Thursday, May 13, 2010


"Wrapping Paper" / Graham Parker

I admit I'm a Graham Parker newbie -- at least when it comes to his later music -- so please forgive me if I'm still gobsmacked by Struck By Lightning. I first heard this 1991 album a few days ago, while driving the New York State Thruway, somewhere between Poughkeepsie and Coxsackie. I was alone in the car at the time, which was doubly frustrating because I just had to tell somebody what a masterpiece I was listening to.

I'd like to say that this was the song that finally proved Graham Parker's genius to me; the truth is, I was pretty well convinced before this track. But that doesn't change the fact that it is a glorious song indeed.

Pop music is full of break-up songs, but we have astonishingly few make-up songs -- and hardly any as powerful as this one. A tender rootsy waltz, it's ruefully honest, as the singer 'fesses up to his mistakes: "I've broken your glass / Called someone a dirty name / Made a nuisance of myself / In front of friends." Who here hasn't gone through a trainwreck of a night like that? Notice how he deliberately refrains from the obvious rhyme of "glass" and "ass" -- in fact this song has hardly any rhyming at all, striving instead for plain, unvarnished reality.

But now it's time for reconciliation, and in the chorus he stretches out a hand for forgiveness:
Speak to me girl, speak to me darling
You're not a princess, I'm not prince charming,
Speak with your tongue, use body language,
Stretch your skin like wrapping paper round my heart.
That just slays me. Though it's a cliche, the truth is that love does mean never having to say you're sorry; they're well past abject apologies or whiny pleading. With all pretense stripped away, they're just a couple, flawed and human, cleaving to each other like the marriage vows say. His imagery stuns me -- I love how it melds the physical and the emotional, for in a real partnership the two are one and the same. And I love how his melody underscores it, swinging coaxingly through that 3/4 tempo, especially the soaring last line -- as he flings his voice into "wrapping paper" it's almost like he's lassoing her heart all over again.
In verse two, he admits he isn't always on his best behavior ("Sometimes I feel the kick has gone / It gets mundane / So I team up with the devil / And make hell"). That restlessness is part of any long term relationship, isn't it? And verse three highlights the domestic baggage, the stuff they pack up as they move from town to town -- stuff that matters very little, when it comes right down to it. (This verse in particular reminded me of the Kinks' heartbreaking song "Property"). But always it circles around to that chorus, to that essential spark between them that makes the whole dance worth it.

The Americana sound of this album was a surprising, and as it turns out revelatory, choice for Graham Parker. The New Wave clangor, the "angry young man" attitude, has been replaced by the plangent whine of a dobro and a wistful cornet solo in the bridge. And along with that acoustic twang I hear a likeness to John Hiatt, yet another songwriter who really gets what grown-up marriage is all about. Struck By Lightning is so much deeper and more lyrical than I ever expected Graham Parker's music could be. No wonder I nearly drove off the highway!


Anonymous said...

GP has pulled "Wrapping Paper" out recently at his solo shows. It's like hearing Shakespeare recite a sonnet.
I believe the thunderclap in "Weeping Statues" is the best moment in any rock song. It is an epiphany. Why is GP not better known? "Lightning strikes at everyone but only hits the very lucky". We in Parkerville are jealous of you.

Casey said...

Luv your observations. I was listening with fresh ears.

I always thought this was a lost gem...and hope to introduce this song on my blog in the future. (if I don't change my mind & choose another GP song...he has so many good'uns.)
Your writing's the best, as well.
Good stuff!

NickS said...

Very nice. I've had Squeezing Out Sparks for a while and like it, but have never felt real affection for it, but I like this very much.

It makes me think that I should look for other Graham Parker albums.

TwennydollaBill said...

Holly-you are onto something good here with your GP fascination. His care and precision in songwriting is unmatched--even by my other heroes Hiatt & Davies & Dylan. Spin back "And it Shook Me" for a real insight into GP's faith in the power of love and his disdain for the beast of organized religion: 'Some folks believe in a heaven up above/with a god who forgives all with his great love/well I forgive you if you forgive me, hey, who needs the third party anyway." Amen.

Holly A Hughes said...

I have to admit, I caught the end of one of GP's acoustic sets a year and a half ago at the Tarrytown Music Hall -- he was opening for Nick Lowe -- and I remember being amazed by the songs I heard, as well as laughing like crazy at his stage banter. I think I would have remembered this particular song, though. I believe I heard "Boy with the Butterfly Net" that night, but I could be wrong. It was all completely new material to me, at any rate. I said to myself that I had to go home and check out more of GP's music...but then Nick kinda wiped everything else away. He tends to do that to me.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Jesus, Holly, what a wicked smart, wicked sweet post. OK, now I have to read you every day.

Betty C. said...

I'm back! I used to be quite the GP fan and have seen him at least 5 times...hell, I've even met him! But since my musical wasteland -- I think that's your term -- started in 1990 when I moved to France, I DO NOT KNOW THIS SONG OR THIS ALBUM!

Amazon 1-click, here I come!

Holly A Hughes said...

Don't worry, Betty, I was clueless about this stuff as well -- Parker has been working fairly below the radar these past several years. A cryin' shame, really.

Good to see you again!

PS WAUA, it would be my pleasure to see you here every day!

wwolfe said...

I thought "Brand New Book" could have been a hit single off this album - at least, it could have been in a pre-MTV, non-Clear Channel world. (Say, 1973, in other words.) "Wrapping Paper didn't make a big impression on me as a 32-year-old when this album came out in 1991, but it's a pretty amazing song as I listen to it now at 51. That's a too-little-recognized fact about music, and art in general: it doesn't simply need to be good, WE need to be at the right moment in our lives to understand it, as well. ("My Love's Strong," from the preceding "Human Soul" album, was one of the cuts on my imaginary Dusty Springfield album - the one I'd get to produce when I sold a bazillion albums of my fantastically catchy pop songs. Ah, well.)

Holly A Hughes said...

That's a wonderful insight, wwolfe. A good reason for revisiting those old vinyl albums that are slowly warping in the basement...