This is the latest installment of Heaven is a Playlist — an occasional series about the songs that move me more than any other. To catch up, read Track 1 (Little Richard) and Track 2 (Etta James). 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.
Tommy, great to spend a minute with you last night.
This song, tho …
In my late 20’s, I fell in love with a woman & realized I had to leave my husband & the marriage. It was not an easy decision, back in the early 80’s. But I left & moved with the woman to Florida, to a crappy apartment & a happy life of eating a lot of rice with rejected mushrooms from the Apopka Mushroom farm. When Fast Car came out, that line “leave tonight or live & die this way” hit me like a gut punch. It was like she wrote that for me. I had a 4 year old Honda Accord hatchback & Liz had a 200 Twinstar Honda street bike - but buddy, we took off like we had a fast car! Thank you for this story.
Tommy, I love the newsletter and am such a fan of you and your book. I think you got this wrong in one important way. Tracy Chapman leaves the song genderless. She’s had some notable women as lovers, and the song has been embraced by lesbian culture. Your assumption that it’s about a man reflects a heterocentric lens.
Oh, man, are you so right about this song. I heard it and fell in love with Tracy Chapman! Fast Car was/is the pinnacle, but ALL of her songs just climb in under your skin a little and sit there, while you think about that life she's describing, living, escaping. I like a lot of Dylan songs, comes from marrying a huge fan, but Tracy's got him whipped. I've never felt the emotion that simmers out of the speakers like I do when I listen to her. Gotta thank you for the intro to Jason Isbell last week, too. I've been diving deep this week catching up on his catalog!
Damn, Tommy. That was such beautiful writing by you. Fantastic. “Fast Car” is such a revelation, so much aching and longing and hope in one little tune. It’s a classic and your essay does it justice.
Yes! I LOVE this song but didn’t know the back story. Thank you.
That song sent me a strong message, years ago.
I was in an emotionally and financially abusive marriage. For 28 years I had given it my all, but was finally escaping. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make.
I packed my car, turned on the ignition.... the radio was playing "Fast Car" as I pulled out of the driveway.
One of many messages the Universe sent me, letting me know everything would be just fine.
Tommy, seldom do I read something that brings me chills. But this did. Perhaps because of my connection to the song, or my shared desire that she (and all those she represents with this song) find a way to make it. Thank you for writing such an incredible piece.
You still tell a story better than anyone I've ever met OR read.
Thank you for this one.
Damn, I love it when you do this music analyses. It's like I'm hearing a song I love all over again. Thank you.
This takes me back . . . to Harvard Square and listening to a woman singing who might have been/probably was Tracy Chapman. I have never forgotten.
I’m someone that’s lucky enough to get “frissons” from beautiful music, and it turns out, writing about beautiful music. Tommy’s piece about this exquisite song linked into my deep love for it and gave me tingles throughout. Is written ASMR a thing?
One thing that dovetails with everything he said here is, it’s a song that gets better as you get older and losses mount.
I can't listen to this song without getting choked up. Every time. I definitely agree it belongs on your list. Nice choice.
Such a great piece. Exquisite.
In the summer of 88, I lived/worked on Jekyll Island at the 4-H camp. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the balcony one night at Brogan’s during a rain shower listening to this song. That’s where I go when I hear this song - Brogan’s balcony on a rainy summer night.
Tommy this one of my favorite songs ever. I hear this song and it brings me back to my early 20s when I was an EMT. I can’t tell you how many nights my partner and I spent in our ambulance singing this song when it came on the radio. Then we would spend about thirty minutes or so talking about the lyrics and what they meant. Her songs are so incredibly insightful and thought-provoking it made for great conversations. I fell in love with folk music because of Tracy Chapman too!
Listened to this song dozens of times but never paid much attention to the lyrics. Thank you for enlightening me. I now feel her heartache and see her decision point looming.