Chapin British Interview
following is a transcript of an interview between Harry
Chapin and British DJ Noel Edmunds recorded and
broadcast on National Radio One on December 26th, 1977.
and Balderdash: During a recent visit to the UK, Harry
Chapin spent an afternoon at Radio One chatting about
his work and his music with Noel Edmonds.
they say at school what is your name. (laughter). Is it
Chafin, Chapin, Chappin. I mean I have heard so many
different versions of it we ought to establish that at
my name is Harry Chapin. It actually came in 1066 with
the Norman invasion of England. William the Conquerer
had a lackey somewhere in the lower realms of his court
and his name was Chapin (pronounced Chapeen) and over
the years this became anglicised to Chapin and about
1637 was out of favour here in England and went over to
America and founded Springfield Massachussetts and I am
a direct descendent from........A whole lotta other
Chapins in my family were Edward Chapin who is the first
guy ever ever to be executed for incest in Massachusetts
and Dwight Chapin who was the guy who was put in gaol as
Nixon's more enticing people. So all in all I have a
tremendous legacy to live up to.
have got to be fair. What about the other Chapins and
what about the present family set up. Where were you
I grew up in New York, New York born and bred and I came
from four real brothers and a whole bunch of half
brothers and half sisters. Between my mother and father
they had 12 other kids in various combinations and
permutations ........ Just basically east coast of the
United States around the New York area.
grew up on West 11th street down by the docks, right in
between the maximum security federal penitentiary and
the M and N Trucking Company which on odd moments and
various nights used to back into our house. Indeed we
had to move out when I was 11, a truck backed into the
house and it fell down.
always hear about these poor little rich boys, people
who grew up with tremendously financial security and all
kinds of worldly good but very little love and they sort
of come from raisins instead of grapes. Well I was a
rich little poor boy. I grew up in an environment of
writers, painters, teachers, musicians, philosophers,
film makers, poets, sculptresses and village.
I can say is I had probably one of the most privileged
upbringings of all times in the sense of the excitement
and the kind of example.
Wanna Learn a Love Song is the song about how I met my
wife. I was giving her guitar lessons, I sort of
telescoped the time a little. I do not think our first
encounter on the couch (laughs) but she was just
splitting up from her first marriage and was trying to
do some new things, trying to have some new inputs. She
didn't realise how much of a new input I was going to
be. But I after a while realised what an incredible
woman she was and I stopped charging her 10 bucks an
hour (laughter). But I have to say it has been the best
decision I made in my life and indeed you know the
lyrics and the verse of Cats in the Cradle came from a
poem of hers.
does money mean at the moment.
this year I will be giving away $700,000 of stuff that
I've earned through benefits.
Edmonds: When you say 'giving it away', does that
mean you're turning your talents to earning money or has
that money once been yours?
Harry: On a tax situation I would be crazy if I
took it myself and gave it away. When you do a benefit
concert, and I probably do more than anybody else in the
United States, let's be very clear. It would be nice to
think that people come because they are concerned about
starving children or lobbying for better, saner energy
policy or diseases that need money invested to solve
them, but in fact they come for the performer.
Edmonds: The benefit concerts, charity concert,
isn't that big over here. We have a few, but you're
making it sound as if there is a tour, something going
on all the time. That's quite a claim, 'you do more than
most', can you just explain a bit about the scene?
Harry: I'll go one step further, because I'm
proud of it. I do more than anybody.
Harry: Well, number one, when people ask me why
I'm involved in things like this, I say very clearly we
are a participatory democracy in the United States and
here in England. The idea is we are not just supposed to
vote every two or four years. All of us on a consistent
basis are supposed to be very actively involved as
public citizens, not just voting every two or four
years, but armchair experts on virtually everything. The
genius of our society is collective and we've gotten
away from that, we really have. I think everybody, be it
a disc-jockey, or a singer, or a producer, or farmer, or
a housewife, or a teacher, or a student or a
businessman, all of us have to ask ourselves and the key
line was written by a gentleman called Robert Zimmerman,
Bob Dylan, when he wrote 'He was not busy living, he was
busy dying'. To a really true extent I would say we are,
in our respective societies, imitating the final days of
the Holy Roman Empire, rather than busy being born. The
whole concept of what I'm working on this year, 1977, as
we wind it up, is the The Dance Band on the Titanic. I
think, quite frankly, our respective industries are
functioning like the dance band on the Titanic, which is
to create diversions in the ballrooms, so nobody worries
about the icebergs outside.
