Harry Chapin’s first two albums, generally regarded as his best work by serious fans, are essentially companion pieces and were even released together as a two-disc set at one point. For this reason, I thought it only appropriate to cover both of them concurrently.
You know how Chapin has a reputation for being extremely sentimental and even sort of mawkish? Well, that reputation comes from his later albums (particularly Short Stories and Verities and Balderdash), not from these two. His first two records are absolutely brutal, alternating between slit-your-wrists sorrow and crazed, violent intensity. People today would probably not associate Chapin with songs about real-life mass murderers, self-mutilation or bestiality, but all of those topics are covered, in disturbingly graphic detail, on these two albums.
Chapin’s first album, Heads & Tales, is essentially nonstop misery, without a single moment of real happiness. It even manages to make the simple experience of travelling by bus (“Greyhound”) seem like a heartrending tragedy. The album mostly features Chapin fixated obsessively on what appears to be a single failed relationship, with song titles like “Empty”, “Sometime Somewhere Wife”, and “Same Sad Singer”. Even the pretty, wistful songs like “Could You Put Your Light On, Please?” and the quietly introspective “Any Old Kind of Day”, while they certainly show off Chapin’s gift for beautiful melodies, feature a depth of sorrow that his work after these albums never approached even at its darkest.
Heads & Tales also produced Chapin’s first actual hit, “Taxi”. A sadly ironic story ballad about a former couple with deferred dreams meeting by chance in a taxi cab, it managed to become a major and enduring hit despite its seven-minute length making it a bit unwieldy for the mainstream radio format. It’s also the only one of Chapin’s four actual Top Forty hits to get any real respect from professional critics and serious Rock and Folk fans, although there are other songs on these two albums that might have easily earned that level of prestige if anyone had actually heard of them.
The other big centerpiece on Heads & Tales is “Dogtown”, an incredibly disturbing song about the desperate widow of a whaler who dies at sea and her “relationship” with the dog that is her only companion. This isn’t played as a comedy song like Frank Zappa’s “Dirty Love”, either…it’s a harrowing Folk-Blues piece that echoes the sound of the storm-tossed seas and keeps rising to a scream at the end of each section. If you know anyone who dismisses Chapin as merely a purveyor of syrupy bathos, just play them this song and see how they react.
Chapin’s follow-up to that album, Sniper and Other Love Songs, is only marginally happier. Chapin by this point had found a relatively happy romantic relationship, and the opening track, “Sunday Morning Sunshine”, is a sweetly optimistic love song that seems miles away from the despair of his first album. However, after that song the album still consists almost entirely of tear-jerking and/or disturbing tracks, and another song from the album, “And the Baby Never Cries”, paints a much more bittersweet portrait of the aforementioned new relationship.
This album didn’t produce any actual Top Forty hits, but it did produce three songs that became very well-known among Chapin’s fans. The title-song, a ten-minute collage analyzing the motives of real-life mass shooter Charles Whitman, is one of Chapin’s most elaborate and complexly-written songs, going from narrative ballad to fictionalized press coverage to insane inner monologue. I don’t know if Stephen Sondheim or John Weidman are the type to listen to Harry Chapin, but I have to wonder if they had this song’s ideas in mind when they wrote the strikingly similar sentiments in the final scene of their musical Assassins.
“A Better Place to Be”, widely considered among serious Chapin fans to be perhaps the best song he ever wrote, displays a much subtler and more complex sense of irony than the more heavy-handed ironic elements found in other Chapin songs. It’s another narrative ballad, about eight minutes long in the studio version found here, which features a ‘little man’ telling a waitress at a bar a heartbreaking story of a beautiful, lonely woman whom he spent a single night with, only to have her disappear in the morning (“She left a six-word letter saying ‘It’s time that I moved on’”). The waitress is smitten with the man after hearing the story, and the man responds with the same words the woman said to him in his story: “If you want me to come with you/then that’s all right with me/cause I know I’m going nowhere/and anywhere’s a better place to be”. The genius of the song is that we’re left uncertain as to whether the story actually happened, or whether this was just the greatest, most manipulative pickup line in history.
The third song to gain a reputation among Chapin fans, to the point where it’s been dubbed “the Chapin anthem”, is “Circle”, which trades in the same kind of quiet, defeated wistfulness as “Any Old Time of Day” on Heads & Tales. In general, these albums seem to completely contradict the reputation Chapin has earned through songs like “Cat’s in the Cradle”, and they establish his genuine legitimacy as one of the truly great artists of the “Progressive Folk” field. If you’ve always found the excessive sentimentality of his later work something of a turn-off, hearing these first two records might completely change your mind about him.