30-Day Song Challenge, Day 19: A Song That Makes You Think About Life
Whether it’s because of some quirk in my genetic makeup, an “old soul,” a karmic hangover from a past-life misdeed, or perhaps a long-forgotten childhood trauma, I think it’s safe to say that my default emotional state tends toward the melancholy. Not full-on depressive, although I’ve certainly flirted with the Black Dog a few times. And I do have moments of happiness and sometimes even completely good days from beginning to end. But life for me is almost always tinged with a bittersweet flavor, an undercurrent of something… well, sad. So when I was asked to name a song that “makes you think about life,” naturally I came up with one of the saddest ones I’ve ever heard.
“Taxi” was the first track released from singer-songwriter Harry Chapin’s debut album Head & Tales, way back in 1972. Clocking in at slightly under seven minutes long, it was an unlikely hit in the days when radio stations were hesitant to play anything longer than three or four minutes. But Chapin had two strokes of luck with the song. First, he debuted it on The Tonight Show, where he was able to play it in its entirety to a massive television audience, as well as an appreciative Johnny Carson. (Supposedly the performance was so well-received that he was brought back the following night for an encore, but it’s possible that story is apocryphal. I can’t find any proof that it actually happened.) The other break was when a popular radio DJ named Jim Connors discovered the song and pushed for it to be aired despite the length. As a result of these twin boosts, the song spent 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #24.
I can’t remember when I first heard “Taxi.” It’s one of those songs that’s just always been there on my personal soundtrack, and it’s always had an effect on me, even when I was a young boy who couldn’t begin to understand what it was about. Now… well, now I know all too well what Chapin was talking about… that empty feeling you get in the wee hours of a rainy night when you realize just how far away from your dreams you’ve really drifted.
Harry Chapin would also explore the theme of middle-aged regret in his two other best-known works: “W.O.L.D.,” about an aging disc jockey who’s sacrificed his personal life for his career — another possibly apocryphal story has it that TV writer Hugh Wilson was inspired by this song to create WKRP in Cincinnati — and of course his timeless #1 hit “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a tune that has been known to reduce grown men to helpless sobbing. For me, though, Chapin’s most poignant expression of that theme was in its first iteration, a story about a cab driver named Harry and a would-be actress called Sue.
The video clip of the song that I’ve found for my Loyal Readers is a curious artifact. It predates MTV by a good decade, and is described on YouTube as an “industrial film.” It ends with a lengthy spoken section by (I believe) Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, describing how he discovered and signed Chapin to his label. Aside from that little oddity, though, this photographic montage set to music is clearly something we Gen Xers would understand to be a “music video.” So what is it, really? Is it more accurate to call it a “proto-video?” And what were MTV videos if not “industrial films” intended to promote sales, as creative and bizarre as they often were? This has nothing to do with anything, I suppose, I just find it interesting when new information reframes something I’ve long understood in a certain context. And it demonstrates how sometimes phenomena that “come out of nowhere” have actually been around in one form or another for a very long time.
As for Harry Chapin, he met with a sad ending in 1981, killed in a car crash while on his way to a gig. He was only 38. A life cut short. Almost like something from one of his own songs.