Edmonds: Are you a prophet of doom? Is the end
Harry: Oh no, not at all, but I think the answer
is that we definitely need lookouts. Art at its very
best has an ability to sensitise and emotionalise. You
see music should not propagandise. An awful lot of great
writers in the thirties in America, during the
Depression, wrote propaganda art and it stunk ...
really, boring as hell, because it means the characters
become in service of ideas and they don't follow
through. But music has the ability to emotionalise and
for example a song that doesn't sound political, Cat's
in the Cradle. If I'd done that as a propaganda piece it
would have been 'fathers pay attention to your children
or else they won't pay attention to you' and it would
have been a goddamn bore. But done on an emotional
basis, not from me being in an enlightened position, but
rather being in a sense the fool that all this is
happening to, being blind as it unfolds ... that
freshly, emotionally implanted a truth that was already
there, or re-implanted a truth that everybody knew and
put it in such a way, that I got 175 separate letters
from clergymen alone, saying they used it as a basis for
a sermon in the United States.
Edmonds: Why do you bother? Not in a physical
sense that you use energy to go places and do concerts.
The songs, they're about the man who reaches the point
where family life isn't right and he fancies his
secretary, or Mr Tanner gets the big break, or even the
chap whose breaks fail and he's a banana split. It's all
about individuals. It's all about the problems of life
that we can read about in the paper. Why do you care so
much? Why don't you get on with living Harry's life?
Harry: Frankly, I think the most unique aspect of
human life is that we're all desperately concerned about
proving our existence matters...
Edmonds: What are you desperate to be?
Harry: I'm desperate to matter..
Edmonds: You see yourself in other people's
problems. Are you seeing some sort of salvation, some
sort of transport by being involved in other people's
Harry: Well ... I would like it to be said that
when I die, from an external point of view, that it
mattered that Harry Chapin was alive. From an internal
point of view, I would like to be able to say what my
two grandfathers can say, one who passed away last
Summer, aged eighty-eight. He said about three weeks
before he died, "You know, Harry, all my life I've
wanted to be a painter and do you know what I've been,
I've been a painter". Some days I've gone to bed
with what I call a 'bad tired'. I've struggled at the
wrong things and when I've hit the hay, I toss and turn.
Other days, even though I may not have been successful,
I go to bed with what I call a 'good tired'. I've
struggled at the right things and when I hit the hay I
say 'take me away' and I sleep the sleep of the dead.
I'm eighty-eight years old, you can take me away. And
that sense of peace, that sense of having used whatever
the little neurones, molecules and electrons and all the
chemical reactions and electrical reactions that make up
a human being is important, since I don't believe in the
after life. I wish I did. Every time I desperately
approach religions to say 'do I believe?', I still
don't. But that sense of peace that my grandfather, Jim
Chapin, who was a painter achieved, and my other
grandfather, Kenneth Burke, he has it too. God Almighty,
what a seductive concept. That in your own life you can
use it to that extent and that's where the saying
"when in doubt, do something" comes from. So
the combination is, number one, to have a personal
affirmation and use the things you have and to reassure
myself that all these struggles have been at least
note-worthy of other's attention.
Edmonds: What about marriage? Let's stop you
there. What does marriage mean to you?
Harry: It's the ultimate political union.
Edmonds: It's all politics and money so far. Does
your wife ever worry? I mean she hears you come up with
these songs, particularly the ones orientated to the
breakdown of relationships. Does she ever worry and
think 'what have I got hold of here'?
Harry: She'd be crazy not to realise and she
does. She's far wiser than I am. She's been married
before. We have three kids by her marriage and two by
the normal methods. The fact is, the key thing about a
good marriage is that you can fight and come back the
next day. If you haven't got built into your marriage
some system by which to work out grievances, then by
God, you're in terrible trouble and you're not going to
last. Because the glow will last a year or two, then
guilt will get you another year, but by then it's all
teeth and nails. I think the most important quality in a
marriage is respect. If you have respect for your mate,
you can constantly re-fall in love with them. If you
just love them, but you don't respect them, the minute
you fall out of love it's over. I guarantee you, if you
are married for any length of time, there are going to
be times when you don't love your wife or your husband.
But if you respect them and you respect the space that
they take up and the kind of priorities they have, you
can constantly be re-seduced into it. That's what makes
Edmonds: Are you a sad person? Taxi struck me as
a very sad song. It was raining. It had all the elements
of everybody's depression in that song.
