Hard to believe but Tracy Chapman’s debut album came out thirty years ago today. Pretty crazy. There was a tweet asking for memories about it, and I do have one. I recall when the album was released, the breakout single was, of course, Fast Car. I remember hearing it on the radio and liking it, and I didn’t think it was popular for some reason. Or rather, not popular enough, so I thought I’d help it along.
At that time in 1988, two things that were happening were that I had a job, “workin’ at a convenience store”, and the local radio station, CHYM FM, had a feature wherein the “top three songs as voted by the listenership” were played at 8:30 each weeknight. The Little Short Stop where I worked had an awesomely awful transistor radio which I used to listen to CHYM, probably because it was the only thing that I could find on the dial of that little box of age-stained plastic.
I was working one evening, which to me meant sitting on a stool behind the counter, waiting for someone to show up and buy something, and I was bored as hell, so I called up CHYM to ‘vote’ for my favourite song for that evening’s feature.
Of course, I voted for “Fast Car”, thinking that it probably wouldn’t make it to the top 3. I had just bought the album myself, and I knew that CHYM not only talked over the front and back of all the songs, but also played the short version—which was a maddening trend of Top 40 radio at the time to cut out all the instrumentals and even a verse or two of longer songs to get them to ‘radio friendly’ territory by way of time. When I got the DJ, I voted for Tracy Chapman, and then I told him it was sorta sucky that they always played the edited version. I remember he told me that they needed to pay the bills somehow. I didn’t even know at the time how the two things were related.
It was surprising to me though that when the time came to play the top songs, Fast Car was right up there at number 1. I didn’t think it was such a loved song, but I was glad of it. Gave me hope that music, even this music, found a place in the zeitgeist of the time.
I remember I was able to listen to the song front to back, uninterrupted under the hard fluorescent lighting of that awful store, freezers buzzing at the back, stale coffee smell in the air. And somehow, my memories of that single speaker transistor radio on the cool April evening are full of sound. I’m sure it didn’t sound anywhere near as good as it does in my AirPods today. But looking out the floor to ceiling front windows at the headlights going by on King St, it was just sublime, even if it was the ‘radio play’ version. There’s magic in that recording. And man, it’s still a great album. Worth a listen on this snowy early April day 30 years later.
Added to edit:
Tracy Chapman’s voice is beautiful. It’s aged so lovely. Husky, smooth and sonorous, with this incredible little natural vibrato. I could listen to her sing forever. I bet she’d do a hell of a lullaby. Looked this up on the weekend while trying to learn how to play the song. Heavenly.