Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"You Can't Be Too Strong" / Graham Parker & the Rumour

There is a huge hole in my record collection, and it's called Squeezing Out Sparks. I didn't even realize this until this afternoon, when I laid down the book I was reading -- Will Birch's excellent No Sleep Till Canvey Island, the definitive history of British pub rock -- and went onto iTunes to check out early Graham Parker & the Rumour albums. After all, half of the Rumour were in Brinsley Schwarz with Nick Lowe, and Nick produced Parker's early albums . . . well, you get the idea; in my personal rock world, all roads lead to Nick Lowe. (Except for the roads that lead to Ray Davies.)

So there I sat, calling up samples from Squeezing Out Sparks, and track after track hit me with deeply familiar force. I've searched my stacks of vinyl and no, incredibly enough I never owned this record, but I'm guessing that my boyfriend at the time (this would have been 1979) must have had it. In fact, we must have listened to it non-stop -- that's the only way to explain why I know every bit of it by heart, AND why I resisting buying it after the break-up (those must have been some powerful associations). Weird how this slipped into some mental fissure until just now.

I've fixed the problem; I've just ordered my own shiny new copy from Amazon, and I should be getting it in 36 hours. Until then, I'll have to be satisfied with a couple of downloaded tracks. It's a toss-up which slays me more -- "You Can't Be Too Strong" or "Passion Is No Ordinary Word." But the nod goes to "You Can't Be Too Strong"; I can't think of another song about abortion that's so heart-breaking.

He launches straight into it: "Did they tear it out with talons of steel /And give you a shot so that you wouldn't feel /And wash it away as if it wasn't real?" Here's abortion from the perspective of the guy, who I guess wasn't consulted -- "It's just a mistake I won't have to face / Don't give it a name, don't give it a place / Don't give it a chance -- it's lucky in a way." Does he really thinks it lucky? He really doesn't yet know how he feels, and that ambivalence is what makes this song so goddam poignant.

Considering the load of regret and uncertainty this song carries, the arrangement is appropriately sober and simple, just an acoustic guitar, embroidered with a few delicate keyboard fillips from Bob Andrews. Behind all the male bluster -- "I ain't gonna cry, I'm gonna rejoice /And shout myself dry, and go see the boys /They'll laugh when I say, 'I left it overseas'" -- there's a haunting echo of desire in Parker's voice: "But everybody else is squeezing out a spark / That happened in the heat, somewhere in the dark." I love that little vocal echo he throws in, "in the dark," the voice of a helpless kid still trying to sort things out.

He can't help returning to that furtive surgery scene: "The doctor gets nervous, completing the service / He's all rubber gloves and no heart." As the song goes along, the title phrase loads up with irony -- maybe you CAN be too strong, too tough, too hard. The way he pauses, wondering, each time he sings "You can't be too strong" in the chorus -- surely that toughness is a double-edged sword here.

My favorite line has to be "It must have felt strange to find me inside you / I never intended to stay." That's so disturbingly sexy, which I think is the whole point of this song -- how sex turns complicated on people. This guy doesn't know how he feels about all this, or how he feels about the girl now. And he leaves it there, confused and numb and unresolved. Perfect.

This song reminds me of what might have happened if you could throw the earnest young Bruce Springsteen into a cocktail shaker with the rueful wit of Joe Jackson; that gritty soulfulness in Parker's voice lays on so much passion, but he can hold back and leave things unsaid. I'm still puzzling over this song, 25 years later. It's long past time to bring Graham Parker back onto my playlist. I can't wait for this CD to arrive.

You Can't Be Too Strong sample


Anonymous said...

Oh my Holly. That IS a great song. And "Squeezing Out Sparks" has always been my favorite Graham Parker record.

Nice to have you back.


Julie said...

I was lucky enough to see Parker live a couple of months ago. He was superb.