Monday, July 26, 2004

Taxicab Confessions

Picking the worst records of all time requires a ground rule. It's easy to bash pathetic sludge ("Rock Me Amadeus," say, or anything by David Geddes), but it's more interesting to take on records with major critical reputations, records that were major hits, or records people like to fawn over. And I heard one of 'em when I was driving around with the radio on last Saturday.

People used to call me on my radio shows and ask for Harry Chapin's "Taxi," and some of them spoke of it with the kind of reverence usually reserved for Great Art--which "Taxi" is not. When you really listen to it, there's much less than initially meets the ear.

"It was rainin' hard in Frisco/I needed one more fare to make my night" is an arresting couplet with which to open a story. And for the first verse, you're actually interested in what's going on. Certainly it would be possible for a big-city cabbie to pick up his first love one night. It might be interesting to eavesdrop on the conversation. And you might expect a talented songwriter to find some universal truth in the experience. You feel this potential as you listen, and "Taxi"'s biggest hook is the time it takes for all of this to unfold. What you don't notice right away is that Chapin is doing nothing with the setup except stringing it out.

And then "She hand me 20 dollars for a two-fifty fare and said 'Harry, keep the change.'" This is supposed to the emotional climax of the song. It is instead the point at which I throw up my hands. Is she flinging her wealth in the face of a mere cabbie? Is she guilty over leaving him? Or was he really that good in the back seat all those years ago? We're intended to fill in the blank ourselves, but none of these alternatives, or any of the others I've been able to think of over the years, seems sufficiently interesting to merit all the buildup. And when Chapin caps the song off with a stupid early-70s drug reference about driving his cab while stoned, I'm ready to turn him in to the taxi commission.

So give me "W.O.L.D" or even "30,000 Pounds of Bananas." You can keep "Taxi."

(Elektra Records #45770, chart peak #24, June 3, 1972)


At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, no "Taxi", how about this one...from 1979...
"Gold" by John Stewart? Here's a song that classic rock stations won't play because it is deemed too wimpy, classic hits stations won't play it because the young corporate Program Director has never heard of John Stewart, oldies stations won't play it because the song is not old enough and adult contemporary stations won't play it because it's not sung by Celine Dion (or Mariah Carey, or Whitney Houston, or Faith Hill). Bombs Away Dream Babies!

At 9:27 PM, Blogger Willie said...

Shark, I have that album. John Stewart used to perform regularly in Phoenix at Anderson's in the '90's.

What about this one from 1979..."Music Box Dancer" by Frank Mills (& His Orchestra). Talk about a piece of crap! Frank made his final concert tour in 2000. Sorry I missed it. Apparently, he was an international pianist. Yes, I have that album, too.

At 9:34 PM, Blogger Willie said...

In 1978, Polydor, his old label, leased the now 5-year old album from Frank Mills for distribution. For a single they chose two songs that had been showing a lot of airplay. The A-side would be a lush, romantic ballad called "The Poet And Me," while the B-side was a quaint little piano song called "Music Box Dancer."

Enter David Watts, rock deejay in Ottawa, and friendly acquaintance of Frank. The A-side of the record, Watts decided, was not his style, nor his listeners'. But for Frank's sake, he flipped the record over and played "Music Box Dancer" on the air.

For a year the single visited the Number one spot in some 26 countries and selling several million copies on its way. In a music business rarity, the tune shot to Number 1 in Japan three times within one year: first by Mills, next by a Japanese act, and finally in by a Chinese act. The album eventually sold over two million copies and Mills still owned the master recordings making it a rather lucrative pay-off.

The song's phenomenal frolic is witnessed by more than two dozen gold albums it has won worldwide. It also earned a Million-Airs award from BMI for over one million radio plays, and sheet music sales for surpassing 3,000,000 copies and received a Grammy nomination in 1980 for 'Best Instrumental'. To date the song has sold in excess of five million copies.

At 9:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While it was a hit, a woman called up a radio station somewhere (Dallas, I think) and held up an 80-year old family heirloom music box to the phone, and it played the same tune.


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