Harry Chapin’s relatively short career as a singer/songwriter came to an end when he died in a car accident in 1981. He’s probably remembered by the general public mostly for his No. 1 single “Cat’s in the Cradle” in 1974 — but his first single from his first solo album was “Taxi,” which in early 1972 peaked at position 24 on the Billboard charts.
“Taxi” tells the story of a cabbie who quite by chance picks up a woman who gives him an address in the rich part of town. As they drive along, mixing a little bit of small talk with uncomfortable silence, each finally recognizes the other as their former lover from many years ago. They acknowledge each other; chat for a bit; and finally he delivers her to her destination, only to watch her walk right out of his life again.
In recalling their time together, the singer/cabbie thinks about how they shared the dreams of their youth: “She was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly.” The brilliance of Chapin’s storytelling is revealed when he returns to the image near the end of the song and turns it on its head:
“But we’d both gotten what we’d asked for
Such a long, long time ago. …
And here, she’s acting happy,
Inside her handsome home.
And me, I’m flying in my taxi,
Taking tips, and getting stoned.”
It’s a bit of a mystery why this song didn’t get any higher than No. 24 on the Billboard charts. Perhaps it was hard to pigeonhole this effort from a debut album that had elements from all over – it could be folk, or rock, or pop, or even (shudder!) adult contemporary. Perhaps at nearly seven minutes long it didn’t fit into the playlists of the day.
Too bad: it’s a great piece of lyric writing and storytelling, matched closely by the inventive and creative musical arrangement. Both elements work together so well that despite the necessarily long length needed to spin this tale to its end, the listener’s interest doesn’t get lost anywhere along the way. And best of all is the inevitability of the ending — “whatever we had once was gone” — is how it often works in the real world. And at the end of the song, Chapin leaves everything right there as is; he doesn’t feel the need to tack on some deus ex machina happy ending where love conquers all …
… until “Sequel.” That is to say, the title track from Harry Chapin’s 1980 album Sequel. Also known perhaps as The Not-on-Elektra-Records-Anymore album Sequel. Perhaps he did it for his fans, or maybe for the money, or maybe he felt some artistic impulse to return to an old idea and update it.
In any case, “Sequel” has the cab driver returning to San Francisco (the same city that served as the location for “Taxi”), but now he’s a famous musician who found success via a “taxi” (“But I ended up taking a taxi, ’cause that’s how I got this far”) … wait a minute. Sure the cabbie’s name in “Taxi” was Harry, but that’s a typical folk and rock music convention to sing a first person character using the singer’s own name, but now it’s “Harry (who is famous because of a “Taxi” and is a successful and well known singer/songwriter).”
Is the whole story autobiographical now? There will be many who will disagree with this, but it seems like any time that rock or pop artists write about their own problems and their own lives, it seems contrived and self centered> The fans don’t want music to serve as a kind of audio second-hand voyeuristic experience; they want music that will inspire them as they get along with their own lives. There seems to be some evidence that Chapin based his original song on some events in his own life, but the beauty of “Taxi” is that it can be taken as a universal story — boy meets girl again and, yes, sometimes they get it to work out the second time, but mostly they just move on.
“Sequel,” however, plays out at best like some drugstore paperback pulp fiction romance; at worst, like a bad Horatio Alger novel. Even the phrasing and dialogue between the two principal characters seems wooden, awkward and clichéd. (“She said ‘I finally like myself; at last I like myself’” — definitely a candidate for a not-so-good lyric writing award if there ever is one).
Musically, there’s not much to find fault with here. There are a few more transitions and key changes and the like in “Sequel” than there were in “Taxi.” The good musicianship of the band plays down to the level of vaguely interesting, but these details and touches feel like technique for technique’s sake, and they don’t add to the story.
Oddly enough, “Sequel” actually fared one notch higher on the Billboard charts — hitting No. 23 in 1980. This time, however, there are a lot more mysteries to figure out. First: Is this song really about Harry Chapin’s life? Second: Even if it isn’t, does the character of Harry really offer Sue money like she was some kind of girl for hire? (No — it’s not the same as a $17.50 tip for a cabbie back in 1972. What an insult, really.) Finally (and maybe most importantly): How did such a bad idea get so far up the charts in the first place?