A couple of weeks back we’re driving back into Wellington, having been up the coast. It was a long Sunday drive and we had been playing a bunch of Sunday afternoon music in the car: Paul Buchanan’s Mid Air, Mark Lanegan’s I’ll Take Care Of You, Lawrence Arabia’s The Sparrow, Paul & Linda McCartney’s Ram, Sting’s Mercury Falling…
And then just as we round that bend and you can see the harbour – and it’s glorious, always, never mind the weather – I selected Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album. I hadn’t listened to it in the longest time – or so it seemed.
We jumped forward a song to Fast Car. Instinctively Katy and I both started to sing. Every word. If we’d been asked to write them down, no chance – but with Tracy Chapman as our guide we were right there in the moment. Every word. It was as if 1988 was yesterday – or rather a couple of Sundays ago.
I stayed with Chapman for her first four albums – and saw her perform during the tour for that last good album, New Beginning. That was not a prophetic title – there have been at least as many albums again from Tracy but she’s stuck in repeat-mode now. In a way she always has been. I could make a case for Matters Of The Heart as her lost classic and a better Sunday afternoon album might have been her sophomore effort, the lovely Crossroads but it’s that debut solo album she’ll be remembered for. And what an album. For me, it stands up. It holds up as a very fine piece of work – there is the odd hint of a definite/defiant 1980s guitar sound but production-wise this album is nowhere near as cringe-makingly dated-sounding as so many of its contemporaries.
And that’s because this album feels more like a mission-statement – the lyrics as poignant now as they were a quarter-century ago. Themes of race and class struggles, of the battle to hold your head high, the economic divide that weighs heavy – the lives we dream of off in the distance as a way of coping with the ones we’re living here and now. The feeling of being cheated, of it being sadly out of any one person’s control, of just being the hand that’s been dealt – well, there’s something in all of that right now of course.
When Tracy Chapman released her debut album we had a copy in the family; cassette tape. I call it a family-copy because mum bought it and it was (mostly) played in her car but I used to steal it for a listen – making my own copy and later buying my own version, replacing that with the CD and then the LP.
I stopped listening to Tracy Chapman for a long time – the well-intentioned but ultimately boring albums that dribbled out over the last decade and a half and the thrashing of the obvious hit singles from her early career meant I was never in the mood for any of her music beyond the occasional listen to Crossroads.
But finding a cheap copy of the debut album, LP version, had me in love with the sound all over again – and this music is swept up, for me, in the joy of discovering new music, the memories of that time, of passionately gathering information, searching for all behind the sound as well as within the music.
You see, at 12 years old we were driving back from a South Island holiday – two cars, mum and me in one, dad and my brother in the other. Mum needed a rest so had to pull over on the side of the road for an hour’s kip. My dad and brother slept in the other car, parked up behind. I turned the volume down on the car stereo but kept listening. Tracy Chapman’s album playing. And I studied the cover, the tracklisting, opening the jacket to read all the lyrics and liners – who were these people making this music? I needed to know! It was also interesting to me to that some of the songs were written as far back as 1978. Here we were in 1988 listening to it (or here I was; everyone else was asleep). But I remember thinking that this woman with these pop hits on the pop charts that had come from nowhere had obviously worked hard; she had a story, she’d done her time (now we’d best describe that as her doing her 10,000 hours). Yep, that’s the truth, I sat there thinking about all of this – processing all of this, taking it in. And taking in the music.
While my mum had her roadside rest I listened to the album twice – and I think about that now every time I hear the songs from this record. I’m there, instantly. In the car, that tape-cover in my hand, obsessively studying the text, committing it to memory. Twenty-five years on I can recall and anticipate the lyrics to any of the songs from that album when it’s playing – so the roadside cramming-study must have worked).
It’s also an album I always hear in the old-fashioned album-sense, a record of two sides. The first side is stacked with the ubiquitous hits, Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution, Fast Car and Baby, Can I Hold You – and if you’re sure that Baby is a syrupy load of nonsense it’s perfectly placed to close off the first side/half of the album – it’s almost a sigh of relief, a release following on from the tension of Across The Lines and then the a capacella Behind The Wall. I don’t care for Baby, Can I Hold You when I hear it on the radio – it can almost make my skin crawl. But that crack of the drum-stick on rim and the opening chords feels perfect in the context of the album – the song a pay-off, a release, a sense of relief – some optimism, however weary, after the ugly truths inside beautiful melodies as the first half of the album plays out.
For me, now especially, the magic of the album is in side two. Mountains o’ Things to kick off side two – what a great song to cover. And my favourite from the album is For My Lover. But She’s Got Her Ticket is another gem and Why?
Tracy Chapman ended up summing up her career in less than 40 minutes. But I think that’s far better than aiming for those 40 minutes across a lifetime of albums and never getting there. She got there. It’s possibly a mixed blessing/curse that she got there on that self-titled debut and then carried on – but albums two and three will always be worth my time too. And they might be worth yours as well. Give them a listen. Even if you never did at the time. Especially if you never did at the time.
So all of that – those thoughts I’ve shared above, the then and now of this album and how I feel about – rushed back to me as we made it back into Wellington on our drive down the coast less than a month ago. And over the last few weeks I’ve listened to this album again more than I have in years. It feels fresh and vital. It has sent me on to Crossroads again and Matters Of The Heart will be next.
Isn’t it great how music can do that for you – the right time, right place and it all comes flooding back in one three-minute pop song. That’s why we fight so hard, I think, for some of the music we love; we take offence on the artist’s behalf at reviews that miss the mark, at people that just don’t get it. Because we’re fighting, in the end, not for what the song is worth in terms of its artistic statement, as anything to define the artist – we’re fighting for what the song means in our own lifetime and to us in our own life. The songs and albums that mean the most to us are our photo-albums. Ones we get to carry everywhere, with no shame attached. We can post clips on Facebook or just carry the tune in our head (even if we, technically, couldn’t carry a tune in the proverbial bucket).
They are our clothes – and when someone insults them, they’re telling us we dress shabbily, sloppily, with no thought, with little care (actually, strike that, in my case that’s a terrible comparison. I do dress shabbily, sloppily, with no thought, with little care – but some of you at least will get where I was going with that…)
We hold on to this music, hold it near and dear to us and the ones we love, introducing new friends and family members to it – perhaps. Or keeping it just for ourselves. Sometimes it’s just perfect in the car on a Sunday afternoon to end a drive. Sometimes it plays on in your head – in the best possible way – feeling like a little bit of forever.