Harry: Well, I've been accused of writing a lot
of depressing songs. I guess Taxi was the first one
everybody heard and in fact it's probably true. It goes
back to recognition. When you're feeling good, it's the
last time in the world you need other people. You can
just wander down the street or take your skateboard or
surfboard and get on a wave and just float away. The
time you need communication is when things aren't going
well; the time when you need that sense of communion or
a sense of everybody else in the same boat. Anybody
who's been to one of my concerts, even though I sing sad
song after sad song ... sometimes ... sometimes happy
songs ... does not go out depressed. Number one, I am
usually a positive person. I was born that way. The fact
is the times I am most pushed to create are when I'm
trying to come to terms with some of the things that
tend to crunch those positive things and in the act of
encompassing them defeat them. So Taxi is about a guy
and a girl who sold out their dreams. But in that sense
of recognition, even though he's flying so high when
he's stoned at the end of the song, other people
listening to that song make the next step.
Edmonds: With all the benefit concerts, how do
you decide which subject you're going to go for? Which
charity's going to benefit? You appear to have
apprehension against political structures and you are
worried about the way in which people can manipulate the
Harry: I try to manipulate it like hell...
Edmonds: You were talking about the World Hunger
Year thing, which is a very obvious thing and a lot of
assistance is needed in this line. How do you decide?
Harry: What I have tried to do is support
specific people and get to know the things and be
involved in how the money is spent. World Hunger Year
I'm a founding member of. We do not spend one dollar for
relief, not because we're not interested in feeding
hungry children. I'll give you a perfect example, which
I use a lot when I'm lobbying in Washington. You've got
a dirty linen factory. Now the question is whether you
clean the linen and send it back to the factory so it
gets dirty again or you ask why it's getting dirty in
the first place. I would rather spend my money stopping
the linen from getting dirty, than to keep washing it.
There's a whole side of our economic structure that
would love the people of Britain and the United States
to take as their job to feed the hungry people around
the world. By the way, they're not just over there. In
America 10% of Americans go to bed hungry at night. One
in every four or five cans of dog and cat food sold in
American supermarkets goes to old people, who eat it
themselves. The ratio of hungry people in Great Britain
is not that different and these are the two, quote, most
civilised countries in the world. The fact is very
simple. If you are willing to believe that an individual
can have an impact and are willing to say 'I am willing
to commit a couple of hours a week', not just this week,
but next week and in five, ten years time, you will see
a tremendous difference occur. The two most important
men in history, certainly in the last 2,000 years are
two guys with unprovable assumptions, Jesus Christ and
Karl Marx. One was a guy, running round on the fringes
of the Roman Empire, saying that there was an afterlife
and he wasn't able to prove it. The second guy, was a
half-crazy guy, going from the slums of London, back and
forth to Germany, writing these books ... and yet
without these two people, you pull them out of human
history and all of a sudden it all looks incredibly
Edmonds: I'm going to walk round all the
arguments you've thrown up with that one and go back to
your music with Dogtown, which underlines your feeling
for people who suffer in a strange sort of way. How did
that one come about?
Harry: Dogtown is a song about extreme
loneliness. I've never been a woman. I've never made
love to a dog, although same people have accused me of
it. The fact is, if you go up to that old town, it's an
hour's ride north of Boston. If you were doing it as
they did way back when in a carriage, it would probably
be a day's ride. You see these old granite foundations
sitting on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It is
one of the most desolate spots. The day I went it was
raining ... it was like a typical English day. I
suddenly had a vision of what it must have been like for
a woman, left behind by her husband, newly after she was
married. He's going off on a trip that would take at
best a year, probably two years, and she's standing
there six months after he's supposed to have come back
and there's no sign of him. She's left behind with a
giant, black dog and all the urges of humanity. What do
you do? Well that's what the song is about. I try to
write songs where humanity is under stress. People have
had their dreams and their expectations coming into
conflict with realities and not necessarily all of them
solving all of the problems that come up. All the people
I write about are desperately questing towards life,
just as I am. I have found some more socially acceptable
ways of questing.
Edmonds: Are you desperate though?
Harry: Oh yes, I'm hungry.
Edmonds: Is that because you've already achieved
something. You obviously now have a happy family life.
You obviously are financially set. You've achieved
enough that the cynics that you must draw like a magnet,
must aim at you and point 'Well he's okay'. Why are you
Harry: I think all of us should be very hungry,
very greedy, because the only thing we know for sure is
that we're alive now and if we don't take it now we're
going to lose out. I never want to be sixty-five and say
'I wish I had done this'. To me that is the most sad
admission any human being can make.
Edmonds: Well, you've achieved the material
things? That sounds rude, but would you agree?
