Saturday, 18 April 2015 21:18

Almost Forgetting Harry Chapin

Written by 

In early 1980, my friend Ron invited me to a party at his house. As we drank beer and talked of old times, a former high school classmate approached me and explained that he had just married and his wife wasn't interested in going to see Harry Chapin. I thought about it for a minute. "Harry Chapin? I liked "Cats in the Cradle," "W*O*L*D," Taxi…"' At that point in my life, the narrow scope of my musical taste was constantly on display in the form of black concert shirts with the logos of bands such as Sabbath, Van Halen and Sammy Hagar. I was a young metalhead and KSHE pounded those riffs into my thick skull. "Crank out the drums, Crank out the bass, crank out my Les Paul in your face," weren't exactly the lines from a wordsmith. Did I mention the tickets were 2nd row center at the Kiel Opera House? Although I wasn't exactly gonna pump my fist at the show, what the hell? I never sat that close at a concert so I snapped them up for face value.

I needed a date so I asked a hostess at the Roundtable Restaurant to go with me . The girl had a reputation while I did not. I hadn't gone out with many women at that point in my life because I was shy and felt awkward around them. Many shows I attended were with my partying buddies, but that didn't seem right for such a mellow concert. Showtime came and we were sitting together a few feet from the stage in the magnificent theater. Once the lights went out, I lit up a bowl and took a big draw from the meerschaum pipe. Firing up that bowl was the biggest mistake I had ever made at a concert. I had no idea what I was gonna sit through. 

Harry was a master storyteller. Yet beyond the words that flowed through his microphone, he made a connection with the audience that I had never witnessed before. I was awestruck at the way the guy told tales through his music, along the casual banter he provided between songs. It was as though we were all sitting around a campfire, and Harry kept everyone engaged with every word, everyone with the exception of me. 

The weed I smoked was appropriate for the Cheech and Chong show I attended the prior year. Nothing could illustrate that better than when Chapin played the song "30,000 Pounds of Bananas." He began to sing about a truck driver looking forward to getting home after a long day's work. As the truck descended down a hill towards Scranton, Pennsylvania, my attention span got as far as the highway sign that warned the driver to shift into low gear. By then the pot had kicked in like a runaway freight train passing through my brain. That moment, the truck driver and I had one thing in common; you could say we were both in high gear. A nagging concern gripped my mind that I was gonna be too confused to deal with my date for the rest of the evening. This concern was heightened as Harry's words lost their meaning. He could have been giving a lecture on the structure of atomic particles and the result would have been the same. The flawless acoustics of the Kiel Opera House allowed me to hear every word Chapin sang. Unfortunately my comprehension was toast.

During the chorus of "30,000 pounds of bananas," the crowd joined in without so much as a gentle prod from Harry, or the entire audience with the exception of my date and I. As the truck driver began to lose control of his full load of bananas, the speed of the truck and the tempo of the song increased. Likewise my evening was hopelessly lost. I was baked and had no idea what the details were that led to the demise of the driver and his bananas.  

When the concert ended, Harry invited those who wanted their items autographed to meet him in the lobby. In the cavernous room, this extraordinary man poked his head out of an open ticket window and greeted several hundred people patiently waiting to meet him. For me, it was the most memorable moment of the night. To this day, I have never seen anything like it. Harry was there to greet each and every one of them, say a few words and sign autographs. 

After leaving St. Louis, I took my date to my parent's house. There on a couch, we made out. She didn't seem bothered by my lack of conversation throughout the evening and attempted to coax me into something more. "I'll go anywhere you want to go," she whispered. Not feeling up to much of anything, I took her home. 

That night, I added to my concert t-shirt collection a green shirt silkscreened with a large banana the words "Harry Chapin, 30,000 Pounds of Bananas!" Ironically, the shirt was another reminder of what I missed out on that night. Within a year, the silkscreened logo faded into the paper-thin cotton. Shortly after the shirt was thrown away, Harry died in a collision with a truck on the Long Island Expressway.

How on Earth did the night of April 24, 1980 stay with me? It was such a long, long time ago.