Author Pat Fenton went on the road to find the America that singer and songwriter Harry Chapin wrote about.
“I have seen boarded-up movie houses, rusted railroad car diners, country churches, shuttered gas stations and crumbling factories on the edge of towns,” Mr. Fenton writes in the introduction to “Searching for Harry Chapin’s America: Remember When the Music,” published by Heliotrope Books.
“I have passed by old country cemeteries on hills at the end of towns with quarter moons hanging over them, farmers herding cows across two-lane highways; I have driven past bowling alleys that some people still go to on Saturday nights for fun, all of it like sequences from a Sunday morning comic strip of the ’50s,” Mr. Fenton continues in the introduction.
“In a way, he was like a hip Norman Rockwell. He had real people in those songs,’’ Mr. Fenton said in a phone interview from his home in Massapequa, Nassau County, which is about a 45-minute drive away from Huntington, where Mr. Chapin, born in Brooklyn, made his home and is now buried. The performer, also known for backing charitable causes, was killed at the age of 38 in a crash in July of 1981 on the Long Island Expressway.
Mr. Fenton’s work has been published in the New York Times, New York Newsday, The Daily News, and New York Magazine. He has worked as a taxi cab driver, bartender and radio host. His play “Jack’s Last Call, Say Goodbye to Kerouac,” was selected as one of the best New England plays of 2008. His work has also appeared in anthologies such as The Irish, a Treasury of Art and Literature and The Book of Irish Americans.
In 2015 his play, “Stoopdreamer,” was entered into Origin’s First Irish Theatre Festival of 2015 and was nominated for five awards.
“Searching for Harry Chapin’s America,” Mr. Fenton’s first narrative nonfiction book, will be released on July 16.
“It’s a book about America, like a vein of America that I’ve seen out there,” Mr. Fenton said. “And of course, it’s about Harry Chapin’s music.”
Mr. Chapin is best known for such hits as “Cats in the Cradle,” “WOLD,” “Taxi” and “I Wanna Learn a Love Song.”
He was nominated twice for a Grammy Award: in 1972 for Best New Artist and in 1974 for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance. In 2011, 30 years after his death, Mr. Chapin’s number one charting song, “Cat’s In the Cradle,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Mr. Fenton’s book includes exclusive interviews with the Chapin’s family and associates and an excerpt of the artist’s personal, unpublished writings.
But an exploration of his life and catalog of songs wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Watertown, where Mr. Fenton visited in his research for his book. His chapter on the visit here is titled, “I Once Spent a Week in Watertown One Afternoon.”
Mr. Chapin performed twice in Watertown, in 1974 and 1976; both benefit concerts at Jefferson Community College.
“He was my favorite of all the entertainers,” said Joseph L. Rich, founder and former executive director of the Disabled Persons Action Organization, which, since the 1970s, has organized an annual concert series. “He was something. He cared about the kids and he signed all the autographs that people wanted,” Mr. Rich said.
Mr. Fenton took the name of his Watertown chapter from a comment Mr. Chapin made and heard on his live 1976 “Greatest Hits” version of the song “A Better Place to Be.” The 10-minute song is originally from his 1972 album, “Sniper and Other Love Songs.”
“A Better Place to Be” concerns a bar visitor, a night watchman at fictional Miller’s Tool and Die, who confides in a barmaid, “a big-ole friendly girl” who tries to “fight her empty nights by smilin’ at the world.” With her, the man shares an intimate tale of a woman he met a week before.
Mr. Fenton said he visited Watertown a few years ago to research the roots of the song and when asking around, some people told him that they thought the idea for the tune originated at The Crystal restaurant on Public Square.
“When I saw the Crystal, I thought, ‘What a perfect place,’” Mr. Fenton said. “It’s very possible that’s where he got the idea for the song. But what I found is that, in some of these songs, the idea for them remained a mystery.”
A person who posted on the website songmeanings.com claimed the song was inspired by Mr. Chapin’s visit to a Watertown bar called “the Chimes.” There was a Chimes Cafe on Franklin Street, next to The Strand. The person who posted on songmeanings.com wrote that Harry would drop in on his way north while transporting his brother, Tom, to college. Tom Chapin is a graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh.
Regardless of where he got the idea for the song, Mr. Fenton said it demonstrates the brilliance that Mr. Chapin possessed.
“From my view, the thing with Crystal’s and ‘A Better Place to Be’ is that he could have possibly been in there, or maybe even talked to some guy on the way out,” Mr. Fenton said. “But I doubt that he had the whole story that he tells in the song told to him. And the other thing is, it’s obvious he did a lot of research, because he knew about those tool and die places in Watertown. How would you know that if you didn’t research it? Or if he talked to some guy coming off a shift at 8 in the morning and maybe that guy might have said something to him and he could have gotten just a hint of a story.”
In his travels for the book, Mr. Fenton’s other trips brought him to places such as Candor in Tioga County, Utica, Detroit, Flint, Mich., the abandoned settlement “Dogtown,” near Gloucester, Mass., Scranton, Pa., a home “in the back, winding roads” of Connecticut and Point Lookout, Long Island.
Among song titles that originated from the above communities: “The Mayor of Candor Lied,” “The Day They Closed the Factory Down,” “Bummer,” “Dogtown,” “30,000 Pounds of Bananas,” “Mr. Tanner” and “What Made America Famous.”
“It’s a road trip,” the author said. “It’s about a faded America. I interviewed a lot of people, and I asked them about America.”
n WHAT: “Searching for Harry Chapin’s America: Remember When the Music,” by Pat Fenton.
n PUBLISHED BY: Heliotrope Books
n RELEASE DATE: July 16.
n COST: $29.50 hard cover, $16.50 paperback and $9.99 ebook.
n OF NOTE: An “innovative audiobook” with musical cuts from Mr. Chapin’s songs is planned for release in December. The second part of the book’s title refers to a song title from the artist’s 1980 album, “Sequel.”