Graham Parker twists again
Interview by Kurt Wildermuth
"There's Nothing on the Radio"
"There's nothing on the radio, there's nothing on the radio," declares Graham Parker (www.grahamparker.net). He chants this mantra in one of the sly, fun, furious rock and roll songs on his new, self-produced CD, Songs of No Consequence, out on Bloodshot Records (www.bloodshot.com). By "radio," Parker means the mainstream broadcast dial, now a corporate American monolith, and he's right. That stuff flooding the airwaves is really stuffing, filler between the commercials, signifying nothing. But just when you think GP, as he often calls himself, is ranting about old news, his lyrics take a bizarre turn:She said this as she turned the dial ...All at once the song is crazy, goofy, sloppy, a throwaway. It's also irresistible. Hear the silly thing once, and that staccato refrain will lodge in your head--
And gave me a wicked smile
Then she broke the wheel
I said this can't be real
And then she tried to
Steal my antennaThere's nothing on the radio--until you just bop along and forget about what it means. "Well I've heard this song before," GP goes on, twisting the song in on itself. "But don't worry you won't have to," he adds, twisting it back out again. It's this and it's that, real and surreal, serious and playful, seriously playful, and exactly what GP wants it to be, what he's up to right now. Tune in again next time and you might hear something completely different. As he put it in "A Brand New Book," a bouncy little pop-rock manifesto about time and change, on one of his best albums, Struck by Lightning (1991, RCA):
There's nothing on the radioBecause the words came out"Release Me"
Not twist and shout
Cause that's not what a grown
Man writes about
That chapter's over, let it blow over
I found that I've become the owner
Of a brand new book
It's Saturday, June 11, 2005, and I'm meeting Graham Parker for the first time, at a downtown Manhattan club called the Knitting Factory. In a few hours GP and the Figgs (www.thefiggs.net), the young rockers from upstate New York with whom he recorded the live album The Last Rock and Roll Tour (1997, Razor & Tie, out of print) and who are his band on Songs of No Consequence, will play the last show of a brief run to support the new CD. GP is smaller and even leaner than I'd expected, as nice and generous and funny and honest as I'd hoped. He seems eager to talk, but with a rasp in his English accent he politely asks me if we can keep it short because his voice is shot. I agree, of course, but once we move to his dressing room the conversation takes off.
I've known about GP since the late 1970's, back when you could still hear good new music on commercial radio in and around New York City. He became a hero to me in 1992, when I heard about a do-it-yourself video he made for "Release Me," from the seriously underrated collection Burning Questions (1992, Capitol). I've kept the bare bones of the story in mind all these years, and GP fills in the details: "The record company ... they were just researching where they should spend their money. And they went to MTV and said, 'We've got Graham Parker,' 'Great,' 'Do you want to listen, we're thinking of making a video,' and MTV told 'em, 'Look, we're not really that interested. We're not going to play it.' ... Which is at least honest. But at the same time, what it said to me was, somebody is telling me not to be creative? ... And so I bought a camera, gave it to my wife, and said, 'Learn how to use this.'
"I talked to a few filmmakers ... and it was all bullshit. It's just like producers, who come in and make a record and get the credit for it. And I've been with a lot of producers--most of them don't know what they're doing... . They've got something, but they don't know why a record is successful or not. They have no real idea. Just like record companies don't. The reason is, something catches on and people buy it... . So I just ignored those people who said, 'You need at least lights, you need this and that.'"
GP and his wife, Jolie Parker, who has provided photographs for and done design work on her husband's releases since the 1980s, shot the footage themselves at their home in rural upstate New York but took it to an editing room, for a total cost of $4,000 to $5,000. "It was a lot of fun," GP recalls. "... So I called Capitol ... and handed it in, and of course nothing happened, which I pretty much knew. But it was a statement."
Precisely that sort of statement has characterized Graham Parker's career, sending him from record company to record company, earning him a reputation for equal parts integrity and irascibility, and inspiring passionate devotion among listeners for whom his orneriness, his unwillingness to compromise, marks GP as one of the good guys battling, as he puts it to me, "Trend and Commerce ... and I use a capital T and a capital C." Every time a record-company executive decides GP is--again, in his words--"a nutcase," somewhere a fan replays "Mercury Poisoning," the classic 1979 single in which Parker raged at Mercury Records, which he'd just left because it hadn't properly marketed his first three albums.
