by Jerry Leibowitz
“If you got something to cry about, come on baby let it out, let it out…”
How do you break with a past to move on? I’m quite sure most singer/songwriters would get a new band and explore unchartered territory. But, of course, Graham Parker does it all wrong. Oh so wrong. He gets his old band together and revisits old territory. This album starts with an intro right out of his first record. Then in Coathangers he revisits the one subject that many people think he shouldn’t have touched in the first place. He boldly goes to where he has already been, but like the Heraclitus river both he and the world have changed. “Maybe I’m just getting old or something…” No, this dog always learns new tricks that he can’t wait to show us.
If recent albums explored the commitment of Graham Parker to his new country and to commitment itself, then Three Chords Good may be GP’s admission that he made a mistake. “I want my money back” he sings of the deal. The Rumour, who were ditched by GP over thirty years ago and reunited for this album, know the value of lost time. GP joins in as they all respond, “Good luck with that Jack”. If the relationship between GP and America and GP and his past and GP and his career is one of love/hate, then perhaps this album explores the darker side, or maybe at least both sides at the same time.
Much of what GP has been up to since his first time with the Rumour is the subject of a recent released film documentary by Michael Gramaglia called Don’t Ask Me Questions. I saw GP perform often during that period, mostly solo but often with his simpatico thoughtful power pop backup up band, the Figgs. GP was pulling songs of wonder out of his head like cherries, but like our annual cherry tree festival the new stuff would be fodder for discussion for a few weeks and then disappear. His bursts of creative expression went largely undetected to the greater world, in part due to his insistence on staying close to his chosen somewhat bucolic life near Woodstock NY over the intensity of one connected to the music business. On the surface it was all good. Good for his artistic production and really good for us in Parkerville since we could see him regularly, close up, for a couple of bucks, basically whenever we wanted to. We could small talk with him after a show, but there was always a sense that he really was someplace else, or that the wall between artist and audience was impenetrable. As he suggests in Long Emotional Ride, it has taken him this long to learn that you are never separate from the story when you are reporting the story. Perhaps GP has grown to understand that it is time for him to step up and acknowledge his place in the universe. His reunion with The Rumour may have been spurred on by the documentary, but their appearance in This Is Forty was serendipity in action. He might be “surrounded by rear view mirrors” but it was clearly time to look forward and embrace his job as chronicler or minstrel, or dare I say, artist.
This set of songs is what happens when an artist decides to go below the surface of a seemingly peaceful existence. He once said “when I tell the truth it’s like pulling a tooth…” and there is quite a bit of dentistry going on here. On Three Chords Good, GP employs a series of personas that let him look at his predicament from every point of view. There is some beauty here and the songs She Rocks Me and Old Soul and That Moon Was Low reflect a songwriter in his element digging for some easy truth. But he does dare to go deeper. “I took one step into the abyss, one step into the void, one step further than I’ve ever been into something I might want to avoid”. The man who once playfully discovered that his corner of America was the “pork capital of the world” now realizes it is “the Snake Oil capital of the world”. The horror is not that he bought the Snake Oil, everybody does that to some degree, but the greater realization is that he too became a purveyor. Buyer and seller, victim and perpetrator. “You need my medicine in massive doses…”, he tells the listening world in a Snake Oil haze. GP thought he had an accurate compass now only to find that it got him lost. “That old weird America, never went anywhere…” Forget trying to find this America with your GPS unless it is tuned to Graham Parker Songs.
Even more so than the perceptive yet simpler Imaginary Television (2010), there are songs here that question our perceptions of reality. In Arlington’s Busy, the persona realizes that “while I was sleepwalking” a phony world was created. That is what happens to the passive. Where should we get our news from, war mongers with a vested interest or, as GP sings, that “kid with a guitar from the neighborhood”. If anyone is going to create or explain reality, perhaps it should be an artist and not a politician. But GP, of course, was never asleep, and never ignorant. He had visited this theme in Stick To The Plan and 2000 Funerals and Short Memories. Like most of us this persona just chose not to look; not to address the false reality that was created. That was part of the bad deal. “Give me a slice and a coke”, he says, asserting that it is just easier to leave it alone and take care of yourself. But, for whatever reason, one day that reality comes home, here in the form of dead bodies from the forgotten war. “I’m heading for peace talks while you’re arming for war”, he sings to finger snaps in Live in Shadows. “This shit’s gotta be stopped”. Wake up and get out from the dark, he seems to be telling himself as he pretends to be telling us. Three Chords Good is prelude to perhaps the most out there period in GP’s career since his early days with the Rumour. This journey is not to be measured in records sold but in the amount of truth told.
