Harry Chapin - Southport Theatre, Southport, 1977

  by Owen Peters

published: 10 / 4 / 2016

Harry Chapin - Southport Theatre, Southport, 1977

In our 'Gig of a Lifetime' column recalls attending his first gig as a teenager, which was a show by the late American folk singer-songwriter Harry Chapin at the Southport Theatre in 1977


A few songs over the years have metaphorically stopped me in my tracks. Back in the distance memories of my teens I was anesthetized by Radio 1 blasting out from a set of anarchic speakers. But what I heard through the airwaves on this given day attached itself to me like a magnetic field refusing to let go. I could make out the song was about a young boy asking when his dad would be home. His dad promised when he was home what a great time they would have between them. Somehow, however, he was always too busy for his son. Even today some forty years on Harry Chapin’s 'Cat's in the Cradle' can do things to the inner workings it just shouldn’t do to a grown man. His first hit 'W.O.L.D.', which was released in 1973, brought him to the UK’s attention. At the time Noel Edmonds (remember him) was promoting the song on his daily radio slot. The tagline of 'W.O.L.D.' - “I am the morning DJ at W.O.L.D./Playing all the hits for you/Wherever you might be…” - was easy for DJs (not radio presenters) who drew parallels to the song's lyrical content, covering the world and workings of radio. 'Cat’s in the Cradle' became a Top 10 hit in 1974. Chapin had found a following, amongst them me. It was to be some years later a plan was hatched, maybe to shut me up constantly talking about his music, or a matter of friendship. My circle of friends at the time were older than this little whipper snapper. With their apprenticeships completed came cars and girlfriends. Harry Chapin was in the UK on tour. They purchased four tickets, one of which was mine. I was on my way to see Harry Chapin live in concert in two weeks time at the Southport Theatre. The year 1977. As the day arrived I remember wearing my best Ben Sherman shirt (one of two I owned) which had blue and white checks, and black bell bottom trousers (my one and only pair). “You look lovely,” said my mother. Which I worked out years later was code for "There's my little boy in men's clothes. Our group of four sped towards Southport in a car for some reasons which had to have all the windows wound down. We stopped off at a pub, my under age features hidden in a corner as four pints of Watney’s Pale Ale came to the table. Dressed up, in a pub, about to attend my first concert, a new world was opening up before me. I was giddy with anticipation, plus had the intoxication of a full pint roaming around my system. Once we were inside the theatre I saw that some of the grown ups had also put on their best Ben Sherman shirts. Somehow my clothes didn’t seem to fit as well as the grown ups. The only time I’d ever seen this many people come together were at football matches. There seemed to be lots of women with incredibly long hair, and drinking potions from very small glasses. They released exotic scents and perfumes which played on my nose as they came past our foursome. Everyone had hair lots of it, as though it was a prerequisite for entry. Where did people go with greying hair and balding pates? Did they attend work and never venture out again until the morning? Was that the law back then? Here I was holding a half pint of beer, like a duck out of water, thinking this was the world awaiting me when I started shaving, as a new scent drifted by. But for now Harry Chapin all the way from the USA was minutes away. The theatre lights dimmed, which surprised me. A god like voice announced, ”Please welcome Harry Chapin,” at which point applause began, which surprised me. He sat on a stool with a guitar and began to play to a hushed auditorium. I was struggling with a whole range of emotions, which surprised me. Years later I would still be reminded by my friends of the “plumber's incident.” “The little man (me) put up a brave fight against those tears. Once he (Chapin) started the opening chords of 'Cat’s in the Cradle' the floodgates opened” Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. The whole occasion was too much for a whisker free boy. Some of his songs such as 'W.O.L.D.' became joyous anthems to the audience. With 'Cat’s in the Cradle', however, it was as though he was saying, "This song is for you, and you and you. Yes, you at the back, and you, little man, in your blue and white shirt." He made it personal. The song was inspired by a poem his wife wrote about her first husband's relationship with his own father. A son just wanting to get his father's attention. To his young eyes his father is the man he wants to become. “I want to be just like you, Dad.” As the son reaches adulthood with a family and career, the roles are reversed. Dad just wants some time with his son. “When you comin’ home, son?” he asks over the phone line. ”And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he'd grown up just like me/My boy was just like me.” Those moments gone forever. The woman next to me (at this age I would have referred to her as a lady) gave me her handkerchief when witnessing my sobs. There ws no return required. “No, please keep it”. The perfumed square of white linen aided my sniffles. With his deep Brooklyn lilt, Chapin was an out-and-out storyteller, his songs wrapped up in parables, incidents, decisions taken along the highways of life. He sung about places I didn’t know, relationships I couldn’t imagine, most filled with something called love. Others brief, some a long lasting memory. At the time he would have been 33/34 years old. He epitomized, confidence, health, a musician with tales to tell. A minstrel with a lifetime ahead to tell his stories from town to town in far off countries. I was spellbound by his performance and the whole occasion. We made our way home from my first gig, this time with the windows rolled up. This was undoubtedly my 'Gig of a Lifetime'. The matey threesome had enjoyed the concert, but I knew they’d enjoyed the experience more than Harry Chapin. Collectively they indicated, “It’s not really our type of music. I for some reason was in more reflective mood. With some gentle ribbing about the "plumber's incident” I was dropped back home. With a deep breath I composed myself. There was one thing I needed to do. I walked into the lounge my mother seated, my father standing. I went over to him and gave him an almighty hug. We weren’t a family of tactile huggers. More handshakes and things unsaid. So this unexpected hug, would he understand, or know how to deal with it? Not a chance. “Have you been bloody drinking?” Ah, the bond between a father and son. I remember hearing about the death of Harry Chapin (aged 38) in 1981 on a hourly radio news bulletin. If I listened to the news again in a hour's time, I was sure some mistake would be announced. Denial can be powerful distraction. A traffic accident in New York, his car, a lorry...Whatever the circumstances, he was gone. These days I occasionally take time aside with a Harry Chapin album. He still feels good for the soul. Sometimes I drift back to 1977 and the Southport Theatre when Harry Chapin came into a boy's world. It is a memory time still hasn’t faded.

Also In Gig of a Lifetime

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Harry Chapin - Southport Theatre, Southport, 1977

Harry Chapin - Southport Theatre, Southport, 1977

Visitor Comments:-

892 Posted By: Martyn, Shropshire, UK on 22 May 2019
Hi Owen, My first ever gig was being Harry at Southport theatre, February 4th, 1981. I'm so glad I got to see him, even though I was only 6 years old at the time. I don't remember, but apparently I was sat on Harry's lap in the bar during the interval! His music and legacy live on, and if it makes you feel any better, I suffer from 'plumber's incidents' almost every time I hear him singing. An amazing songwriter, performer, but above all, what an incredible human being. What if there were more like him? "Now if a man tried to take his time on Earth And prove before he died What one man's life could be worth Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?" Martyn
796 Posted By: Lisa, Chicago on 31 Mar 2016
Hi Owen, I loved your heartfelt essay about watching Harry Chapin perform. He was an incredible songwriter and I, too, feel that 'Cat's In the Cradle' is one of his most compelling ballads. It must have been a very special night because you captured the ambience incredibly well. Thanks for sharing. Lisa

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