harry chapin heads and tales_cropped

World’s Worst Songs: “Taxi” by Harry Chapin

From the cover of "Heads and Tales" (1972)

From the cover of “Heads and Tales” (1972)

Good storytelling involves not only what you leave in, but what you leave out. What’s left out is what makes Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” so compulsively listenable over 45 years after it first appeared. Say what you want about “Hotel California”; part of its appeal in 1977 and to those of us who still like it today is the ambiguity of it, and the room it leaves in the story for imagination to fill in the gaps. But it’s a subtle thing, this leaving-out. Leave out too much—or fail to tell enough, so that the gaps in your story render it incomprehensible—and you let your audience down.

This is the problem with Harry Chapin’s “Taxi,” which is one of the World’s Worst Songs.

You undoubtedly know “Taxi” well: One night, a cabbie picks up a fare who turns out to be an old flame. She’s heading home to an address in a wealthy part of town. They talk, he thinks about their affair, they get to her house, and she hands him $20 for a $2.50 fare and tells him to keep the change. And he tells us: “Another man might have been angry / And another man might have been hurt / But another man never would have let her go / I stashed the bill in my shirt.”

This is the climax of the story, but there’s not enough context to tell why it’s such a big damn deal. There are no clues to the motivations of either the woman or the driver, so what each of them does ends up a mystery. And when we assign to the woman one of the two most likely motivations—she’s either being deliberately cruel to him or she’s oblivious to what she’s done—Chapin’s response, which is to take the money and go off to get stoned (instead of what—suggest they go for coffee, or ravish her right there in the back seat?), isn’t any easier to understand. There’s no reason for us to believe any particular explanation for any of this, so why bother trying?

Harry Chapin understood why his characters did what they did. (Like “Same Old Lang Syne,” another poorly-told tale, “Taxi” is supposed to be based on fact.) But when he set out to tell us, he left out too much. As a result, “Taxi” doesn’t earn its emotional payoff. We’re left wondering not what happened between the cabbie and his fare, but why we should care.

  • http://twitter.com/theMetz Adam Metz

    Low blow. Harry Chapin prevented thousands of people from dying from hunger.

  • ozarkmatt

    Boy, I don’t know. Young love that went astray when they decided they had different paths. Re-converging years later, they realized the paths did not materialize. Yet symbolically, both did exactly what they thought they would do. The history he remembered turned out to be nothing.

    The driver could have been pissed, the driver could be hurt, the driver could have tried to re-kindle.

    Instead he realized it was all long in the past and basically said, “Fuck it.” Life goes on and “stashed the money in my shirt.”

    I guess the emotions and the imagery were to subtle for you lyrically, but to call it a worst song is ridiculous. The middle part of the memories is song arrangement unparalleled. He describes himself using hash chords and chopped off words, “I got something inside me, not what my life is about.” Describes her using an angle voice, “Baby’s crying because she is dying…” The contrast defines the memories.

    I can understand why you picked some of these songs no matter how critically acclaimed and/or popular they are. However, I gotta say, you have a swing and miss on this one.

  • http://redvioletblue.typepad.com/abyssgazing/ abyssgazer

    I just heard this song the other day and was cringing from it–so, I totally get what you’re saying–but I’m not sure I’d go so far as to label it one of the “World’s Worst”–I mean, it is no “Same of Lang Syne” by a long shot. Musically, I think it’s nice. It has an evocative atmosphere. Lyrically, I’m not sure if it goes to far or if it’s just poorly written. A lot of Chapin’s lyrics read like bad melodrama (“WOLD”?–Dog, help us!). So, yes, based solely on the lyrics, probably a worst, but to be truly a “World’s Worst Song”, I think it has to fail musically, also, and this one doesn’t. The music and arrangement actually support where he was trying to go, but he seems to have not trusted it and chose to beat us all about the head to make his point verbally.

    It’s too bad, really. A little deft editing could have made “Taxi” a good song.

  • sfa3

    “Taxi” wasn’t ever a song that registered on my radar, either positively or negatively. It was just there. However, Chapin’s totally unnecessary (and over-long) “Sequel” in 1980 would be an outstanding candidate for a “World’s Worst Song” (and maybe a nice companion to today’s column). Here’s a great idea, Harry, let’s take two characters we didn’t care about in 1972 and continue their boring story. Now, our stoned cabby is a rich&famous rock star, our actress is a recluse, and he hunts her down so he can bang her brains out, which he wouldn’t (couldn’t?) do 8 years earlier because he was too poor. Thanks for the life lesson that Money Fixes Everything, and for the visual of someone like Steven Tyler shacking up with Norma Desmond.

  • http://redvioletblue.typepad.com/abyssgazing/ abyssgazer

    Wow. I just looked up the lyrics to “Sequel”–how did I miss this abomination? Good luck until now, I guess. I don’t know what to say other than Sue shoulda married her an arch-ee-tect.

  • Breadalbane

    Usually agree with your picks. Not this time. But hey, chacun à son goût!

    (Now if you’d picked “Sequel”, I’d have been on board with that…)

  • JB

    Um, $20 for a $2.50 fare seems like a very satisfying ending. D’oh! I keep forgetting I’m a lawyer!

  • Nelson Fartzenkraps

    Dear Jack Ass (that’s what J.A. stands for right?),

    If you’re too damn dense to grasp the subtleties behind “Taxi” — containing by far and away the most poignant lyrics written by anybody, anywhere, ever — that’s tragic enough. What’s even worse? The fact that you’re too dim even to be embarrassed for your own ignorance!

    If the death penalty could be administered for risibly imbecilic music criticism, we’d have to direct the drone attack right over your home.

    Go get AIDS and die, you execrable piece of human garbage.

    One of the millions and millions whose lives have been touched not only by Harry Chapin’s deeds, but also by his profound, aching, haunting and yes unassailable lyrics

  • http://www.popdose.com/ DwDunphy

    And you’re Nelson Fartzenkraps. J.A. wins on that alone. You’d have a leg to stand on if it wasn’t hiding behind such a ridiculous pen name.

  • Nelson Fartsenkrapz

    Envy is the hallmark of the ignored music critic. Isn’t that right, DweebDoophus?

  • http://jabartlett.wordpress.com jabartlett

    Thanks for spending your time reading this post, Nelson, and for coming back a second time to comment on the comments. And by the way, the “J.A.” stands for “Just Awesome.”

  • Been Benuane

    I agree. This song is cringing bad. Like one of those awful Billy Joel dirges.

  • Charles M

    Such a BS complaint. The point of the song is a very simple one: we all have youthful dreams of future success and accomplishment, but most of us forget about those dreams and fall far short. The past relationship between the driver and the fare is not important but for the effect it has in reminding him of those youthful dreams, and in feuling yet one more regret about how his life unfolded. It’s all about lost dreams, man. We can all relate to that a helluva lot more than the gobbledy gook in Hotel California.