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Tracy Chapman: Fast Car, a song that spans the ages

Updated: Apr 15

Neil Morton

The beaming smile and twinkling eyes said it all as the audience roared their approval when it dawned on them who was on stage. It was lovely to be back, celebrated for a life-affirming song that spanned the ages. Fast Car won Tracy Chapman a Grammy in 1989 and here she was reprising the track, an unanticipated guest at the 66th awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

The month before her 60th birthday she performed a duet with country giant Luke Combs whose own version was nominated for a gong 35 years after her original and introduced a whole new audience to the song. As if the karaoke car crew, familiar with the refrain, didn’t know it already.

‘It was my favourite song before I even knew what a favourite song was,’ Combs said in the video introducing their performance. His version is faithful to the original. ‘The song can be felt and related to by all kinds of people around the world. Tracy is such an icon, one of the best songwriters that I think any of us will ever be around to see. It’s such a cool full-circle moment for me. Just to be associated with her, in any way, is super humbling.’

As she looked out at her admirers in the auditorium Chapman’s grin widened and widened; Taylor Swift was standing and obviously knew every word; Brandi Carlisle and her partner Catherine Shepherd were gently swaying in awe after celebrating the remarkable comeback of another legend in Joni Mitchell; and Meryl Streep, Lana Del Rey, Jelly Roll and the country-soul duo The War And Treaty were visible devotees.

Chapman’s smile turned into a chuckle as she looked at Combs during the verse breaks as if she couldn’t quite believe she was there after her self-imposed seclusion (her last album, Our Bright Future, came in 2009, her last tour the year after). It is remarkable she was able to negotiate the lump in her throat to sing so gorgeously. It was as if time had stood still; a singer and her song as relevant as ever.

The hair is greying elegantly but her composition has not aged, as graceful as its creator. Combs’ respect was heartwarming; as Chapman sang her stanzas, he was deferential, lip-syncing before taking his turn. Ah, the power of music to connect, enrich and touch millions of hearts. All that Grammy glitz and pyrotechnics made inconsequential by a brilliant song simply and superbly delivered by two vocalists and a subtle ensemble.

Combs’ cover of Chapman’s single from her 1988 debut became a surprise hit after he released it as the second cut from his 2023 studio album, Gettin’ Old. So deferential is he to Chapman that he retained the line: ‘I work in the market as a checkout girl.’ While the original was a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for Chapman at the start of her career, Combs’ countrified rendition peaked higher at No2 and also reached the top of the Country Airplay chart. Astonishingly, or perhaps not, Chapman became the first black woman to score a Country Music Awards song of the year, 35 years after the number was a hit for her. According to Billboard, Chapman earned about $500,000 in publishing royalties in the first few months of the Combs release. After the Grammy show, that figure will have soared.

The 33-year-old Combs should not be too dispirited if we say we prefer the first iteration, for its folk-ballad simplicity and for its reverberations through the generations. We will never forget her solo performance at the 70th birthday concert for Nelson Mandela at Wembley in 1989 when she reappeared as a stand-in for Stevie Wonder. It was a gathering of superstars: Sting, George Michael, Eurythmics, the Bee Gees, Wet Wet Wet, Whitney Houston, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, UB40 and Dire Straits. Mandela was the absent guest of honour, still incarcerated in South Africa two years before his release and five years before the dismantling of the abhorrent apartheid system.

Two months after releasing her self-titled debut album, the 24-year-old rookie singer-songwriter was transformed into an overnight star after a chance opportunity thrust this reserved, private person before a Wembley crowd of 74,000 and a global audience of 600 million. Understandably, she was nervous at first but she quickly found her stride and managed to silence the mesmerised throng. She was always booked to appear at the concert and had sung three songs in the afternoon – Behind The Wall, Why? and Talkin’ About A Revolution, which would become a protest anthem, were in her set but not Fast Car.

As he walked up the ramp to take the stage later on Wonder realised that a computer program containing his synthesised sounds had not made the trip. The soul superstar eventually performed using borrowed equipment but due to the mixup organisers needed someone to keep the proceedings moving. Since Chapman needed only a mic and a guitar, she was the no-brainer choice. Enter Fast Car and the equally powerful Across The Lines. Fast Car, her debut single, had been out for a couple of months but wasn’t yet a major hit. It soon would be.

Before the Wembley gig Chapman had sold roughly 250,000 albums. In the two weeks following her performances, she had sold over two million. Two years later she returned to the national stadium for a charity concert, Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa. The great man was there this time.

Fast Car is a gritty story of hardship and heartbreak but also of hope and survival, cherished the world over regardless of race or generation. Chapman says it reflects her observations of people’s struggles while growing up in a harsh working-class area of Cleveland, Ohio. From its gripping opening verse, it still haunts today…

You got a fast car

I want a ticket to anywhere

Maybe we make a deal

Maybe together we can get somewhere

Any place is better

Starting from zero got nothing to lose

Maybe we’ll make something

Me, myself, I got nothing to prove

The crux of the song, the reason our narrator is desperate to escape the cycle of poverty and ‘feel what it means to be living’, emerges in the third verse…

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

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

But not for long. ‘You got a fast car/ Is it fast enough so we can fly away?/ We gotta make a decision/ Leave tonight or live and die this way.’ The track is propelled by a hypnotic acoustic guitar hook, broken only when the heart-tugging chorus arrives…

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-I had a feeling that I belonged

I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

There is aspiration and hope for a move out of the homeless shelter before the familiar problems of the past return to afflict the present…

You got a fast car

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’d find it

I got no plans, I ain’t going nowhere

Take your fast car and keep on driving

Our protagonist is on her own again but defiant. Her partner can just get in his fast car and never come back. ‘Leave tonight or live and die this way.’

The writer’s interpretation of her own work? ‘I never had a fast car, it’s just a story about a couple, how they are trying to make a life together and they face challenges. At the time I actually didn’t really know who I was writing about. Looking back at it, and this happens with other songs, I feel like I understand it only later… I think that it was a song about my parents. And about how when they met each other they were very young and they wanted to start a new life together and my mother was anxious to leave home. My parents got married and went out into the world to try to make a place for themselves and it was very difficult going.

‘My mother didn’t have a high school diploma and my father was a few years older. It was hard for him to create the kind of life that he dreamed of. With the education that he had, with the opportunities that were available to him. In a sense I think they came together thinking they would have a better chance at making it.’

Chapman made it but was never fully accepting of fame. Pink News refers to Fast Car as a lesbian anthem but its author has never discussed her sexuality. Why should she? Her masterpiece can be a soundtrack to the lives of anyone. She told the Irish Times in 2015: ‘Being in the public eye and under the glare of the spotlight was, and still is, to some extent uncomfortable for me. There are some ways by which everything that has happened in my life has prepared me for this career. But I am a bit shy.’

It is doubtful whether the joy of the Grammy stage will coax her out of exile to record, never mind tour again. She is due to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year – why has it taken them so long? The reclusive Chapman has nothing left to prove. She continues to enjoy the quiet life in San Francisco. After all she has already achieved her goal: to be someone, to be someone.


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