Sunday, March 17, 2013

A College Memory: Singing with Harry Chapin

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

It was primary season during the election year of 1976 while I was attending Queens College that would see Jimmy Carter win the Presidency. I had seen Carter’s son on campus outside the Union Building (student center) at some point, yet the upcoming vote was not on my mind. I already knew I would vote for whoever was running against the Republican candidate and hadn’t yet made up my mind about the Democratic run-off.

Finding a place for your car around Queens College was a challenge. Fellow student Jerry Seinfeld (graduated the year I started) once commented that he earned a Bachelor’s of Parallel Parking. On campus, it was by permit only. That morning, I had found a spot a block away on the southern Melbourne Avenue, and was sauntering diagonally southeast to northwest across the campus towards my class past the Union (or “Onion” as we often referred to it for no other reason than we could). There on a post was a sign announcing a talk that same day by Democratic hopeful Morris “Mo” Udall (d. 1998). To promote him, in a free concert, would be Harry Chapin. I was in.

I’d seen Harry play a number of times in Central Park and the like, and was a fan. Yeah, I was neck deep in the whole New York punk scene, my fanzine was just a year away, but part of me was still holding out for a tad of the folkie. Most people came to punk through rock, such as KISS, MC5, Iggy, and the like. For me, pre-Ramones in 1975, I was listening to Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul and Mary, and Phil Ochs. And yet, I could see a correlation between punk and folk: lo-fi, plug & play, and protest music. I felt justified 30 years later when so many punkers started putting out singer-songwriter material, such as Joey “Shithead” Keithley of D.O.A.

Though kicking myself for not having my camera with me that day, even though it was a pre-35mm instamatic that took 128 film, I was excited about it. The event was scheduled for later in the day, after my classes were over.

Waiting to get into small auditorium, I started talking to the attractive student standing next to me. Once we were permitted inside and seated, most of the audience was abuzz with excitement. Not for Udall, but rather for Chapin. In the formal introduction, we were told that Harry would be performing after Udall gave his talk, which included a Q&A with the audience. This made sense, because of a lot of this crowd would not stick around to the Udall part after hearing from The Man. Queens College at the time had a very large Jewish population, and was highly liberal, but c’mon, it’s Harry Chapin.

Udall gave an interesting talk, nothing of which had stuck with me nearly 40 years later (yikes). What I do remember well is one of the questions, asked by a known stoner in the audience: “Hey Mo, where’s Larry and Curly.” I was personally embarrassed to be there that second, but proud of the group as a whole who booed the guy out of the auditorium. Udall was gracious (I’m guessing this was not the first time he’d heard this), and impressively moved on without fluster.

Through it all, I kept the connection going with the woman I met on the line, through occasional quips here and there back and forth between us. Then it came time for Harry. He arrived onstage by himself, sitting on a stool with his guitar. This was his hometown crowd, more or less, having grown up in Brooklyn and lived on Long Island for most of his life. We were about 10 rows back, on the right side, in the center of the row.

He didn’t do many songs, but as most of them were quite long, he probably sang for half an hour or so. I remember him doing “What Made America Famous” and “W.O.L.D.” Most likely his did his top seller (and one of the few I didn’t care for) “Cat’s in the Cradle.” But I will admit it was great seeing him that close in that intimate a setting. There were probably about 200 people there, just about as big as the room could fill.

Between each song he talked up America, and what Udall could do for it as President. Then, he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Since ‘Big John’ (Wallace) and the gang aren’t here, I’m going to need some help to sing ‘Taxi’ before I go. Anyone wanna come up and sing it with me?” The attractive coed looked at me with an excited smile on her face, and said, “We should go!” Like I was going to say no to her? I probably wouldn’t have gone up there if she hadn’t asked, honestly, but I was trying to make an impression.

About 10 of us ran up on the stage, and I stood directly behind his right shoulder, looking down as his fuzzy hair, guitar, and strumming hand; the woman I ran up with was to my right. I was a lot more nervous about being on stage those days, but I was in the moment. He started the song, “It was rainin’ hard in Frisco…” to a huge round of applause.

After the guitar break, it was time for the “Big John” Wallace solo, where we standing, we few, we honored, were to fill in. Harry tilted his head back and with sotto voce started feeding us the line, “Baby’s so high that she’s skying…” when the guy on the other side of him – essentially standing where I was, except on his left – leaned over and said, also sotto voce, “Shut up, Harry, we know it.”

This cracked Harry up, and as we sang the falsetto part, he was playing and trying to muffle his laugh, especially considering the seriousness of the song, but from my angle I could see a single tear roll down from his eye. Somehow he composed himself, albeit just onionskin-thin on the verge of not laughing out loud, and finished the song.

As the rest of the audience stood and cheered, Harry got up of the stool, turned to us behind him, and shook everyone’s hand, the first being the guy who spoke to him during the song. They exchanged a few words and smiles. Then it was my turn, and I felt much honored.

When I looked around, I saw that the woman I came up with was gone, and I never saw her again. As Harry had just sung, “It was somewhere in a fairy tale…”

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