New York City native and past Newsday contributor Pat Fenton achieved a 20-year dream in writing a book where he took a road trip to learn about the real-life people that inspired acclaimed singer-songwriter Harry Chapin.
"Searching for Harry Chapin’s America: Remember When the Music" (Heliotrope, $17), which arrives Friday on the 40th anniversary of Chapin’s death, reveals a lot about the troubadour and longtime Huntington Bay resident through the people and places that intrigued him throughout the Northeast and Michigan.
Fenton spoke to Newsday about his book which features many Chapin stories from local residents.
Your book is a travelogue, yet it's not epic, only 120 pages.
Pete Hamill wrote that short book "Why Sinatra Matters." He was just trying to give a profile of who Sinatra was, a part of him, and he did that very well. I was trying to capture in this short book an image of who Harry Chapin was — his sensitivities, his frailties. That interview with Bill Ayres and [Harry’s] brother James that I did a long time ago tells you a lot about his depression he had at different times. Then he had that amazing talent. It became a road trip. What I started to see while I was out there was a faded America that he had seen.
Taking this trip, did you get a different impression of Harry Chapin than you'd already had?
I still had the same feeling, but I understood more about him. What fascinated me was the amazing talent he had and that ability to create songs out of small incidents and turn them into almost operettas. He was working in a time when there was no Google, there was no internet, no cellphones. So he had to go to a library to do research. I would find out things and wondered how the hell did he notice [them]? Like that song "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" about the [fatal] banana truck crash.
He was kind of like a hip Norman Rockwell. He was writing about real people like Rockwell was depicting them. I wanted to find some of those people.
Like the real "Mr. Tanner," a baritone whose attempt at a mainstream singing career was curtailed by two bad reviews.
That's like a cult song now. I knew that Mr. Tanner was really Martin Tubridy. I managed to find the same New York Times review that Harry Chapin found, and that review was only like five lines long. He was true to that when he started the song. And I think, "How did he get a song like this out of that?" He placed him in Dayton, Ohio, and he was actually from Astoria. The drummer of the Harry Chapin band found he was up in Connecticut. I drove up there, and it was fascinating to meet the real Mr. Tanner. It was like meeting somebody out of a [J.D.] Salinger short story.
I wonder what Harry would have thought about our politically divisive times?
I believe that's one of the reasons that his music is still so popular. It's an escape away [from that]. It brings them to a world that is more simple. When you hear "Cat’s in the Cradle," that problem of not spending enough time with a kid seems almost so minute when you think of how crazy the country is.
"Flowers Are Red" [is] about this kid who goes to school and they're told to draw flowers. He draws some flowers and leaves and goes crazy mixing colors, and the teacher comes over and says to him, "These are not flowers. Flowers are red, green leaves are green. There's no other way it's ever been." And he gets indoctrinated with that. It’s those type of simple messages that I think still exists in Harry Chapin’s music that draws a lot of people.
You have included a letter Harry wrote to you in 1980 about a song idea you pitched him that he was pondering. What was that all about?
I was going out to the Walt Whitman house in Huntington [for a story]. He [Whitman] reminds me a lot of Chapin in the way he wrote about the common man and woman. I was out there, and this young, long-haired fellow led me into places of the Whitman home they won't let anyone in. He let me get down the basement, up in the attic, I could see all the different things. He was the caretaker. I said, "You sleep here?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "What the hell is that like, man? You ever get up at two in the morning and stare out these thick glass windows here and wonder about Walt Whitman, who he was?" And he said, "Yeah."
I thought it would make a great Harry Chapin song. I didn't know him, but I sent him this three-page letter about the caretaker at the Walt Whitman house and what does he think about at night as he roams around. I got that letter back, and it surprised the hell out of me. He thought it was a good idea.