Celebrating the life of…Harry Chapin

Who is this man? If it wasn’t for Star Trek, I might never know

What has a Star Trek Next Generation novel got to do with me writing a celebration of Harry Chapin’s life? Well, there is a connection but I’ll tell you later. For now, I want to talk about the man himself, Harry Chapin, a folk singer born in Brooklyn, New York in 1942. He started out wanting to be a documentary maker and for a while, he did just that. He was even nominated for an Academy Award for directing a boxing documentary called ‘Legendary Champions‘ in 1965.

He soon turned his attention to music, at first teaming up to play and sing with his brothers and dad and then performing on the nightclub circuit. He was discovered by Elecktra Records, where he won the first multi million dollar recording contract in a bidding war between major producers.

His first album, ‘Heads and Tails’ was a world world success. He followed this up with 10 more studio albums over the years and released 14 singles. His best known songs are probably ‘Taxi‘, his first single, and ‘Cat’s In The Cradle,’ a story about a father not having enough time for his son. The son grows up, becomes a father and makes the same mistake. Harry, by this time, was married with two children and three stepchildren. Harry’s wife wrote the lyrics as a warning to him. His father hadn’t been around much and now it looked like he would repeat history. Harry put a melody to the words and that’s how the song came about.

By the end of the seventies, Chapin was one of the highest paid musicians, and yet, he was never very popular with music critics. They didn’t like his music and they didn’t like the unconventional way he put a song together, perhaps it wasn’t the standard accepted way, whatever that is.

His social activism began in the mid seventies.

‘He saw poverty and hunger as an insult to America’

Harry’s daughter, Jen

He co-founded the organisation World Hunger Year, now WhyHunger. More than half of his concerts were benefits. He donated a third of his paid concerts to charity too. He often performed alone, just with a guitar to keep costs down. His widow, Sandy says, ‘He was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, 7 foundations and 82 charities.’

On the way to perform at a free concert, aged just 38, he was involved in a car crash, which resulted in his death. He was post humously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his tireless involvement in social issues, particularly the issue of hunger, world wide and in America. He is recognised as a key member of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger. He was the inspiration for USA For Africa and Hands Across America.

A Hungerthon was held to benefit Harry’s World Hunger League, highlighting the severity of hunger in America, in New York City and in the tri state area. After his death, the Hungerthon continued. At the the Live Aid concert, held in Philadelphia, in 1985, Kenny Loggins was presented with the first ‘Harry Chapin Award’ for his work in fighting hunger in America.

The Harry Chapin Foundation continues with his widow as chairperson.

And now, Star Trek, where’s the connection and do you really care, probably not, but I find it strange how seemingly unconnected things come together in delightful ways. If it wasn’t for the Star Trek Next Generation novel ‘Power Hungry’ which is about emergency famine relief, needed for the planet Thiopa, I wouldn’t even know who Harry Chapin is, let alone be writing about him. Ignorance isn’t always bliss. The writer, Howard Weinstein had dedicated the forward/introduction to Harry Chapin. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know of him before that but after reading about his life, I felt compelled to celebrate it.

Quote Of The Week

‘I was born with a happy nature and a happy heart. I was born with the gift of understanding people and loving them and I’ve never been unhappy. I’ve always seen the light at the end of the tunnel.’

Whatever Happened To Tom Waits?

Tom Waits

When I was 12 I was mostly listening to Barry Manilow and Bette Midler, while my brother, who was a year older was listening to Visage,The Eurythmics, Talk Talk, Prince, Depeche Mode, Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, XTC and very briefly, Tom Waits. I could understand most of his choices and could happily listen to them all but Tom Waits? I think my brother bought the single that came out in ’83 called ‘In The Neighbourhood.’ I remember thinking who is this crazed tramp with a voice like a dying chainsaw and music that was frankly terrifying to me at the time. I remember being afraid, very afraid.

Of course, things have changed. I’m not so easily frightened for a start and it’s funny that the things that scared us when we were younger, grow tame in the cold light of maturity. The allure of my brothers favourite bands began to wane by the late eighties, and Tom’s music never seemed to raise its salivating jaws again, until now. Instead of a gravelly voiced Mr Hyde, I now hear a honey voiced Dr. Jekyll.

