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Harry Chapin British Interview

The 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. 

Announcer: Verities 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.

Edmonds As 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 the start.

Harry Well 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.

Edmonds: I have got to be fair. What about the other Chapins and what about the present family set up. Where were you born?

Harry: Well 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.

I 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.

You 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.

What 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.

Harry: I 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.

Edmonds: What does money mean at the moment.

Harry: Well 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.

Edmonds: Why?

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 nigh?

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 problems?

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 it meaningful.

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 system.

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 different.

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 so desperate?

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 power?

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 our dreams.

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. 

Harry: 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 continue relating.

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.