Still Squeezing Out Sparks:
By Alan Bisbort

Maybe it's just me but I need some bitter with my sweet, and Graham Parker has always delivered both in perfect combination. From his first album, way back in 1976, Howlin' Wind, to his 35th and latest, Deepcut to Nowhere (Razor & Tie), as well as his new book of writings, Carp Fishing on Valium (St. Martin's), Parker has put the goods on the table—a righteous combination of punk, poetry and soulful swagger that few others in rock music can rival. Whether people have rushed to buy Parker's goods is another matter, often beyond his control, but the quality has always been there.

If you don't know Graham Parker, now is the time to make an introduction, because his latest recordings are as great as anything he has ever done. New songs like "I'll Never Play Jacksonville Again" and "It Takes a Village Idiot" stick in the memory the way early Parker classics like "Passion Is No Ordinary Word" or "Discovering Japan" do. He also has the forthcoming King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Graham Parker, a live album recorded in 1983. And he appears on two new tribute albums, Down the Dirt Road [Telarc], an homage to Charley Patton; and Labour of Love [Telarc], containing loving covers of the songs of Nick Lowe (whose own new album, The Convincer, on the Yeproc label, is one of the year's best).

The transplanted Brit—Parker lives half the year in London—is still a sight to behold in concert, a short, slight, sharp man in sunglasses with the voice of a lion. He can lull you with tough love songs or sucker-punch you with a line like, "I don't appeal to the masses/And they don't appeal to me," both balanced on infectuous rock hooks.

One of the most remarkable things about Parker may be his survival instinct. Despite having filled concert halls around the world and recorded albums that almost always sound like instant classics, Parker's biggest "hit" was the 1979 Squeezing Out Sparks, recorded with his old band The Rumour, an album on nearly every critic's "greatest rock and roll albums" list. His biggest payday, on the other hand, may have been when Rod Stewart covered his "Hotel Chambermaid." Go figure.

If inability to sell out is a measure of greatness, Parker is more punk than Johnny Rotten ever was, and they both hit the British scene about the same time. Anal critics, however, insisted on calling Parker and the Rumour "pub rockers," a pejorative label in the wrong hands. "In many countries, pubs are the only places bands can play on their way up and, as it happens, on their way down too. It's just unfortunate that the term means 'loser'," he explains.

And despite his reputation as the angriest man in rock music, Parker can pen and perform hopeful songs like "Life Gets Better" and "Nobody Hurts You (Harder Than Yourself)." He's also charming to a fault in person, as well as generous with his time on a Web site devoted to his music, www.grahamparker.net. His give-and-take segments with his fans are voluminous, dating back four years and going into all manner of topics. Parker may sing about paranoia, alienation and lack of commitment in his music, but he is connected to this world.

I recently caught up with him, by phone, at his home in upstate New York.

AB: How long have you lived in America?

GP: I've always maintained two places, one in England and one here. I don't like that sort of settled thing. Being settled always sounded like a log on the bottom of the river to me. I've divided time between the two, but I've had a place here in the mountains since 1988. The Catskill Mountains.

I recently did a profile of Ian Hunter who has been smitten with this area too. He lives up in New Milford, just over the border in Connecticut.

Right. He's lived there for awhile, hasn't he?

Yes, since 1979 or 1980. He's kept a place in New York City for recording and what have you, but you and he have some of the similar situations.

Yeah, but I haven't completely lost England. I spend more time here in America, so I'm more into the politics here. Depends on the year really. This summer I'm going to spend a lot of time in London. But I do most of my work here. I'll often spend two years straight here and lose touch with England, I go back and the coinage has changed. There's all this weird stuff, you know jars full of old pocket change in my flat over there, and I go into a store and I'm holding everyone up in line. 'What the hell have you got there, geezer?'

Photo by Bjorn Melbye

As long as you aren't buying any meat, you'll be OK. At this point, they'll give you the meat, so coinage won't be an issue.

Right. It's been that way for a few years. Mad cow, and now foot and mouth. I never expected foot and mouth to come back. I thought that was long gone.

