Friday, March 29, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Fast Car

One little person, one resonant voice, one crystal clear acoustic guitar, one heartbreaking story.

One masterpiece.

Favorite Song Friday—Tracy Chapman—“Fast Car”

Sorry I couldn't find the studio version, but this live version sans production is awesome.

What a song.

The first time I heard it I really didn’t know what to think. It was 1988. Glam rock (Aqua Net rock, really) ruled the roost with a faux-iron gloved fist. “Sparse” was not a term of art of the day. Nor was “folky” or even “acoustic.” Or, really, “socially conscious.”

I mean sure, there were bands that had a social and political heartbeat. Big time. U2 and REM and the Smiths and Sting and Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen had their fingers on the pulse of what was happening in America and in the world. (More on that in a minute).

But not like this. Not the way Tracy Chapman hit the scene.

In an era defined by noise and production, Tracy Chapman offered silence. In a genre that at the time was all about strutting and cocksure, Tracy Chapman brought a clear, plaintive, solitary plea for action. Or at least understanding.

"Fast Car" is riveting in its sparseness, haunting and unforgettable in its ability to tell a such a lonesome story. That Tracy Chapman made such an honest, stark debut (it was the first single off of her self-titled debut album) at a time of such excess is admirable. That the song became as big as it did at the time? Remarkable.

I once saw “Fast Car” described as “Born to Run for the disillusioned.” That’s a good analogy. Because much like Bruce’s greatest song, “Fast Car” is about the dream of departure, of a literal vehicle of escape from misery into something better. When Bruce sings, “Someday, Wendy, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go,” it’s very similar to Tracy singing, “Maybe together we can get somewhere.” In fact, the sentiment is identical.

The difference, of course, is tone and tenor. Where Bruce’s dream is a sonic boom of hopeful romanticism, Tracy’s is a fading heartbeat, a last whisper of desperation. And despite the sheer motionlessness of “Fast Car”—whose ghostly emptiness, interestingly enough, evokes another Bruce Springsteen masterpiece, his Nebraska album—there is power in Tracy’s voice. Enough to create images that will not go away.

The song is all about that voice—poetic and blunt, almost professorial—and the simple, circular acoustic guitar that hangs over every verse, every word. Its delivery is so subtle you could miss it if you don’t pay attention. But the words—the story of a woman longing to catch one break and to flee with her family from crippling poverty—pack the blow of a sledgehammer.

You got a fast car
And I want a ticket to go anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Anyplace is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
But me myself I got nothing to prove

You got a fast car
And I got a plan to get us out of here
I been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money
We won't have to drive too far
Just 'cross the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living

You see my old man's got a problem
He live with the bottle that's the way it is
He says his body's too old for working
I say his body's too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said somebody's got to take care of him
So I quit school and that's what I did

You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so we can fly away
We gotta make a decision
We leave tonight or live and die this way

There are glimpses of hope that run through the words, despite the crushing despair of that fourth (and eventually, twice more repeated) verse, and despite the awful circumstance of the story. The car is a symbol and a means of escape at first, a chance to find something better. It seems reachable for awhile, and remains so at the bridge, where the song seems to snap awake and very briefly bathe itself in that joyful noise that Springsteen chose to tell his story a decade earlier.

I remember 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

The notion is a seductive one, and Tracy delivers it masterfully. “Hey, this could work! Remember all the good times we’ve had? We can make this happen!” But reality returns when the verse quiets down, once more, into that simple, sad guitar that leads the story onward.

You got a fast car
And we go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain't got a job
And I work in a market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You'll find work and I'll get promoted
We'll move out of the shelter
Buy a big house and live in the suburbs

You got a fast car
And I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids
I'd always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me would find it
I got no plans I ain't going nowhere
So take your fast car and keep on driving

Hope is replaced by hardness here, and the image of the car now turns into one of inertia, of being stalled. What good is a fast car if you’ve got nowhere to go? What good is it if it doesn’t even run?

I’ve focused an awful lot on the lyrics of this song, which are of course critical in that Tracy’s voice is the main instrument on display and the song is so story driven. But that guitar, that simple four-chord pattern, is as integral to the song as the words are.

In the very first rock-n-roll song about rock-n-roll stardom, “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry uses a staggering guitar solo between the second and third (and final) verses to bring the story to life. It’s almost as if he says, “I’ve told you about this young boy and his ability in these words, but now I’m going to show you.” The guitar does the talking for him and completes the story better than any words ever could.

Tracy Chapman does something very similar with her acoustic guitar on “Fast Car.” It’s a pretty enough little melody, but there’s a droning quality to it as well, a loop that never seems to close. And each time she returns to that chord pattern, never changing in volume or pace, the story seems to get further away from the plan of escape and deeper into the reality of unceasing hopelessness. It’s a masterful musical decision to spotlight the guitar the way she does, and much like Chuck did with his solo on “Johnny B. Goode,” it gives “Fast Car” its true soul.

In the fall of 1988, not long after her debut album came out and around the time the  album was  rocketing to the top of the charts and the song was making its way into the Top 10, Tracy Chapman joined a team of megastars—Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen—on a tour for Amnesty International. While her songs and style fit right in, the placement was still odd. Here was this little black woman in just her early 20s, onstage by herself with only her acoustic guitar, joining three veritable rock legends who each became known for their larger-than-life personae on the stage. I saw the show in Montreal and wondered how she would be received.

The response was unforgettable. 60,000-plus fans in the horrible Olympic Stadium applauded her longer and louder than any of her better known and longer established colleagues that night. And Tracy offered a shy smile of thanks as a result before getting back to work and offering up her next story of social enlightenment.

With “Fast Car,” one woman stands alone, telling a story of, essentially, being alone, yet hoping for something better. The hope never arrives, but the words and the song still ring as loud as anything of that era. Louder, even.

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