I like Tracy Chapman.
I’m just going to put that out there as a simple stark admission. It should be in every profile of me that exists: Tracy Chapman fan.
I’d stumble into one of her songs, put it on repeat and play it over and over again. Or I’d create a playlist of her entire discography and shuffle through it all day. Sometimes I’d go through a slump or a happy period, and I would pick out specific songs and create a mix-tape with a theme.
I lived with my cousin and he didn’t like her.
He would come home, keys jangling against the lock, slam the door and throw his jacket and bag into a pile on the sofa.
He’d be heading to his room and stop suddenly, cocking his head as if he was hearing her mournful voice and folksy tunes for the first time and say, ‘Shit. This again? She sounds like a man with mucus in his mouth.’
He would speak with such certainty, like that was the worst part of his day. Like he could deal with the crappy job, but this, this here was the final straw. ‘No, not this again.’
When you’re younger, your favourites are absolute. When you like something, you don’t like it because you prefer it, you like it because it is the best. You don’t yet understand that you have triggers and experiences that drive your preferences. How could he not like it? Maybe he hasn’t really listened to it. Maybe if I played it a few more times he can get the core of the music. So I would do that, and he would complain again.
It was worse because we were related. If it was a relationship or a roommate, I could just kick them out. ‘I think we are better off apart.’ But this was family, what can you do.
Eventually, he moved out so that was settled.
He died a few years later and I made a mix-tape after the funeral. I would play it and chuckle thinking about how much he’d disapprove. ‘Shit. Not this again.’
When I heard Tracy Chapman would be playing in town, there was no question that I would be going. I bought two tickets on the first day they were available.
I wasn’t seeing anyone, as the day drew closer, I realised I was going to be that lame ass sitting at a concert by myself.
The week of the concert, I had run out of options. After church on Sunday, I walked up to Esther, a girl I had only talked to one or two times before and asked if she would go with me.
Three days later, we got there early and waited, making small talk. We were sitting in the first row of a raised balcony directly in front on the stage. Perfect seats.
There was scattered chatter in the hall from people standing around in small groups. As show time approached, the lights dimmed and people moved to their seats.
The lights went out completely and in the darkness, the hall was completely silent. Drums throbbed, African drums playing a swing beat. They summoned up a lump in my throat that sat there and swelled up choking me. A blue glow came up from behind the stage revealing the silhouettes of Tracy Chapman and her band members. The guitar kicked in and her voice, loud and distinct, blanketed the room.
At that moment, all the memories I had attached to the music hit me and I started to cry.
For the entire two hour show, I didn’t stop weeping. Esther didn’t know what to do. I tried to blubber an explanation but I couldn’t get it out. She put her hands around my shoulders and rocked me through the set.
I dropped her off at home after the show. We didn’t talk much on the way back. I had gotten past that point where you cry too much and it messes up your voice, so I croaked questions at her. ‘How was it?’ ‘Did you enjoy yourself?’ She smiled and reached over as I was driving and stroked my arm.
She called two days later. ‘Just to check on you.’
I was surprised she was still talking to me.
I made her a mix CD of all the songs from that night in the order they were played, and labelled it in bold letters: Tracy Chapman / Hammerstein Ballroom, August 7, 2009.
All these years, we remained friends and she’s never brought it up.
But I know she’s just lying in wait. One day, she’ll call while I’m sleeping, and I’ll pick up the phone sounding groggy.
And she’ll say, ‘What’s wrong? Why are you sounding like that?
Are you crying?
Is it Tracy?