Rounding out the high plateau of this work is Last Bookstore in Town. Maybe it is a bookend answer to Snake Oil Capital of the World, as GP rethinks himself to realize that he is selling something worthwhile after all. The kazoo is always a sly hint that something big is going on. Old and new, bad and good, fiction and fact, there has to be a guide out there who can tell us what is useful and what is not in this higgledy-piggledy stew of world knowledge. The song seems Orwellian in its assertion of the danger of real knowledge to those in power. “A lot of smart cookies want to burn it to the ground…” But the radical keepers of the knowledge hide out as spinster owners and smelly nose-studded clerks. Perhaps also as comedians (there is a riff on a Bill Hicks comedy routine, RIP). Or maybe songwriters. Of course, on the surface GP declines to serve as that guide as he already noted that…”you can’t count minutes on a broken clock”… but more likely he is just providing cover for the true insurgency when he sings, perhaps referring to this album…”There’s nothing here worth reading, I really must confess”. GP has a great way of conveying truth by having his persona tell the lies. Have no doubt that he is lurking in the philosophies, the biographies and the experimental prose, playing dumb. “Someone get me out of here, before I get as smart as you…” his smart-ass self says. And then he turns to us, his listeners and asks…”WHY YOU READING?” Why are you listening to me? If you don’t want to hear the truth then don’t give a guitar to a kid or a pen to a writer. You must realize the danger.
The Big Kahuna on this album is A Lie Gets Halfway ‘Round the World (while the truth gets its boots on). The title line is often attributed to Mark Twain who probably borrowed it from an earlier work. “Only steal from the best…” GP is often known to say, and he can’t do any better than Mark Twain who, like GP, often masked his serious nature with humor or simplicity. His repetition of the word “Li”, while reminiscent of hundreds of songs such as Paul Simon’s Boxer, really goes back to the hidden “I lie” of GP’s Fool’s Gold (1976), the song he used to kick off each of the concerts on his recent tour. This was the songwriter who once sang “I wouldn’t lie to you unless I had to (of course)”, now suggesting to us that maybe the whole thing is a big lie. Every seller, even those pretending to be artistic, may be just great hucksters who game the system and play the rest of us for fools. We don’t even see it “sitting in the front row”. The Snake Oil is fully digested here, and the drinker is spewing. He’d sell Coathangers if he could make a buck. Yet, for me, the cleverness of the song is that the Devil is confessing his sins, something the real hucksters never do. And the joke of it is that we don’t mind, as long as the Snake Oil works for us. Quite a racket, if you ask me.
The Rumour hasn’t lost a step here. From the frenetic to the sublime, they provide all the right touches to this difficult musical journey. I think Bob Andrews must have gotten his copy of the songs earlier than the rest because musically this is his album, The keyboards soar then they grunt then they jump then they tickle then they soar again and then they are incredibly subtle. His work on Old Soul is such a tour de force that it could have appeared without words, perhaps the highest compliment I can give to a song written by music’s greatest wordsmith. As great as all the musicianship is on A Lie Gets Halfway Around the World, Bob Andrews closes the song like a marathon runner running a sprint to the finish, leaving behind nothing but dust. Reportedly, GP broke his hand trying to keep up, a statement that might as well be true.
Like all great artistic expression, ultimately the success of Three Chords Good lies in the beauty and power of its eternal message. GP is muse to us and as he says of his own muse “I wanna fall under your spell…” Here GP finally confesses that he does not perform for his present faithful listeners, but for something he calls “posterity”. Who will be listening then and what will they hear? None of us have got the foggiest idea. Posterity takes a long time to answer. I do suspect there is something here that might be useful to anyone who dares to deal with it. Yea, GP’s been doing his homework, a long, long, long time. Every song is both craft and revelation and this worthy effort provides the world with a new river to step in. He is never the same, we are never the same and the world is never the same. Here he continues his quest to try to figure it all out and explain it to us. The world could sure use his help.