FIRST ANNUAL GRAHAM PARKER MARATHON
"Bad Chardonnay" / Graham Parker & the Figgs
The first time I heard Songs of No Consequence -- which, I gotta be honest, was only two weeks ago -- it made me laugh out loud. I never expected Graham Parker to be still making music this irresistibly catchy, rock & roll this sharp and lively. (Maybe it's his current backing band, the Figgs, who bumped up his adrenaline.) I have to admit, all the Nick Lowe fans out there who keep moaning that Nick needs to rock out more should just switch over to being Graham Parker fans and be done with it. (Leave more Nick for me.)
And -- who knew? -- on this album, which came out in 2005, Graham Parker's back in full "angry young man" mode. Okay, technically he's not a young man anymore, not as such. But it's not cranky old man anger, it's the scathing satire of an outraged guy in his twenties. Just look at some of those song titles -- "Vanity Press," "Suck 'n Blow," "There's Nothing On the Radio," the unambiguous "Evil," and the horrified "Did Everybody Just Get Old?" The hookiest song on the album, "Chloroform," is a withering portrait of some low-life hustler whom Parker describes, "You look like you been marked for life / And given up for dead / You look like you got someone else's / Hair growing out of your head." Feel-good music? I don't think so. But fun? Yes indeed.
In "Bad Chardonnay," Parker presents himself as an irascible veteran of the road, offering -- well, I wouldn't say advice exactly, but words of gnarled wisdom to his younger colleagues. "Don't gimme any lip, son," he snarls in the first verse, "Don't gimme any grief / I've been around the block and back / From Maine to Tenerife." (Love that juxtapostion.) "Yeah, I got my act together," he declares, adding with a wink and a shrug, "Okay, it's just an act." Subtle, effortless word play there.
In the chorus, where he professes to divulge the secret of his success, he tosses off a sustained send-up of pretentious wine tasting jargon: "You need a real long finish that never quits / Like English treacle on hominy grits / A buttery flavor that goes on and on / With a hint of grease and a nose too long." That's the part where I laughed out loud -- what a snarky parody. And yet, and yet, and yet . . . this is an absolutely spot on description of Graham Parker's music. His best rockers do build up to a big finish; the richness of his imagery could easily be called "buttery"; and certainly that hint of rockabilly greasiness is there. "English treacle on hominy grits" -- has anybody ever better described the 1970s' peculiar fusion of British pop with southern blues?
Verse two, where he describes the life of a touring musician ("I've seen this mighty continent / From the back seat of a van"), dispels all the glamor of rock-star existence. In verse three, he sardonically adds: "I've hit the bottom many times / And it's not always that bad / In fact it's kind of comforting / Like the friend you never had." He's not asking you to feel sorry for him, like the typical rock star self-pitying life-on-the-road song. ("Homeward Bound," this is not, and certainly not "Sitting in My Hotel Room.") No, he's the anti-hero of his own Crazy Heart.
Meanwhile, the song rockets impishly along, with emphatic drums and twitchy guitar, Graham crooning into the mike in his best raspy R&B vocals. The singer may be a disillusioned wreck, but rock and roll is a cruel mistress, and she will not let him rest. "But you got to do it your own way," he wails, resigned, "on cigarettes and bad chardonnay." The great songwriters know it's all in the details; it only takes those two swift details to nail the gritty tedium of a second-tier rock artist's life. Personally I don't think I'll ever order chardonnay again without thinking of this song -- and laughing.