Heaven Is a Playlist, Track 3: Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car"
I was going to start with the story but let’s just start here: Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is the greatest folk-rock song ever recorded. I wouldn’t trade it for every Bob Dylan song put together. It is clear enough for a child to understand and deep enough to break an old man’s heart. It is a wrenching five-minute drama about a woman straining to break her cycle of poverty and despair, and it made it to no. 6 on the pop charts. That sounds like an impossible longshot … until you hear it. Then it makes perfect sense. “Fast Car” is undeniable and unforgettable.
OK, now, the story.
They sent her out there to take the place of Stevie Wonder.
The crowd didn’t know that. Stevie was a surprise. But by this point in the day, they expected somebody famous to come out. This was June 11, 1988, at Wembley Stadium in London. The occasion was an all-day concert to celebrate the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela, who at the time was still in prison in South Africa. Sting had already played. George Michael had already played. Al Green, the Eurythmics, the Bee Gees, Jackson Browne, Phil Collins: already played. Now it was Stevie’s turn. But there was a problem. The programming disc for one of his keyboards was missing. There was a panicked search but no one could find it. So Stevie decided he would not play.
The producers needed someone to go out there. There was no time to take down one band’s gear and set up another’s. There were 75,000 people waiting in Wembley and 600 million watching on TV all around the world.
They sent out Tracy Chapman and her acoustic guitar.
She had already played three songs that day, hours earlier. They were from her self-titled debut album, which had come out just two months before. For some reason, in that first little set, she did not play the first single from the album. This time, she played it. As she fingerpicked the bittersweet guitar figure that starts off the song, the massive crowd at Wembley was doing soccer chants.
A lot of people who have never been poor are quick to judge the decisions poor people make. My family was what today they call working poor. My folks had jobs but we qualified for government cheese. I wore Nike knockoffs from Kmart. My dad drove a beat-up work van and my mom drove a VW Bug with holes in the floorboard. We didn’t have a satellite dish or fancy watches. What we did have is a used bass boat that my dad scraped up every last dollar to pay for. It was his only luxury and it meant the world to him.
People who can afford almost anything they want can never understand that sometimes, when you are down and desperate, it can be worth it to have one thing you can cling to. It might be a flat-screen TV or a couch that reclines. Might be a gold tooth or a belt buckle the size of a pancake. Might be just about anything that allows your mind to believe in a better life.
Might be a fast car.
Tracy Chapman grew up in Cleveland. She was 4 when her parents divorced. She grew up living with her mother and older sister. Her mom worked a series of low-paying jobs. Tracy leaned on music. She learned to play guitar and ukulele and clarinet and organ. She started writing songs when she was 8. A minority-placement program called A Better Chance arranged for her to go to a private high school in Connecticut on scholarship. She played concerts on campus. The adults there saw her potential. When she was a sophomore, the school’s chaplain took up a campus-wide collection to buy her a new guitar.
She didn’t plan on a music career. She went to Tufts University outside Boston with plans of becoming a vet. But she also busked at the subway station and did little shows around town, and one night a fellow student named Brian Koppelman saw her play. The name might ring a bell. Koppelman went on to co-write the Matt Damon poker movie ROUNDERS and co-create the TV series BILLIONS, among many other things. But back then the important thing was that he was Charles Koppelman’s son. Charles Koppelman was a music executive who worked with everyone from Billy Joel to Dolly Parton to Barbra Streisand. Brian Koppelman told Chapman that his dad could help her get a record deal. She was skeptical. He sent his dad a copy of one of her demos. She got the record deal.
“Fast Car” was not one of those original demos. It wasn’t on the cassette that producer David Kershenbaum heard when he was asked to produce her first album. She had written it later. The first time they met, she played it for him, and he thought: That one’s going on the record.
He tried out five bass players and five drummers until he got just what he wanted—players who could fill in textures and shades but mostly stay out of the way. He ended up choosing Larry Klein on bass and Denny Fongheiser on drums. They start the song with a single bass note and a lightly struck cymbal, and they linger in the back until almost exactly two minutes into the song, when Fongheiser’s drums step into the chorus and your heart leaps into your throat.
That chorus, by the way, doesn’t come until after three full verses and a pre-chorus. That’s not normally how a pop song works. Two minutes on the radio—and it was the radio back then, or MTV—is an eternity. The chorus of a song is the payoff, the musical fulfillment of the promise laid out in the verses. So it makes sense that “Fast Car” delays the chorus. Because one of the many things it is about is delayed gratification. The dream that never quite comes true.
The narrator has quit school to take care of her alcoholic father after her mother left him. The narrator has a man in her life, the owner of that fast car, and she decides to take a chance and move to the city with him. He turns out to have his own drinking problem and they wind up in a shelter. She tells the story plainly, not asking for sympathy. But in the chorus she circles back to one brief moment of joy:
So I remember when we were driving
Driving in your car
Speed so fast, it felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder
And I-ee-I had a feeling that I belonged
I-ee-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
This is a song of exquisite and powerful lyrics, but the key words are the simplest—those “I-ee-I”s in the chorus. As hard as she tries to be stoic, that “I-ee-I” gives the game away, and so does that guitar line that loops through the song. The chorus is the only time you don’t hear it, because the song doesn’t need it then—Chapman’s voice is reaching for the same thing. That guitar figure and that “I-ee-I” echo each other—desperate, full of longing, holding out the barest hope.
You can take the ending two ways.
You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so you can fly away?
You gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way
Earlier in the song she sang the same lines, but with “we” instead of “you.” That was when she still believed in her partner. Most people read this as her telling him to leave her now or commit to making a life with her. But the more I listen to it, the more I think she’s talking to herself. Other people have disappointed her over and over, but somehow she still believes in a better life. I think she’s getting ready to slip the keys out of his pocket and take that fast car for herself.
I don’t know which way makes more sense. But every time, goddamn, I want her to make it.
No one knew what was about to happen, there at Wembley Stadium. By the time she walked off the stage, Tracy Chapman would be a star. That self-titled album would go on to sell 20 million copies. It would hit no. 1 on the Billboard charts. Let’s add some context: In the same year as Def Leppard’s HYSTERIA, Guns ‘N’ Roses’ APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION and the soundtrack to DIRTY DANCING, a folk album by a black singer-songwriter from Cleveland would hit no. 1 on the charts.
Stevie Wonder would, in fact, play that Nelson Mandela concert later that day. So would Peter Gabriel and Whitney Houston and Dire Straits. But none of them did what Tracy Chapman did with “Fast Car.”
By the end of the first verse, the soccer chants had stopped.
By the second, the crowd had gone still.
By the chorus, the stadium might as well have been a coffeehouse.
It took a miracle to get that crowd that quiet on that day. It turned out that Tracy Chapman had written one.
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