My 2010 review of Don’t Tell Columbus

When a new Graham Parker album comes out, it gets reviewed by critics and fans who talk about its intelligent lyrics and pop hooks and barroom snarl and signature sound. These things are important and are the things that sell great pop records. And while GP albums have all these things, they also have something that these other albums don’t have the artistic sensibilities of Graham Parker at work. You can’t review artistic sensibilities after a day, a month, or even a year. These are deep thoughts that require a mulling over. As we await a new album, I thought this a fitting time to riff on Graham Parker’s last masterwork, “Don’t Tell Columbus”. It is getting on three years old, just about long enough where it can be really be explored. Columbus and GP might agree that it is never too late to rediscover what already exists.
If Bob Dylan is our Mark Twain “with the blood of the land in his voice”, then in Don’t Tell Columbus Graham Parker lays claim to be our modern Alexis DeToqueville, an alien coming here to teach us about ourselves. And GP is as alien as it gets. The album picks up with his arrival in America in 1976 armed only with the voice of a foreign gecko, an accurate compass and some stolen guitar licks. GP has since well spent his time moving here and looking in America’s closet to continue the act of discovery, both of himself and America. Here he finds all sorts of mishmash and characters. Yet, interestingly, the story he gives us is not is the story of a nation in decline. Although not without fault, GP’s America emerges again and again as “the last best hope on earth,” which Lincoln called us smack dab in the middle of our national torment. GP discovers in America and himself what each generation of immigrant can discover. When all seems crazy or lost, “that’s when I found hope.”
Wikipedia says Pete Doherty, the subject of England’s Latest Clown, is an English musician, artist, writer and poet. Really! I am impressed. What do any of those words mean? Wasn’t that the same description America bestowed on that rock star Graham Parker in 1976? Visionary…or as transparent as worn out socks? Artist or clown? “They build you up to let you down” GP once lamented, but now it has gotten ugly …”we want the story grim, we wish that he was dead already and we wish we were him.” I find it amazing that there is a guy who is in his late fifties, who lives in upstate New York, who is oft compared to Bob Dylan, who continues to turn out the most thoughtful and relevant work around and you can see him play these amazing songs from ten feet away for next to nothing and talk to him after the show. Yet the world chooses instead to follow some new clown. Ah, given the choice who would not like to be young and dating Kate Moss.
Ambiguous is such a great word. Am…Big…You…Us. A song about that word could go in a lot of directions and GP just lets the syllables slide. Mark Twain said that “if voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it” but here we are satisfied to vote for the candidate with the nicest tie. Yes, just let it slide… and when your rivers fill up with linoleum or ammonium or whatever ‘um, well, I guess that’s what you get when you let it slide.
The first three songs are but appetizers for the rest. GP is ready for the meat with the album’s big Kahuna, The Other Side Of The Reservoir. While evocative of old Van Morrison journeys where VM hard noses real highways, GP’s journey is more to the Twilight Zone than to Cypress Avenue. “ It ‘s too late to stop now…,” GP would add to this song in tribute when he played it live as if the mind’s journey could ever reach an end. The song seems to be about a place in Upstate New York that used to exist until it was drowned asunder by a Reservoir built to supply water to New York City. That place does exist, but finding the people and place in the song is a bit harder. Maybe they are in the old photographs, maybe not. Maybe they are in our memories, but those are fading too and “not designed to last”. It is a song and an album about what divides, and what bridges the divides. Where there are oceans, GP is the explorer. Water divides us, time divides us, space divides us, war divides us, and our selves divide us. We need our explorers and discoverers to unite us. We need our bridges.
I don’t know much about the Clifton Suspension Bridge in England (Jon Stewart says Americans learn our geography from finding those countries who attack us on a world map), but I know the story of the song Suspension Bridge. I grew up a couple of miles from the Verrazano Bridge in Brooklyn and was seven years old when it opened in 1964. The weekend it opened my dad packed up my mom, sister and me and voluntarily put us in the worst traffic jam in the history of the world and we crossed over the bridge into Staten Island and then did a u-turn and came back. This year my father died. When my niece, his granddaughter, stood on the Verrazano Bridge the other day as she prepared to run the NYC marathon, did she know that my dad drove her mother and me over that bridge when we were just kids? Would she get the CONNECTION? Do you get it? “Not in one world or the other… Suspension Bridge.”