Harry: Far more than I ever thought I would.
Edmonds: Are you looking for perhaps the most
elusive of qualities? Are you looking for personal
Harry: Power is a cheap version of feeling that
you matter. There are all sorts of ways you can achieve
it. Richard Nixon had power, but it was straw in his
mouth, cotton in his mouth soon after he'd done it
because of the methodology. Frankly one of the
interesting things is that there is a whole degree of
cynicism that comes up in a whole bunch of areas. One,
about ego. We have gotten to a time where if a person
has a healthy ego and is applying it in healthy ways, we
put him down. Or professionalism. In my business, if you
are somebody who really loves the craft of writing and
of singing it, of putting together things, you are
looked askance at. Because you are supposed to be in a
business where your emotions come from a seething
cauldron that spit out pure ... and the Lord is sitting
on your shoulder spitting lightning bolts in your ear
and that's where it comes from. The extraordinary thing
about Shakespeare was that he was an ordinary guy who
had genius. But he was worried about money. He was
worried about this and that. He was worried about
getting a coat of arms. He loved to get his piece of ass
every now and then. He was alive. He was hungry. He had
feeling. Bach, the greatest composer of all time, he'd
go to work every day and he'd write genius music at his
church. Some guy would call him up and say 'Bach,
listen, the Queen's sister is coming down to the court.
She loves flutes. Will you write me something with lots
of flutes, about twenty minutes long?' Then he'd go
home, he'd drink beer and he'd screw his wife ... he had
twenty-three kids ... and he'd go to sleep. Then he'd
get up the following morning, he'd go to work and write
genius music again. All this artist stuff. One of the
things we do to our young people is we scare them. We
set it up that an artist has to be either killing
themselves like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison
or they've got to have same kind of extraordinary
passion, rather than just having a decent, normal, human
ego and a concern for the craft that they do. The two
things interface and, by God, it works perfectly. What I
am saying is an awful lot of us are frightened away from
Edmonds: But you've got to have the basis there.
Your popularity is because of your ambition and your
ambition is part of your talent and your ability was
given to you by your parents.
No, I have met a hundred people with talent for
every one with determination.
Edmonds: But Mr Tanner lost out. He didn't have
quite enough go in him when the chips were down.
Harry: But the problem with Mr Tanner is that he
was protecting himself. He grew up in a protective
environment and his one shot at the big time blew him
away. My advice to Mr Tanner was that he should have
started singing earlier and gone to New York earlier.
Edmonds: He shouldn't have gone for the big one?
Harry: No. So he got bombed. He takes it, learns
from it, learns same other things. The greatest lesson
to anybody, I think, in human history, is Richard Nixon.
Now here is a man with little charm, little integrity,
little vision, only a small amount of intelligence in a
clever way, but in a broad sense...
Edmonds: Does he speak so highly of you?
Harry: ... and by dint of one quality, which is
easily available to everybody, blind determination, got
elected to the highest elective Office known, the
Presidency of the United States. He went through such
humiliation. In 1962, when he lost the Governorship of
California two years after losing the Presidential
Campaign to Kennedy, you couldn't have elected him
dogcatcher. Yet six years later he was elected President
and four years after that got the highest plurality in
the history of American elections. I am not saying he's
a genius or a great man, anything but by dint of that
determination, it's a lesson to every one of us. If all
of us believe as strongly in our vision, as that man
believed in his paltry vision, then we have no excuse
but to be Prime Minister.
Edmonds: Does corruption fascinate you? Do you
ever admire corruption?
Harry: No, but I admire passion. I'm very
involved in hunger. I'm very involved in politics. This
isn't my pet charity. That's not where my head is at. To
me, I would love to feel when I'm dead that I've had a
sway on certain things. Every one of us would. The
perfect example is Ralph Nader, who just went to Law
School. He's always in the one, two, three of most
admired Americans. By dint of his commitment to
something larger than himself, he becomes larger, thus
he gets more reward. What the hell do I want with a
limousine? What the hell do I want with a yacht? If I
really wanted one I could get one and if it really made
me happy it would work out fine. But I'm not that simple
minded. I really don't believe it.
Edmonds: One thing that sprung to mind when you
were talking about Harry Chapin, as if he was sitting
next to you, do you like him?
Harry: I like him a good deal of the time and
when I don't I kick him in the ass and get him over to
where I like him. I'm lucky that way, because I have a
family who are not in awed by me at all. They're all
people who do as many creative things as I do, if not
more. My wife is very willing to tell me I'm a damned
idiot. I try to write as qualitative music as I can and
just do it with as much belief as I can. If I don't
believe it, change it, and integrate that with my family
life, integrate that with my political feelings and my
business sense. All this stuff is making sense, it is
integrating and making a life that to me is terribly
exciting. I can't ask for anything more, except, by God,
let's keep it going. I'm doing something I believe in.
