An A to Z series of artists I love. And who else could be P but:
Graham Parker /
Throw a dart at a pile of all of Graham Parker's albums, and the odds are overwhelming that you'll hit a great song. Now, I'm not saying you should really do this -- because, you know, scratches -- but you get my drift. The man simply does not write bad songs; or if he does, he has the good taste (unlike some major artists I know) not to record them, or to put them on his albums.
In fact, Graham Parker has so many great songs that his new career-spanning box set, These Dreams Will Never Sleep, dropping today (order here or here) -- which is packed with 6 CDs of studio and live tracks -- doesn't have room for all my favorites. Like this one . . .
It's from 2007's Don't Tell Columbus, which some Parker fans -- including me -- consider one of his greatest solo albums. (If I have any beef at all with this new box set, it's that it gorges on GP's work with the Rumour and doesn't have enough of his seriously brilliant solo stuff, which is the material that made me a lifelong Parker fan). My fellow Parkerista Jerry Leibowitz did a pretty wonderful job of dissecting the album's greatness here on his blog, I Discovered America, which is named after Track 1 of this album.
"Suspension Bridge" is a sort of dark slinky samba, all chromatic melody and diminished and minor chords, with a sinuous syncopated guitar riff lacing it all together with a hint of menace. I consider this song Graham Parker's dark-star equivalent to William Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" and "Tintern Abbey" -- it's haunted by the past, telescoping childhood and adult perceptions, suffused with a sense of loss.
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 fixates on the futility of human effort.
In verse 2 he seems to be in the present, but in 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: "And the stories that my daddy told me / About the place on the other side." Heaven and hell? We-ellll...for the time being, let's say it's just crossing the river, and GP recalls the info he committed to heart: "About the dip of the chains and the height of the piers / And the men who worked there and died." 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.
The chorus resolves into major key, and an almost anthemic grandeur: "I'm still standing here / On that suspension bridge / With the wind blowing through my hair." But don't take anything for granted. Graham Parker is a master of metaphor, and when we think about what a suspension bridge is -- linking two shores, but hanging perilously in mid-air -- well, it's a balancing act. Industrial Revolution technology gave man the power to span wider and deeper channels, but only by being willing to sway in the wind.
Sources suggest that the suspension bridge Parker's referring to is the Clifton Suspension Bridge in North Somerset, a classic 19th-century bridge by the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It's a fair way from GP's childhood home in Deepcut, Surrey (hence the title of his great 2001 album Deepcut to Nowhere), but not too far for a father-and-son bonding field trip.
The second time he sings the chorus, he adds a couple of telling 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. It's an elegy, and I'm grieving because -- do I know Graham Parker's father? No, but my dad died too, and I've never gotten over it.
I can't listen to this song without pondering all 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.
And Graham Parker is just too much of an artist to let you rest easy with the bridges in your life.