Graham Parker’s persistent re-birth
Eighteen record labels, about as many original releases, and several bands after he evoked comparisons to Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and even Wilson Pickett, Graham Parker continues to be annoyed that his songwriting hasn’t been framed in a museum showcasing John Lennon, Bob Dylan or Jack Kerouac. And I’ve been kicking myself for saying I’d write about a cranky maverick whose career has been riddled with what the metaphysically inclined like to call “challenges.” Composing this piece has forced me to consider questions I’d have preferred to avoid: Is Parker an arrogant, aging rocker whose on/off genius has failed to justify his demand for a bigger piece of the pie? Or is he an absurdly underrated songwriter and performer who should have easily garnered wider acclaim?
It’s clear that Graham Parker’s unfortunate timing, missteps, and slippery success have forced him to keep pushing. Would he have stayed motivated if he’d been consistently surrounded by approving faces? Hard to say, but it’s been suggested that his career’s derailing happened when Parker was about to break, after his fourth album, Squeezing Out Sparks, considered by many to be his peak. We’ll never know what Parker would – or wouldn’t – have done without the urgency springing from the struggle to have his work heard.
To many ears, roughly half of Parker’s post-Sparks output has been worthy of extravagant kudos. After Sparks he parted ways with the Rumour, a killer pub rock combo that helped turn Parker’s gravelly delivery and intense, sometimes stinging messages into a virile, sexy party. Since then he has worked solo, or with varying back-up. Without the Rumour’s symbiotic support, Parker has exhibited inconsistency around self-editing or, at worst, sticking to his guns. For years his tours have only garnered enough buzz to warrant sporadic band hires.
So why did I choose to profile a possibly disappointing has-been?
When he’s “on,” Graham Parker is capable of writing – and breathing – fire. My choice was intuitive – this show might be amazing, it might be a dud. In any case I could pay homage to one of the best rock songwriters ever – period. No one’s expectations – mine or anyone else’s – would make sense if Parker hadn’t set the bar so high from the beginning.
The New Wave movement that was building around 1975 pulled Parker from a life of manual labor and unknown bar bands. Dave Robinson, who would form Stiff Records, helped organize the Rumour around Parker. Robinson also signed and promoted Elvis Costello, an artist who ended up eclipsing Parker’s momentum and grabbing a lot of the spotlight – how many short, clever, accountant-ish rockers could the music industry support? If this had been the ‘60s, the answer might have been, “lots of them.” But more pigeonholed marketing was starting to limit creativity’s broadcast. Elvis Costello benefitted from and fit into Stiff’s dead-on promotion, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds gave Parker further competition with Rockpile, and Parker started getting even more pissed about the class system, and various other injustices, than he was already. Since joy and expansiveness were part of why Parker (with the Rumour) was so satisfying, you may guess the rest of the story.
Whatever followed, Parker’s roiling, combustible fusion with the Rumour helped usher in the New Wave, helped define a musical language for more mature passion and anger, and made some of the best rock shows in history. The band bathed packed dance floors in an indelible mix of roadhouse R&B, vintage country, and rock. They took us to the edge of the cliff, shouted, “Hell, let’s jump over!” and everyone did – at those moments, time seemed to stop. There were no alarm clocks, no boyfriends or wives waiting at home – nothing worth missing this sweaty oasis of truth, conviction, joy, and Eros. This beginning, best documented on Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment, set the stakes so high that I started to feel let down after Sparks, at which point the Rumour and Parker parted ways. The combination had brought out the best in Parker’s writing and performances: well-placed bravado, brilliant nuances, and a constant stretching on the part of everyone concerned. For those who understood what they were losing, Parker’s divorce from his collaborators created a devastating ripple. But most of his fans were young enough to avoid anything too painful, an amnesia that was aided by all the great new art that kept popping up, creating diversions.
Having taken only intermittent heed of Parker post-Sparks, and with no time to research more recent activity, I went to Anthology the other night with an odd mixture of excitement and fear. I sensed it would be wise not to expect Howlin’ Wind‘s lovingly buoyant “Silly Thing.” I didn’t want to be heartbroken by the omission of “Between You and Me,” “That’s What They All Say,” or “Turned Up Too Late,” songs that can still choke me up. There was probably no use in hoping for “Back to Schooldays,” “Back Door Love,” “Stick to Me, or “Hotel Chambermaid,” boisterous numbers known for leaving fans breathless. Parker was playing solo the other night, and many of these only come to full fruition with an ensemble.
