Monday, January 30, 2012

On the road with Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin has many albums that could stand as his "defining album," including "Sniper and other Love Songs" (featuring "Sniper," "Circle" and "Better Place to Be") and "Verities and Balderdash" (with "Cat's in the Cradle," "I Wanna Learn a Love Song" and "30,000 Pounds of Bananas").

But, for me, "On the Road to Kingdom Come" from 1976 is his best release.

Chapin's talent for storytelling is well known. Even if you don't particularly like the song "Cat's in the Cradle," it is the ONE song he released that just about everyone knows. The song, based on a poem written by his wife, was his only No. 1 hit.

It's a genuine pity that he only had one song that scaled such heights, but his fans (and lovers of great music and lyrics, including critics and deejays) give his albums greater acclaim than the charts afforded.

And few of his albums could rival "On the Road to Kingdom Come."

His skill, his wit and his love of words gel to create an album that twists through psychedelia, rock, folk and Americana with such genuine emotional investment that it's like listening to a father or grandfather tell stories when you're young. Immediately engrossing, sometimes confusing but always time well spent.

I grew up with this album. My dad and mom had it on vinyl (which they've since given to me), and they'd copy it to cassette for long drives. My dad's favorite Chapin song, "Corey's Coming," is one of the great songs on the album.

It's a tale of age, of love (lost, found and held dearly) and of eternal hope, set in a train depot. A young man learns a trade from an older man, and learns that the hope that powers the older man is the belief that "Corey's Coming." It's a story that MUST be heard to be appreciated.

Other highlights include "The Parade's Still Passing By," a dirge-like song written to honor folk singer Phil Ochs. Ochs was one of the "lesser" folk gods of the Sixties and Seventies, a musician and counter culture leader who was often overlooked in the shadow of Bob Dylan. Ochs killed himself earlier in 1976 after suffering years of alcoholism and mental health problems.

Chapin proves to be one of Ochs' big fans with this song, though, particularly in the lyric "Fifteen years ago / in the old folky show / you were just one voice in the crowd / But now with so few singing / your voice would have been ringing out / 'bout twice as loud." As his lyrics go on to say, Ochs may have laid down the sword ... but the issues that affect our lives continue to parade on, in need of solutions.

"The Mayor of Candor Lied" is a fantastic story song that gives away its own ending during the chorus, but the first-time listener doesn't realize it. Songwriting genius seldom gets any better compliment than that! Following a tale of love, politics, treachery, betrayal and all of that good kind of dark material, Chapin proves a master of weaving together the seedier elements of life into a bombastic, theatrical tune that would have made a powerful centerpiece to a musical.

Throughout this album, the production is rich, the vocals are full, the stories are good. The only element truly lacking on this album that was a hallmark of Chapin's personality is his sense of humor. But his song "Laugh Man" on this album addresses this, to some extent. "I am the laugh man / half clown, and half man / half out and half in / Mister, can't you see? / I'm supposed to leave you laughing / so why won't you laugh at me?" Chapin isn't being funny ... because there's too much to say. There's heft to this stuff. He wants you to know it.

As 1976 was America's bicentennial year, and banners and patriotism and flags and celebration were everywhere, "On the Road to Kingdom Come" was perhaps doomed to failure because it is such a cynical and emotionally powerful album. When the majority of songs are introspective or anchored in less-than-rosy subject matter, well ...

But keep in mind, the album isn't pessimistic. Rather, it looks at the redemption of love. The unflinching need for love, the constant pursuit of peace, the struggle to understand the world around us and our places in it, and the desire to contextualize the ugly things in life while basking in the beautiful things. Frankly, I can think of no BETTER way to celebrate a bicentennial than an album so truthful and meaningful.

The opening (and title) track is itself is a bit of story telling that wraps in so much detail that grounds it in the issues of the times. Take into account how recent Watergate was, the tumult of Vietnam, the renewed relationships (and frustration) with Russia and China, the still-in-recent-memory assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The anger of the times, the frustration, was palpable.

Chapin's take? "Pity Mr. President, he can't do a thing / He says that everywhere he went, we tried to make him sing / Our lonely White House resident says we should have made him King / Maybe then he could have saved us from the truth we're hiding from / But he was just another traveler on the road to Kingdom Come."

The song addresses religion, politics, war and rock and roll ... You can't be timelier than that, and it all continues to apply. This is music that stands the test of time, and isn't the worse for wear despite the decades that have gone by ...

There are lighter, more acoustic-based songs that more closely resemble Chapin's earlier works ("If My Mary Were Here" and "Caroline" are especially beautiful and rendered in less ornate fashion). What Chapin has done with this album above his others, however, is to tap more into a more rocking sound, even a more progressive sound.

You can listen to this album against Wings' "Wings at the Speed of Sound," Three Dog Night's "American Pastime," The Rolling Stones' "Black and Blue," Elton John's "Blue Moves" and other albums released in this era and it would SOUND relevant AND musically viable. Lots of dynamics, background singers, all of that. Listen to album closer "Roll Down the River" and you get a song that sounds so OF THE PERIOD while distancing itself from the excesses that the groups I've mentioned were mired in.

And after all of this effort, all this work, all this quality and variety ... the album wasn't a hit. Quite the opposite, in fact. "On the Road to Kingdom Come" has been overlooked, even by many Chapin fans. It's a natural progression of where his previous five studio albums were going, a big artistic statement full of passion and artistic merit. It goes perhaps too far to say that "Kingdom Come" was Chapin's "Sgt. Pepper," but it has a depth of quality and amazing songs that elevate it over his other remarkable albums.

This work deserves to be heard. I love the album, and I consider it his most fulfilling work.


  1. I found this LP at a flea market today. I don't know much about Chapin so far, apart from "Cat's in the Cradle", but that song is enough to arouse interest for his other records as well (at least when you get them for cheap). Thank you for a very comprehensive review, and greetings from Finland!

    1. Thanks for the comment! I hope you enjoyed the LP. Gotta love flea markets. :)


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