Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When I Was King / Graham Parker

We're long past due for a Graham Parker post, my friends and faithful readers.

The Graham Parker world has been buzzing lately over two groundbreaking pieces of news.  Firstly, Graham has reunited with his old backing band, The Rumour, for a new album entitled (don't you love it?) Three Chords Good.  And as if that weren't enough, long-time Parker fan and film director Judd Apatow has tapped GP and the Rumour to appear in his new film, a sequel to Knocked Up starring Paul Rudd, set to be released in December 2012 (if we can wait that long!). Is that cool or what?

Now, anyone who knows how funny Graham can be should know that he's just been waiting for an opportunity like this to shine on camera. I predict that he's about to experience a truly epic (and long overdue) career revival. A year from now everyone will be claiming to be Parkeristas, just like everyone this fall claims to be a Nick Lowe fan.  Here's your chance to be ahead of the curve and get hip to Graham Parker before the masses move in.

You'll find this track on 1991's Struck By Lightning, which just may be my favorite Graham Parker album ever.  (And that's going some.) Side note:  The Rumour's Andrew Bodnar plays bass on this album, and Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello's Attractions is the drummer.  The Band's Garth Hudson and the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian sit in on a few tracks as well -- not too shabby, eh?

Back in 1979, when Squeezing Out Sparks gave Graham Parker and the Rumour their biggest US success, they pretty much were kings.  By 1991, that was well in Graham's past -- but does he sound bitter or regretful?  No way.  In fact, he seems to have all the confidence of an artist who knows he's doing his best work ever, whether or not the world is listening. (I wasn't even listening in 1991 -- it took me years to rediscover Graham Parker.)

"When I was king," he muses, "I was not really the man I am now."  There's just a whiff of satire to that rising melody, the mock stately rhythm lagging behind the beat with noblesse oblige. And the trappings of royalty -- or of pop success -- are almost laughably ephemeral:  a "throne of china," a crown fit only to be melted down "to sell as scrap." But being a king is a sort of trap, too:  "But they'd run the first run of stamps / People had cashed in their post office savings / To buy some and lick the back of my neck."  It's deliciously absurd, but poignant all the same. The coronation happens anyway, and in a sort of fairy-tale reality, he finds himself ruling over "some green and pleasant land / With a frog and a princess, not necessarily in that order." 

"I didn't want to be king anyway," Graham protests; "I always preferred to hang out with the servants."  I love that line; to me, that epitomizes the common-man approach that makes Graham Parker's work so special.  Posturing and pretension have never been his thing. (Bruce Springsteen has spent his career trying to convey the same real-guy honesty; I never buy it from him, but from Graham I do, one hundred percent.)

And after all, what would be the point of being king?  "When I was king," he continues in the third verse, "there was no country left to rule / Jesters and fools were leaders / All of them a royal pain." (How could he resist a pun like that?)  Too late, perhaps, he realizes he has to get back on top: "Now I'm a serf / But I'm still trying to be a king  . . .  I'll have to assassinate someone / With a guitar as a gun."

"Oh, it's good to be a king," he'll admit.  (Who can forget Mel Brooks' classic line from History of the World Part One -- "It's good to be the king.") "I know that I've been there / Many, many, many, many kingdoms ago..."  Fashions in pop music come and go, and being yesterday's hit-maker means nothing today.  There's definitely something wistful about this sweet, soaring melody, but he's not weighed down with regret; it's the way of the world, and he can take it in stride.

But let's think -- who were the hitmakers in 1991?  Nirvana and Pearl Jam were signaling the rise of grunge, while Guns 'n' Roses was unseating Metallica.  R.E.M. and U2 were already peaking (though both continued to release music for many more years).  Bryan Adams, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, and Michael Bolton ruled the charts; Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the Divinyl's "I Touch Myself" filled the airwaves.  So who was ever going to notice a stripped-down, folk-inflected album like Struck By Lightning?

On the other hand, who noticed the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society album in 1968?  The satire and lyrical tenderness of that album was out of step with the times, just as Struck By Lightning was out of step with 1991.  But here's the thing about truly great albums: When you finally discover them, they seem as fresh as yesterday.


Anonymous said...

I have been a fan of Graham Parker
since his first tour of America,
and have attended his shows ever since. Springsteen is also a fan, and in my opinion, he is every bit a "real guy" as Parker.

Holly A Hughes said...

Good for you! I know Springsteen is a huge GP fan -- some even say he based his sound on Parker's -- but I regret to say that (and this is strictly my own personal opinion) something about Springsteen strikes me as pretentious. I believe the guy is sincere, but his music gets way too bombastic and overproduced for my taste, and he seems compelled to preach, to "define" America, because he takes himself so seriously. I prefer wit and subtlety, both of which Graham Parker has in spades. Parker rants, but he doesn't preach -- there's a huge difference. I liked Springsteen when he first came out, but as soon as he really hit it big, I got turned off. And you know, there isn't any litmus test for one's taste in music: you like what you like, you love what you love, you hate what you hate.

William said...

Great post, Holly. Thanks for reminding me to revisit my Graham Parker albums. At different times, Squeezing Out Sparks and The Mona Lisa's Sister were both constant companions, but I missed Struck By Lightning. I look forward to checking it out, along with some of his more recent stuff. Hats off to Judd Apatow for shining the light on Graham.

Alex said...

Love this album, too -- although there are probably 5 or 6 GP records I like better.

On the other hand, when I first heard "A Brand New Book" (also on Struck By Lightning), my heard nearly exploded with musical delight when he name-checked Badfinger. The very idea that an artist I loved would refer to another artist I loved was more delightful than I could stand.

TwennydollaBill said...

Parker frequently writes about the fleeting nature of fame, and leaves us to draw analogies to our own lives. This song is a beautiful example of this, as is “Fear Not” from 1982’s Another Grey Area. I’ve always taken “Fear Not” as the ‘pre-quel’ to “When I Was King”, GP’s comforting words to his family that the yoke of fame won’t last forever:

The dark hand will call you out of nowhere it seems
The black cloud will bust apart shattering your dreams....
...Fear not baby fear not
Fear not, It's going to end
...it's just some fool in the crowd tonight
who wants my name written on his hand
I won't give away anything more than the ink from my pen
You ought to know when you look at me love is something you can't offend--GP

You don’t need to be on the downslide from celebrity to appreciate the feeling of living in an illusion, the Buddhists call it “maya” and it puts the ‘dark hand’ of this cruel world back in its place.

Thanks for spreading the word.