Taxi – Harry Chapin

harry_chapinHarry Chapin was an American singer, songwriter, and humanitarian. He recorded several hit records, campaigned to end hunger, was an Academy Award nominated film maker and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Chapin’s first formal introduction to music was while singing in the Brooklyn Boys Choir. It was here that Harry met Big John Wallace, a tenor with a five-octave range, who would later become his bass player and background singer. He began performing with his brothers while a teenager, with their father occasionally joining them on drums.

He originally intended to be a documentary film-maker, and directed Legendary Champions in 1968, which was nominated for a documentary Academy Award. In 1971, he decided to focus on music. With Big John Wallace, Tim Scott and Ron Palmer, Chapin started playing in various local nightclubs in New York City.

On Thursday, July 16, 1981, just after noon, Chapin was driving on the Long Island Expressway, in the left hand fast lane, at about 65 miles (105 km) an hour on the way to his concert. For some reason, either because of engine failure or some physical problem (thought to be a possible heart attack) he put on his emergency flashers near Exit 40 in Jericho, NY. He then slowed to about 15 miles (24 km) an hour and veered into the center lane nearly colliding with another car. He swerved left, then to the right again, ending up directly in front of a tractor-trailer truck. The truck could not brake in time and rammed the rear of Harry’s blue 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit, rupturing the gas tank and causing it to burst into flames.

The driver of the truck, and another passer-by were able to get Harry out of the burning car through the window and by cutting the seat belts, before the car was completely engulfed in flames. He was taken by police helicopter to the hospital where ten doctors tried for 30 minutes to revive him. A spokesman for the Nassau County Medical Center said Chapin had suffered a heart attack and “died of cardiac arrest” but there was no way of knowing whether it occurred before or after the accident. In an interview years after his death, Chapin’s daughter said “My dad didn’t really sleep, and he ate badly and had a totally insane schedule.”

Even though Harry’s driver’s license had been revoked at the time of the accident, for a long string of traffic violations, his wife Sandy did win a $12 million decision in a negligence lawsuit against the truck’s owners.

Chapin was interred in the Huntington Rural Cemetery, Huntington, New York. His epitaph is taken from his song “I Wonder What Would Happen to this World.” It is:

Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world

Taxi

The song, at 6 minutes, 44 seconds, tells the story of a cab driver in San Francisco (also named ‘Harry’) who encounters his last fare for the night in the rain, and discovers she is his ex-lover, ‘Sue’. She in turn recognises him:

She said, ‘How are you, Harry?’
I said, ‘How are you, Sue?
Through the too many miles and the too little smiles,
I still remember you.’

Sue had wanted to be an actress, while Harry was going to learn to fly: “She took off to find the footlights / I took off to find the sky.” The reunion, however, does not result in a happy ending. Harry drives her back to her home, where “[S]he’s acting happy, inside her handsome home”. Harry, meanwhile, says that “…I’m flying in my taxi, taking tips and getting stoned. I go flyin’ so high, when I’m stoned”

The middle section of the song features the bass player, John Wallace, in falsetto, singing a few lines from a Sylvia Plath poem:

Baby’s so high, that she’s skying
Yes she’s flying, afraid to fall
I’ll tell you why baby’s crying
Cause she’s dying, aren’t we all…

Also, the line, “Harry, keep the change”, became a catchphrase.

According to the liner notes in The Essentials: Harry Chapin, Chapin was inspired to write the song when he happened upon an old lover, as the cabbie in the song does. Chapin, however, was merely on his way to a taxi license examination.

It was raining hard in ‘Frisco,
I needed one more fare to make my night.
A lady up ahead waved to flag me down,
She got in at the light.
Oh, where you going to, my lady blue,
It’s a shame you ruined your gown in the rain.
She just looked out the window, and said
“Sixteen Parkside Lane”.

Something about her was familiar
I could swear I’d seen her face before,
But she said, “I’m sure you’re mistaken”
And she didn’t say anything more.

It took a while, but she looked in the mirror,
And she glanced at the license for my name.
A smile seemed to come to her slowly,
It was a sad smile, just the same.
And she said, “How are you Harry?”
I said, “How are you Sue?
Through the too many miles
And the too little smiles
I still remember you.”

It was somewhere in a fairy tale,
I used to take her home in my car.
We learned about love in the back of the Dodge,
The lesson hadn’t gone too far.
You see, she was gonna be an actress,
And I was gonna learn to fly.
She took off to find the footlights,
And I took off to find the sky.

Oh, I’ve got something inside me,
To drive a princess blind.
There’s a wild man, wizard,
He’s hiding in me, illuminating my mind.
Oh, I’ve got something inside me,
Not what my life’s about,
Cause I’ve been letting my outside tide me,
Over ’till my time, runs out.

Baby’s so high that she’s skying,
Yes she’s flying, afraid to fall.
I’ll tell you why baby’s crying,
Cause she’s dying, aren’t we all.

There was not much more for us to talk about,
Whatever we had once was gone.
So I turned my cab into the driveway,
Past the gate and the fine trimmed lawns.
And she said we must get together,
But I knew it’d never be arranged.
And she handed me twenty dollars,
For a two fifty fare, she said
“Harry, keep the change.”
Well another man might have been angry,
And another man might have been hurt,
But another man never would have let her go…
I stashed the bill in my shirt.

And she walked away in silence,
It’s strange, how you never know,
But we’d both gotten what we’d asked for,
Such a long, long time ago.

You see, she was gonna be an actress
And I was gonna learn to fly.
She took off to find the footlights,
And I took off for the sky.
And here, she’s acting happy,
Inside her handsome home.
And me, I’m flying in my taxi,
Taking tips, and getting stoned,
I go flying so high, when I’m stoned.

  • Audio from the 1972 album, Heads & Tales:

album-heads-and-tales

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About DJ Allyn

DJ Allyn is a burned out radio guy who went on to become a burned out sound engineer for a few Seattle area grunge bands in the 1980s and 1990s. Left the madness of worldwide tours with bands, cleaned up my act and went into the relative sanity of sound engineering for television series. Currently working as the Director of Sound for a television series being filmed in North Vancouver, British Columbia. I am always on the lookout for interesting videos, old music, and fun.

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