I don’t know what made me suddenly tune into him but over three decades later, I am finally appreciating his music. This big bad wolf turned into a Labrador puppy before my very eyes. I didn’t realise how good he was and maybe I wasn’t ready for him before. He’s an acquired taste, a bit like Barry Manilow really, a cross between root beer, wasabi, yeast extract spread and stout. He’s not for the faint hearted, lukewarm he isn’t. I just listened to his entire back catalogue this bleak January and enjoyed every minute. He’s got me through the worst (hopefully) of this winter and debilitation through common cold and flu viruses and the isolation that can bring. Even his jazz bits I like because there’s enough blues to drown any jazz that gets any ideas above its station. He’s been accused of being a folk artist too but not a stereotypical one. His music seems to be a mish-mash of a lot of music styles, leaving out all the ones I don’t like. It’s difficult to describe as I’m still sort of getting my head around his music, after hearing sixteen of his albums in two weeks but there’s a lot of blues in there. He’s been going for so long now and always been under my radar. Where has he been all my life? Where have I been? Maybe some primaeval self defence mechanism kept me away from him all these years after the stir he gave me. Ah, well, I’m found him now, or rather rediscovered him and that’s all that matters.

Born in ’49 to schoolteacher parents, who separated in Tom’s childhood, he graduated from college proficient in piano and guitar, and worked as a doorman and a Coast Guard for a time. He was sleeping in his car when his first album came out in 1973 entitled ‘Closing Time’. It has an innocence about it, sounds a bit Country & Western (for him)! His earlier albums are more conventional and his voice is not so rusty. I heard it was cigarettes and drink that did the damage.

I really like the ‘Swordfishtrombones’ album and his live album ‘NightHawks At The Diner’ and ‘Real Gone.’ I like them all.

He’s released sixteen studio albums to date, his most recent being ‘Bad As Me’ released in 2011. He has, within the last couple of years, lost a court battle against the successful French musical theatre and circus production, ‘On Acheve Bien les Anges’, who he claims have used his songs without permission.

Not only is he a prolific singer songwriter and musician, he is also an actor and has appeared in many movies. He has also recently been offered a role in a series called ‘Citizen’ on HULU network but it appears to have shelved.

He’s still around and appears to be going from strength to strength and doesn’t intend to slow down anytime soon. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve just discovered a treasure chest, a musical salve in these short, dark days, a banquet of nuts that will keep this squirrel happy until early spring…and hopefully beyond.

Quote Of The Week

‘Sometimes the most political act is being yourself.’

George O’Dowd from ‘Take It Like A Man‘ The Autobiography Of Boy George, with Spencer Bright.

Celebrating The Life Of…Falco

Falco casual

If anyone remembers Falco, it will usually be for the wrong reasons, either for being known as a one hit wonder, or for dying relatively young and tragically.

Some people must have found the one hit wonder, ‘Rock Me Amadeus‘ annoying, as it made its way into a Top Ten Readers Poll of The Worst Songs Of The 80’s but it also got into VH1’s Top One Hundred Songs Of All Time, so, in complete contrast, others loved it and still do. Me included. I found it annoying at times, only for the fact that it stayed at number one for ages in the pop charts and I’ve never been one for the pop charts, or for songs staying at number one for too long. Both the pop charts and stubborn No.1’s are incredibly annoying. I found it even more irritating as a teenager, just like nails down a blackboard. Thankfully, now that I’m old, I don’t have to partake in any way, even passively.

‘Rock Me Amadeus’ was a number one hit in 1985 both the U.K and the United States and later in Canada in 86. It was originally recorded in German. He was the only artist, whose main language is German, to have a vocal number one in America. He is the biggest selling Austrian musician of all time, selling more than 20 million albums and 40 million singles.

‘Rock Me Amadeus’ was just a tiny slice of Falco’s life. And, he wasn’t even Falco really. His name was Johann Holzel and he was born in Vienna and rather pampered as a child. This was not surprising, as when his mother was pregnant with triplets, he was the only one that survived. He was given a baby grand for his fourth birthday and was something of a musical prodigy, auditioning for the Vienna Music Academy at the tender age of five and attending the Vienna Conservatoire at sixteen. He dropped out of that university through sheer frustration. Perhaps he felt he’d already outgrown them musically.

After a short stint in the Austrian army, he played bass in nightclubs where he was spotted and signed as Falco, the solo artist. His first release was Ganz Wein, then Der Kommissar, a catchy, quite disco-y, new wave but not corny tune. It did well in Europe and German speaking countries but hardly left a mark in the U.S and the U.K at the time. It looked like Falco was destined to spend his music career on the sidelines, until a group called ‘After The Fire’ covered it and American singer Laura Brannigan put out a tweaked version for her second album. These both ended up bringing a renewed interest in Falco’s original ditty and kick started his career all over again.

