Harry Chapin was a folk-rock troubadour of the baby boom generation. He was particularly known for his "story-songs"; his signature hit "Taxi" (1972) was the story of a disillusioned cabbie meeting an old lover, and "Cat's In the Cradle" (1974) the cautionary tale of an absentee father. Chapin toured restlessly and recorded the albums Heads and Tales (1972), Short Stories (1973), Verities and Balderdash (1974) and Danceband on the Titanic (1977) among several others.
He died at age 38 in a traffic accident on New York's Long Island Expressway.
This story is based on one of his songs. He is missed.
I was a music student. I was attending a small four year liberal arts school. Like all students, I needed money. The funds I received from home were nice, but nowhere enough for the lifestyle I wanted to live. So there wasn't a lot of choice, I needed to work.
So that explains the reason I'm standing in front of one of the many campus bulletin boards reading the 3x5 cards posted there. Oh they were the usual, Babysitter wanted (I didn't get along with spoiled kids), art class model needed (no pay but experience gained), movie actor-female-some nudity (well that leaves me out), tutor's needed (I wasn't that smart), and on and on they went.
It was as I was turning around to leave that I noticed one card near the bottom, partially blocked by another. It was a request for a guitar teacher. It simply said, "I want to learn a love song on the guitar so I can hear my children sing," and a phone number. I could play the 6 string and I was a music student, so I took the card. I called the number that night and made an appointment to meet with them. An appointment secretary made the arrangements...
Following the directions I was given, I soon found myself in a very upscale neighborhood. It reeked of "old" money. I pulled my beat up old VW in front of the gate and pressed the intercom. A disembodied voice asked me who I was and if I had an appointment.
I was asked to wait.
After what seemed like hours the gate swung open, I drove up the front door where a real honest to god butler was awaiting my arrival. I looked at his clothing and attitude and almost kept on driving. But then he smiled at me, and I felt welcome.
I parked and walked up to him. Now you must realize that I was a poor college student, but I had dressed in my best outfit, worn jeans, a sweatshirt with the sleeves removed and sneakers that had seen better days a few years ago.
He looked me over. I knew I didn't meet his approval, but it looked as if he respected me for showing up in what I was wearing. Or maybe he just assumed I was stupid.
Well anyway the three of us (him, me, and my 6 string) headed into the "library". He left me there and went off to "notify the mistress" of my arrival. In my house someone would have just opened their mouth and yelled. I guess that wasn't done here.
The "library" consisted of shelves of books, from floor to ceiling, a grand piano, and various chairs and plants and paintings. The room appeared bigger than my whole house. Needless to say I was impressed.
I was standing in the spot the butler left me. I was afraid to move in case I touched anything important. When the door opened, I turned and found myself staring into the bluest eyes I had ever seen. I guess my mouth dropped open because she smiled and put a dainty hand under my jaw and pushed it closed. I wanted to melt into the carpet, just like the wicked witch in "The Wizard of Oz".
I just stood there looking stupid when she said, "My names Angel Smyth and you are Tom, the music teacher?"
I made a squeaking sound and nodded "Yes".
She turned to the butler saying, "Harold. Please get Tom and I some tea. He seems to have lost his voice"
Harold left and she led me to a settee.
After I seated myself she continued, "Tom, I know a little something about the guitar but not enough to really play it. I would like to learn how to play so that I might be able to accompany my children when they sing. May I hear you play something?"
I tuned my instrument and started singing and playing some simple tunes. I played some of the more popular songs that her children might like. I looked at her and guessed that she was about 10 years older than I was and her children would still be pre-teen. I played music that they would know. I even played some Sesame Street stuff.
Before I knew it she was holding my guitar and I was teaching her some simple cords. We were singing and enjoying the moment when the door opened and a very large and very portly gentleman barged in. Without the slightest thought he demanded to know who I was, why wasn't his dinner served, and the family seated at the table.
He did not seem like a very nice individual.
Angel ignored him and offered her apology to me for his rudeness. She walked over to the small writing desk. Took out some paper, and started asking me my contact details. All the time she was ignoring her husband. He got redder and redder. I expected at any moment to see his head explode.
As I was giving her my schedule of availability, I heard the library door open and slam closed. She murmured something that sounded a lot like, "Rude Bastard." But I wasn't that sure. All I knew was that I wasn't destined to be one of his best buddies.
She walked me to the front door and handed me a 50 dollar bill. When I looked at her and explained I had no change, she just said, "He can afford it."
So began my career as a tutor.
So for the next six months, I was sitting in her library with her and sometimes one or both of her kids singing softly and playing the guitar, while her husband and some friends played poker in the den. They were loud and noisy, we were quiet and respectful.
I found myself looking forward to her lessons. Her subtle beauty, her soft voice, and those blue eyes. I loved the way her eyes sparkled while we sat on the settee and I sang simple love songs. I saw the sadness in them when our lesson time ran out.
Soon I found that she would rather hear me play and sing than try to play herself. And that's how our sessions evolved, the girls joining us for a short time as a duet before they went to bed. Then me playing for Angel well beyond our agreed upon quitting time.
If it wasn't from the noise in the den, I could almost imagine that this was my family. Some nights we would sit side by side on the settee, me playing and singing softly and her with her head on my shoulder. I was slowly falling for her. But what would this older woman from all this money want with me.
I started to share the songs I wrote with her. They were love songs revealing my soul in them. She would listen to the words and sometimes I saw a tear in her eye. I would have sat with her on that settee forever if she let me. She had become my soul mate, but I never told her.
One night when I arrived for the "lesson" I found the house dark but for one small hallway light. As was my habit, I knocked and opened the door, and headed for the library. Only this time she was standing in the doorway in a beautiful floor length nightgown.
All she said was, "I want to learn a love song," and walked into my arms.
I would like to say that I swept her off her feet and made her scream with delight. But that's not what happened. I was the inexperienced one. She was the woman. The next morning she kissed me and walked me to the door. Again the sadness showed in her eyes, but I was too stupid to notice.
I left that house a man. No longer the young college student I was before.
We continued our weekly lessons. Most of the time they were music lessons, but when the house was empty, she taught me a different kind of lesson. But the time summer arrived and school was out for the period, I was hopelessly in love with her.
I returned home for the summer, only this time I had a goal.
My goal was to make something of myself so that I could to keep Angel in the style she was accustomed to. I was going to get her to leave her rich husband and run away with me. I would provide for her and her children in the style she deserved.
I never shared with her my plan. That was my one mistake.
I started putting down on paper the songs in my heart. I put together a group of musicians to play my music. We played my songs in local bars One day a radio station started playing our music. The rest is history, our music took off and the money started rolling in.
The only problem was that it took three years before I could return.
But I was going to go back and make her mine.
My limo pulled up to the gate I remembered so well only they were open now and in disrepair. We drove up to the front door and I got out of the car. My driver exited acting as my body guard now that I was famous. The house and yard looked shabby and unkempt.
There was a realtor's lockbox hanging from the front door.
The house was vacant and for sale. I had waited too long before returning. The love of my life was gone.
It took a couple of weeks before I was able to face the world again. I drank too much and locked myself in my house. I was devastated. The love of my life was gone and I had no way of finding her.
I started writing a song for her. I called it, "I want to learn a love song." It was a sad song. It stayed at the top of the charts for quite a few months. It was being played regularly on all the top 40 stations. My song called out for her with all my heart and soul poured into it. There was no answer from her.