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Them’s Writin’ Words … A Heartbeat of Harry Hero Worship

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Photo of Harry CHAPIN

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STATEMENT: Writing blog posts is easy.

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Well, not easy… no, not easy at all. I’ve written 130 posts in the past 2 and a half years, and not one was a simple, mindless endeavour, even if you think my compositions about baginas or castration are mindless!

Dogy Balls

I only write about matters that interest me – if the subject doesn’t catch my intrigue, the words will NOT come –  while at the same time, quarrying a nugget or two in the slag pile that somehow, hopefully, will be meaningful to you in your life.

My ego doesn’t fare well if no one reads a word I publish … yes, I NEED YOU!

But when I compare the mental effort and time it takes to write a blog entry versus piecing together the jigsaw puzzle that makes up a musical song, it just seems easy.

Writing blogs and composing music are comparable to the striking differences in playing guitar and playing piano. If you’ve tried both, you’ll understand what I’m saying.

Writing a blog post – like playing guitar – is a singular, one-tracked effort. Putting one word after another is a focussed undertaking where your total concentration goes into moving forward in a single direction.

It’s kind of like becoming a killer kisser. Your entirety is devoted to the touch, taste … all of those sensations that cook up into making one other set of soft, sweet lips happy and well looked after.

But writing a song? Whole different breed of animal.

Songsmithing is a complex of musical melody, harmony and lyrics which is more like combining the left and right hand in piano. Songwriting is a boudoir threesome (like I would know!); there are parts running off in all directions. It’s pleasurable for sure (again, like I would know!), but it makes your head spin.

Sorry Ladies, but I've just GOTTA finish writing this song ... the BIG MALE FAIL

“Sorry Ladies, but I’ve just GOTTA finish writing this song” … the BIG MALE FAIL!

 

There are two independent thoughts running side-by-side inside your head and fingertips. Through exhaustive practice, you learn to separate them sufficiently to then weave them back together in a cohesive whole that makes a deliciously fragrant sonata.

If I want to write songs that are meaningful to me and – just like my blog writing – hopefully contain a snippet of something that has meaning for you too, the formulas that commercialized music depend on just don’t work very well.

Which, happily for you, brings me to the point of today’s sermon … avoiding the cliche in songwriting.

Songwriting cliche threatens to swallow us whole in today’s musical marketplace and it drives me crazy sometimes.

Don’t you – maybe even occasionally – ask yourself when listening to a song on the radio, “Who the hell let that DOG out?”. The music, the lyrics are a dog’s breakfast and still it smuggled itself past a recording studio, a bunch of music-studio talking heads, and a radio station programmer. ARGGGGG!

But there are and always have been exceptions.

One of my lifelong songwriting heroes – I have many musical heroes, but probably none as emotionally resonant – has been Harry Chapin.

Harry perished in an auto accident in the late 1970’s while only 39 years old. You might know Harry for his powerfully evocative song: Cats in the Cradle.

But Cats in the Cradle was just a miniscule sample of Harry’s ability. Harry didn’t write or sing cliches and I loved him for it.

Harry was a husband, father, writer, singer, a supporter of social causes, and most impressively, a funny and talented storyteller.

Today, 33 years after his death, I still think about him from time to time – I miss Harry like a treasured friend or brother who left behind a huge hole in my existence in his wake.

Harry had the ability to find a tiny fragment of the joy or sorrow in the life of a common man (woman) and magnify it into an opus that pierced directly into our hearts.

Over and over, Chapin sketched universal human stories in just a few short verses and choruses.

It’s an amazing skill akin to Ernest Hemingway’s famous brief 6-word story:

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn

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A few examples of Harry’s songs and the stories they told:

  • Mr. Tanner, the drycleaner, who tried opera-style singing at Carnegie Hall, just once, and was cruelly rejected by the reviewers.
  • the lonely midnight watchman in A Better Place to Be who desperately craves the love of someone, and discovers that he isn’t alone in his struggle to be held dear by others.
  • the former lovers who accidentally meet in a Taxi, and sadly realize that their young dreams weren’t fulfilled in the way they hoped.
  • the aging FM disc jockey who’s life lies in crumbles from chasing fame and fortune in WOLD
  • the truck driver rushing to get home to his “warm-breathed lover” after a long road trip in 30,000 Pounds of Bananas.

He told us stories, and like Steinbeck or Austen, his yarns entered our hearts and made us weep or smile with the fortunes of the characters he forged in his mind.

Harry Chapin, so long gone now, was a musical and storytelling saint, an inspiration to anyone who longs to tell a story.

Who of us doesn’t love a story from the sweet, innocent nights where we lay in our comfy beds listening to Daddy’s voice reading from a book, to sitting in concert halls where Stuart McLean or Garrison Keillor recite homespun yarns to us?

That was Harry … Master Storyteller. I miss you Harry… and…

I’m gonna write a blog post about you because it’s so much easier than composing a song. But one day …

 

 

 

HarryChapin

WHO Wants To Be A Hero …

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Superheroes

I wanna be a hero.

Not a superhero like the costumed wonder-boys and -girls in spandex-clad movies.

Although if I wanted to drive my kids crazy, my costume would just be a simple Speedo lycra bathing suit – winsome little curly hairs sprouting from the edges – and maybe a big bright red S painted on my chest.

