The inaugural Scholars and Rogues Interview (and our newest Scrogue): Graham Parker
The mid-1970s were a wonderful time for music lovers. For starters, exciting and innovative new music was popping up all over the place. And when it did, it actually got played on the radio.
The UK was especially fertile ground during this period, as scores of punk and New Wave acts emerged (many from the “pub rock” scene) in the most dynamic explosion of music since the British Invasion. One of the most outstanding of these was Graham Parker, who in 1976 released not one, but two instant five-star classics – Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment.
While some of his contemporaries (most notably Elvis Costello) became wildly famous, arguably nobody in rock history has posted a more enduring legacy of critical success. In the three-plus decades since Howlin’ Wind Parker has released over 25 records, and you have to be a pure hater not to give 10-15 of them at least four stars. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, especially when you add to the legacy this year’s Don’t Tell Columbus, which is currently in the mix for a lot of best CD of the year nods (including mine), and which some reviewers have gone so far as to call his greatest CD ever.
While I’m not 100% sold on that particular argument (In addition to the two iconic ’76 releases, there’s Squeezing Out Sparks to consider, as well as a couple of my personal favorites, Struck by Lightning and the badly underrated Mona Lisa’s Sister) I see where it comes from, and there’s no question that Don’t Tell Columbus deserves every rave it gets. All of which means that Graham Parker has now produced landmark efforts over 30 years apart, something I’m not sure has ever been done before. If it has, it’s an awfully short list.
So while Parker has not amassed tremendous fame in his career, he nonetheless stands as one of the greatest artists in rock’s storied history (as well as its somewhat troubled present). He has also, in the past few years, launched a second career as a writer of fiction. Carp Fishing on Valium, a collection of short stories, had some surprisingly wonderful moments (I say “surprisingly” because we don’t often expect much in the way of literary talent from our rock stars), and he’s also penned a novel called The Other Life of Brian, which I haven’t gotten my hands on yet (both books are available from his Web site).
Parker recently consented to become the first Scholars & Rogues interview subject, and we’re taking this occasion to also honor him as our latest “Scrogue” (and following Jane Austen is no mean feat, to be sure). In addition to being our first interview, we should also note that he’s also our first living Scrogue.
We hope you enjoy reading his answers as much as I enjoyed asking the questions.
Sam: Some artists have done great work early and faded with age. Others came into their greatness as they matured. But there’s only the rarest handful who start great and get better. You’ve now done five-star records over 30 years apart, a feat I’m not sure anybody else has ever accomplished. How have you managed to remain vital and relevant over such a long period of time?
Graham: Well, that’s some recommendation. Thanks.
All can think of is it’s a lucky balance of brain chemistry and pure desperation to not look like an idiot. I shudder at the thought of being a writer who has lost the plot, although I’ve been accused of that many times. So I dump the bad ideas as they come and keep on going until this almost mystical brain chemistry kicks in like a drug and voila! There’s another good one just popped out.
I don’t understand it, but as I get older, I do sometimes feel a certain tiredness creeping in – not that it’s surfacing in the songs yet, as Don’t Tell Columbus will testify – but it’s trying to, and age is gonna get me sooner or later.
Writing songs is emotionally and physically draining work. It would be a relief to just stop. I hope you’ll be forgiving when I do.
SS: The word “ego” has such negative connotations, often being taken as synonymous with arrogance, but show me an artist with no ego and I’ll show you a bad artist. Tell us about your ego – which is big enough that it wants to be a serious writer as well as a rock star.
GP: You’re right, it’s all about ego. There would be no point in working this hard without the idea that you might impress the heck out of other people by doing so. It does border on arrogance, but you gotta get the job done.
SS: Your new writing career indicates that you feel a pretty strong artistic calling. What is it that writing fiction fulfills in you that music doesn’t?
GP: When I was writing the short stories and the novel, I was on another brain chemistry high, and it was really stimulating to see this stuff coming out. I think that any kind of creative writing makes a person more intelligent as they are doing it. Then, if you’re like me, you go back to being a slug again not long after you’ve finished.
The great thing I found about story writing as opposed to song writing is that it doesn’t have to rhyme! That’s very liberating.
