By Eamon Carr, Evening Herald, Wednesday September 7th 2005
CLEVELAND took me by surprise. When I visited the bleak urban sprawl, it was a toxic wasteland. The giant factories had shut down but the river remained so polluted by industrial chemicals that it regularly burst into flame.
The inner city was desolate, much of it boarded-up. Unemployment was rife.
At night time, the mean streets prefigured a post-apocalyptic nightmare. The only people out after dark were armed scavengers, hustlers, pimps, rough trade and junkies.
Cleveland welcomed those who delivered rock’n’roll in its most coarse, brutal form.
Ian Hunter celebrated this end-of-the-line despair in his song Cleveland Rocks. But Cleveland was a hostile, dangerous place.
It was where Tracy Chapman grew up.
Deserted by her father, the youngster and her sister were raised by their mother.
The only time they were allowed out alone was to visit the library.
Even then Tracy didn’t escape the random, gratuitous hate that infected the place.
Once, when she was 13, she was attacked by a gang of white boys. The racial abuse she suffered was as painful as the beating she received.
It made the papers. And it made her resolve to some day move away from the hellhole. A scholarship helped. And then it was discovered that she could write and perform songs.
She hit big with Fast Car and her debut album sold over six million.
Boyzone (and Neil Diamond) had hits with her song Baby Can I Hold You.
Tracy Chapman escaped Cleveland. But Cleveland, and its injustice, hasn’t left her.
The singer was going to call her seventh album 3,000 Miles (Away) after the song on the album (“I’ll die here soon if I don’t leave . . . ”) but switched to Where You Live.
It’s a more suitable title.
In her concise new songs, Chapman explores the nature of home, memory and
Working with producer Tchad Blake, Chapman employs a sparse edgy sound to underpin her distinctive vocals.
Blake’s expertise has helped Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Peter Gabriel. Performances were recorded live in a rehearsal studio, with Chapman working with just a drummer and guitarist before inviting Mitchell Froom to add keyboard colour.
The woman who wrote Talkin’ Bout A Revolution is still conscious of how ill-judged political decision-making can affect people’s lives for the worse.
On America, a springy anti-Bush administration riposte, she spits out her sardonic observations with a sense of purpose.
The cloudy gospel desperation of Before Easter comes wrapped in the metallic percussive ambience that Blake unveiled on Los Lobos-acclaimed Kiko album.
She can still write a killer love song.
Talk to You has a captivating unadorned directness while the haunting Don’t Dwell evokes the emotional legacy of Nina Simone.
Perhaps the time is right for the songs on Where You Live to make an impact similar to Chapman’s debut. But that’s a marketing concern. The album is a real gem.
THREE TO BURN
Never Yours: Loping rhythm and chiming guitar lines provides seductive backing for this statement of defiance. “I’ve been a lot of things but I was never yours.”
3,000 Miles: Plaintive memory of bullying and brutality that transcends the horror. America: This exploration of the legacy of Columbus has an anthemic quality that combines chain gang and rock dynamics. It’s powerful stuff. Poignant, soulful and fiercely determined.
CHAPMAN ON . . .
. . . her song America:
“It is an important song for me. This particular administration is perpetuating this legacy of conquest.
“They’re destroying the myth of America as a place of second chance, of opportunity, of justice, of freedom, of tolerance.
“Those ideals are falling by the wayside. It started with the election in 2000.
“To a great extent the war in Iraq is a war about resources and also looking to gain control in that region. Columbus (who discovered America) is a hero to many people but he brought suffering.
“He saw himself as being on a mission too. He was looking to convert people.” . . .
Cleveland as home: “It leaves its mark. It imprints something.
“You can physically remove yourself from a certain place but still find that it’s somehow part of you, comes back to be part of your life.”
. . . being in the public eye: “I’ve found a bit of a balance between the public side of my life and the private side.
“There’s nothing you can do about how people perceive you.”
Tracy Chapman plays at the Point on November 4