Better yet, I’ll have the flashy S tattooed on so I don’t have to waste the extra minute painting a letter on every time a superhero emergency shit-case hits the fan.

I’ve never been a fan-boy of the superhero movie genre … I prefer REAL LIFE HEROES… give me Terry Fox instead of Batman, give me Stephen King instead of Spiderman, give me Rosa Parks instead of Wonder Woman, give me Jackie Robinson instead of Superman… you get my idea.

Superman guy

This hairy-S might be better than a tattoo until I decide if I’m meant to be a HERO…

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is because lately we’ve been having discussions during spin class about super-druggie-cyclist Lance Armstrong, one of my publically avowed heroes, drug-fiend or drug-free.

Hero-osity is a Hard Job

I can be pretty forgiving of heroes’ goofs and gaffes because they’re under a huge amount of pressure. Being a hero isn’t easy; it’s like a well-meaning politician trying to save the world but being jabbed at with Zulu-warrior spears from all sides, unable to stanch the gush of blood.

People love to play Lee Harvey Oswald and figuratively assassinate a beloved politician or a desired movie actor or sports star.

Adding “hero” to your resume can be relatively easy, but staying one is damned near impossible.

In the heat of the moment, when crisis strikes, most of us can summon the courage and energy to lift 2-tonne cars off people, or run into voraciously-burning houses to rescue fluffy kittens.

But the real measure of a true hero is someone who can be courageous day-in and day-out when the rush of super-hormones has passed. The strength to do valorous things without a massive wallop of adrenaline coursing through our system is an epic measure of hero-aciousness.

9:11 Firefighters

Heroes are everywhere you look, not just in battle zones, or in ripped and torn 9-11 skyscrapers.

When I was a kid of maybe 9 or 10 years old, I had a classmate John who had hydrocephalus, or an enlarged head from excessive buildup of CSF (cerebrospinal fluid).

Most of us dumb kids, in our ignorance, made fun of John because of the differences in appearance and also his slower mental functioning.

Some days you could see the pain in John’s eyes. He knew he was different, and there was nothing he could do to change his circumstance. I felt badly for his situation but wasn’t “man” enough to stand up for him.

But another one of my little buddies, Billy, befriended and defended John. Billy didn’t care if it made him look like an outsider or feel rejected. Billy was valiant and heroic enough to risk his own reputation to make another less fortunate outcast feel a part of something outside himself.

I admired Billy’s strength then as I do even today. Billy was a pint-sized hero.

But back to Lance.

I spent a number of hours each July in years gone by, watching TV images of the long Tour de France waves of cyclists race day-in and day-out across the flat stretches of French countryside; postcard-scenic riverbanks of gently shifting grain and alfalfa stretched out alongside.

Pedaling in a crowded pelaton for endless hours each day. Hard work, yes.

Then they hit the mountain passes and it was nothing short of miraculous to see the strength and mental toughness summoned to climb the steep Alp and Pyrenees slopes, the Plateau de Beille or Alpe D’Huez.

I was mesmerized. I was gobsmacked and most of the worship was doled out to one athlete, Lance Armstrong.

Lance Climbing

Minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, he would monster-pedal his way up the hellishly-steep switchback slopes.

And then just when the other riders thought he was broken, he could find another gear in his physical bag of tricks, and destroy the competition. Spinning his muscled legs even faster, he’d leave the other boys in the dust.

It was beautiful to watch.

It was poetry on wheels … no… it was more than that, it was an operatic aria sung at ear-splitting volume… Ah, bravo Figaro! Bravo, bravissimo! Fortunatissimo per verità!

But even then, I knew in my heart of hearts that he was performing his feats with the help of the wonders of medical intervention.

Sure, it disturbed me, but I also thought then and still believe that every other rider that was anywhere close to him on the road was using similar little helpers. It was an even-steven kind of thing and Lance was the very best of the best either way.

Drugs or no drugs, he was superlative. I loved him, faults and all.

He was/is an arrogant son of a bitch like so many top notch achievers and I reluctantly accepted this too. The price of great ability can sometimes be an irritating attitude, thank you Muhammed Ali, John McEnroe, Serena Williams, Kevin Spacey, Pierre Trudeau.

However, bit-by-bit I’ve fallen out of love with Lance. I’m removing my worshipping lips from his ass. His arrogance and deceit has hurt too many people along the way.

Heroes are meant to inspire, not hurt.

There have been many heroes in my life – friends, relatives, strangers – and there will be many more to follow.

I stand at the top of Giant’s Head Mountain here in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley gazing out over the fruit orchards and lake below, seeking sources of inspiration.

I wanna be a hero. But where will I find my own hero-sity?

All I have to do is look and listen and ACT.

I have no concerns over shamelessly borrowing the bright starlight of others who shine my way.

  • I can emulate Dave from the gym who voluntarily serves healthy meals at the soup kitchen every week to the less fortunate.
  • I can borrow the initiative of cousin John who writes country music songs while bravely battling his own cancer.
  • I can draw on the energy of the many who travel to 3rd world countries, giving their time, on their own dime, to deliver supplies and education to intelligent people who need a helping hand up.

Yup, heroes come in all shapes, colours, and sizes.

It’s good to know that the champion’s letter on our chest can be an “S” … or an “s”.

 

Superman Butt

Of course, the S doesn’t HAVE to be on our chest…