I told a couple friends earlier this week that as the summer transitions to autumn, I find myself naturally drawn to music that is quiet and introspective, sometimes even depressing. I don’t know why that is, although the obvious answer is that the music matches the season. This year especially, when with apparently no warning we plunged into the 60s for highs immediately after Labor Day, the quietness of some of the music I have been listening to has seemed more than appropriate. It was amongst all this that I rediscovered Tracy Chapman.
Tracy Chapman always reminds me of my high school friend Kelly. She was probably the best friend I had in high school and although we didn’t always see eye to eye on everything, we always had a healthy respect for the other’s opinions – at least as much as you can when you’re 16. She was the Miss 120 Minutes to my Mr. Top 40 Pop and we each had broader horizons for it. I first heard “Fast Car” during the summer of 1988 on MTV (can you imagine MTV playing that now?) and immediately thought of Kelly and how she would like it too. If nothing else, I knew that she would certainly not be like another of my friends who saw the video on MTV and laughed hysterically at Chapman’s hair and husky alto. I remember just falling in love with the song – it was so somber and so lyrically complex and so…unexpected during that summer. I couldn’t wait for school to start so that we could discuss it because, oddly enough, we would frequently lose contact over the summer, only to start right back up in the fall as if we’d never been apart.
“Fast Car” is to Tracy Chapman as “Luka” is to Suzanne Vega in that it’s the one that everyone knows. (Suzanne Vega wrote a great piece about “Luka” and the “two hit wonder” phenomenon here. It’s amazing.) And really, I still like it a lot although it doesn’t frequently make it into heavy rotation unless I’m listening to the album. I wonder how Tracy Chapman feels about “Fast Car” after all these years. Does she feel obliged to play it? I hope she feels like Suzanne Vega does about “Luka” because just because it was popular does not mean that it should be punished, especially when the songwriting is so brilliant. The part of “Fast Car” that has always stood out for me was its bridge, which is technically not a bridge because it is repeated 3 times.
I remember when we were driving, driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
And I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
That bridge is the heart of the song for me. In the end, I am so glad that it is repeated 3 times because I always want to hear it just one more time.
I bought the Tracy Chapman album from one of those BMG or Columbia House club things (which I remember MAD Magazine refering to as “slightly harder to get out of than an Iranian jail.”) and really, you’d think that “Fast Car” would be it and the rest of the album forgettable. But the whole album is so cohesive, so well written and produced, that it’s hard to separate the songs from the whole. It really is a product of the moment, one that is organic and not something that you could hope to produce if you were consciously trying. The album speaks softly, but is angry in many places speaking to racial and socioeconomic injustices in the way that only folk music can.
Personally, it’s the quiet songs about relationships on the album that have always stood out for me. And among these, the album track “If Not Now…” (download) remains, to this day, my favorite track on the whole album. “If not now, then when?” she muses, declaring “A love declared for days to come/Is as good as none.” It’s odd…lyrically, it is very simple, a complete contrast to “Fast Car” but when you’re listening to it, you don’t notice that. Perhaps it’s the simplicity that draws you in, the simple feelings that pretty much any human being can recognize.
During our junior year of high school, Kelly and I kept a handwritten journal together in a series of Mead notebooks. We’d pass it back and forth between us and take turns writing in it. I still have those and the other night I pulled one out because I remembered that we had talked about Tracy Chapman in those pages. I remember sitting in the stands at Carroll High home football games reading Rolling Stone magazine (which Tracy Chapman had made the cover of) while everyone else was watching the game. I remember how she had her copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley with her at all times during those days. I also remembered how she had written the lyrics to the Tracy song “For You” in one of the entries she made in that journal. “No words to say/No words to convey/These feelings inside/I have for you.” What exactly she was trying to say with those words, we can’t know now. If they were meant for me, I was certainly oblivious to it. But that would be giving myself way too much credit. We wrote song lyrics in there all the time.
I really don’t know where Kelly is these days or what she’s up to, but I do miss her, in the way that you miss someone that influenced you in ways you didn’t even recognize at the time. But that’s the beautiful thing about music, it can take you backwards, forwards or stand you still, frozen in time. And whenever I listen to Tracy Chapman, I get a little bit of all three. 20 years out from its initial release, it remains timeless.