Story Pile: Harry Chapin’s The Rock

The rock is gonna fall on us, he woke with a start
And he ran to his mother, the fear dark in his heart
And he told her of the vision that he was sure he’d seen
She said: “Go back to sleep son, you’re having a bad dream!”

I think this is my father’s favourite Harry Chapin song.

That’s a pretty impressive thing, when you consider that Harry Chapin also wrote Ten Thousand Pounds Of Bananas, She Was The Sun, I Wanna Learn A Love Song, Cat’s In The Cradle, Six String Orchestra, Vacancy, and WOLD. I mean, if you ask him, he might say his favourite is Vacancy, which was a song I sung to myself as I attended the motel I worked for a year.

But The Rock is the only song I’ve heard my dad preach a sermon about.

Silly child–
Everybody knows the rock leans over the town
Everybody knows that it won’t tumble to the ground
Remember Chicken Little said the sky was falling down
Well nothing ever came of that, the world still whirls around

The song is from Harry Chapin’s 1975 album, Portrait Gallery. Dad liked to use it as the attention-grabbing opening to a sermon for when he was a guest preacher at a place. So we’d travel to a place that we weren’t going to see again (likely), I’d muddle through a service I didn’t understand because every church does things differently even if they’re all largely the same. There’d be a reading of a chapter of scripture, some wine or grape juice or whatever depending on the day of the month, and then Dad would get up to preach, and he’d open not with a verse, but with the absolutely terrifying lines of this song, spoken as a poem.

It scared the shit out of me.

“The rock is gonna fall on us,” he stood and told the class
The professor put his chalk down and peered out through his glasses
But he went on and said; “I’ve seen it, high up on the hill
If it doesn’t fall this year then very soon it will!”

See, nobody else heard this sermon twice, so nobody ever really had a chance to listen to it twice. This is one of the funny things about sermons. Despite them being like, kinda fungible, in that preachers will reuse them (they will always reuse them), and extremely flexible (they will always be adapted to a current event if they need to be), sermons are kind of just something you listen to for forty minutes and then take maybe two or three key phrases out of it.

Ah, which, you know, here, some notes.

Crazy boy–
Everybody knows the rock leans over the town
Everybody knows that it won’t tumble to the ground
We’ve more important studies than your fantasies and fears
You know that rock’s been perched up there for a hundred thousand years

My father connected this narrative in this song to the christian apocalypse. He framed the town as our world, the rock as the coming judgment of God, and the one lone boy as a prophet, trying to guide us away from a terrible end. This of course, did not match any kind of structure from the Bible; there’s no instance of a prophet going ‘okay, God, take me instead, as I try to fight to stop the judgment myself.’ Prophets in the Bible tell people to stop doing bad shit, then does a ton of cool miracles that make people scared of them, and then the people don’t stop doing bad shit anyway, despite the cool miracles, because the prophets are basically folk heroes from a bunch of collapsed nation-states, and the arc of history of these states tended towards ‘everything went bad.’

“The rock is gonna fall on us.” He told the magistrates
“I believe that we can stop it but the time is getting late
You see I’ve done all the research my plans are all complete.”
He was showing them contingencies when they showed him to the street

This isn’t just me making fun of my dad reusing a sermon, mind you.

Just a madman–
Everybody knows the rock leans over the town
Everybody knows that it won’t tumble to the ground
Everybody knows of those who say the end is near
Everybody knows that life goes on as usual round here

As I write this, I am sitting in my bedroom, with a laptop on my lap, while the dog frets next to me. See, Elli is very anxious and afraid of thunderstorms. Thunderstorms, which, I’m told, weren’t common in this area when relatives were raised here. Thunderstorms that now happen… pretty commonly. Once every few weeks.

The dog doesn’t like them. It makes him anxious. He doesn’t know why the sky is yelling. And they’re more common than they were when I was a kid, and I do know why the sky is yelling.

He went up on the mountain beside the giant stone
They knew he was insane so they left him all alone
He’d given up enlisting help for there was no one else
He spent his days devising ways to stop the rock himself
One night while he was working building braces on the ledge
The ground began to rumble the rock trembled on the edge

This is a very real, horrifying consequence of the way the world is changing. The way the world is going to continue to change. None of this stuff is happening instantly, which is part of the problem. Climate crisis is the long, slow, ongoing horror of knowing the rock is going to fall and knowing that every system that’s meant to prevent it is failing so much you start coming up with negotiated positions, start making excuses. Well, I never owned a car. Well I went vegan. Well I grow my own food.

You can’t fix it though.

LIke, literally, nothing you do, individually, is going to do it. The types of actions we need to do are going to be disproportionately strange to have the meaningful impact. Solutions need to be systemic, so I guess you can make the ethical case for ecoterrorism in the name of making systemic change.

“The rock is gonna fall on us! Run or you’ll all be crushed!”
And indeed the rock was moving, crumbling all to dust
He ran under it with one last hope that he could add a prop
And as he disappeared the rock came to a stop

I’m not advocating for ecoterrorism, by the way. You should not use this article about a scary song from the 1970s as your reason to start bombing fuel lines and assassinating oil company CEOs (who are still actively working to resist all changes to their business model that would help to address climate change). If you were in that space you should really not be getting your advice from me about anything. Don’t go endangering yourself over a dumb blog post I wrote about a pop song.

The people ran into the street but by then all was still
The rock seemed where it always was or where it always will be
When someone asked where he had gone they said: “Oh he was daft
Who cares about that crazy fool.” And then they’d start to laugh

I don’t talk about this much.

At best, I sound anxious.

But high up on the mountain
When the wind is hitting it
If you’re watching very closely
The rock slips a little bit

My father doesn’t believe in climate change.

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