SS: Even past “Stick to the Plan,” your brilliant riff on “Highway 61 Revisited,” you strike an unusually Dylan-esque pose on Don’t Tell Columbus. Given that you do so as you’re “discovering” an “ambiguous” America during Bush’s debacle in Iraq, it’s easy to read the CD as a subtle critique of all the American artists who didn’t step up like Dylan did during Vietnam. It’s almost like you said “well, dammit, somebody needs to be Dylan here – guess it’ll have to be me.” Is this a fair conclusion or am I reading too much into things?
GP: I’d say the last thing I had on my mind whilst writing these songs is the failings of other artists. Both “Stick to the Plan” and “Ambiguous” seemed to write themselves, and I can’t claim to have made any really original statements here. The phoniness and venality of the Bush administration is so utterly transparent, songs like “Stick to the Plan” can’t help but write themselves!
But if these tunes were solely about this one subject, they would just be bad folk music, and to simplify them as that would be to short change them. They’re loaded with stuff detailing the foibles of humanity.
SS: So here you are, a smart-assed Brit pop star harpooning American culture and politics. Some Americans believe that artists should stick to entertaining and leave political commentary to people with political credentials of some sort – especially foreign artists. This is an opinion you evidently do not share. So, why do you believe that an artist’s opinion on politics should matter?
GP: Well, hang on a minute here, I don’t exactly turn up for freedom marches! I don’t participate actively in expressing political views and always turn down the offer of appearing on bills for political causes.
Surely, everybody’s opinions on politics matter, apart from very stupid people, who should shut the fuck up.
SS: You’ve never been shy about flogging the media. In “Don’t Let It Break You Down” you wrote: “Some people are in charge of pens who shouldn’t be in charge of brooms.” In “Stick to the Plan” the press is complicit in all manner of political and religious hypocrisy. But a couple of Reagan’s FCC folks once wrote, in a very important policy paper, that “the public interest is what the public is interested in.” Do you think there’s a way to get to a more enlightened media than we have now without getting elitist and heavy-handed?
GP: It was shocking and disturbing to watch the American media buckle under in the phony patriotism frenzy that preceded and followed the Iraq invasion.
It’s good to see the trend has reversed considerably due to the utter arrogance of an administration that thought they had it all tied up. They continued to push their luck until even the thickest brickhead began to get it.
But the fact that the media fell into that frenzy so hard and utterly in the first place is truly worrying in a democracy. Even elitism is better than that…anything’s better than that.
SS: “England’s Latest Clown,” a song that’s either skewering Babyshambles singer Pete Doherty or someone a lot like him, notes that your homeland has something of a tradition of public clowns. Latest clown aside, who do you think was England’s greatest clown?
GP: The rotation of clowns, from any part of the world, is too long and varied to list.
But it’s true that this song was inspired by a New York Times article about Doherty, who I’d never heard of, but his antics inspired the idea that we need characters like him for our entertainment. We live vicariously through them, and then we want them to die badly, as the final verse suggests.
SS: Speaking of clowns, what do you think of shows like Pop Idol and American Idol?
GP: The people who appear on these shows for the most part are third-string hacks who in a more intelligent era would perhaps make a modest living singing jingles.
SS: But there’s some great music out there, too. What bands and artists are you listening to these days?
GP: Amy Winehouse. Back to Black is the best album made by anyone in a very long time.
SS: It is wonderful to see somebody as talented as Winehouse getting her due, but it seems like people who really care about music always have a favorite artist who never “made it.” Who’s the best artist or band you ever heard that the rest of us probably don’t know?
GP: I did a singers-in-the-round type tour sometime in the early ’80’s and this guy Tom Freund, who I’d previously never heard of, was one of the acts. He was, and still is, one of the great singer/songwriters there is. North American Long Weekend and Sympatico are way above much more highly rated and successful stuff.
I haven’t heard anyone that good who is on the fringes since then.
SS: The recording industry has changed a lot since the mid-’70s, to the point where a guy with your legacy is releasing masterpieces on indie labels and getting zero airplay. Obviously the music industry as we have known it is in deep, deep trouble. How do you see the future of music shaping up? What will drive it in the future? How will serious artists make a living? Or will they?
GP: Well, I’ve heard a few tracks from Columbus a number of times on a few different stations, so the word zero isn’t quite true.
SS: That’s good to hear. I haven’t heard the first note out here, so you must have a better radio station than I do.
GP: Of course, that airplay may have sold zero copies!
