Thursday, June 04, 2015

TBT: Harry Chapin, "W*O*L*D."

Harry Chapin grew up in the neighborhood I've called home for the past 32 years, Brooklyn Heights. His singing skills were honed in the Grace Church Youth Choir and the Brooklyn Boys Choir. He died in a car crash in 1981, two years before I moved here.

I found his first hit, "Taxi", unsettling. It charted in 1972, as I was near the beginning of my career, and its story of youthful dreams washed away in a cold bath of reality was scary. I did like the song's having a narrative arc. Most of Chapin's songs were like this; he gave his third album for Elektra the title "Short Stories." One of the songs on that album is "W*O*L*D":

I first heard "W*O*L*D" on WNEW-FM, then New York's great album-oriented rock station, sometime in 1974. The DJ (was it Vin Scelsa?) wondered aloud if the title was a play on WNEW. That would seem logical, Harry being a New Yorker, but the song was about being a DJ at a small town top 40 AM station. Like "Taxi" it's about growing older and facing that frigid reality bath, with respect both to career and relationships.

Harry Chapin wrote most of the songs he recorded (although his only number one hit, "Cat's in the Cradle," was written by his wife) and therefore can be considered part of the genre of "singer-songwriters" who became popular in the late 1960s and early '70s; other examples are Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Rock critics were, as a rule, disdainful of this group. Reviews of their work often included descriptors like "precious" and "self-indulgent." Lester Bangs, in an essay titled "James Taylor Marked for Death," wrote:
DECIDE whether you want to jump and caper with music that's alive or molder in the Dostoyevskian hovels of dead bardic auteur crap picking nits out of its navel and so sickly that to see it shake its ass would be a hilarious horror indeed.
As I've recounted in an earlier post, one night at the Bells of Hell I had a "Bless me, Lester, for I have sinned" session in which, among other things, I confessed to liking Gordon Lightfoot. Lester's response was, "Hmph! I know Gord. Do you know what he does when he needs inspiration to write a song? He goes to the hardware store and stares at the labels on cans of paint." He didn't give me a penance; if he had, it would probably have been to listen to something like the album Blank Generation by Richard Hell and the Void-oids five times. I did go through my set of Lightfoot albums looking for song titles incorporating color imagery, but came up blank.

Lester, if you've broken away from frugging on the head of a pin long enough to read over my shoulder, please understand that there are times when I "want to jump and caper," but also times when I want to sojourn in "Dostoyevskian hovels." In other words, I'm not taking "DECIDE" as a command. No disrespect: to be true to what one believes is most admirable. I am made of less adamant stuff. And Harry, if you're having a peek, the only thing I can't forgive is your having unwittingly launched the career of Billy Joel, who tried to channel you in his first hit, "Piano Man".