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Pop Music

Tracy Chapman


Sometimes, one good dinner can make everything better. Especially if it’s dinner with an old friend, one you haven’t seen in awhile. I recently met with one of these friends at a pub owned by business associates of hers, in a state far from where I live now. It was a noisy, crowded, rollicking place. “Why are we here?” the bartenders queried. “We’re here for the beer!” the assembly shouted. I confess I had a beer. And a sourdough bread bowl stuffed with spinach dip. And half a barbeque chicken pizza.

That wasn’t why I was there, though. I was there for my friend. To hear about her sons, her business, her stories I had missed. To share my soul, too, that I am lonely here in Utah, that though I love my husband more than anything, that I miss my old friends, and that new ones have been hard to find.

True friends are the ones who love you even though they’ve seen you at your worst. There is nothing you can say, nothing you can do, that will scare them away. I am grateful for my old friends. They have heard a million of my confessions. Their gift to me has been their presence, acceptance, and a kind of absolution. So often lately, in my quest for companions, I have felt as if I am auditioning for a part. If I could only find the right words or smile in the right way, then maybe this woman or that one would be my friend. The magic formula is elusive.

This is where the music of Tracy Chapman comes in. There is nobody singing today who is more vulnerable, honest or compelling. Listening to her songs about struggle, pain and a certain, fragile hope reminds me of how I miss my friends, of how rare it is these days that I share my truth or receive stories in return. Like my friends, Chapman’s vulnerability just makes me love her more. Her latest release, Telling Stories, is a remarkable collection in which she never shies away from the hard questions. Chapman’s focus is the interior landscape, that place where we can be ourselves, broken and beautiful at the same time.

Chapman wrote lyrics and music for all 11 songs here, co-produced the album, and even had a hand in its mixing and art direction. You get the feeling that it was a labor of love. This love shows up in each of the songs, from musings after a breakup to thoughts on money, obsession and the raw grief of losing a cherished relative.

She wrestles with her worthiness, questioning whether she deserves love, happiness, salvation. I do this, too. I know intellectually that I am saved through grace, that I am loved as I am. Sometimes, though, this is hard to believe when I face my mighty collection of daily failures. In “Wedding Song,” Chapman’s lyrics are poetry and hope. “With you I am revealed/All my shame all my faults and virtues … There is salvation and rapture for the lonely … Bless this day sacred and holy/Sacred and holy.”

Another powerful song on the album, “Unsung Psalm” dives into that murky area where passion and purity collide. “There would be psalms sung by a choir/I would have a white robe a halo newly acquired/I’d be at peace and I’d have no desire/If I’d lived right,” she sings. I also long to live a holy life. At the same time, though, I remember that hunger that lures you down a dangerous, humid path, one you’re not supposed to follow, but you don’t turn back, not just yet, because there’s nowhere else you’d rather be. “Some would call me a cheat, call me a liar/Say that I’ve been defeated by the basest desires/Yes I have strayed and succumbed to my vices/But I tried to live right.” She later adds, “I have no regrets no guilt in my heart.”

This is where Chapman and I differ. After I’ve come back from that place where desire leads, I’ve always felt guilt. Even though I know the one who forgives, it’s hard for me to let go. Chapman’s example is a good one for me. All I can do is confess and move on.

Emmylou Harris joins Chapman for “The Only One,” a song where grief is given a voice. “She was the only one/Of my flesh and blood/Now I have no calling/I can do no worldly good.” Anyone who has lost a friend or loved one can relate to this pain, the feeling of being alone, bereft, without a clue on how to continue. “I sit silent/I sit mourning/I sit listless all the day/I’ve mostly lost the voice to speak.” Chapman gives no easy answers. She does ask a question, one that almost sounds like prayer. “Please forgive me for wanting to know/Does heaven have enough angels yet?” It’s a good question, the kind that Jesus likes, one that allows him to come to us in our pain, to wait with us until the light returns.

The album’s final song, “First Try,” is one of my favorites. It sums up how I see myself: “I’m just a … first try … Can’t say what I mean/Can’t love from the heart/Can’t trust in the mercy and the goodness in the world/Can’t learn to accept that it’s alright/To struggle with the limits of this ordinary life.”

I also long to love, speak the truth, and trust that all is well in the world, that there is a plan even when we can’t see it and that goodness and mercy are stronger than all of our sin and shortcomings. Everyday, I wake up and pray that I will live by these truths. Everyday, by the time I’ve finished breakfast, I’ve already failed. Perhaps the reminder here is that this failure surprises no one but me. God knows that daily all of us “struggle with the limits of this ordinary life.” It’s a battle we can’t win alone. But if somehow, in the process, we remember Jesus and allow him to love us, then everything that is wrong in us suddenly becomes OK again. Our weakness becomes strength.

My story is full of disappointment, failure, and repentance that didn’t seem to take. The blessings of my life -- my husband, my faraway friends and family, my work, my dog -- amaze me. They remind me that each of us floats in a sea of grace, grace that supports us, sustains us and ultimately brings us home. When we get there, someday down the road, we won’t be alone. We’ll find our friends, the ones who loved us all along. Together, we’ll clap and sing the song of all our stories, the winding and twisted paths that somehow ended up beautiful in the end. Jesus will lead the singing. All the songs -- all the stories -- will become one.

Robin Taylor writes from Salt Lake City, where she can be reached at Tumblestick@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000