Tunesday : 1988 Revolution Music–Tracy Chapman

1988 was probably the most pivotal year in my developing taste in music. Until that point, I’d pretty much been a bit of a drifter, taste-wise, taking what I liked from what 51jMBp+m6pLmy friends exposed me to–I could still remember being excited for months before the first “Asia” supergroup album came out in when I was junior high, and a year later I was sitting in my friend Andy’s room, blown away by bands I’d never even heard of before, like Husker Du, The Minutemen and The Jam.  Thanks, Andy!

The radio soundtrack to my youth was vintage Pittsburgh Classic Rock, pretty much the same three dozen songs iconic radio station WDVE still plays today: Journey. Zeppelin. Styx. That shit. I knew all the words to way too many Kansas songs, and like a lot of people  I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Journey.  Those summer nights are callin’.  Don’t stop believin’ , man.

In college I listened to what the local college radio played–some cool stuff and some not so cool stuff.  We joke in hindsight–it was the eighties, but on the other hand, it was the eighties.  Billy Joel was the King of Rock, and Bono was just some Irish Dude with a bad haircut standing in the snow--not the most earnest dick in rock spending the rest of his career trying to match that big, perfect anthemic single.

In 1988 a lot of things changed.  I’d been listening to more hippie music thanks to a room-mate in that old yellow craftsman bungalow on South Sixth Street, a great college house with beautiful woodwork and a ping-pong table that we nicknamed “The Slaughterhouse” after meeting Kurt Vonnegut, who was an both an unapologetic asshole and just as magnificent as I’d hoped.  We thought it was a cool name, but it never stuck–not even with us.  We called it “the house.”

1988 was the year of N.W.A.’s eye-opening and mind-blowing album Straight Outta Compton, the subject of Part 3 of this post (coming next week at this time), and the equally fantastic Eric B. & Rakim album Follow The Leader, the playing of which earned my a “what the fuck are you listening to?” from another roommate.  This, of course, made me want to play it again.  And louder, if only to drown out his John Cougar Mellancamp.

It was against that background that I stumbled into some very different revolutionary music–a friend and I took some girls to see my favorite band, Cowboy Junkies (another 1988 band, deserving of their very own post), in the Dormont Theater, and the opening act was an unknown folk singer named Tracy Chapman.  None of us knew the first thing about her, and we were curious.  Now, our idea of what a folk singer should be was an amalgam of, say, Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez filtered through the only contemporary folkie getting any college radio play at the time, Suzanne Vega.

We expectied a soft spoken little pale girl–not a waif, but maybe a sprite. Probably in a little sundress. What we didn’t expect was a powerful, yet quiet and unassuming young black woman who stunned us to near silence for the entirely of her too-short set.  She was dressed all in black, like Johnny Cash. I still remember the uncertainty in her eyes, the embarrassed smile at our applause, and the way single spotlight reflected off the frets of her acoustic guitar.  I’d never before seen an audience demand an encore from an opening act, but we couldn’t get enough.

I also remember thinking: and this is what regular people get from church.

8 responses to “Tunesday : 1988 Revolution Music–Tracy Chapman”

  1. Poignant post, gorgeous song choice for her.


    1. Thanks. I do my best. Only one glaring typo this time–must have been drunk. Seriously, I appreciate the appreciation. I still get goosebumps from this song.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Tracy chapman opened for 10,000 maniacs at forming theater in1988

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. You’re right–we saw her twice within a few months with both bands at the same venue–I’m assuming “forming” is an auto-correct for Dormont. I wonder if they still have shows there–I saw a bunch of great bands there during a short period, 87-90..There, the old Syria Mosque (theater and ballroom both), and Graffiti. I saw a John Wesley Harding/ Poi Dog Pondering/ Michele Shocked show at Graffiti that was a blast, and a few years later saw two relative unknowns–Steve Earle opening for Lucinda Williams–right before that rich asshole bought the club and used it a a garage for his Ferrari collection.


  3. Great post Chuck. You nailed Bono perfectly!


    1. I have very strong, very specific feelings about Mr. Bono. I like to pretend his first name is Clyde, and he’s Sonny Bono’s nephew from West Covina, California. The Irish thing is just an affectation–like when Madonna had a British accent.

      True story: I saw U2 twice back around this same time, maybe in 86, once in Pittsburgh and once in State College, PA, just a few days apart, because of Jeff. He loved those guys, Steve.

      Well, at the first show someone threw a t-shirt on stage that he held up and showed us; it said “Bomb The IRA”–pretty not cool given events of the time. He shook if violently and shouted, with a preacher’s zeal, into the microphone, “This! THIS IS NOT THE ANSWER!” And then they played Sunday Bloody Sunday. Pretty cool, right? I thought so–until a few nights later at the next show when somebody threw the same t-shirt on stage and he held it up and showed us….

      Talk about jaded, man….


  4. love her! mother always had her music around the house growing up


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