Those classics--Howlin' Wind (1976), Heat Treatment (1976), and Stick to Me (1977), all recorded with his highly revered band the Rumour--fused rock and roll, rhythm and blues, reggae, ska, folk, and soul, and their freshness and punkish energy still stun listeners. "I thought I could change the music industry," GP tells me. "I thought I would change everything... . And"--I'm laughing here, till he catches me offguard--"it turns out I was right."
We're both laughing now, but he has a serious point: "The thing is, you take the credit for it ... then you realize, a lot of people must have been working on parallel lines... . Before what I was doing ... the three-and-half-minute pop song with multi influences wasn't the center of pop music. Then you look and you think"--snaps his fingers--"'maybe Bruce Springsteen beat me to the punch.' 'Oh, excuse me--David Bowie.' Um, hello?! ... It did seem that, you know, a year later, their attitude was prevalent, and it still is now."
In fact, Springsteen made a guest appearance on Parker's final album with the Rumour, The Up Escalator (1980, Arista), which followed up on but didn't recapture the magic of Parker's greatest commercial and critical success, Squeezing Out Sparks (1979, Arista). Sparks took GP and the Rumour's blended influences straight into state-of-the-art new wave, with sleek, dynamic production that complemented the songs' restless intelligence and hard-to-pin-down combination of ecstasy and anguish. GP's best-known work, Sparks is also the pillar that has overshadowed the decades' worth of interesting-to-brilliant music he created after it. "People are stuck in the past with my stuff," he admits. "They don't know how good the middle period is, and how many gems are there."
"Get Started, Start a Fire"
The middle period begins in the '80s, which found GP, like so many of his contemporaries, trying to fit his earthy, gutsy "three-and-half-minute pop songs with multi influences" into a music business dominated by glitzy production techniques, an icy electronic and keyboard-dominated sheen, and a big drum sound that's now as dated as the "Miami Vice" look. "'There's a great snare drum in Paris,'" GP mocks, doing his big-time, know-nothing, record-biz voice. "'Let's fly it in.'" Producers "were taking away all this extraneous noise, which is rock and roll, and looking for this great perfect sound, which makes your records worse... . Whereas now, you just put a fucking microphone in front of it. It's like: 'Eh, that sounds good.' Nobody was doing that then."
After Another Grey Area (1982, Arista), The Real Macaw (1983, Arista), and Steady Nerves (1985, Elektra), GP jumped to Atlantic Records, where he got dropped for wanting to produce himself, then to RCA, where he grabbed the means of production on The Mona Lisa's Sister (1988). That breakthrough resulted from "me being pissed off as much as anything ... me fighting against the production techniques of the '80s and all that had gone before... . 'You're gonna get my sound, and we'll think about the drummer later.'"
GP's early records were dense sonically, with all the parts coming together in the middle, but on The Mona Lisa's Sister, he started spreading things out, letting in some air (and some newfound vulnerability as a performer). "I love dense music," he makes clear. "I love the Stones, where you're listening to 'Brown Sugar' ten years later and you think, 'Jesus, there's an acoustic guitar.' I mean, you think of it as this hard rock and roll song and you listen and there's an acoustic guitar and somebody's going"--crunch noise--"on a percussion instrument. It's dense, it's got this detail... Add the Rumour to my love of dense music back in '76, and you've got Armageddon... . It worked together great in that respect, but now I am not afraid of space."
The Mona Lisa's Sister was the first in a series of very personal statements, part autobiography and part reportage. GP and I don't get around to talking about the extremely spacey, sometimes spaced-out, but often exhilarating and dead-on Human Soul (1990, RCA). We agree that Struck by Lightning includes some of his most beautiful and transcendent songs. But whereas I've always viewed Burning Questions as a touchstone, a template against which to judge the quality of his post-Rumour releases, GP differentiates between the songs on that record--"they're really edgy and very strange and interesting"--and the sound of the recording, "a hollow, empty sound." We at least agree that "it's not just dumb rock and roll. It's got a lot of levels to it." He adds: "I almost don't take credit for it... . It's always been a mystery to me, songwriting."
