Harry Chapin — Brush With Greatness

Over the years, I’ve had very few brushes with greatness. I’ve had breakfast with Connie Willis (well, I was the third wheel, attending with a friend), had a drink with George R.R. Martin (though I don’t remember if he had an alcoholic drink or not), been in a writing group with Patricia Anthony, pissed off Robert Asprin at a convention, took a writing class with Warren Norwood, directed the actor who played the father in Dazed and Confused in a boring training video, and had a restraining order served on me by Lauren Graham.

Okay, that last one isn’t true. But not for lack of wishing.

You may not recognize any of these names unless you’re an SF/fantasy fan, and even then a couple may elude you. (Note: Lauren Graham has nothing to do with SF/fantasy, just wanted to be clear on that fact.) I wouldn’t have known a couple of them myself had I not been involved with them in some way. But my best brush with greatness came during my second year in college.

My position as a sophomore at the college radio station, WVIK, was that of Public Affairs Director. I produced a weekly series called Major Decision, asking different department chairs why students should consider their area of study as a major. I also scheduled public service announcements and did the odd interview. (Sometimes very odd, vis interviewing two members of the Up With People troupe the week they performed at the college. “Perky” wouldn’t even begin to describe them.)

The coup of that year was an interview with a famous musician, at the time one of my cultural heroes: Harry Chapin.

(The younger of you asking “Who?” are welcome to skip the rest of this entry.)

Harry was a singer-songwriter, a storyteller, an old-style troubadour performing in that 1970s era of peace and love. He co-founded World Hunger Year and helped to create the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1978. He was also a supporter and major donator to the arts in New York.

Harry Chapin’s hits include “Taxi,” “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “WOLD,” and “I Wanna Learn a Love Song.” Tragically, he died in a motorcycle accident in 1981.

In the fall of 1977, however, he performed at Augustana College. Of course, I scored a ticket and loved every minute of it. But I attended the concert with an agenda: worm my way backstage to score an interview.

Well, it wasn’t backstage, it was outside the concert venue (Centennial Hall), but I managed to approach Harry Chapin (lugging a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder with me) and asked if we could do an interview inside. Nope, no way, he was headed straight for his hotel room because he had an early flight the next morning. If I could get to the hotel, then sure, he’d be willing to put up with me for a few minutes.

Here’s what happened: I bummed some return cab fare from a friend who was also at the concert (and who facilitated my meeting Harry — thank you, Rick McGuire!) and persuade the Chapins (Harry and his brothers Steve and Tom) to allow me to accompany them *in their cab* to the motel. I was silent during the cab ride, not knowing how to make small talk with a personal hero. Any conversation we had would have to wait for the hotel room and the tape recorder.

We arrived and I set up the recorder while the Chapins got settled (yep, they all shared the same room, don’t look at me). I asked about 15 minutes of questions (of what, I don’t remember, probably along the lines of “where do you get your ideas?” and other inane crap like that). Tom interrupted one time to amplify one of Harry’s answers and I actually STOPPED the recorder and glared at him for interrupting.

Did I tell you I’m not good with people?

One thing I do remember we talked about was my favorite Chapin song, “Sniper,” discussing the various narrative voices he used in it and how he came to write it.

Obviously, the song was inspired by Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. If you’ve never listened to it, I recommend trying it just once. Sure, it’s a bit melodramatic and includes shallow Freudian analysis, but it’s still chilling to this day. When and if you do listen to it, think about Columbine or the recent shooting spree in Norway.

So the interview ended, I thank Harry profusely, and went to the hotel lobby to phone a cab.

The next day, I took the tape to the college radio station for listening, transcribing, and editing. What did I hear?

“Mmmmfwhooshwmmmfmfmfmfmfmfwoobmmmffffmfffrrrrrrrrr.”

A reel full of muffled voices, not a word even barely discernable. My one brush with greatness (to that point in my life) ruined because, in my nervousness and awe at being able to interview a personal hero, I threaded the goddamn tape incorrectly in the goddamn machine.

I aired it anyway.

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About Bruce Diamond

Despicably proud old man. Text-extruding asshole (thank you, John Scalzi) with a skewed vision on life, pop culture, writing and general assholiness. Not a scholar, not a gentleman, not Martin or Lewis. But still trying to make life fun and funny.
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