"I been feeling sorry for myself, but you know I was only lonely, like everybody else." That line, from "Sunday Morning Sunshine," Sniper's opening cut, pretty much sums up Harry Chapin's vision of life. No singer/songwriter, not even Rod McKuen, apotheosizes romantic self-pity with such shameless vulgarity. Not only does Chapin write about it obsessively, he will, at a moment's notice, trash his own lumpish songs by bawling in a voice that is both ear-splitting and off-pitch. The most that I can say for this kind of wretched excess is that it is impossible for one to remain emotionally neutral to it. Chapin has the courage of his convictions, and the sheer insistency with which he advertises his case of emotional diarrhea does carry some energy and invoke some sympathy.
Unfortunately, the enormous success of his first album, Heads and Tales (it was on the charts for well over half a year), has had the effect of further exacerbating his worst tendencies. Here, he goes the limit in presuming to project his own maudlin sensibility onto other personae. The album's grotesque nine-and-a-half-minute piece de resistance, "Sniper," is an incredibly pretentious sub-musical "epic" based on the notorious Texas tower incident of a few years back. Replete with tricked-up sound effects, interior monologue, flashbacks and pop Freud (it all goes back to Mom, of course), "Sniper" must represent some kind of all-time low in tasteless overproduction. Just as awful is "Better Place to Be," a seven-and a - half - minute Saroyanesque barroom soap opera in which Chapin's fictional "common people" wallow mawkishly in shared loneliness (Harry invariably pronounces it "lawwnliness"): "And if you want me to come with you then that's all right with me 'cause I know I'm going nowhere and anywhere's a better place to be." Then there is "Burning Herself," the story of a woman who compulsively scars her body with lighted cigarettes: "Or was it that the pain slicing through her like a knife was easier to take than the emptiness of life?"
No doubt some will find all of this socially meaningful and even personally cathartic. Harry goes to great lengths in trying to evoke a dark, inchoate strain of American life and make it "art." What does him in is his own overweening self-pity, which distorts and demeans his apparently sincere intentions. (RS 123)
(Posted: Dec 7, 1972)
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