Jumping to the independent label Razor & Tie, GP released what I think of as a trilogy. The acoustic and shimmering 12 Haunted Episodes (1995), the electric and angry Acid Bubblegum (1996), and the acoustic, electric, shimmering, angry Deepcut to Nowhere (2001) brought together all the knowledge, experience, and technique he'd gathered through the years. You want a bittersweet look at friendship, love, loss, and memory? Try the delicate "Haunted Episodes." You want a brutally honest yet catchy condemnation of colonialism? Try "Syphilis and Religion," on Deepcut. You want words to live by? Try Acid Bubblegum's "Sharpening Axes":I'm not selling molassesAnyone who thinks GP's best year was 1979 either hasn't heard these recordings or hasn't really listened to them. They're out of print but well worth the hunt.
I'm not pushin' tea
I don't appeal to the masses
And they don't appeal to me
I'm not peddling fiction
I'm not packaging youth
I've got a predilection
For the truth
I can't stand it any longer
I can't suffer any more fools
I'm gonna keep on sharpening axes
Till I've got the sharpest tools
"Anything for a Laugh"
If we thought a Graham Parker record provided a more or less autobiographical status report with variations on his patented sound, in 2004 GP took us by surprise. He joined Bloodshot, the self-proclaimed "insurgent country" independent label, and issued Your Country, which recast his sound and broke the mold for his work. When I present my theory about the Bloodshot years--that three decades into his career, having made his mark, he's now free to do whatever he wants--GP sets me straight: "I've always been free to record the records I wanted, on any label. No one ever had anything to say."
"No," he says sharply. "Well, you can hear it, can't you? Does it sound like any record-company person--"
I mention The Real Macaw, which I've always heard (and seen described) as a frustrating struggle between artist and producer. GP tells me that some of his fans love the record for its unique sound but that he can't judge it objectively, apart from the experience of making it. In this discussion--the kind of exchange that only truly obsessive music people, musicians, and record collectors engage in--I forget my real point, namely that on Your Country GP sounds, for the first time on a studio album, like he's loosened up and having fun!
On the Rumour albums he's coiled (there's a promo shot from that time of him with a huge snake wrapped around his body), he's intense, he's squeezing out sparks. After the Rumour, his persona changes; he sings downright funny and sexy and nonsensical songs; but he still seems fundamentally serious, as though he really, really wants to make a good record, to prove himself all over again. From the opening of Your Country--the loping rhythm and lap steel of "Anything for a Laugh," which self-mockingly portrays its speaker as a roving "average clown"--GP sounds different. He might be the same man, still asking burning questions, here wondering which part of his act is his "nature" and which part is a "shield." Yet right away I hear the relief of a serious artist who was once all charged up but who has come to terms with lower stakes than changing the world. His art remains the same, perhaps; the bar is still high artistically. Yet maybe he has a different sense of what it means to both hold the bar and try to jump over it.
So, no--getting back to GP's question--apart from accepting some unfortunate production techniques, or maybe, just maybe, having those techniques foisted on him, GP has never sounded like anyone's man but his own (and Jolie's). That man just sounds more at ease with himself. He hates the sound of his voice on the early records, he claims. "I was an awful singer, I think. It was all throat. I wasn't experienced. ... But when I'm good now, I am good... . I've got a lot of depth and inflections. You can hear it on Your Country. You can hear it on this new album."
Like the kinder, gentler Your Country, the bitter and ragged Songs of No Consequence, Parker's most raw work since Stick to Me, was recorded in a little more than a week (The Real Macaw, for example, took three months). I ask GP what that pace does for his music. "Well, it's perfect. There's no need to take months. There's no need unless you're doing layer upon layer upon layer of harmonies and things like that... . Or unless you're not satisfied with what you're doing, if there's something wrong. When I go in, the songs are done. I've arranged them, pretty much... . And you just have to have the right musicians for the right job, and they pick up on it." Here, GP, the Figgs, and a few guests play their versions of garage punk and uptempo blues and reggae and Rockpile-style "pub rock," with not a hint of country and with an emphasis on blowing away the "singer-songwriter" label that had gotten stuck on GP for a while.
