“Tracy Chapman saved my life.”
That’s the dramatic opening sentence of Chapter 32 of Roger Bennett’s terrific memoir of his life in Liverpool and his decision to emigrate to the USA and become a naturalized American citizen.
As a middle-class Jewish teen in mostly Catholic working-class Liverpool, Bennett fell in with “the wrong crowd” at his overly traditional oh-so-conventional private school, but all along he was besotted by American music and all other aspects of American culture. The infamous riot at the Beastie Boys’ Liverpool concert in 1987—started when the New York Jewish hip-hop trio insulted their audience by shouting “Fuck you, Liverpool!”—was a response to the world’s worst example of a failure to read the room. But it spurred Bennett to leave his posse and return to being an A student and then (much) later on to America.
Anyway, back to Tracy Chapman. As you may know, she got her start by busking in Harvard Square. Barbara and I were living in Cambridge at the time, and we had the same reaction hearing her live as Bennett had hearing on tape: “There was something about the tenderness and honesty of this voice that instantly overwhelmed me,” he recalls:
“Fast Car” was the single most human track I had ever heard. The flickering cymbal giving way to the hypnotic guitar riff, the storytelling so patient, wise, and empathetic. Every line was a study of stoicism in the face of struggle. By the time the drum kicked in to lift the chorus, Tracy sounded like she was smoldering with introspection and truth, almost burning up in the process.
Ironically, perhaps, it was the American Beastie Boys who triggered Bennett’s decision to leave Liverpool and then the American Tracy Chapman who triggered his commitment to come to the U.S. At the end of this memoir he writes about his naturalization ceremony in 2018:
As the judge proceeded to talk about the rights and responsibilities inherent in citizenship, my eye drifted to the side of his bench, where a photograph of then-president Donald Trump loomed. The judge proceeded to acknowledge this lurking presence, as he regretted that we are living in an era in which not every American welcomes new immigrants openheartedly.
Today Bennett is best known for his Men in Blazers podcast, which is all about “America’s Sport of the Future”: soccer. For some reason Bennett persists in calling it football, thereby demonstrating that you can take the boy out of Britain but you can’t taken Britain out of the boy.