Harry Chapin — Greatest Stories Live

I loved Harry Chapin. His story songs were just part of what it was to listen to music in the ’70s. I had a number of his hits or at least singles that saw radio play, on 45. He joked that his songs didn’t get radio play because of their length, and possibly also because they were stories, but in retrospect, that joke was not based in reality. All 14 singles he released made at least one national chart, according to Wikipedia, and he managed to record 11 albums in just nine years, an incredible feat even for the time. His first album went platinum; his next two did even better. He was a huge star, and a beloved live performer. This album, “Greatest Stories Live,” came out in 1976.

Harry Chapin Greatest Stories Live front
Harry Chapin Greatest Stories Live front

When I got to Syracuse University, I found there were a lot of Harry Chapin fans, at least in part because there were a lot of Long Islanders, but I also found that Chapin was beloved locally because he had put on the benefit concert that saved the old Loew’s State Theater, raising $65,000 in 1977 money to help a group called Syracuse Area Landmark Theatre (or SALT) buy and renovate the theater. It later became known simply as the Landmark Theatre, and in the years I was living in Syracuse was a premiere venue, with 2800 seats in the most ornate setting imaginable. It was pretty widely accepted that without Harry Chapin, that didn’t happen – and that seems to have been the case for a lot of things. He put a huge amount of effort into charity.

This is a great album, with some of his best songs. “W-O-L-D,” “I Wanna Learn a Love Song,” “Taxi.” Famously, it contains a fabulous version of “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” with alternate endings. It’s not an album I listen to a lot but, unlike a lot of records I bought in high school, I have held onto it all these years.

Weirdly, I remember buying this album, and I remember what else I bought with it — I even remember carrying it home. I don’t exactly remember where I bought it, but the idea that I walked home with it lends itself to the likelihood of having come from Apex Music Korner, Schenectady’s iconic record store. It was not large — certainly the Two Guys Department Store had a much bigger selection. Apex really focused on singles sales — the top singles of the week were all hung on big pegs on the wall, you could pull one down and put it on a record player and listen to it through a single earphone pressed to your ear before deciding if you wanted to part with 79 cents for a song you had probably already heard two dozen times on the local Top 40 station. Nearly every 45 I bought came from Apex. But their album selection wasn’t terribly deep or broad, and while I remember looking longingly at albums there, I don’t think I bought more than a handful there. But there’s a good chance “Greatest Stories Live” was one.

Harry Chapin Greatest Stories Live back
Harry Chapin Greatest Stories Live back

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only failing of memory I’m having with regard to this record. I’m sure that in the same purchase, I bought a copy of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” I knew almost exactly nothing about classical music, but a mentor of mine was always playing it in his office, and I started listening to classical on WMHT to try to figure it out. I heard a performance of the Syracuse Symphony — from a city that I was already building a connection to — of Dvorak’s masterpiece, and found it wonderful. So off I went in search of sophistication. And I found it, a recording of “From The New World” by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Sir George Solti, bought that along with Harry Chapin, and walked back across the bridge on a brilliant, warm day. I remember that much, I remember it being beautiful, I remember walking across the Western Gateway Bridge, and I always associate those records with that. The problem with this memory is this — Discogs now tells me that record, whose cover I remember very well, wasn’t released until 1983, a good 6 or 7 years after this memory took place.

There’s another bit of confusion, or at least of conflation. I walked across the Western Gateway Bridge between Scotia and Schenectady many, many times. It’s about 3/4 of a mile long, so it takes a bit of time and no doubt, I bicycled across it more than I ever walked across it, but if push came to shove and I was carrying something that couldn’t be easily transported by bike, walking was not out of the question. And one summer day in 1978, as I walked across it, I saw something amazing: a downriver railroad bridge was on fire. There was more smoke than flame (creosote railroad ties will do that), but the bridge was definitely ablaze. I had my camera with me — not an unusual circumstance at the time — and I snapped nearly a full roll of slide film of the bridge fire. Sure that I had captured some fantastic images, I took them off to be processed and, in one of those things that happens sometimes, something went very wrong with the chemistry and the color was ruined. Even colorblind me knew that fire wasn’t green. I was SO disappointed.

Now, in my head, all this happened on the same day – but of course I wasn’t carrying my camera and new records across the bridge on the same day. In fact, I’m nearly certain that I bought those records the year before, in 1977, and played Harry Chapin repeatedly throughout my senior year of high school. But if I flash on those records, or flash on the bridge fire, I think of where I was on that bridge, and somehow they become the same thing, the same day.

So if that’s the case, can we rely on anything I’ve written here? Is any of this true? Or does it even matter? Sit back and enjoy the ride, I guess.

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