Falco formal wear

Some of his most prominent single releases include,  The Sound Of Musik, Jeanny and Out Of The Dark. Ten studio albums were released, two, posthumously.

My personal favourite is Push!Push! released not long before he died. It’s such a powerful, passionate and chaotic sounding track and great to dance to. Although, his music was very varied and he released many strong ballads, it hints at where he might have been going musically, before he left us.

There are accounts of his life in those last years, where he could hardly stand up during rehearsals, couldn’t even speak coherently, preferring instead the blissful blur that self medicating can often bring. He died in a traffic accident at age 40, his car colliding head on with a bus, in February 1998. Alcohol and cocaine were in his system at the time of the crash.

So what led him down that path? What leads anyone down there? I’ve been down there myself on some level, maybe still am. I’m always interested in that kind of thing. I’m saddened but interested or interested but saddened and I like to chew over the possible whys and wherefores of a situation. It probably won’t make it better but to understand and rationalise, even on a basic level , usually brings some sense of closure in my book.

He was reputed to be unlucky in love. This would seem to pan out, in the long run, as he discovered, through a paternity test, that his seven year old daughter wasn’t his daughter after all. The relationship with her became strained after that and he allegedly cut her out of his will. She even wrote a book about it called Falco War Mein Vater. (Falco Was My Father)

This may have been a breaking point, driving him deeper into the false sense of security that drink and drugs can bring.

He may have also had survivors guilt, being the only survivor out of triplets. It has been suggested that his earlier depressions were through wondering about the siblings he survived and that age old question, ‘Why Me?’

So, the perfectionism, the touch of genius and I don’t like to use that word lightly but I think there was a touch there. The discovery that his seven year old daughter wasn’t his and the whole survivors guilt issue. It was all a cocktail of issues, that took him to that other cocktail, of alcohol and cocaine. In his lyrical tribute to Mozart he writes,

‘He was a punk

And he lived in a huge city

It was Vienna, was Vienna

Where he did everything

He has debts because he drank

But all women loved him

He was a superstar

He was popular

He was so exalted

Because he had that certain appearance

He was a virtuoso

Was a rock idol

And everyone called:

Come on and rock me Amadeus’

from ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ by Falco & Rob & Ferdi Bollard

Falco Mozart

Perfectionism always brings its own particular problems. His fear of failure and of not livng up to his own expectations, as a former child progidy, would have been stressful enough, but he also knew he was extremely musically talented, just like that other troubled Austrian musician before him.


Celebrating the life of…Johnny Cash

johnnyI’ve been thinking about Johnny Cash. As you do.

Just finished reading a bio by Steve Turner, The Man Called Cash, which is an authorised biography. Not many people like authorised biographies, for obvious reasons. What are those obvious reasons? Sycophantic? They usually are. Like those sickly T.V bio’s and this is no exception, but it does attempt to show the man in a balanced light, albeit a balanced ‘golden’ light.

Cash is as cool as they say. He wore black. He was a christian, without judging others. He once said. ‘I gave my flesh to the devil and my bones to God.’

An amphetamine addict for a large portion of his life, he had various lapses, relapses, clean/straight times. His amphetamine habit aged him, gave him that characteristic haggard look that we all know so well. He wasn’t an angel, yet he was fairly confident that he would be forgiven of that. He saw God as a merciful God. He performed in prisons because he had an affinity with the men who were incarcerated there and felt he could have ended up in the same boat. He went to prison for a short time, for picking flowers, so he knew how easy it was to end up in the slammer. These guys however, had murdered people…and more.

He started off as John R. Cash. The ‘Johnny’ thing was a stage name. He hated the ‘Johnny’ at first. John’s father, Ray, made the young John Cash watch, as he drowned puppies in a weighted sack. His father shot anything that moved and was a strong dominant force within the family. As a result, John found confrontation difficult.

He saw death in his formative years, usually of the furrier kind, but then his older brother, Jack, a beautiful, wise soul, met with an untimely death as a teenager, some awful freak accident with a circular saw. Inadvertently, his father blamed John for the tragic event. This affected him deeply and influenced his outlook and creative output in later years. He sought solace in drugs and avoidance. On the plus side, he had a very loving mother, who believed in him and the voice that would one day make him famous.

