Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Scary Song and the Creepy Coincidence

"I've never gone up in a tower and shot people, but I know what it's like to be scared and angry."
-- Harry Chapin

I had nearly constant insomnia growing up and would frequently listen to the radio in the middle of the night.

Sometimes it was Larry King's old radio show, a rambling, middle-of-the-night combination of interesting interviews, conspiracy theories, and the rantings of weirdos up after 3 am.

But one night, I got tired of hearing yet another Frank Sinatra story from Larry King, I tuned to one of the many college radio stations in the area.

And there I heard something amazing: a nearly ten-minute folky song that took you inside the mind of someone who climbed a clock tower with a rifle and started shooting at passing college students. It was riveting and terrifying all at the same time. And I had no idea what the song was or who sang it.

These days, you'd just go to the radio station website and find out (or google some line from the lyrics), but this was much earlier. I thought of going out to the phone, calling the radio station and asking the DJ, but I knew that would have woken my entire family (who definitely wouldn't have understood why I needed to know this particular piece of information at 3:25 am).

None of my music savvy friends knew what song I was talking about (although several people suggested I must be talking about "I Don't Like Mondays" by the Boomtown Rats, which was a shorter, poppier, and less scary approach to similar material).

Years later, someone told me it was a Harry Chapin song and I couldn't believe the guy who sang "Taxi" or "Cat's in the Cradle" would have a song this dark and twisted. But I had no idea what the song might be called... so I started buying up Harry Chapin albums at my local used record stores. Most of his albums were uneven -- a few great songs with some interesting experiments and some songs that seemed half-finished. (His live albums, on the other hand, were exuberant, and amazing.) So my collection of Harry Chapin records grew, but I couldn't find that song.

And after a while, I began to wonder if I'd misremembered the song -- maybe someone else sang it or maybe I'd dreamed the whole thing. Surely something that dangerous and weird, filled with bad moods, ill intent, and a heady portion of madness didn't come from the "Taxi" guy.

Then, one summer, while looking for a used Elvis Costello record, I found a Harry Chapin album called Sniper and Other Love Songs. Surely this had to be it. I plunked down my $1.25 ($1.31 with tax, I think), brought it home, and immediately confirmed that the song "Sniper" was the scary song from the middle of the night.

Between when I heard the song on the radio and when I bought the album, I'd learned that Chapin started out as a documentary filmmaker before he became a full-time singer/songwriter, that he wrote a Broadway musical called The Night That Made America Famous which closed after six weeks but was nominated for two Tony Awards, that he toured constantly, performing in 150-200 benefits per year (mostly for an organization he founded to fight world hunger). His songs were a mixed bag -- the best were brilliant slices of life, but some of them seemed lazy and badly in need of editing and polishing. Critics mostly hated him (Rolling Stone eviscerated Sniper and Other Love Songs, starting by saying "No singer/songwriter, not even Rod McKuen, apotheosizes romantic self-pity with such shameless vulgarity," and going on from there).

So that night, I listened to the song "Sniper" three or four times on bulky red headphones that made the clicks and pops on the record sound like they were hard-wired in my brain. Later, Larry King told a story about growing up in Brooklyn and I fell into a fitful sleep.

The next day, Harry Chapin got into a fight with his wife, drove off to perform at a benefit concert, got into an accident on the Long Island Expressway, and died at the age of 38. I knew it was just a coincidence. But it was a creepy coincidence, so I put the record away and didn't listen to it for more than 25 years.

Then, this morning, YouTube said right now someone was watching this video and I knew I had to watch it, too:

RIP, Harry.

For more on this song, click here.


Anonymous said...

How odd that I read this post today, just half an hour ago I was reading my psychology textbook, about Charles Whitman!
Strange......... :)

Alex said...

Strange, indeed, Sarah! :)

Kinky Paprika said...

I've never cared much for Harry Chapin, but "Sniper and Other Love Songs" is an absolutely classic album title.

latebloomingmom said...

I was at Harry's recording session for his last album. He took a break from it to perform a few songs at my senior class dinner, as a favor to my dad. Long story. Super nice guy. Always loved TAXI and CAT'S CRADLE. He was a poet of the middle class.

Ralph said...

I've been a long-time Harry Chapin fan, both of his music (admittedly mixed) and of the man. He was way ahead of the curve on recognizing that world hunger was a long-term problem, not something that could be solved in a day or a year. And so he adopted the slogan "Every year is world hunger year."

While many performers are good about doing charity work, for Harry it was a passion. His motto was "One concert for me, one for the other guy." I saw him in concert three times - twice with his band and once solo. All of them were among the most fun concerts I've ever been to.

One show he was having problems with guitar strings breaking, and he said, "I play guitar like Lizzie Bordon played the axe."

I was devastated when he died, and there is still a sad spot inside me for someone whose light went out too soon. I loved a lot of his music, but I could recognize that a lot of it was pretty awful.

Oddly enough, Sniper came up on a Genius Mix on iTunes for me last week. It's not one of my favorites, so I hadn't played it in a long time.

Thanks for the post, Alex.

whiteray said...

Good post. A while back, when the Texas Gal and I drove through Austin, we stopped at the plaza where Whitman did his damage. Places like that are always spooky, with a stillness in the air as if the last gunshot happened a split-second ago.

I love a lot of Chapin's work, especially "Taxi" and "Sequel." It's selfish regret of mine, but I wish he could have had time enough to write and record "Finale."