As far as making any serious money, the only thing most of us can hope for is cover versions, adverts, TV and movies. Otherwise, get your guitar and play live, solo. There’s nothing else shaking but the leaves on the trees.
SS: In “The Sheld-Duck of the Basingstoke Canal,” your wonderful story from Carp Fishing on Valium, your protagonist pursues something passionately, but when he finds it he discovers that he’s been betrayed. Up close, life and death pose a reality that he’d not anticipated. I’m not sure to what extent you’ve realized the dreams you might have had as a boy or as a young man, but have you had moments in your career where you captured the egg you’d been pursuing, only to come away disappointed?
GP: I found myself in a reasonably high level of popularity very quickly. I was a gas station attendant one year, the next I was all over the music press (in the UK) and then headlining theaters and appearing on Top of the Pops. (You do not appear on Top of the Pops unless you have a hit.) People write about me as someone who didn’t “make it,” but I made it the first year of my career. And although I was not and have never been anywhere near superstar level, as soon as the craziness began in my first year, I found it tiresome.
I’d do an appearance on TotPs or a sold-out concert in London then drive back to my parents for the night, then the next night, hang out with some old mates in a village pub. It seemed much more like humanity to me.
SS: Some craziness inhabits your fiction, too, especially when you start working the rock and roll fantasy vein. “Me and the Stones” is hysterical beginning to end, and there has to be an interesting Little Steven story behind what your protagonist does to “Small Billy.” How do these ideas come to you and how do you go about developing them?
GP: That would be telling, and my sources should remain secure to a certain extent. But I’ve lived a very interesting life, and the most interesting part of it was before I had a record deal.
My stories that use the rock world as a backdrop are more fantasy than the ones like “Aub” and “Bad Nose,” from Carp Fishing on Valium. The characters in those stories are real! I grew up with them, and, along with where they came from – the working class environs of the south of England – have not been thoroughly explored.
SS: I’ve known people who lived very exciting or dangerous lives. Once you’ve lived a certain way, they tell me, nothing else is ever going to be exciting again. Do you find yourself wishing that life these days were occasionally a little more … weird?
GP: I find that even normality is weird to me these days, so I’m pretty constantly entertained.
SS: Let’s talk about music a little more. The Rumour. The Shot. The Figgs. The Latest Clowns. What is/was the best thing about working with each?
GP: You’re not gonna top the intensity of the first band, The Rumour, and some nights on stage with them were quite awesome. But that should not be the only yardstick for music as varied as mine, and some of the other bands also hit areas of sublime intensity, albeit a different kind if intensity.
The Latest Clowns are a big favorite, ‘cos they’re the funniest and arrive at the soundcheck all crammed into a Mini Cooper from which they tumble most expertly right through the front door of the venue and onto the stage. It’s truly a thing to behold.
SS: It seems to me that you’re one of those performers whose live show has a certain something that’s impossible to capture in the studio – and I say this with all due respect to your studio work, which is marvelous. But there’s just an extra gear live. What it is about that live dynamic that’s so special?
GP: The audience. I’ve done shows with a rockin’ band and whether they’re packed out or there’s only 30 people in the house, if they put out a good vibe you can really feel it and the gears just crank up. They’re not in the studio with you, and that’s the difference.
SS: Let’s talk about some of your greatest moments. What do you see as your greatest record? What was the greatest live show you ever played? What are the best lines you’ve ever written?
GP: These things live and these things die. I couldn’t pick one show out for you because I’m consistently good at it.
There’s too many best lines, but I guess I would favor some of the more surreal and ominous, with good internal rhyming like “They’re pumping iron down in the village / They’re locking lions up in the zoo / I don’t know what I’m thinkin’ / I don’t know where I’m sinkin’ / Down there/Down there,” from “Lunatic Fringe.” Stuff like that.
Greatest record? You can choose.
SS: You capped off The Mona Lisa’s Sister with a wonderful cover of Sam Cooke’s “Cupid.” It seems that Cooke is an influence who’s frequently present in your work. I’m thinking about songs like “Tough on Clothes,” for instance – I can easily imagine Cooke doing that one. Can you tell us a little about how you discovered his music and how it came to shape your own?
GP: I was never fully aware of Sam Cooke until later in my career, actually.
