Imagine the most frustrating of all possible lives in the music business. Imagine making one, two, three brilliant albums that are all but ignored by the general public. Imagine being signed and then forgotten by record company after record company. Imagine casting about for new methods, new ideas, only to have the critics who've been your main supporters over the years turn their backs on you in favor of younger, more accessible performers. Imagine losing your edge so thoroughly that even you can't see the value in your creations.
In other words, imagine you're Graham Parker--who, when asked about his career, says, "I'm not sure I even have a career anymore. I just plod along."
There's no denying that Parker was one of the major talents to emerge in the Seventies--a fiery, blistering master of the lyrical insult and a melodist capable of transforming standard rock and rhythm-and-blues forms into songs that were at once familiar and startlingly individual. The albums Howlin' Wind and Heat Treatment, both issued in 1976, and 1979's Squeezing Out Sparks were formidable statements that were likened to punk rock mainly because there was no other genre during the period that echoed with the energy and nihilism that were such prominent colors in Parker's palette. But the material itself was actually far more complex than this comparison implies--traditional, even iconic, yet as contradictory and idiosyncratic as Parker himself.
So what went awry in the sixteen years since Sparks? According to most observers, plenty. Parker's well certainly didn't run dry: Just once in that span did he go more than two years between full-length discs, and several of these offerings found favor with his small but sturdy coterie of loyalists. But the post-1980 Parker never earned the brand of acclaim that had once seemed his birthright--and the planet's record buyers never decided to overlook his suddenly lukewarm reviews and bestow upon him the fame to which he's aspired since his heyday. Even his somewhat mellowed temperament hasn't done the trick. By last year, interest in Parker had waned so severely that representatives of major labels who had kept him on their rosters primarily for reasons of prestige found little upside in continuing to contribute to his livelihood. His sole release in 1994 was Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker, a seasonal EP made for Dakota Arts, a company so tiny that even many industry regulars had never heard of it.
At this juncture, most people would have quietly disappeared into the fog of obscurity--but not Parker, a man whose tenacity and obsessiveness are obvious to anyone who's ever heard him perform. It came as no surprise, then, when Parker announced in January that he would be putting out a new platter, the just-issued 12 Haunted Episodes. More unexpected was the operation releasing it for him: Razor & Tie, an independent imprint best known for reissues of discs by artists such as Bobby Womack and compilations filled with smashes from days long gone. "If you watch television late at night, you'll see adverts for their collections," Parker points out. "They have names like `All the Hits of the Seventies!' That's Razor & Tie.
"I had some familiarity with them before, because they'd reissued a number of my earlier albums: The Up Escalator, The Real Macaw and Another Grey Area. And I thought I was just what they needed--that they were ready for the challenge of marketing a current release by a major artist instead of being forever mired in repackaging hell."
From that comment alone, it's clear that Parker hasn't lost confidence in himself. Initially renowned as the journalist's worst nightmare--moody, quick to anger, even quicker to storm out of a room or slam down a phone--he's now unfailingly polite and skilled at random self-deprecation. But it doesn't take much digging to find his trademark bitterness lurking just beneath skin level. "At this point, going with an independent is the best move I could make," he asserts, "but if a major had been after me, I probably would have signed with them. It's a travesty that someone capable of making a record like this is not being hounded by a major label."
The rage that still bubbles within Parker is rooted in his upbringing. He was raised in England, in a rough community called Hackney--the kind of place from which no one really expects to escape. He wound up pumping gas by day and singing with R&B acts by night. Between these activities, he wrote songs that were angry and distinctive enough to strike a chord with Dave Robinson, co-founder of Stiff Records, the British label that also launched Elvis Costello. Robinson matched Parker with the Rumour, a solid and eclectic outfit made up of players from various pub-rock bands. The result was Howlin' Wind, a more accomplished debut than anyone had a right to expect. Here was a singer-songwriter who arrived on the scene fully formed--a player, then 26, who'd actually lived through many of the grim life experiences about which he yammered. Armed with tunes like "Back to Schooldays," "Between You and Me," "Lady Doctor" and the existentialist anthem "Don't Ask Me Questions," Parker spewed and spat as if his life depended on it--because, in a very real sense, it did.
As if to prove that Wind was no fluke, Parker put out Heat Treatment, an equally fascinating recording, within a matter of months, and Stick to Me the next year. The latter came in for critical sniping because of its oversized ambitions: "The Heat in Harlem," for example, was a sprawling epic of the sort that no one other than Bruce Springsteen was allowed to indulge in back then. But even those let down by Stick admitted that they found it second-rate only by comparison with its predecessors. Taken on its own terms, it was among the finer discs of 1977.