"You've got to do it your own way," GP proclaims on a new anthem, "Bad Chardonnay." The "ba ba ba"s in its chorus might have come straight from the Ramones, whose "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" GP has covered live, but the sentiments seem all his own:Don't give me any lip sonStill, the mold's been broken, or maybe we didn't even understand the mold, so it's hard to know how much of these new songs is the real macaw, how much is fiction. I ask if he means it: is it just an act? "It sometimes feels like that," GP admits. "When I first started out ... it was one of those things--and I hear a lot of artists say this--I'm getting away with it. I've made Howlin' Wind, and the first thing written in the paper is, ‘Could this be the new Bob Dylan?' It's like, I'm getting away with it. They don't know. They haven't spotted it yet, how bad I really am. There's that feeling. On the other hand, there's this huge ego thing that--Hey, maybe I AM the new Bob Dylan! I think I AM! Which drives you onwards. You need this kind of drive because it's hard work, this. It's really brutal."
Don't give me any grief
I've been around the block and back
From Maine to Tenerife
Yeah and I got my act together
OK it's just an act
Later, when his throat is drying up and his voice is about to give out, I tell GP that I honestly believe that had Bob Dylan written 12 Haunted Episodes, it would be a classic Dylan album. "If I say something like that--," I begin to say and then prod him: "You know how good that album is."
He hesitates, but admits, "Yeah, I know how good it is ...," swallowing the end of it.
"Can you take satisfaction from knowing that, that you're as good as Dylan?"
He laughs, thinks about it, and answers carefully. "Satisfaction's a weird thing. It's like happiness. It's kind of temporary. It's like you have a good meal or sex or something, and you're happy for a moment ... then you're not. Satisfaction's the same. It's all going to kick you in the ass because it goes away." Pause.
"OK, so I don't know what I feel about it. Everything wears off anyway. You're kind of stuck with yourself... . It's a pity, really, that 12 Haunted Episodes isn't owned by a lot of people. That's all. It's a pity. But I've gotten used to it, because there have been so many years of that. I know that no album is going to make any difference, because it's all Trend and Commerce. It's all perception... . Perception is more powerful than reality... . So the perception about me is not that I can make a record that"--he laughs--"is as good as Bob Dylan."
He points out that I'm the one saying that, not him, then continues. "It's just not going to happen... . The perception cannot possibly be that I can make a record anywhere near as good as one of my early ones... ."
You've got "'a predilection for the truth,'" I tell him, quoting his lyric, "and people don't want to hear the truth."
"No," he agrees.
He shakes his head. We wrap it up. I never get to ask about the title Songs of No Consequence, about just how serious it is and how sarcastic. But I already know the answer. It's equally serious and sarcastic.
"Don't Get Excited"
Two hours later, in an inferno of a room on a sultry night, the Figgs (the guitarist, bassist, and drummer on the CD, plus an additional guitarist) perform an opening set of wry, well-rooted, high-intensity rock and roll. Their songs recall the heydays of the Stones, the Who, the Jam, the Replacements. After a ten-minute break they return and become GP's band on a fierce version of an out-of-left-field opener, "Don't Get Excited," the closing track on Squeezing Out Sparks.
The crowd of course gets quite excited. GP and the Figgs give every song added heft--early ones such as "Soul Shoes" and "Pourin' It All Out," middle ones such as "Don't Let It Break You Down" and the ballad "Worthy of Your Love," and a bunch of the new ones, which fit right in and are received ecstatically. "There's Nothing on the Radio," for example, rocks--as GP described it to me--"like a blue-ass monkey."
For much of the show GP doesn't play guitar. He grips the mike stand, leans toward the crowd, and looks like there's no place he'd rather be than on that stage.
Special thanks to Jolie Parker for the GP photos
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