#263: Tracy Chapman, "Tracy Chapman" (1988)

God talks to me with Tracy Chapman’s voice.

I’m sitting at the table with my fingers on the laptop and I’m thinking about who I was in 1988, and I’m trying to remember the world of 1988, which was very small, and which I struggled to understand even though it was so very incredibly simple. It could not have been simpler. I could not for the life of me figure it out.

God talks to me with Tracy Chapman’s voice. God says, I told you not to call me that. God says, I am neither God nor am I Tracy Chapman.

And I say back, God, you are so funny. And I say back, God, what should we talk about?

And God says, Let’s talk about “Fast Car.”

And I say, Good. Yes. Let’s.

You didn’t always like that song, did you?

No. It seemed phony to me at the time. It felt self-consciously arty.

How old were you in 1988?

I’d rather not say.

Okay. Fair enough. (You were thirteen.)


No one expects you to have appreciated that song as a thirteen year old in 1988. Do you understand that?

Yes, I understand that. I just wish that I had appreciated it as a thirteen year old. I wish I had been a savvier thirteen year old. I wish I had been ahead of my time. I wish I had been older than my years.

I get that. No one likes to be late to the game.

Plus, it’s a pretty fucking great song.

What do you like about it?

It’s bleak and beautiful. It’s deep and compact. It’s authentic and true. It makes me feel some stuff.

It appeals to you as a writer.

Yes. It does things that good short stories do. It’s narrative. It has a strong voice. Every verse introduces new information. It has a beginning and a middle and an end. It’s a basic masterpiece. If I were smarter, I would have recognized that at the time.

You believe that’s true.


It’s a matter of intelligence. It marks some kind of intellectual failure on your part.

I’ve always been slow on the uptake. I’ve always been six years behind.

That’s a specific number.

I’ve had lots of time to think about it.

Your friend liked this song at the time, didn’t he? He recognized its value right away.


Is that part of the reason why this bothers you?

Why you remember this song as one of your failures?

Is it because he got it and you didn’t?

Are you asking me or telling me?

Neither. We’re working through it.

I suppose that’s right, or partly right. Or maybe it isn’t right at all. It bothers me because it represents a pattern of people getting a thing and me not getting the thing until later on, until after it makes any difference. Until after the thing is established and it doesn’t matter who gets it—it only matters who got it. I didn’t get it. I wish I had. I wish I had been able to see what M— saw.

You think M— was smarter than you?

I think everyone is smarter than me. I think M— was savvier than me. He saw things for what they were. He was older than his years.

The two of you did not remain friends.

And that’s tied up in this somehow?

It must be. I’m writing about both things. I’m tying them together.

Tell me again about that thing that happened.

We were walking back to his house. We had just bought a bunch of pop and some Cool Ranch Doritos. We were about half a block away when we heard a noise we didn’t recognize. It sounded like a thousand fingers drumming on the roof of a car. We turned in its direction and saw the regular world as we knew it, but smudged.

It was rain.

Yes. It was sunny where we stood but pouring heavy rain a hundred feet away. It took us a moment to process. It was very disorienting.

What did you think?

I thought, This is something totally new.

What did you do?

We stood and watched. We had the experience.

Then what?

Then it started coming towards us.

And what did you do?

We ran. We ran away from it as fast as we could, toward his house. We could hear it gaining on us. We could hear it pounding the pavement at our heels. We could feel the chill of it on the skin of our arms. It was a sliding wall of rain. It was coming for us.

And what happened?

I made it to his front porch without getting a drop on me. I beat it. He fell behind. He got pretty wet.

Why do you still think about this?

It wasn’t usual for me to beat him. I was the scrawny one. I was the awkward one. I needed glasses, had a bad haircut, wore dorky clothes. M— was strong. M— was capable. M— understood how the world worked. M— saw the value in “Fast Car.” M— was M—. I was me.

How do you explain it?

The only explanation is that M— wanted to fall behind. He wanted to get caught in the rain.

Do you wish now that you had gotten caught in the rain too?

That’s one that I have never been able to figure out. I don’t know if I wish that I had or not. Is that strange?

I don’t think so. What else would you like to say about “Fast Car”?

Nothing, I guess. Do you have anything to add?


Right. Of course. Sure you do.

How do you feel about what we’ve done here? Did it all come together the way you wanted it to?

Mm. No. It’s not quite together even in my mind. You must know that—you live in there with it.

That’s true.

You’re God.

Please don’t call me that.

—Joe P. Squance