Holly A Hughes said...

Great post, Alex. I've never heard Sniper -- now I'll be looking for it. I did just hear "Taxi" on the radio the other day, though, and while I'd always thought it was a fairly genial little tune, this time it just devastated me. There aren't many storytellers of Harry Chapin's stature around these days....

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Alex, I had no idea. Many thanks for the amazing post ... & the video find. It's a mixed up muddled up shook up world.

Mike Grayeb said...

Great posts here. It's Harry's motto, "When in doubt, do something!" that has always stuck with me.

For anyone who wonders whether Harry's spirit lives on, here's a story that inspired me and might inspire you as well.

In 1981, just a few months before Harry's tragic car accident, the pastor of a small church in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, (a little village on the Hudson River, 30 miles north of New York City), encouraged the congregation to organize an event to help fight hunger.

Since some of the church members were runners, they decided to start a Run Against Hunger. But when they went around town, trying to raise some funds to get the Run started (to cover t-shirt and printing costs and other start-up expenses), they came up short.

Then, shortly after July 16, 1981 (the day Harry died), someone from the community who used to work with Harry in the music industry, approached the group and offered a deal: If they'd name the Run after Harry, he'd give them $3,000 to cover their startup costs.

And so the race was named -- and on the third Sunday that October, just 3 short months after Harry died, people in that community "did something" -- and the first annual Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger was started.

I grew up in Connecticut, and back then, long before the internet, even though I was into Harry's music, I knew only a little about his efforts to fight hunger (" night for me, one night for the other guy...," etc.), let alone that this race was happening.

But in September of 1984, when I was moving into my Freshman dorm room at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY (about 30 minutes north of Croton-on-Hudson), I was shocked to see what my roommate had put up on the wall -- a poster by renowned children's book artist Jerry Pinkney (a Croton resident) commemorating the Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger.

My roommate, a runner, had participated in the Run the year before.

Years later, after I graduated from college, I was inspired by Harry's example and organized a tribute concert in his memory at Eisenhower Park on Long Island, at the amphitheater where he was scheduled to perform the day he died.

His brother Tom and Harry's daughter Jen performed, and several thousand attendees donated more than 2 tons of food to help Long Island Cares, the foodbank Harry founded before he died. And Tom Chapin dragged me up on stage at the end of the concert to sing a chorus of Harry's traditional finale, the Chapin anthem "Circle."

Then I joined the board of World Hunger Year, which Harry co-founded with Bill Ayres in 1975.

Fast forward to 2003, when I was the editor of an online newsletter to inspire Chapin fans to make a difference. I tracked down the folks at the Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger and found out they were still going strong -- and wrote a story about them. See:

Last year I joined the Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger race committee. Fast forward again to two weeks ago, when the Run celebrated its 29th annual event, raising funds to fight hunger locally in the Westchester County, New York area, as well as for World Hunger Year, and for an orphanage in Mozambique.

Despite the worst weather in the race's history (steady rain, wind, and temperatures in the low 40's), hundreds of runners still turned out and helped us to raise an estimated $20,000 to help the cause.

Listen to the radio interview Harry's son Jason did the week before the race:

Check out the race website at: or find us on Facebook. "When in doubt, do something."

Harry lives!

- Mike Grayeb
Asst. Race Director

Alex said...


Thanks for the great (and inspirational) story.

The more I've thought about Harry Chapin in the past week, the more inspired I've become. He may never have been "hip" or "cool," but his best songs have aged well and the legacy of his charitable works is really remarkable.

Congratulations for continuing his life's work and for helping to advance his goals.

Anonymous said...

Some great comments, here…

Sniper is an really incredible well-written song, and it just happened to appear in my iTunes playlist just now (one of my overly conceptual mini-sets that includes 2 other killer songs - Jeremy and I Don't Like Mondays)and I recalled (and revisited) this post.

I met Harry Chapin once - briefly - when I gave him a ride to the airport after a benefit performance in Columbia, MO. It was either '79 or '80, and I can't remember how I got volunteered for the task but I just remember him being extremely humble and unassuming.

At the time, I was more into punk and new wave (this was before it was "alternative") but I had seen seen him once during high school. The show was at Keil Opera House in St. Louis, and his opening act was Billy Joel, who he introduced as an up and coming songwriter (this was just as Piano Man was breaking).

Before there was a Sir Bob or Saint Bono, there was Harry, who went about doing his work very humbly, and was focused on an issue that noone else was even aware of during that time.

As a songwriter, his perfect use of imagery in my favorite songs of his - A Better Place To Be, Sniper, and Taxi - has always struck me as brilliant and sadly underrated.

Same could be said about the perfect use of his talents to create something better for others around the world.

Thanks for the memories, Alex…


Alex said...


Thanks for sharing your memories, too. There's no question that Harry Chapin was ahead of his time... it would have been great to see him live long enough to see his charitable examples really flourish in the mid to late 80s.

Mike Grayeb said...

Alex and Robert -- I was amazed to learn just how directly Harry's work in the '70s influenced the mega events of the '80s, long after he was gone.

For example, his manager, Ken Kragen, was the guy who got the whole "We are the World" thing going. Check out:

Also check out:

"Oh if a man tried to take his time on earth and prove before he died what one man's life could be worth, well I wonder what would happen to this world." -- Harry Chapin