He was married with four young children when he embarked on an affair with June Carter, who was also married at the time.  After he divorced Vivian, his first wife, he married June and they had a son. June Carter was a very positive influence in his life. He liked to surround himself with strong women.

An army buddy gave Johnny Cash the idea for ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. He then passed it onto Carl Perkins, who then gave the song to Elvis to record.

Cash did a theology degrees and passed with flying colours. He went to church to preach, at the peak of his popularity, but fame got in the way. People began to take advantage, tried to pitch their songs while he was praying over them. So he got out of that. He was reluctant to leave the church, but felt he had no choice.

After leaving the support of the church, he returned to amphetamines.

There are many testimonies, from many different people, friends, acquaintances and people he knew, where he freely gave money, food, board and any favours he could, whenever he could. He was always trying to help people according to their needs.

Like I said before, not trying to make him look like an angel, but it sounded like he had integrity, love and warmth, like many of us have, to some degree.

While performing at San Quentin (he had already cut his teeth performing at Folsom prison) he could have incited a riot just by raising an eyebrow. He had all the men in the palm of his hand. He evoked strong emotions in them, not just because of the music and lyrics but through his charisma and unspoken philosophy. . .which was, we could all end up in this position, given the right circumstances and conditions.

They saw that he was real and that got them ready and waiting for a sign. No doubt there was a rebellious streak in them to begin with, but it wouldn’t have taken much to incite them to riot. He knew the power he held. He knew he only had to snap his fingers or whatever and that would be that. He chose not to do it.

Johnny had a very successful T. V show at the height of his career. One day, during the show, he naturally and instinctively, as a christian, began to talk about demonic influences in the christian life. The broadcasters of the show warned him that they were gong to cut it, as it would mess up his ratings. He said, if you do that, I’m outta here. They kept the footage in and his ratings went right down. Did he care? Na. He was never comfortable with the T.V show to begin with.

There was an incident with Richard Nixon, President Of The United States. Mr. Nixon asked Cash to play a couple of songs, ‘Welfare Cadillac’ which had a go at people on benefits and ‘Oskie from Muskogee’, which attacked Vietnam war protesters, Cash said he didn’t know those songs and declined to sing them. He refused the requests of the president.

I think, most of us, for good or bad, will remember, the last video Johnny Cash made before he passed. ‘Hurt’ was originally penned by Trent Reznor, lead singer of Nine Inch Nails. The meaning has been controversially disputed by many. Some say ‘Hurt‘ is about addiction and self harm, others say it’s about suicide and depression. It’s what we want it to be, it’s mercurial, and that’s the beauty of the song and no-one should take that away from us.

It reminds me of that song by Frank Sinatra. It Was A Very Good Year. It’s about a life spent. It doesn’t matter what happened in that life. It’s when we come to the end and look back, whether our life is ended prematurely or not, again, it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing so fragile and delicate and beautiful as a life spent. It’s an aching beauty. Every person is important. The ending of such vibrancy is very moving. We are moved to tears, to sorrow. The song ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash is the epitome of all those emotions, grief, pain, hurt, sadness. It pre-empts a great release, a great change. It’s not so sad at the end of the day. Change is a good thing.

I hate that whole ‘cool’ thing. Hero worship. Really cool people are people you never get to know about, the person who lives next door to you, the bus driver who takes you to work every day, the cleaner in The Pound Shop. I don’t believe in ‘lauding’ people because they’re rich and famous. It’s okay to admire them and it’s lovely when they inspire you and give you incentive to do better but they should never be hero worshipped. I don’t believe he would want to be either.

John had his faults and his failings, like all of us. He seemed to be a good guy, we can see that he had integrity regarding his dealings with people, and that he wasn’t intimidated by the American President. He tried to do the best thing by people. He was a very good musician and songwriter.  He is remembered by most, celebrated by all.

When people think of Johnny Cash, they think of a really cool musician/singer/songwriter who always dressed in black. He wasn’t always so cool, but then again, neither were we.







Quote Of The Week

‘Animals do not judge you by the way you look, the clothes you wear, how much money you have in the bank, or what your sexuality, colour or creed is. If you are kind to them, they are kind to you.’

Holly Johnson. A Bone In My Flute

It’s Holly Johnson’s birthday today. Happy Birthday Holly! Many Happy Returns.