Are you sufficiently American at this point to be engrossed by, or grossed out by, this whole Bush debacle?

I was here during all the election fiasco. America is writ large. England is very small time, it always seems so quaint to me. America is written on this large scale. It's pretty fascinating, it's entertainment. Quite a marvel to watch.

I'm glad you got marvel out of it. I'm usually in despair by noon every day when I realize this fool is President.

That's quite a shock, really. I'm still trying to get used to that. It's got to be really frustrating for you being an American much more than an Englishman, because this is your country and it was like the election was rigged, like any Third World country. The judges come along and just rig it. [laughs uproariously]. It's amazing, it's so blatant. And this in a country that just goes on and on about fair play and its laws and its Constitution. It's a fascinating arena.

I have trouble keeping up with your prolific output. I have 12 Haunted Episodes and Acid Bubblegum [both on Razor and Tie] both of which I listen to as much as your early stuff.

Well, you're up to speed, pretty much.

There are more recent recordings, aren't there?

No, no. There's just a Spare Tracks, Lost Demos, which is available on the Internet only. It was a sidebar project on my own imaginary record label called Upyours Records.

You've been with Razor and Tie as long or longer than you have been with anybody.

Yeah, they distributed the demo thing, too, called it Spare Monkeys. It's a collection of tracks I found in my flat in London, I had all these demos, with me on various instruments, and a few tracks with me and a whole band, some with Brinsley Schwarz.

How far back do they go? Do they predate the Rumour?

Nothing like that. They come from the 1980s mostly. And 1990s. A lot of songs were demos. Songs that were rejected from other albums, for whatever reasons. A lot of them are very interesting and good enough for a separate album.

You had hit single of sorts with a Jackson 5 song ["I Want You Back"] that was never on an album, was it?

Right, that was just for fun, but the temptation to put it on record is just too great. But, you know, a song like that wouldn't have fit on any of my albums. I did that song a bit before Squeezing Out Sparks [Arista, 1979] and it wouldn't have fit on that album. But that Loose Monkeys was the last thing I've put out. And now I've just completed a new record [Deepcut to Nowhere (Razor & Tie)]. Finally. I can't believe it's been five years since Acid Bubblegum.

I particularly like one of your lines from Acid Bubblegum. Your lyrical content has gotten sharper and sharper with each album, not that it wasn't sharp to begin with, but the line I particularly like is "I don't appeal to the masses, and they don't appeal to me."

Vin Sclesa, the deejay, uses that line. He's got a show on WNEW. He's the only good deejay in New York, and his show is "Idiot's Delight." They let him play what he likes and that's his motto, "I don't appeal to the masses and they don't appeal to me."

Does that sort of sum up how you see yourself in the larger scheme of the rock music industry? Not rock music, per se, but the music industry itself? Is it better to simply acknowledge that sort of chasm between yourself and the lowest common denominator rather than destroy your talent and soul trying to bridge it?

Well, it's better to come up with a line like that and enjoy it, have fun with it, not take it deeply in any sense. Of course, the line is true, it's true for a lot of artists. I find that when I write something like that it really cracks me up, makes me roar. I'm basically trying to keep myself amused with this stuff.

There are a number of lines like that in many of your songs that just leap out at the listener, but they get extra power by being tied to this very infectuous and tight melodic or rhythmic hook, so they kind of sneak past you and you're still thinking about them after the song continues on.

That's the game, trying to make it count on all the approaches.

You've been disenchanted with the music industry in the past, but is there any reason to be less disenchanted these days?

It doesn't get any easier. It's not really an original complaint to talk about radio. It's kind of tired ground. The status quo remains the same. I see myself as being lucky that I came along in 1976 when if you signed a record deal you were guaranteed to be on a label for four albums. Rain or shine. That was the way it was. I had that kind of luck all the way through RCA in 1990s. Some of the horror stories I hear about new bands that even sell a lot of records on their time out, but the writing is on the wall for them on their second album after about three weeks, and that's it. That's the end of it for them. A few years later they're back at the checkout counter wondering what happened. I think those people would have more reason to discuss that kind of thing than me.

