Monday, May 21, 2012

Suspension Bridge /
Graham Parker

Forget the Monday Shuffle I had just begun to write -- when a great Graham Parker song dials up on the old iTunes, it's almost impossible to move past it. And this track from his brilliant 2007 album Don't Tell Columbus is such a favorite of mine, I'm amazed to find I haven't written about it before.

Okay, here's the link so you can listen.  Because, sadly, I have to assume that you may not yet own the entire Graham Parker oeuvre, though you really should....

Suspension Bridge

Dig that moody vibe, right from the get-go, the haunting minor key and the syncopated guitar riff, repeated like a tic -- oh so simple and yet instantly mesmerizing. The same dark enchantment that Marc Ribot's guitar gave Tom Waits' Rain Dogs completely permeates this track.

We're in nostalgia territory, yet it's not feel-good nostalgia, despite the first verse's vignette of a loving dad and son: "My daddy took me to see it / When I was no more than 10 / They'd just finished painting the metal / Then they had to start all over again." That's just the kind of information a kid would latch onto -- Dad's trying to impress him with the size of the bridge, while the boy gets an entirely different message, a troubling sense of the futility of human effort. It's like freaking Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey, intimations of immortality and all that.

The chorus drops into a sorta major key as it sweeps us to the present: "I'm still standing there on that suspension bridge/ With the wind blowing through my head" -- the boy is father to the man, eh? -- but before he completes it he drops back into minor key, sketching a landscape worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: "And the daredevil pilots fly over me / And the suicide lovers swim under the sea / And the murderers submit an innocent plea / And the prisoners dream of the free." Welcome to adult life, son.

In the third verse, he time travels back to that afternoon with his father -- again, a tender scene (despite that brooding key), as the storyteller dad entertains his boy: "And the stories that my daddy told me / About the place on the other side / About the dip of the chains and the height of the piers / And the men who worked there and died." Not heart-warming stories, but stories calculated to awe and overwhelm. Remember when you were a kid, how your parents seemed to know everything? How reassuring that felt -- and how lost we sometimes feel as adults, without that illusion.

So what is this song about?  The second time he sings the chorus, he adds a couple of lines: "Not in one world or the other / Losing my father like I lost my mother" -- which suggests to me that this was inspired by his father's death. This is total surmise on my part -- for all I know, Mr. Parker Senior is still alive and well in England, pontificating on bridge engineering -- but my gut tells me this is an elegy of some sort. And even though Graham's autobiographical suspension bridge was probably in England, I'm stuck on imagining it as one of the New York area bridges that felt suddenly so fragile after the tragic events of 9/11. (After all, GP has lived in the US a long time now, and Don't Tell Columbus is largely a meditation on his adopted home.)

Wherever the real suspension bridge is, this song somehow transforms it into a metaphor. Nothing heavy-handed, mind you -- Graham Parker's poetic craftsmanship is a subtle wonder. But I can't listen to this song without pondering the bridges in my life: between youth and adulthood, between life and death, between one homeland and another, between being a child and being a parent oneself.  Suspension bridges may be miracles of engineering, defying nature -- but they still sway in the wind, and halfway over I always look down at the water far below and freak out.  You cross them at your peril.


Alex said...

Great, moody piece about a great, moody song. Much as I love GP's rockier songs, this type of song might be the best suited to his voice -- a thing of weathered beauty that can really bring out the double-edged sword of life experiences.

wwolfe said...

Lovely write-up. Thanks, Holly.

Holly A Hughes said...

It does baffle me when I hear GP referred to as a hard-drivin' rocker, when he can also turn out songs htis thoguhtful and tender. The man truly has the soul of a poet.

NickS said...

Thank you -- that's a nice song which I would have missed without you highlighting it. In that regard it reminds me of your comments about, "Lately I've Let Things Slide" by Nick Lowe -- another late career song which is slightly unassuming and would be easily to overlook if you didn't listen carefully.

I do have a question, you write so well and with such appreciate for these sorts of songs which touch on the emotional weight which can be found is moments of memory and life experience that I always wonder why you don't ever seem to include folkier songs.

It isn't a complaint about that song but it seems curious to me. In the same way that if somebody were writing about a lot of songs about heartbreak it would make sense to listen to some county music to go along with the pop music -- even though there are lots of bad country songs about heartbreak there are also some of greatest songs ever written.

In the same way, a post like this one makes me wonder what you'd do if you got your teeth into some of the great folk or singer/songwriter songs out there.

Take, for example, Seven Summers a song from the opposite perspective of the parent/child relationship and the young child who is confused and distressed by the year of unseasonable weather. You can see the fit of style and subject -- that could be done as a pop song, but as an acoustic song in a traditional style it's gorgeous and full of unforced emotional weight.

(Note, when I first read your post I immediately thought of some great elegiac songs but then I remembered that I've been talking up Dave Goulder lately and thought that one would be a good choice.)

Perhaps I'm too much of a folkie. I realize that the subtitle of the blog is specifies, "Rock Songs" but, as I say, you seem to enjoy these sort of songs and, if you do, it seems odd to limit yourself to just pop songs.