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Monday, March 26, 2012

"Fast Car"

Tracy Chapman - "Fast Car" (1988)

This song is about ten times more depressing than I remember.

I remember this song, because it was a song that was nominated (and possibly won) the 'class song' for my high school graduating class. I had never heard it, so listened to it and sort of thought of it as a Springsteen style come get in my car and lets go; like "Born to Run" or "Thunder Road", but told from the point of view of the women, who meets a man with a car that is fast enough to get her away from the small town life. But it's more than that. It's a tale of cyclical poverty, a women whose mother leaves, so she must take care of her alcoholic father. As the song continues, the undescribed partner with the fast car eventually turns to alcohol themself  and Chapman asks them to leave.

Tracy Chapman graduated from Tufts in 1987 and worked on recording her debut album immediately. The album and single were released in April of 1988. In June of that year the 70th birthday concert for Nelson Mandela happened in London and was broadcast around the world. Chapman had performed to great reception early in the day, but later when Stevie Wonder was having technical problems she was asked to fill in for a few songs. She performed this song on stage by herself with just an acoustic guitar. The album Tracy Chapman hit number one in the U.K. three weeks later and a month after that topped the US charts.

It's a simple song, with a ringing acoustic guitar loop playing through the verses. The bass is very understated and the percussion is also very light, consisting of just a simple drum set and maybe a maraca. The chorus, where Chapman expresses the elation and exhilaration of sitting in the fast car gets a little louder, adds steel guitar, much louder percussion and maybe even some organ or other keyboard instrument filling in the bottom with the bass. It's a powerful song lyrically, and like I said, much harsher than I remember half a lifetime ago.

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