Backstage with Ron Onesti: A gift from Harry Chapin
There are just so many super cool things about music — so many great moments and so many storybook careers. There are also many sad truths, especially artists that are “gone too soon.”
One such musician who you really don’t hear very much about these days is Harry Chapin. Chapin was an American recording artist and activist who, at 38 years of age, lost his life in a tragic automobile accident. I recently hosted “Harry Chapin: A Celebration in Song” starring the Chapin Family (members of Harry’s extended family) at The Arcada Theatre, and it was one of those performances that was moving in so many ways.
hapin is best known for his two top songs, “Cat’s In The Cradle” and “Taxi.” He had so many other memorable songs and performances, but these two are what truly propelled Harry to superstar status, and musical immortality.
These are two songs that have always been emotional powerhouses for me, as they have for countless others.
It was an awesome and rare family reunion we had with the Chapin family. The Chapin Family consists of Harry’s brothers, Steve and Tom; Tom’s daughter Abigail (who brought her newborn daughter Elspeth, named after her grandmother); Jen Chapin (Harry’s daughter); Howard Fields and John Wallace (two members of Harry’s original band); and Jonathan Chapin (Steve’s son). Even Harry’s wife, Sandra, was there!
Harry Chapin’s folksy lyrics have always been something that has been very interesting to me. Each one of his songs is about something relatable to the masses, with heart-tugging words and catchy tunes. But “Cat’s In The Cradle,” well, that is a musical arrow that pierces my heart every time I hear it.
The song is about time. It is about time passing us by, at the expense of loved ones who look up at their father, big eyed, wishing for time to spend with their very busy dad. Then, as time goes on, the tables turn and it is the father who craves for more time with his son, who has now grown and lets the craziness of everyday life get in the way of time spent with his dad.
It begins with his child arriving, but the father’s career steals the experience of seeing his son’s first steps from him. The son then turns 10 and wants to play ball, but once again, the busy schedule of a rising career prevents them from tossing it around. His smile never dims, and neither does his love for his pops. Then the son comes home from college, more in search of the family car keys than time at the ballpark with his dad. This is where the emotional tides turn.
Dad retires and the son moves away. The dad craves the closeness with his son, misses him and wants to share time with him. But alas, the son is busy with his own son, and now doesn’t have time for his dad. The son had become “just like him.”
As I have listened to this tune since it came out when I was 12, it has had three different poignant meanings for me.
My father, my hero, actually spent a limited time with me and my brother and sister when we were growing up. He was building his business, a tailor shop, and he was there seven days a week. He would come home every night in time for my mom to put dinner on the table, after which he made his way to the front room couch, with a bag of potato chips in hand and a black-and-white television waiting. But those rare occasions when we would throw the ball around after dinner seemed to make up for the other 95 percent of the time when I would not see him. “Cat’s In The Cradle” bullet No. 1.
I now have an 11-year-old daughter who is the light of my life. She is a dynamic rose plant blossoming at record speed. But now, I find myself involved at my shows and events, or at least planning them at the same time as my daughter’s gymnastic meets, plays and favorite TV shows. “Cat’s In The Cradle” bullet No. 2.
I lost my father a few short years ago. There were times he would call me and wanted to talk about my career, The Arcada, and other projects. He was my biggest fan, with his days filled with one purpose: thinking about my exploits and how he could help me. Cool, except for the fact that I couldn’t pick up the phone as much as I would have liked, or taken him to a Cubs game as much as I should have, or just plain laughed with him more. Hooray for me and my career … “Cat’s In The Cradle” bullet No. 3.
So having the Chapin Family at my theater was a very emotional experience for me. They all arrived and it was just so nice to see that many Harry Chapin family members fostering his legacy and his music. I asked Tom Chapin what the coolest part of doing this salute to his brother was, and he responded: “The fact that multiple generations are together, on the road, keeping his memory alive. Even my six-month granddaughter is here! That is what is cool for me!”
As I was in the hallway downstairs in the dressing rooms, I was watching the family buzz around from room to room, thinking how great of a show this was going to be. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Harry actually came down there, to see what his family was doing. To see all the generations coming together to keep his memory alive. The Arcada has many times been accused of possessing old souls who have been gone for a while. Could Harry being here be so out of the question?
They all took the stage for sound check. I knew that fateful moment was approaching, when that familiar song would be performed live. I prepared for it by finding a dark corner on the stage, where nobody knew I was. I sat Indian-style and got ready for it. When that familiar opening came, I was overcome with emotion, as I knew I would be. But the fact that they played it live and I actually sang with it under my breath was almost healing.
Ironically, I didn’t actually stay for the concert. I left after that song in sound check. I went home, called my mom and hugged my wife and daughter. I used the time I would have spent at the concert and spent it with them. So I never actually saw the Chapin Family concert, but it still was one of my favorite concerts ever. Thank you, Harry.