Age does an interesting thing to men. It makes us all look the same — old. As I myself have aged, I realized tonight, for the first time, that “old” is the new “normal”. My wife and I went to an intimate concert at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass this evening. I say “intimate”, because the Iron Horse is small for a club — a good size for a restaurant, but small for a club. The Iron Horse is both — a club that has tables and serves meals. This makes it even smaller for a venue, but allows the crowd to feel comfortable. All of this provided a place to watch people tonight. While women around the club seemed to dye their hair and seemed dressed up for a night on the town, the men for the most part didn’t and so we all had white hair — or no hair. Most of us had paunches as well and seemed OK with it all, casually dressed and comfortable — including the lead singer for the band Satinwood that was playing tribute to the late Harry Chapin. With the band were two members of Harry’s band from back in the day — Howie Fields and “Big John” Wallace. They also looked normal to me — no paunches, but like guys you would meet on the street. Big John looked like a very open, calm Zen student you would see on any train in a big city. Howie looked like every suburban dad I had ever seen growing up in Wilbraham, standing around at the Post Office. Now he looks like every dad who mows his lawn in West Hartford wearing blue jeans and a blue tee shirt, with a striped blue and white shirt over it.
Neither of the guys looked awesome but they weren’t ugly either, which is kind of what I assumed we’d all look like when we got old. As I said, we and they were just normal. We weren’t competing about who looked the best or had the latest style or who had the prettiest girl on our arm. If we were there with a date, we already felt like we had the prettiest girl on our arm and we already knew who we were going home with, so we didn’t have to impress anybody. We didn’t have to be “jocks” or “rock stars” anymore to be popular. We knew who we were by now and everybody did something else (had a life) when they weren’t at the club. Some were probably doctors or lawyers or teachers or clergy, but here we just looked like old guys.
The show began and the band played a good set, with some more obscure songs than I had expected — and, of course, some favorites. It became apparent immediately that the unassuming big guy still had his five-octave (or is it eight-octave? — I forget) range. On the drums, the apparently quiet suburban neighbor really had it going on. One of the things about Harry was that he expected a lot of his musicians. I’m not sure if it’s that his brother’s arrangements called for it, or Harry’s music was just that complex, but story-songs required a lot — rhythm changes, different styles, different characters, octave shifts, strings and vocals — and it all required a tight band to pull it off. Howie worked hard last night, as did all the members of the band.
Of course, the other thing that Harry knew was that everyone has a story. Age makes it a different story — there are more losses in life, making it a bittersweet story, a bit more fragility creeps in, maybe we can’t do quite as much. In America, we tend to see the downsides of that. In other countries, they see the wisdom in that. One of the unexpected joys of last night’s show was watching Big John sing “Last Stand”, which he explained was one of Harry’s last songs and how, in retrospect, it almost seemed that Harry knew his life would end soon. This brought a pain and anguish to his voice and the love of his late friend showed through. This is part of aging, as well.
Our seats were about ten or fifteen feet from the stage, so all of this was easy to see, but I got one of those thrill-of-a-lifetime moments when — between sets — I got to shake Big John’s hand. He was classy, as I’d expected, but also seemed more fragile than when I’d last seen him on stage thirty five of so years ago. I suppose we’re all a little more fragile and little wiser thirty-five years later. I began to think about Harry and what he would have looked like had he not died so young. The answer is that Harry would have had the same band and they all would have looked … normal. Harry’s glow and charisma came from his face and his smile and laughter. He was not a pretty man when he was alive. He wouldn’t have been any prettier as he aged, but he still would have been Harry. If last night’s show was any indication, he’d look as unassuming and normal as everybody else, but somehow he’d have more insight into human nature, as if that were remotely possible.
As the band took the stage for the second set, it occurred to me how many of Harry’s songs had twisted characters and messed up sexuality. “The Mayor of Candor Lied”, for instance, has incest as part of it’s story. “Better Place To Be” is about a pick-up in a bar. “Dogtown, which they didn’t play last night, ends with some pretty disturbing imagery. Even Harry’s story of meeting his wife featured pain and loneliness lifted by adultery. The weight of human existence shown through his songs, and I kept getting this imagery of a large rock-like cloud trying to smother heat and light, but the light fought back and the heat never gave in. Harry’s songs, as depressing as they could be, always had hope woven through them. Last night’s performance brought that sense of hope, and dreaming, and goodness back, as well. It was a very good night brought together by normal, old guys, wizened by time and experience.
So here’s the take-away from all of this, and it’s something that Harry knew profoundly. That guy that you see on the subway, that guy mowing his lawn, that guy coping with tees or college life — he could be somebody. I have always thought that we should never judge or throw away anyone because they could have the cure for cancer in their African-American mind or a great sermon in their female body or a great wisdom in their Hispanic soul’s experience. We should celebrate diversity and the hope it brings to us, rather than bemoaning that we “have to play fair“. When people come through my door, I try to have a blank mind about who they are and who they could be. I see and hear –and they have experienced — it all. Everyone has a gift and a spirit under all of that pain that helps them heal.
Last night’s show, because it featured two apparently quiet, unassuming, normal guys with exceptional talent made that all the more clear. You never know who a person is, and what they have to offer unless you pay attention. These two normal old guys’ lives brought Harry’s wisdom to life, as the “younger” folks, Satinwood, gave them a place to shine.