Around 1965 my cousin gave me a copy of Otis Redding’s album Otis Blue, which included both “Change Is Gonna Come” and “Wonderful World.”
I’d probably heard “Wonderful World” on the radio but don’t recall hearing “Change Is Gonna Come.” Either way, I was not really up on Sam Cooke as much more than the guy who was credited as writing these songs that Otis was doing. I don’t remember hearing the Temptations hit “My Girl,” either, and thought that the version on Otis Blue was the original.
I was always much more into the hard-edged soul singers like Otis, Arthur Conley, Sam and Dave, as my early singing will testify. It wasn’t until I actually covered “Cupid” in 1988 that I came to appreciate Cooke more, but I still don’t own one of his albums, although I think I borrowed a cassette of his hits to learn “Cupid.”
I did it I guess because I was finding other things in my voice, falsetto and stuff, rather than throat yelling, which is what I’d been doing before The Mona Lisa’s Sister, and that might have inspired me to record it. And if you listen to my take on “A Change Is Gonna Come” on Live Alone in America, you’ll find it’s Otis’s version I’m doing, not Cooke’s.
But hey, you’ve got to imagine a 14 year-old boy, sitting alone in the spare room in his parents’ house, listening to Otis Redding, crying and moaning with emotion. Weird. But it was Otis that got me.
SS: Two-part question: First, was there music playing your “first time?” If so, what was it? Second, what do you think is the greatest make-out record ever recorded?
GP: If there was, I wasn’t hearing it!
I don’t know what the best music is to make out to, but I know that asking a girl if she wants to come back to your place and listen to some Beefheart will kill your chances stone dead.
SS: And now, a very non-musical question. Apparently you are – or were? – something of a footballer. You’re from East London, right? So you’d have been a Hammers supporter growing up? Or maybe Leyton Orient, who had some good years when you were younger? Or perhaps you followed the more fashionable Spurs during Danny Blanchflower’s golden years? How much did football matter to you growing up and were you ever good enough that you thought maybe you’d be a sports star instead of a rock & roll icon?
GP: Spurs! Well done!
I was actually born in Hackney and spent the first four years of my life in Stoke Newington, North Central London, not East. When I was four, we moved to a village in Surrey and I’m really a country boy. I could step out my door and in seconds be in empty woodlands. Fantastic.
As for football, all the kids I knew seemed to be Spurs fans, even though we were about 40 miles south of London, and I guess I was, too. I think we liked Spurs because of the silly, rather childish name, Tottenham Hotspurs. Something about the word “Hotspurs” gets a 10 year-old salivating. But, you’re right, they were very good back then.
I was never good enough as a player, though. I lost interest at about age 13, when the Beatles and the Stones and all the rest arrived. Suddenly you realized you could have hair over your ears, wear cool clothes, smoke cigarettes, and attract more “birds” than any football player. The game became lost to me then, until the age of 45 when some bastard noticed my accent and said, “You’re English, you can be a soccer coach!” So I became a coach of the school team my 10 year-old daughter was in.
And then I kicked a ball. Wow, that felt good, I thought.
When I was kid, the balls were made out of pig stomach or some such foul stuff, and they had this big string on them that held them together. When you headed one, it hurt like hell and left the imprint of the string on your head. It was always raining, as well, so the ball seemed to fill with water and was too heavy for a little guy like me to handle. And you got filthy and covered with mud.
When I kicked that modern soccer ball I became obsessed and pulled every muscle known to man in my legs for the first year of playing. But I stuck at it and still play in a team. I’m pushing the envelope, though, and at my age it’s getting frustrating. Time to start thinking about shuffleboard, I guess.
SS: Last one. I imagine that when you were a young artist there was a time when an older, more experienced artist gave you some good advice. If so, what was that advice, and what advice would you now give to somebody trying to make his or her own mark?
GP: No one gave me any advice and I wouldn’t have taken it if they did. My advice to any artist is: don’t take advice! (Unless it’s business advice, which you might want to consider, ‘cos you’re a flaky artist.)
SS: Thanks for your time, Graham. It’s been an honor. I’ll be looking forward to your next trip through Denver, which will hopefully be soon…
[Thanks to Jim Booth, Mike Sheehan, Pat Vecchio and Paul Barrow, who offered advice on the questions. And a huge thanks to Don Dixon for putting us in touch with Graham – without his friendship this wouldn’t have happened.]