It just doesn't get any easier. You've got lots of independent labels, which is great, since you didn't have that kind of choice before, but they can't sell records in real music, to use a word out of the blue... I read an article the other day about I think it was the Jayhawks, and the writer said, 'What if you made a classic and nobody cared?' And that's the state we're in now, where you could make a great album of this kind of music, you know, three and a half minute, four minute songs of multi-influenced music, and it could be absolutely great, considered great, and nobody would care. You know what I mean?

Sure, I've been somewhat confused by critical reaction to your stuff, because I find, say, that Acid Bubblegum stands up to anything you've recorded, upon repeated listenings too. I must have listened to Squeezing Out Sparks and the Real Macaw [Arista, 1983] hundreds of times and they hold up. But so do the newer recordings. I don't know whether it was the time that dictated the reaction to those earlier albums, when people were more open to new and inventive rock and roll, or whether Squeezing Out Sparks was just a seamless production from start to finish, no gaps.

No, it's not that. It's basically... I've been extremely lucky with the press. You've got to admit, there's been reams of really nice stuff written about me. But in the past few years most magazines of importance, say, Rolling Stone or whatever have decided to call a spade a spade and realize that they really want to survive and sell magazines, therefore they can't really feature an artist who doesn't sell records, unless they're really weird and unusual and on a trend. Anything that's just plain really good is not going to get the credence it deserves. And that applies to a lot of artists, as well. I'm not complaining here, you know.

When you're at the tender age of a 5 with a nasty zero about to follow it, you're not meant to be good, they don't want you to be good. Other areas of the arts, perhaps in the fine arts or acting, you can come into your own in your 50s and 60s. They don't want this to happen with pop music, because you are not an exciting person. You're not going into rehab or dating actresses, you know what I mean? You're not...they don't want you to have a good record. They don't want to know that you've actually gotten better, because it's not going to interest the public.

It's all a business decision. I came to realize that long ago and don't take it personally. The reason MTV gave Nirvana a chance was because Def Leppard and Poison were not pulling in the numbers they'd been pulling, so they better try something else. They are not there to educate the youth of America and tell them "Poison is not rock and roll... Nirvana is." They're not there to tell them that. When my albums are ignored by the press, it was a matter of timing. Acid Bubblegum didn't get reviewed anywhere, didn't get the credence it deserved. Basically, it was "Next! Bring somebody exciting! Bring somebody weird! i.e. bring an asshole!" [laughing]. That's obviously frustrating when you make a great record. But as I always say when this comes up, this applies to so many people in music and the arts, not just me.

That segues right into another project you've worked on in recent years. That is, your work on the Jack Kerouac Visions of Cody [Penguin] audio book was one of the finest I've heard in that genre.

Thanks for saying that. I had fun with that.

That book wasn't even published in its entirety until after he died.

Unreal, yeah. He's more popular now than ever.

Kerouac meant a lot to me coming up as an adolescent, he's very American, and that was his finest work, but it too was ignored. It happens to everyone. He lived to be only 47.

Yeah, he was gone pretty quick.

How did that come about? It seemed an unusual pairing when I saw it in the shop, a British rock and roller and a French-Canadian-American wordsmith, but I bought it and was just amazed by it.

Most people probably thought, I'm not one of those weirdo Beat people, when they saw that pairing. I haven't heard a lot of the other Beat audiobooks but from what I've heard of other readers in general I think I'm better than most in that mode. And the Kerouac thing came about because some guy who works with his estate is a big fan of mine and I've done a few things on stage of his stuff with David Amram backing me. David is a genius and he plays on that record. I've been at Town Hall and St. Marks Place in New York giving readings where Ginsberg and Lee Rinaldo and all the usual suspects turn up to do this stuff. Viking Penguin said to him, 'Can you get Graham to do a book for us?' because they heard me read at one of those gigs. I was thrilled to do it. Talking about reading, I have a book of my own just out.

