[Note to Readers: This is a 2007 track that was co-written by Simon. With most such collaborations, I assume that Simon is the primary songwriter, and that he has invited others to work on the track with him-- to add their expertise in a particular genre, language, etc. In other words, they are collaborating with him.
With this song-- which appears on Wyclef Jean's album Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant-- the primary songwriter seems, to me, to be the same as its primary singer, Jean. The song is attributed to seven songwriters, including both Simon and Jean; Wikipedia lists Jean first... and Simon fourth. So here, he seems to be collaborating with them.
On the one hand, how much input could one writer have among seven? On the other, if that one is Paul Simon, would the others second-guess or gainsay him? Even so, Simon does not seem to be the type to be an ungracious guest, and would likely allow his host's literary voice to be the most prominent.
When I sub-titled this blog "more or less," I mean that the list of songs discussed would be as comprehensive as possible, knowing that "every single song" was a very intense promise. I did not mean that the songs would be "more or less" his. But here we are, and this song, while certainly weighing in on the "less" side, is a Paul Simon song, and so we're going to discuss it.]
"Fast Car" was already the title of another song; it's the one that put Tracy Chapman on the map back in 1988. It went to #6 and received two Grammy nominations (it lost Song of the Year to "Don't Worry, Be Happy.")
Wyclef's song is full of many other references as well. Even before the song starts, Wyclef mentions "Jersey Boys," the musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. In the first line, he mentions Kanye West's song "Jesus Walks" from 2004. He then compares Kanye's being revived after being in a coma-- after his 2002 car accident-- to Jesus' rising from the dead.
This introduces the image of a "fast car," as in the one whose crash Kanye survived.
In the next verse, Wyclef mentions two movies starring Will Smith-- Wild Wild West (itself a reimagining of a TV show from the 1960s) and Bad Boys. Smith, now best known as an actor, began as a rapper. While Smith was never in a car crash, all I could find that related was a rumor that he and his son were killed in one... but the rumor emerged in 2019-- more than 10 years after this song was released.
The line "some mystery, the killer get away," is true in general, but the video explains this is a reference to the still-unsolved murders of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.
Yes, the line "some of us are outlawed" plays off of the "outlaw" trope from the historic Wild West, but also acknowledges that much hip-hop music is censored or even banned, and rappers themselves often run outside the law.
But we would know that Biggie and Tupac were meant anyway... since "Outlawz" is the name of a hip-hop group of which Shakur was a member... while "Bad Boy" is also the name of a record label (founded by Sean Combs) for which Biggie recorded.
In the Chapman song, the "fast car" is an escape from poverty to a more comfortable life. Here, it seems that any life-- even that of a superstar millionaire-- sometimes needs escaping from: "Livin' this isn't the end of the day... jump in the fast car."
The next line seems to substantiate this, with a sentiment that goes back at least as far as the Beatles saying "money can't but me love." Here, this thought is expressed: "You don't gotta be no billionaire/ To get a ticket up to the Moon.... I'm right here." The idea of billionaires with tickets to the Moon likely refers to Elon Musk's Space X project, selling flights to outer space and someday the Moon.
Then we get another musical reference: "see clearly now." This line clearly evokes the big hit of reggae singer Johnny Nash (who passed away in 2020), with its famous line: "I can see clearly now, the rain has gone."
The next verse puns the word "shots" meaning both "shots of alcohol" and "gunshots." The scenario framed is driving home after a "bachelor party" having had more than "51 shots." This high of a number of gunshots, however, likely refers to the death of Amadou Diallo." In 1999, he tried to enter is own home but was falsely seen as trying to break in. When he reached for his wallet to prove he was, in fact, at his own house, the police assumed he was reaching for a gun, and shot at him 41 times. That Jean adds 10 to that number may mean that Diallo was just one of many such victims of police... zeal.
The case is seen as emblematic of the idea that black men are always suspect, even when innocent. The story is also told by Springsteen in his song "American Skin (41 Shots)."
And what kind of car was the partier about to drive? A "fast one."
It is at this point that Simon begins to sing. He sings this bridge twice in the course of the song. Now, the "fast car" does not seem to be a means of escape at all, but the vehicle of the Angel of Death (compare this with Emily Dickinson imagining Death picking her up in his "carriage" in her Poem 479).
Here, Simon sings: "When that fast car picks you up/ You will have no choice... You will weep and smile." And where is the car heading? "You will... see Heaven in the headlights."
The next two verses confirm this. The lines about "TLC" and "Honduras" tell us that that the verse is about Lisa Lopes, a member of the R&B group TLC, who was killed, while doing charity work in Honduras, in a car accident.
The last verse is also about a car-accident victim, this time a 16-year-old who was killed crossing the street by a drunk driver in a "hit-and-run." This may refer to a famous case as well, but one I am at this point unfamiliar with.
So... putting this all together? Kanye was almost killed in a car crash, but Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes was.
While neither Biggie or 2Pac were killed in car crashes, cars were involved, as they were killed in drive-by shootings. Amadou Diallo was killed by police shooting from behind their (parked) cars, but he was on his front porch.
Maybe the message is that one should not put one's faith in a car to provide an escape. Cars-- and other material trappings of success-- can kill as surely as they can transport one safely.
Instead, one should depend on God, and on people: "You don't gotta be no billionaire/ To get a ticket up to the Moon/ We all know Somebody up there" and "You need a helping hand?/ Look, I'm right here."