Before the show I decided to try and find Anthology’s Green Room. The first thing that struck me was the contrast between it and the backstage area of a 1979 Parker/Rumour show in D.C., in a venue that would have considered the term “green room” pretentious. That evening, the area behind the stage was packed with friends, fans, local DJs, record store workers, fanzine writers, and tables drowning in food, booze, and cigarettes. The other night, after I’d found the elevator to the third floor, I walked down a long hallway, and then saw a metal sign, “Green Room.” Approaching the doorway, I didn’t realize that the quiet little man sitting on the sofa, alone in the room, was Parker – I thought he must be a roadie or manager. I hadn’t seen him in person for a long time. Expecting to hear newer, unrecognizable material, I asked the man on the couch if, after the show, I could collect a copy of Parker’s set list.
“Well, I don’t know how much it will help,” he said, “I’ve just found out that there’s another band on at nine, so the set will be much shorter than expected. This place is like a factory.”
“What?” I spouted, “Don’t they know who he IS?”
Parker chuckled and looked at me more directly: “I’m HIM.” Flummoxed by my misstep, I paused for a beat or two, then smiled, “Oh, my goodness – I’m sorry.” And saw that I was giving him a sincere, hearty laugh.
“That’s a good one,” he said before promising to save the list and telling me that he’d be preceded by a performer named Tom Freund. “He’s NorWEgian,” Parker informed me, as if this was a joke. “Well, I won’t hold it against him,” I parried. Although he was chuckling, Parker was looking a bit distracted. I realized he had very little time for reworking his show. After we exchange a few more comments, I turned to leave.
“It will be wonderful,” I said, walking out of the room.
“I don’t know…” he semi-muttered.
“You could do it in your sleep… in your subconscious,” I called, feeling uncomfortable at offering reassurance to a man known for bluster and bravado. As I walked down the empty hall I passed a glassed-in room that had been full of VIP diners, now also empty. This place was barely saved by the clattering of plates and forks two floors below from feeling like the Overlook Hotel.
It’s a very un-rock ‘n’ roll setting. Anthology is decidedly upscale, with three floors ready to accommodate far more bodies than were there for Graham Parker. Earlier, when we arrived, the photographer and I were placed in the bar, miles from the stage. I asserted that we needed to actually see the show. About 10 minutes later we were directed to seats on the second floor, above the stage. Below us were neat rows of parquets and tables for people ready to shell out $17 for sirloin burgers with Roquefort dressing, among other delicacies. Including those sitting at the bar, about 70 people were present.
With adult promptness and the scruffy appearance of an overgrown college boy, Tom Freund ambled onto stage about five minutes after official show time. I’ve learned he’s a pal who sometimes opens for Parker, then plays along on several songs. This is promising – never heard of the guy, but if Parker likes him, I’m willing to open my ears. At home, later, I looked him up to see he’s been lauded or accompanied by D.J. Bonebrake (X, Eliza Gilkyson), Ben Harper, and Ben Peeler (the Wallflowers) and that he’s frequently featured on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.”
Freund mutters that he’s forgotten to tune up the acoustic guitar he’s playing with a pick-up. I expect him to fiddle with his acoustic guitar in front of us. Graham Parker climbs on stage and grabs an electric guitar. Too practiced a performer to subject us to a tuning, Freund shrugs and hunches over the microphone before delivering these lines: “Just a slice of copper moon / over the ocean, ocean blue / to hear my one and only tune / to strike a chord that brings me to you.” When he takes it, Parker’s solo is tasty and concise. Freund’s music is pleasant and thoughtful, a possible cousin to NRBQ, Van Morrison, or Van Dyke Parks. After Parker jumps back offstage, Freund charms the audience, which appears to be between the ages of 40 and 60, with several numbers, including “True Mellow,” a song he introduces as “about getting stoned in high school,” which evokes a Brian Wilson vibe. I like what I hear of the dreamy lyrics: “I just sit in the dark / with my jewelry in the box / ’Cause I like the way it sounds / it’s truly beautiful…”
As Freund tunes his stand-up bass he addresses the dining audience: “The plates sound good with this – more plates” before shifting into a jazzy song about a natural sanctuary. It’s pretty passionate for a downbeat number by a grizzly guy who’s apparently been awake a long, long time.
Freund’s set is perfectly limited – after all, he’s the opener. Parker’s return brings some excited cheers from the mostly sedate viewers. His opening patter includes the fact he’s been bumped into a narrower time slot by the band to follow. “When they come I’m just going to stay here and carry on – how’s that sound?” If the feeling in the room were a color, with Freund it might have been various shades of green and blue. Parker’s arrival causes a shift into something warmer, like red or orange.
