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Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman

About ten years ago I moved into my first apartment, unsure of my place in the world, alone, slightly depressed. I've come full circle. So now I'm doing what I did back then. I'm listening to female musicians. Usually, when I'm in the mood for angry or fast or complex music, I turn to the guys. Rollins, Rush, Nine Inch Nails. Not that women can't do all those things, it's just the type of stuff I'm drawn to. But there's one thing women musicians can do far better than their testosterone-driven counterparts. Emote.

I'm talking true, open-heart blood-letting. Zero to the bone fear and love heavy enough to crush an unwary soul. When it comes to matters of the heart, women sing epics while men are barely able to stammer out a dirty limerick. So when my spirit needed mending, I went to the experts.

And, as could be expected, I fell in love with every one of them. The red haired fairy Tori Amos, the seemingly damaged and probably dangerous PJ Harvey, the angry and sexually experimental Ani DiFranco, and the wise and compassionate Tracy Chapman. What can I say, I like creative women. I listened to their music, and they all seemed to know me, and they all wanted to soothe my cluttered mind. They pulled me through.

Tracy Chapman was the first to come to my rescue. Her song "Fast Car" would come on the radio as I drove aimlessly through the mountains, and I would weep openly. Because someone was saying what I felt but couldn't express. "I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could be someone." Your arm around my shoulder, your very presence, made me feel wanted, and that made me feel worthy. Years before, when that song was first released, I paid no attention to it or to Tracy. She had written that song for me, and it waited around till I needed it.

At a used record store I bought her album New Beginning. And played it nonstop. It's a beautifully arranged album with didgeridoo and guitar and piano sometimes sharing the same space, but it's a mostly dark album. It's called New Beginning, but in the song of the same name, a new beginning is arrived at by allowing the broken Earth to die. "Smoke and Ashes" begins with a hot blooded woman pursuing a man rumored to be just as wild. But in the end she learns his heart is blue and cold. Then of course there's "The Rape of the World," which you can tell from the title alone is going to be a downer. Tracy had a big hit with the one bluesy track, "Give Me One Reason," but the rest of the album is completely radio unfriendly with lengthy songs and themes of loss and death. But it spoke to me. It said I wasn't alone. Someone had traveled this shadowy road before, and there was a way home. "Remember the Tinman," she says, "who found he had what he thought he lacked." And the final song, before the hidden track, is called "I'm ready." The words are simple, but they speak volumes to me even now. "I'm ready to let the river wash over me." I had just had a difficult struggle against religion when Tracy came into my life. I rejected the idea of god completely. I was with Mark Twain who said if there is an all-powerful god, one must come to the inevitable conclusion that he is a malign thug. But didn't Twain also deify the Mississippi River? Listening to Tracy say she was ready to let the flow of nature take her where she needed to be, I began to form my singular and still somewhat ethereal conception of The River. It will take care of me. And all rivers are my River.

Tracy's next album, Telling Stories, wasn't as good. At least not to me. Maybe it was the stripped-down instrumentation, but I don't think that was it. The simple fact was I didn't need her at the time it was released. My life was together, as together as it's ever been anyway, and I'd sloughed off my depression. There's a song full of terrible aching wherein the singer finds that she and her lover, who had been as close as humans ever came, are now "less than strangers." As true as the song may be now, it didn't cut me at first glance, so now it just doesn't mean as much to me as the ones on the previous album.

Which is why it took me so long to listen to Let it Rain. It was years after its release that I finally decided to pick it up. I wish I hadn't waited. It's a beautiful album, full of songs about death and loneliness and assimilation. And suicide. No, I'm not contemplating that. Henry Rollins would kill me if I committed suicide. "Another Sun," is about someone who feels all the sorrow and hardship that now lays upon her will disappear if she never sees another sun. I listened to it quite a lot while writing my vampire novel. My main character is moody and introspective and thinks how easy life would be if he were dead. And then he does die and never sees the sun again. I would put that song on as I sat down to work, and the muse would descend and take hold.

Tracy Chapman doesn't have a strong voice. She'd never make it on American Idol, not being able to do that sustained yodel all the contestants and judges seem to think is a mark of talent. But she's fearless, exploring the dark realms most songwriters pretend don't exist. Love songs only tell half the story. Tracy has the other half, the bitter ending. We need those songs. The sting of despair is part and parcel of the grand and glorious gift of life.

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing