Thursday, February 25, 2010

Possession: Harry Chapin's Sniper

My good friend Adam Nayman and I were once discussing people who you always expect to miss the point. But we agreed that sometimes - maybe just once in their life - they got it right. That lead me to think about the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin. Chapin was a composer of short-story songs and they often centered on society’s “little people.” Whether it was the poor sap wistfully remembering a lost love affair in “Taxi,” or the DJ who’s time has faded in “WOLD,” or (worst of all) the dad who doesn’t take time to pay attention to his growing son in “Cats in the Cradle,” Chapin was pop music’s Paddy Chayefsky. All everyone needed was love and attention and the world would be fine.


But one of his early songs, one that rarely gets played on the radio, or even recognized as a Harry Chapin song, is a track called “Sniper.” The title tune from his second album in 1972, “Sniper” wasn’t about the benign, fictional “little” Americans that populated his usual repertoire. This particular song was about a real killer, the American sniper Charles Whitman. Over forty years ago, Whitman stood in a tower at the University of Texas in Austin and shot and killed 14 people and wounded 32 others in a shooting spree on the campus. (The massacre happened shortly after he had murdered both his wife and mother.)

Chapin takes the same approach to this song as he did with many others (i.e. if only Whitman had been loved by his mother, he would have been sane). But his neo-Freudian interpretation gets overturned by the sheer force in his singing, in the way the character of Charles Whitman keeps taking over the song and claiming it back from any easy summing up of his life. Chapin’s gift was his ability to get inside the characters in his compositions – whatever one thought of his songs. He spoke in the voice of the person in the tune and made you see the world through their eyes. But in “Sniper,” Chapin got more than he bargained for. On the album, “Sniper” is overproduced with effects, but Chapin still manages to rise above the aural clatter. All through the song’s over nine-minute length, as he describes Whitman’s moments climbing the tower, his glee at firing the gun, the stunned reports of news reporters and witnesses, Chapin is breathlessly swept away by the rage he’s unleashed in the character. Music critic Sean T. Collins deftly touched on some of the sheer intensity of “Sniper”:

“It’s a[n] … unusual topic for the man behind ‘Sunday Morning Sunshine.’ But the earnestness with which Chapin imbued his folksy love songs serves this macabre subject well. Chapin is no more able to hide behind irony or ambiguity here than he is in his more romantic work, forcing the audience to come directly to terms with the horror of the sniper attack, and the tortured character of the sniper himself. Over the course of the song's 9 minutes and 55 seconds, Chapin and his dexterous backup band wind, segue, and careen from tempo to tempo, key to key, style to style. Here they're conveying the quiet of the early morning campus, while the protagonist walks toward the clock tower. Here they're mimicking the buzzing teletype and breaking-news noise of the special reports updating viewers and listeners on the shootings. Here they're deploying simple, sparse staccato to simulate the slaying of yet another too-curious bystander. Here they're using cello and chorus to depict the mournful, vengeful mother fixation of the title character. Here they're building toward the climactic showdown between sniper and police, replete with gas-dropping helicopters and ‘final fusillades.’ And here [they crescendo] to a ‘Day in the Life’-style nihilist's triumph. A band trained for simplicity, their discipline serves them extraordinarily well, tempering excess and making every musical metaphor.”

Of course, the metaphors are obvious and no more open-ended than the ones in “Cats in the Cradle,” but Chapin’s performance overturns his pat conclusions. But if the album version is overproduced, the live performance he gave of the song in 1975 for PBS’s Soundstage, remedies the problem. With no trick sound-effects, “Sniper” gets stripped down to just what his ensemble can re-create on stage. Chapin is almost maniacal here, as if determined to take back control of the song. But Whitman possesses him to the point that you can feel Chapin's band backing away. The audience applauds at the end but likely with relief. I had just come back from school that evening and one of my roommates just happened to be watching Soundstage. As I put my bag down, I stood staring at the TV with an eerie sense of not knowing how far Chapin would go. As the song continued to sing him, I sensed that after that performance, I’d never hear anything of that power from the man again.

And I didn’t.

You can watch that performance here:

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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