It's something that's different. It's got shape. It's
got vision. There are people like you who have believed
in me for a lot of years. You're famous. In some cases
you've made mistakes ... maybe I'm one of them, but I
appreciate the fact that you've given voice to me. One
of the extraordinary things about people in the
entertainment business, like myself, is we don't realise
how important our ambassadors are. Everything from the
promotion man to the salesman, most especially the disc-jockies
on the stations who really give us voice. W.O.L.D is
really a song that was triggered by Taxi. After Taxi
came out my record company sent me all around the
country to meet disc-jockies. And there were three
types. There were the young-comers, who saw the world
ahead of them as a giant apple, ready to be juicily
bitten in to. There were the guys in their prime, who
stood astride the business. And there were older guys,
who were holding on by their finger nails desperately
trying to relate, forty-five going on fifteen. I met a
bunch of those. We all go there, but it's how we
Edmonds: One of the songs I really like is 30,000
Pounds of Bananas. I'm very interested in cars, trucks,
whatever ... what was the thinking behind that one?
Harry: Well I first wrote it as a poem and it was
a comment on the Vietnam body count. We got so involved
with statistics that we didn't think of the human story
behind it. So it was a piece of black comedy. The point
is very simple. The song seems to have a bizarre life
force within its craziness. But the original-urge was
very simple. I was coming through Scranton, Pennsylvania
in 1965. An elderly gentleman did get in and tell me the
story of this event. And to put a weird little kick on
it, to show you how life can come round double-edged, I
got a call about two years ago from a lawyer. The lawyer
was calling for the sister of the guy who was killed in
the story. He had no legal basis to ask, but he said
'You're coming to Scranton and they're using Bananas on
the radio as promotion for the concert. Could you ask
them to stop it.' The lawyer also said, 'She asked me to
tell you one thing. The only two times she saw her
parents cry, was when their son, my brother, was killed
and the other time was when his two children came home
from school when all the kids were singing that song.'
Now all of a sudden my whole vision of this song
radically changed at that moment because you suddenly
realise if you are a person, like myself, writing from
real life, you suddenly find yourself, in a strange way,
kicking people you didn't mean to kick at all. As a
matter of fact I went and visited the family and talked
to them. I said I wasn't trying to hurt them. That I
wouldn't just do it for them at the show. I would be
doing it in the future. I didn't mean it as any
disrespect. The other irony was that at another concert
in Illinois, I sang a song called Sniper, which I am
very proud of. I think it is one of the best things I've
done. Half way through the song, a distinguished
gentleman with a beard, sitting in the third raw, jumped
up and ran out, evidently in some distress. I asked
about it later and nobody knew, until I asked one
person, who said 'Oh didn't you know that's the Head of
the English Department here. His son was killed by that
sniper, the guy Charles Whitmore in Texas. He became an
alcoholic for three years, was an absolute wreck, but he
pulled himself back together and is now a fantastic
teacher.' Well I feel very strangely about that song. It
captures something that for fifteen years we have been
facing more and more of.
Edmonds: Did you have any contact with him?
Harry: No, I wasn't able to ... but here's an
example where if you're trying to write serious
material, it's amazing how you can sometimes have an
impact you didn't necessarily want to have. In general I
have to say Harry Chapin is the villain in almost all of
his songs. I'm not writing from a superior point of
view. Especially in the male-female relationship. It's
usually I'm the one doing something dumb. Frankly I give
that as a lesson to young song-writers. If you're going
to say something nice about somebody, make it somebody
else in your songs. If you're going to say something
nasty, make it about yourself. Automatically people will
trust you more. During the sixties I used to write a lot
of songs about what a wonderful stud I was and by God, I
used to bomb every time. People only started to listen
to me when they realised what a fool I was. The fact is,
I've got the best job in the world and I'm frightened
that some day somebody's go m a wake me up and say
'Harry, we've found you out, you have to go and get a
real job now.' Because I've got the best job. I make an
awful lot of money. I have tremendous ego gratification
from an awful lot of people. I define my own product.
I'm not selling toilet paper that people wanted before.
No one wanted Chapin music before I did it. I define the
times I work, the places I work and I can do a
tremendous amount of, if I do a qualitative job, of
seducing people with some of my ideas. Fantastic gig.