Throughout the ages we have loved songs and poems which tell stories. The combination of narrative, rhyme and rhythm draws us into the tale, compelling us to listen while the story unfolds and builds up to its finale, sometimes happy, sometimes funny, often tragic.
Traditional folk songs and contemporary interpretations of the form abound, with ballads about love and loss, death, both fair and foul, bravery and sacrifice, rivalry, patriotism, violence, disaster, war, religion and superstition – the whole of human life is explored through the art of story-telling in verse.
Harry Chapin was a master singer, songwriter and storyteller who tragically died in a car accident in 1981. His song, Taxi, from the Heads and Tales album released in 1972, is a description of a brief meeting between two former sweethearts.
My fare lady
The scene is set with economy and clarity. A rainy evening in San Francisco, and he is the taxi driver cruising for one last fare before he finishes for the night. He’s flagged down by a woman whose dress is soaking wet. She climbs in and gives her address: Sixteen Parkside Lane.
He thinks he recognises her, but she says no, he must be mistaken. Then – aha. She has another look, she reads his name on his license card, and there they are, together again, Harry and Sue, who loved each other in those bygone days of making out in the backseats of cars and talking about what they would do when they grew up.
Miles between smiles
There’s a hint that neither of them is happy – her smile of recognition is sad, and the intervening years have brought him ‘too many miles’ and ‘too little smiles’. Back in the day, they had their teenage dreams and took off in their different directions. She was going to be an actress, he was going to learn to fly.
What happened, we wonder. Is this going to be one of those familiar stories about thwarted youthful ambitions? Is this chance meeting going to be a new beginning? Harry makes us wait for the answer.
Bridge over troubled water
A haunting little bridge sung in falsetto (by the bass player) hints that the ending won’t be happy. The narrator tells us there’s something inside him, something wild, waiting to escape. He is not what he wants to be. His outer life isn’t what he is all about.
As for her, there’s a suggestion of fragility, that she is just about hanging on, afraid to fall. It’s a surreal passage, tense and nervy.
Then we’re plunged back into the silence of the taxi. They have nothing to say to each other. What they had once is gone. As he drives her up to her handsome home, the gap between them intensifies. She is the rich posh woman, he is just the cab driver. They mouth platitudes about meeting again and they know it will never happen.
The tipping point
The song enters its painful finale. Sue pays him with a $20 bill for a $2.50 fare and says, “Harry, keep the change.”
You wince when you hear this line. Why does she say it? The use of his name makes it personal, not just the throwaway largesse of a woman with too much money. Is she being kind? Or condescending? Why does she say anything?
The next four lines display the unflinching art of the true story teller. Another man might have been angry, he says, another man might have been hurt. But another man never would have let her go.
He allows her to walk away, and stashes the bill in his shirt. The powerful mixture of self-loathing, self-knowledge, regret, defeat, humiliation almost derails the song.
The final act
Then there’s the final, ironic twist. Their dreams actually have come true, although not in the way they had anticipated. She, Sue, has become an actress after all. She’s acting happy inside her handsome home, pretending that everything is all right.
The poignancy of her situation is increased by the echoes of other songs – the lonely mansion with the tear in every room described in Silver Threads and Golden Needles, the big old house in ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ that becomes a lonely place when you’re not happy. Every form of refuge has its price, that song tells us, and Sue has paid a price for her life in swanky Parkside Lane.
And Harry – he has learnt to fly just as he had planned. He flies as high as you like in his taxi, taking tips, getting stoned. And there we leave him, driving home on that rainy night in San Francisco.
In the four minutes he takes to tell this little story, Chapin gives us background information intriguing enough and packs an emotional punch big enough to sustain a novel. Something Richard Yates might have written, maybe. Or a movie – how about it, Michelle Williams?
It’s hard to listen to this song without getting a lump in your throat. Harry was only 30 when he wrote it, yet it says so much about lost chances and lost youth, about past lives and decisions, about what is and what might have been. The most intense responses to the song seem to come from men in the 45-56 age bracket. I can’t imagine why.