing in the sense that the John Henry ballad is also depressing because he dies with a hammer in his hand. I find them uplifting because they’re true.
Rolling Stone eventually grew more forgiving of Chapin, calling him “one of our most literate songwriters” (assuming “literate” was praise. “One inevitably feels for him,” the critic said, of the character he sings about in “W.O.L.D.” again leaving open whether that’s a good thing).
To mark the anniversary, I listened to “Greatest Stories Live ” again. It holds up well. Though I skipped, as I always do, the final song, “The Shortest Story,” an excruciating dirge for a baby starving to death in Africa. The thing about Chapin is, some of his music is indeed hard to take; if you think the hits are downers, you should hear the more obscure stuff, like “Burning Herself.”
But that doesn’t make it bad. He was a man who deeply cared about matters most ignore. When he died in his little Volkswagen Rabbit, it could have been an irony lifted from his songs: Chapin was on his way to do another free show — half his concerts were for charity. No wonder hip folk despised him: He lived the life that they only paid lip service to, pinning on a ribbon and calling themselves bighearted while Chapin gave away half his income.
The music stands up. His music is less dated than some of Bruce Springsteen’s, because it was never current to begin with. Anyway, listening to his song “Circle,” watching the morning sun reflect off Metra cars in the train yard heading downtown Friday, I thought Chapin didn’t really die at 38. Harry Chapin lives on, as much as any artist can.