Unfortunately, most of the dialogue about Parker's recordings took place inside a relative vacuum: The albums were successes in England but virtually invisible in the United States. Typically, Parker blamed their poor performance on his American label, Mercury. "We were several years ahead of our time," he asserts, "and the company simply didn't understand what we were doing. They didn't get it--they thought we were freaks. We'd come into their offices and they'd be like, `Who are these imbeciles with short hair and straight trousers? They should have long hair and bell-bottoms, like Journey." Parker soon got his revenge, however. He made a crummy live album (1978's The Parkerilla) that fulfilled his contractual obligation with Mercury, then put out a single for his next company, Arista, that addressed his predicament. Its subtle title was "Mercury Poisoning."
Far more universal than "Poisoning" was Squeezing Out Sparks, an LP that is widely regarded as Parker's finest moment. That's debatable, but what can't be argued is the sweep and effectiveness of Sparks's numbers. "Discovering Japan" was tougher than anything Parker had previously attempted, while "You Can't Be Too Strong" was a risk of a different sort--an anti-abortion song no less stern than the average Operation Rescue flier. Had Parker been any less deeply principled, "Strong" might have become an albatross around his neck. Instead, it won him the respect of those who agreed with him, as well as those who did not, simply because of his insistence upon staying on his own path.
Afterward, though, Parker seemed to lose his way. 1980's The Up Escalator, featuring a duet with Springsteen, was a commercial compromise that sounded like one. It also precipitated a split with the Rumour, and this musical divorce left 1982's Another Grey Area, recorded with studio sidemen, sounding like mere product. The Real Macaw was similarly uninspired and prompted Arista to send him packing. 1985's Steady Nerves, on Elektra, didn't make much of an impression, either, and while The Mona Lisa's Sister (released by yet another label, RCA) raised his profile to some degree, only the truly committed took it home. Likewise, 1989's Human Soul, 1991's Struck by Lightning and 1993's Burning Questions (the last on Capitol) provoked yawns from reviewers. By contrast, 1993's Passion Is No Ordinary Word: The Graham Parker Anthology, 1976-1991, a double-disc smorgasbord on Rhino, won praise--but its second half was most notable for the patient manner in which it traced Parker's decline.
Of course, Parker doesn't believe that any decline has taken place: He feels that Mona Lisa and Lightning are among his shining moments. Still, he acknowledges that the songs he was writing in 1994 were, as he notes in his Razor & Tie bio, "dull, lifeless and devoid of originality. Most were in standard 4/4 time, pale reflections of my typical material and loaded with aimless, hollow social commentary and attempted profundities." In his mind, he broke out of this funk by experimenting with open-G tuning associated with folk music.
"It surprised me," he claims. "Everything just popped out. With the open tuning, it was really like learning to write songs again--although all of the craft I have in my past made it easier."
The fruit of Parker's labors is Episodes, which he accurately describes as "quite a pleasant record." Hushed, mainly midtempo, often acoustic, the compositions highlight a more introspective side of Parker. "Disney's America," a biting lyric that references the plan by the Walt Disney Company to build a Civil War theme park on the site of an actual Virginia battlefield, shows that Parker's metaphorical sense is still keen, but other tracks settle for more prosaic observations. A case in point is "First Day of Spring," whose words--"The world might look smaller from the sky/But the beauty of it makes me cry"--likely will strike Parker aficionados as utterly out of character. In Parker's mind, however, songs like "Spring" are Episode's most impressive accomplishments.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I just had no trouble being honest," he says. "And somehow, I got it in my head that I shouldn't ruin the songs that I was writing. In other words, by the time I got to the third verse, I shouldn't take a blowtorch to the bitch, you know? I really stuck to the honesty of what the music was doing."
It's too early to tell if this kinder, more earnest Parker will appeal to the masses. Episodes is getting airplay on Americana-formatted stations, but it has not yet registered on the Billboard sales charts. Parker hopes to goose things along with his biggest tour in several years and a band that he believes is his best since the Rumour. He promises that he'll mix renditions of the new material with rearranged versions of "Protection" and other old favorites, but he adds that anyone expecting to see him act out the angry-young-man image with which he's been saddled since the Seventies will be disappointed.
"Obviously, there's been a lot of uptight, aggressive music in my past--there's no doubt of that," he concedes. "But listen to Howlin' Wind and you'll realize that the songs weren't all angry even back then. All of the different musical avenues were there, and I've spent the last twenty years exploring them. And the avenues I'm exploring right now aren't all that aggressive. I made that kind of music in my twenties, but I don't want to keep doing it for the rest of my life."
Graham Parker & the Episodes, with Hypnotic Clambake. 8 p.m. Friday, April 14, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $16, 322-2308.