Beloved American Troubadour Dick Valentine often gifts music lovers around the world with cover versions of songs we know and love. Other times he puts his special spin on songs we don’t know and don’t love, introducing us to new ditties. That’s an old American trick first made famous by Will Rogers : “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet.”i
Recently Mr. Valentine reintroduced me to an old friend, the Tracy Chapman song Fast Car.
Valentine’s version is definitely his own, but it shares the same intrinsic, smoldering intensity that Chapman’s original has . Both are so heartfelt and authentic that they refused to be ignored, so honest that they break your heart. You need to know both, trust me.
As songs, these two versions of Fast Car transport the listener to somewhere else, accomplishing in the mind what the lyrics desire so much. A good blues song will transport you back to the Mississippi Delta, whether you have ever been there or not. Chapman sped us away from problematic childhoods, while Valentine revisits those places, reminding us of how lucky we are now. Whatever the opposite of tearing down a statue is, he is doing that with his cover of Fast Car.
Talkin’ Bout a Revolution (sounds like a whisper)
Chapman’s original came out in 1988 and was a massive hit around the world. The lyrics are about young people getting away from a situation that is somewhat less than ideal. This ain’t Hollywood, as they say, and Chapman’s earnestness speaks to all good people. More so the young, because they are the ones who dream. They dream of getting to Hollywood, or at least escaping poverty, broken families, and abuse. They dream of finding peace.
Bring the Noise?
Far too many songs that are massive are shrill, contrived, and commercial. Hearing them is as painful as being force fed a jagged little pill. Fast Car is calm, thoughtful, and personal. 1988 was a noisy year, not unlike 2020. Black men like Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee, Michael Jordan, and Public Enemy were all bringing good noise. It took a nation of millions to hold them back. At the same time, a Black woman named Tracy Chapman was offering quiet, peace, and solace. She sold millions of records in many nations.
Gonna drive past the Stop ‘n’ Shop
As frontman for Electric Six, one might expect Mr. Valentine to cover Jonathan Richman’s classic Roadrunner before something by Ms. Chapman. After all, Roadrunner has a very similar theme as Fast Car: driving around and forgetting one’s worries and cares, at least temporarily. Richman’s song is upbeat though, a party song you turn up to 11 on Friday night and is likely on the same Spotify lists as Gay Bar.
It Isn’t Ironic.
A white man singing a black woman’s song has a lot of opportunities to go wrong and can easily be a recipe for disaster. Sung by Dick Valentine, we are reminded of how beautiful and universal Chapman’s song is. His rendition is authentic, without humour or irony, and is bound to hit you in that place we call the heart.
Again, we owe a great many thanks to Mr. Valentine.
Enough News for Huey Lewis
Valentine did indeed “nail it”, and hearing his version also took me back to how I heard Tracy Chapman’s album for the first time, way back in ’88. There was no internet back then, so every day I would go to the convenience store and exchange 20 hard-won cents for a copy of either The Detroit News or the Free Press, whichever I was in the mood for. I’d also visit Giglio’s Market on Wednesdays to pick up a copy of Metro Times.
Man, I got around before Al Gore invented the internet!
The convenience store where I scored my news fix was not the same one that Chapman wrote about in Fast Car, but it did rent CDs. So, after reading so many glowing reviews about her first album, I decided to rent it. I also checked out a couple of albums by the NYC noise band Sonic Youth and hid Chapman’s album between EVOL and Sister.
It was the musical equivalent of hiding Playboy inside of something like Field & Stream. I could not be seen in public cavorting with the mainstream!
And Don’t Forget the JOA!
Around the same time as Fast Car came out, The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press entered upon a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA). The newspapers agreed to share printing facilities but their editorial departments would remain separate. Certainly, the time is nigh for a Fast Car JOA between Dick Valentine and Tracy Chapman.
No Escape from Ohio?
One last thing I would like to point out is that Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. One has to think that Fast Car was about getting out of the Buckeye State. Also, an important and popular part of the Electric Six canon is the song Escape from Ohio. Perhaps Dick Valentine covering Tracy Chapman was always part of some Divine Plan.
So now, ladies and gentlemen, here’s Dick Valentine baring his soul with his version of Tracy Chapman’s seminal blues song, Fast Car:
“THERE ARE NO STRANGERS HERE, only friends you haven’t met yet” is a quote attributed to a great many people. Who you think said it first is dependent on where you grew up, I suppose, and a variety of other factors, such as social status, class, race, etc. Some say Will Rogers, some say William Butler Yeats, some say some dingaling on Twitter. Getting to its origin is akin to answering the musical question “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?”