FINAL SCORE: (2) Jeff Buckley 168, (7) Tracy Chapman 159
This was a beast of a game, with Chapman taking control from the tip-off and playing exactly the kind of game she wanted to: no-frills, no-pretense, no self-pity, slick technical basketball. You could watch it happening but be at a a loss as to how to stop it. She went into halftime with a 25-point lead, but in the second half Buckley came out just on fucking fire, hitting every shot he took for a moment, and cut the lead to 10, then to 4, and then he was on top. Hard to describe it as anything but dude was touched by something then, carrying something spectral even, maybe the ghost of Elliott Smith (who had intervened in a previous game, we think, and stuffed The Replacements' last-minute shot—we couldn't see anything but the ball in the air, time run out, and it must have hit something and deflected, but we could see nothing at all, and the ball fell harmlessly out of bounds and the game was over then).
Before we knew it, Buckley's "Hallelujah" was up by a dozen, riding votes largely from overseas (Italy, Poland, and Australia all came in and tilted Buckley when the Americans were asleep). Could it continue? It couldn't. Chapman got a stop, slipped a screen and nailed an open three, forced another turnover, another open three, and one more to get it back within a one possession game...
With time winding down, Buckley started showing signs of tiring—or losing his edge anyway. He missed an easy layup, and missed three straight free throws. Though both musicians are known for only one or two songs, Buckley has the deeper following, while Chapman is more widely known, largely for this very song. Buckley, conveniently no longer around to sully his reputation with release of new music (though we note he has an album dropping soon: we keep seeing the promos for it since the great data mind has datamined the fact that we keep listening to Jeff Buckley and sold our desires to third parties who conspire to know us and to sell us things even now), seemed keen on showing that he is no one-hit wonder. And he did, taking home the championship in the end by only nine points.
We could repeat some sports clichés here: how Chapman dug deep, how Buckley was in the zone, but that’s sad, isn’t it. We were frankly astonished by how deeply people felt about these two songs to get them here, to this moment, the crowning of the winner. What did it mean that these were the two songs that emerged from the whole bracket to play for the championship? Do we really prefer our sadnesses to be solo, having voted down two (1) seeds—both bands, both British, both heavy hitters—in the final four: Joy Division and The Cure? It’s hard not to lament some of those with tough matchups in the first few rounds: how deep could (9) Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” have gone if it hadn’t met “Pictures of You” in the second round? How did (12) Red House Painters’ “Katy Song” lose to James in their first matchup? What if The Replacements had beaten Elliott Smith in the second round? Or poor (10) The Smiths’s “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” paired up in a first-round match against our finalist “Fast Car”? And for a while, Mazzy Star looked like the band with the hot hand, after taking down a way-underseeded REM in a surprising first-round matchup, they took Joy Division to the buzzer, when Hope Sandoval’s desperation three rattled out. And what about tournament overachievers (14) Low (“Words”)? After knocking down U2, Crowded House, and PJ Harvey, they ran into what we thought was a sure winner, “Atmosphere,” in the Elite Eight, and there their fandom split a bit, we think: easier to pick Low over Crowded House, and even they knew that Joy Division was going to prove a stouter foe.
They did, but were no match for Chapman’s game. At least two of our expert panelists picked Chapman from the start, though neither got to advocate for her on the game pages. So what did we miss about Chapman to have given her such a low seed? Her song—her one song (though she had another hit much later, let’s be real, for most of us it’s “Fast Car” or nothing: even the geeky types who form the committee hadn’t listened to her past that other hit)—was so ubiquitous the year that it came out that we stopped listening to it. We stopped even hearing it: we just heard the phenomenon of it: yeah, yeah, Fast Car, My name is Luka, I live on the second floor (how easily we conflate phenomena!) and let’s get back to our Cure tapes and our Depeche Mode that let us really feel how we want to feel.