Right, that was one of the things I wanted to ask you about before I signed off, the book Carp Fishing on Valium [St. Martin's].

Well, I just did shows based on that, a sort of tour of 15 or 20 gigs where I would read from the book and then play a song I'd written especially for it. I was out there on stage with my fans really pushing them to the limit. It was the most challenging thing I've ever done. I was doing acting, portraying the characters in the book, doing the accents.

How did that go over?

It went over great in many places. It was interesting because there'd be a few hecklers who wanted me to do "White Honey" or what have you. And I had to give these people a piece of my mind and tell them, "This is the show. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out I'm not going to play "Hotel Chambermaid". But it was fun. The audience would scream, "Yeah GP go!" Mostly they were very patient with it, because I was reading segments with five or six pages, which is a lot of reading, maybe fifteen minutes and I'd have to try and keep calm and not panic, to really make it work. And then I'd do the song. It was very difficult. A real trip every night for me. But some of the audience was really great about it. Some said 'it was the best show you've ever done,' and so forth. I'm sure the hecklers were the tip of a small iceberg.

The same thing happened with Ray Davies and his Storyteller tour.

Ah, I wish I'd seen that, you know.

It took some getting adjusted on the audience's part. One of the performances was in a punk club in New Haven that was packed. I guess they were expecting, well, I don't know what they were expecting, but there Ray was with his open book, acting out his prose. Once they got into it, it was great. It did so well, in fact, that he booked a separate tour later, one that he'd never anticipated doing. Maybe you have found a new niche.

I don't know. Whatever I'm into, I'm into. But because it's been five years since the release of Acid Bubblegum, I have a backlog of songs I've written and I've got the book out of my system, and a couple of the songs I wrote for the Carp Fishing tour will be on the new album, they were just so good they transcended the fact that they were part of a separate project. The book inspired them, but they could be on any GP album.

I really admire the level of engagement that you have with your fans. On one of the Web sites, there's this voluminous Q & A that you've done.

Oh yeah, that's on the www.grahamparker.net.

There is a mutual level of intelligence at work there. There are the usual tedious questions but most are pretty intelligent ones.

The Web site manager doesn't send any of the real tedious ones to me. He gets them and compiles a list and mails them to me. Leaves out the ones that ask, "When are you playing in my town?" I've answered that kind of question too many times. I don't know where I'm going today, and I don't sit around thinking, "I simply MUST play Boise, Idaho next year."

Or I must play Perth.

Right [laughing]. My agent sees where the money is and books me. So, the Web guy keeps all the tedious email questions. Some of them do border on intelligent, very smart.

It's give and take. I like that. When you do get a booked engagement, do you have a band you can pull together on a moment's notice?

No, not on a moment's notice. I don't have that kind of pool of musicians from which to draw. I think my music is too difficult for that. They have to be into it all the way. It's not like... there are too many little nuances and subtleties, twists and turns in the chords, they're very unflat to do. If you play one of my songs, which probably appears rather simple to most people, if you play it straight ahead, it's not right, it's no good. There has to be push and pull thing inside my songs. For that, I need to tour with a band, and tell them, "you guys are committed." I don't have guys like that right now. When this album comes out, though, I should really do some gigs with musicians and that is as yet undetermined but I'm talking to the guys in the Figgs. This young group. I'm talking to them about it because, well, because they're a cheap date, basically. They have a van. They sleep in it. [laughs] And they are good.

Do other people cover your songs?

The last one was Rod Stewart, a few years ago, he covered "Hotel Chambermaid." There are lots of little ones going on all the time. There's another guy who runs a Web site called Struck By Lightning, who emails me about bands. A really interesting German artist, avant garde thing, did "Three Martini Lunch." I'd love to hear that, in a swanky hall in Germany.

Ian Hunter told me someone had compiled cover versions of songs he didn't even know about and it came to three CD's.

I'll be damned. Incredible.

Esoteric stuff.

Oh, right. I've got people in Norway covered my songs and a guy in France, a lot of little stuff, not stuff that brings you a fortune, so you're very grateful for the Rod Stewarts, let me tell you.