With Freund on lead guitar, Parker tears into “Hard Side of the Rain” from his last album, Don’t Tell Columbus. Sounds pretty good – you can tell Parker and Freund have played together but probably not recently. About halfway through the song, they hit their stride. Visibly buoyed by the collaboration, Parker morphs into another zone. The performance gets fierce.
The follower, “If It Ever Stops Rainin’,” (from 2001 album Deepcut to Nowhere) is strong. After that, Parker launches into a diatribe that emits generous giggles from the audience: “Lovely, lovely place, this. A bit above my class, I think – I mean, the plating is like Iron Chef.” Throughout the evening it becomes obvious that Parker is a storyteller (his short fiction collection, Carp Fishing on Valium, was published by St. Martin’s in 2000) – something I didn’t realize when he and the Rumour were busy rocking our socks off, I was too drunk to remember witticisms, or both. Parker has adopted a persona which seems suitable to his about-59 years:Singer/storyteller/writer, playing a delicious-sounding Gibson J200.
We get more humor as he describes his outfit, claiming, “These sunglasses are from the cover of Steady Nerves – you can’t get plastic like this anymore.” Even Katie, the 20-year-old photographer, is laughing. Later I flinch for him when she comments, “He seems like a nice old guy,” but the upshot is that he’s holding her attention.
Acceptance can open new doors. The lyrics to Don’t Tell Columbus’s “I Discovered America” mention Parker’s lack of commercial success before admitting, “Everyone said quit / That’s when I found hope.” As I eased into being with whatever-would-be the other night, I was treated to one of my favorite Parker compositions, from Howlin’ Wind, “Nothin’s Gonna Pull Us Apart.” Even solo, it punctures, blisters; is a gift I’d forgotten I needed. I’m swaying in my seat so hard I look like one of those handicapped people who can only exercise their upper bodies.
Next comes “Chloroform,” which Parker claims was written as a musical response to the “Carp Fishing” collection. The song ends with him leaning on the microphone, drooling. “I could tell you some dental stories,” he quips, “but we don’t have time for that.” We’re treated to anecdotes about airplane passengers who demand to know what Parker “does,” people who confuse Parker with the (deceased) Graham Parsons (“I mean, I’m not feelin’ good, but that’s ridiculous!”), Parker’s two-foot-wide, heated swimming pool, and a festival he claims is currently happening in a very small town in the northernmost reaches of Norway, celebrating the 30-year anniversary of “Squeezing Out Sparks.” The audience is thoroughly entertained.
Parker glances up in my direction – maybe he remembers my comment, in his dressing room, about seeing him shake it years ago. Then he launches into a number I love so much, it sometimes enters the mix of songs I sing while housecleaning. “Hotel Chambermaid” is a lovely jolt of optimistic escapism. With the Rumour it sported a joyful, harmonized chorus and never failed to add more bodies to the dance floor. At Anthology I think I heard a few cheers – hard to say – I screamed when it started. And then nothing else would do but to find a space between the hard-edged tables at the back of the room and dance. I was the only person in the place to get up and move. Someone had to do it.
If Parker enjoyed or appreciated that, I don’t know. Freund reappeared to play lead on the finale, “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” before an encore was encouraged, and delivered: “Local Girls.” Parker urges the audience to help him with the chorus. I feel like I’m making some kind of history; officially banging on the table to make the extra glasses and knives percussive; belting along to the best of my ability… in answer to Parker’s request. Somehow, in this stilted place, we’re being rock ‘n’ roll. Whatever Parker thinks, that’s all I need to know.
Later, after I get through the drunken throng to shake his hand (the other’s already clenching a mug of vodka), he seems to fall back on working-class roots to scold me as one might a loved one: “Now, you are going to write this story, aren’t you? ‘Cause they all say they will and then they don’t – they don’t think it’s important. Are you really going to write it? ‘Cause if you ARE, you can have a CD.”
For now, that’s the last I see of Graham Parker. I’m not giving up on him, ever. Although all these words can only begin to tell you why, among his talents are brilliantly intuitive vocal phrasing and writing that includes puns and seemingly impossible rhymes. Parker also incorporates something of a dying breed – the classic (verse, chorus, bridge) song structure. From the bridge to “Hotel Chambermaid:”
“I ain’t got a million dollars, no one I can call mine
But I’ll push on, cushion me in some way
Ain’t got no future – at least that’s what they say
This girl is going to take those kinds of blues away – for a day…
Uh-uh-uh-uh; uh-uh-uh, hotel chambermaid… hotel chambermaid.”