We hadn’t realized, as one commenter mentioned later in a hallway conversation, how “Fast Car” can be read as a direct response (in both content musically—how there’s a riff in “Fast Car” that seems to call it back) to John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” (a sad-ass song, if not one that qualifies as “college rock”) and thinking about it more, we were reminded how Mellencamp discovered Chapman, auditioning acts for Farm Aid, and ran across an unheralded Tracy Chapman, and put her onstage there, and the rest is history.
Or, well, “Fast Car” is history, and then a gap—not for her but for us, for most of us, this, let’s admit it, probably pretty white crowd (as an early commenter said, as a joke, we think, #MarchSadnessSoWhite: indeed! but on reflection all the bands that we listened to then who even loosely fell under the aegis of “college rock” were white: like we wonder—and other, smarter people have probably written about this: direct us there if you have suggested reading?—if college rock (which became, kind of, alternative as the 80s bled into the 90s) served as a counter to mainstream Top 40 radio in the same way that hip hop did?). Well, we don’t know what happened then. And we forgot about Chapman, consumed as we were with our own obsessions with the synths and with the Brits and with our excavation of all the alternatives to the hits—until “Give Me Just One Reason” reminded us of what her voice can do.
I realize I’m not writing about Buckley here, or not much. That’s because I’m a little tired of “Hallelujah,” by now, if I’m being honest, even as he’s gone on to win the thing.
It’s true that Buckley and Chapman aren’t exactly in the center of the college rock genre. As someone said on Twitter, these finals could have been played in a Starbucks in Overland Park, Kansas instead of here, in the Doc Martens March Sadness Basketball Arena in Tucson, Arizona. While that’s true, we take that to mean that Starbucks has better taste in music than you think, or that it’s eaten us, that the center of the culture has consumed the fringe, as it does. We’re reminded of that moment a couple years ago when we realized that we knew all the songs at Starbucks while we were sipping on our hard-earned lattes, that two in the last half hour alone appeared on our last motherfucking mix tape.
I freaked out a bit, I should admit. Wait, I said, does that mean we’ve lost our cool? Megan said: oh honey, I thought you knew. God damn, I said. God damn the sun.
Well, I am certain I will never hear Swans at Starbucks, but I did hear “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as I shopped at the grocery store in Michigan—in a Muzak version, no less. I knew then that something was over. Maybe the counterculture, whatever it was and how it helped us define ourselves then, lost, or did it just serve its purpose and recede? Or was it always just a pose? I don’t know. Even what I complain about, calling derisively Top 40 Mainstream culture in the 80s was never that monolithic, I don’t think. If you’re, say, five years older than me, or just a bit smarter than me, you probably already realized that. Sure, there were their share of crappy bands churned out on the major labels, but there were weird spikes too, one of them being Chapman’s “Fast Car,” which is a pretty god damn sad song when you really listen to it, if you can. And her story’s sad. It’s not as sad as the young accidental death of a dude whose dad killed himself, but it’s bigger, and it’s better, and it’s less susceptible to easy mythologization because she’s still alive, because she went on after she had that one huge hit, and she made herself a career, and she seems to have exerted some force on her legacy (that there’s no online streaming of the video for “Fast Car” seems to me like it must be her doing somehow, like her exerting some control over her life, or maybe I’m ascribing intention to what’s just an accident of rights), and whatever, Tracy, you wrote a fucking good sad-ass song and we thank you for that and for the fact that you’re still out there singing. So say we all.
Happy March’s end to you and yours. Thanks for coming along for the ride. One more post to come later on.
In the meantime, we leave you with a poem:
"My Sad Captains"
the darkness: a few friends, and
a few with historical
names. How late they start to shine!
but before they fade they stand
perfectly embodied, all
the past lapping them like a
cloak of chaos. They were men
who, I thought, lived only to
renew the wasteful force they
spent with each hot convulsion.
They remind me, distant now.
True, they are not at rest yet,
but now that they are indeed
apart, winnowed from failures,
they withdraw to an orbit
and turn with disinterested
hard energy, like the stars.
[listen to him read it live at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in 1972]