There’s an obvious beauty to Chapman’s song that makes it feel so righteous: wanting to untether from your own dire circumstances as soon as possible, fueled by nothing but love and determination, before they become fate. It’s this attentiveness and sensitivity to time (and our limitations with it) that burrows “Fast Car” into your ear. And it’s what makes the song ripe for cover versions by anyone who has ever picked up an acoustic guitar.
But unless you’re attuned to the world of experimental music (or one of the almost 30,000 people who have found the song on YouTube since it was uploaded in December 2016), you might not have heard a 33-minute cover version created by Jim O’Rourke in 2002, recorded in Japan, featuring roughly 20 minutes of drone sounds.
O’Rourke is best known for performing with indie legends Sonic Youth in the 1990s and early 2000s, and before that he was half of the duo Gastr Del Sol, with David Grubbs. He has also mixed and produced albums by a variety of artists, including the formative alt-icons-turned-consummate dad rockers Wilco.
More recently, he has permanently decamped to Japan and become a prolific creator of, well, in his own words: “stuff.”
“I’m not a musician. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. But I mean, I wasted a lot of my life playing instruments, which was foolish,” O’Rourke told the newsletter Tone Glow in an interview published in May 2020. “I have no interest in anything being a vessel for expressing something . . . I always like to say, ‘I do stuff.’ ”
A bit of a bummer to hear that from a brilliant musical artist. But let’s play along.
O’Rourke’s “stuff” ranges from frequent releases on Bandcamp under the “Steamroom” label, including hushed, avant-garde instrumentation and complex mosaics of sound in all its beautiful and messy forms. In that same interview, O’Rourke explained his process for creating one of those works — “Steamroom 47” — culling from a wide range of touchstones including data points in music information retrieval, cybernetics and Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations.” Heady stuff.
So, let’s not think of O’Rourke’s “Fast Car” as a “vessel for expressing something” but as a scientific method to travel through space and time.
(It’s hard to ignore that there might be a bit of impishness at play: either in O’Rourke’s dismissal of the act of making music or in his choice to cover such a purely melodic song that expresses an entire philosophy of life.)
The recording starts off simply enough: You’ll observe the familiar guitar riff as O’Rourke starts us on the journey of a straightforward homage to the original song, but then he coos, moans and skips around the linear narrative constructed by Chapman.
After about five minutes — the length of Chapman’s original — O’Rourke starts to tinker with variables of sound, and you might begin to question audible reality.
I’ve thought about, and listened, to this cover for the past few years largely in the middle of any situation in which I’m kind of muddling through and seeking some sort of clarity. Once “Fast Car” as we know it bottoms out into looping, twinkling drone sounds, a hypothesis arises: O’Rourke is luring me into the uneasiness of a liminal state.
Liminality, as it’s understood, provides refuge to the hazy middle ground that exists far enough away from where you started and not quite where you need to be.
Experiment with it yourself. In the micro, it can be double-checking whether you felt the sensation of dozing off into a nap and blurring the real and dream worlds. Or even made literal with the subject at hand, the harmony of the long drive where your attention might wander away from any thought related to the road but the miles aren’t ticking down fast enough.
In the macro, it can be as simple as wondering when the hell this all will be done. There’s not a more fitting head space for the past year, to describe our collective struggle, to keep it together and find a way out.
The liminal state of this song is punctuated by lulls of drones humming and possible ecstatic highs, but even as fractured and wild as it might all be, the power of getting through this speck of time is in your hands.
While maybe you can’t directly relate to Chapman’s urgent promises about breaking the cycle of poverty and disappointment, you can loosely use O’Rourke’s scientific process for getting through any situation rife with angst, murk and the blah of it all. Listen hard enough, and the nearly sitcom-length middle can even feel short when the same big, bending sounds are crammed into little pockets of time that flitter away before you know it.
And around the 23-minute mark, the faint sounds of a destination — and Chapman’s distinctive guitar refrain — bring you back into focus. O’Rourke pleads and echoes a final message from Chapman. A conclusion to this grand experiment? Better yet, a path forward.
“Gotta make a decision: leave tonight or live and die this way.”