Let’s listen to old music

I did this some time back as a change of pace, and figured it might be time to do it again. But this time, these four years later, I figured I would write a little something about some of it. Who knows how this will work out, where it lead, how extensive we’ll get or even when I’ll just forget about this on one end or the other. The general idea is that I am working through all of my CDs in chronological order.

Yes, I know the order in which I bought all of these things. Somehow that impresses people. I know it, more or less, anyway. There’s a brief period of time where it’s just a guess, but none of that matters. Not that any of this matters. The collection crosses genres and periods in a haphazard way and there’s no real large theme. There’s too much from the popular catalog for that anyway. It’s not an evolution or path of discovery, it is whimsy.

So let’s be whimsical and listen to old music.

The first CD I bought — and this one is obviously important because it was really considered … not just another record, but an entire format change, and I had a lot of important-to-me cassettes to replace! — was late to the format. And it meant adding hardware. So I bought one of those tape-to-CD chunks of plastic. Plug the tape into my car stereo, run the little cable out of the tape converter to the little lap player. Even then these were growing more scarce.

This was the spring of 1996. It was Tracy Chapman’s newest record, which came out in November of 1995. I bought it that next spring, because the person I was dating owned it and I heard the whole thing and I liked it, and I liked her, and I had always enjoyed Chapman’s music, and so the decision was made.

Chapman won a Grammy, her fourth, off this, an award given for Best Rock Song to “Give Me One Reason,” an incredible popular blues song. She, and that record, were nominated for four other Grammy Awards (her 13th nomination). All told, she shipped north of five million copies domestically, a few more globally, and who knows how many digital plays she’s counted. “New Beginning” was a great record.

None of this is a review, and we won’t be spending a lot of time unpacking philosophy or chord changes, but you should go buy this, if you somehow don’t have it already.

Here’s the title track, number two if you’re playing along. I didn’t know until just now that she plays the didgeridoo here, and that this was controversial for some. The use of a didgeridoo by women, Wikipedia tells me, is taboo in many aboriginal nations. To me, in this song, it just wrapped all of us together for the message. And it really accentuated the rhythm section.

The third track is “Smoke and Ashes,” and it is still one of my favorite Chapman songs, and still feels so sonically perfect. I concentrate on the backing vocals of Adam Levy, Andy Stoller, Glenys Rogers and Rock Deadrick. All these years and spins later, the shift through to the bridge is so gentle and severe and evocative I can’t help but marvel at it. “Only smoke and ashes babe, baby” kills me every time.

The fifth track lays it out, right from the title, “At This Point In My Life.” Chapman was 31 when she produced this. I wonder how it feels to her now.

On “The Promise” the strings almost get lost in the lyrics. Or the lyrics get supplanted by the strings. I can never say. It is such a character-driven song, and it’s gift is that it lets you put the particulars of the character in place yourself.

Here’s the big hit from the record. Again, the vocal work that Chapman can bring are so rich, and so perfectly complemented here. Also, there’s one little moment that always sends me back to the Gulf Coast and a little circular dance of the hand that I re-enact each time I hear this song. It’s a delight of memory and the blues.

“I’m Ready,” is the last named track on the record. Plenty of songs are laments. I’m not sure how many of them are better than this. It gets more potent with each play.

And most crucially to me, the hidden track. Plenty of writers can wax on about music and anyone that knows more about music than I do can do it at great length, with greatly envied success. That’s not what any of this simple exercise, here on my personal site is about. All of this is to just enjoy some of the things I enjoy, and share them with people who might also enjoy them, and to tell you this remains one of the most powerful 100 seconds of audio ever produced.

You get the sense Tracy Chapman just wanted to be a singer-songwriter, maybe in a cafe or whatever, and then that famous Nelson Mandela show that launched her into the stratosphere happened, and then she had some monstrous hits, and maybe, hopefully, she’s just enjoying the regular day-to-day life. She released eight studio records, her last in 2008, and released a greatest hits collection in 2015. She toured through the oughts, at least. She’s been involved in a variety of causes* important to her for probably her whole life, and generally, you would think, just values her privacy.

I don’t think she’s online much, so she’ll never see this. But if she does, or we ever have seats next to one another on a plane, I promise to not make a deal about it. I would absolutely pull out a notebook and ask her for advice on a line or two. It is a big treat to say this verb was suggested by someone whose work you admire.

*My first job was working for one of my teachers. The teacher was moonlighting in the summer doing some landscaping. I was the extra pair of hands. One day she was telling me at great length about how Chapman’s first record, the eponymously named debut album, the one with “Fast Car” on it. Everyone listening to a radio or watching a television in 1988 knew “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” and “Baby Can I Hold You.” And something in there, she said inspired her and her friends to join the Peace Corps. But we’ll get to all of that, and that duet with Luciano Pavarotti, eventually. We have a lot of other records to get through first. Up next, something you’ve never heard of — unless you live, or go to a lot of live shows, in Georgia.

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