Can someone explain to me why Monet’s paintings of the Bridge at Giverny….are more important than GP’s song “Suspension Bridge”? Monet painted that bridge over and over. GP sings “they just finished painting the metal then they’d have to start all over again”. Maybe Monet just could not get it right. Maybe there are artists who paint bridges and there are painters who paint bridges. I suspect that an art form, perhaps begun by David and his Lute, is being perfected here, right before our ears. It was Springsteen who said “I learned more from a three minute record than I ever learned in school…” Who decides the value of things if not your own heart?
I don’t think the passing of three years is enough time to properly explore the next two songs. At least not for me. In Love or Delusion and Total Eclipse of the Moon, GP explores Pynchonian notions of what is real and what is not, and how we may survive in a big indifferent world. Van Gogh once said, “there is no blue without yellow and without orange” but nobody bought his records either. To GP “the sky is only blue if you think it is…” raising not some notion of relative reality, but more a notion that a shared reality may be wrong. Pynchon said that ‘‘delusions are always officially defined”. GP’s answer is that you have to define the world yourself because you can’t count on anyone else to get it right and “there is nothing there to trust”. Your existence doesn’t mean a drop in the ocean when the forces of nature take control and rip at your humanity. All you can do is try to hold it together and hope that neither nature nor your puny reaction to it rips your heart apart. Hope for love and hope it is not delusion.
In “Stick to the Plan” GP looks inside our closet at the cast of characters that make us America. With a carnival blues tune derivative of every song on Highway 61 Revisited, GP mails this one to us straight form Desolation Row. Presidents, newsmen, politicians, movie characters, academics, military leaders, prison guards, preachers, airport workers…they are all here and all silly. It is hard to watch the nightly talking heads we call news without thinking that “too much intelligence gets in the way…” Mark Twain said, “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” There is no more accurate vision of America of the WBush era. Yet like all great songs it is already evolving. Once, to me, the words “Stick to the Plan” was a mock of a mantra about staying in a bad war…damn the torpedoes. Somehow, after the Obama election, the song becomes a motto for the American Dream. Alexis DeTocqueville was 26 in 1831 when he came to America and first explained us to ourselves. He wrote that the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. Whether or not you like the new boss, you have to admit that in America good things can happen if we “stick to the plan”. We just can’t lose hope.
Stick to the Plan ushers in the next three monumental songs which deal with the big issues of despair, hope and redemption. Somebody Saved Me comes out to you like it is another gospel song about being saved. But although the hole is deep, the getting out is very secular. “I did not need faith or belief, I did not need God or some other illusion, I was not dead and I was not weak. I just needed someone, someone to save me.” Take that, he who said “Nobody to rescue me, nobody would dare, I was going down for the last time, but by his mercy I’ve been spared”. Perhaps in this secular world the artist is priest and the art is savior.
How do you write a hopeful song about our post 911 world. Think of DeTouqueville…Americans are good at repairs. You start with what is left…”Twisted shards of Metal silhouetted against the sky, the dust may never settle…” And then you work it through. In “Hard Side of the Rain” GP does not minimize the tragedy of 911, he just works through it to where he can proclaim “well you can’t win every battle, but you can win some.” He is not here talking about one battle in the War against Terrorism. It is the battle of hope against despair. In “Bullet of Redemption” GP shows us what happens when there is no hope and only despair. It is untenable. The prolific songwriter admits “there was nothing I could say”. If this is a world without hope, then it is the artists who have failed.
“All Being Well” puts a tight cap on the lid of this jar of Americana. In the style of an immigrant folk song, we are not quite at the end yet, but closer to the end than the beginning. “I’ll see you when the road stops winding…” GP sings, as if this boney chested kid can finally see the end of the road. Soon there will be time to look back at all the characters, from Columbus to Forrest Gump, but we are not quite there yet. The day will come when our eyes will trick us and our hearts may not work so well but “I won’t let go despite it all”, because where there is art there is hope.

It is probably not a double meaning that this album is a Bullet of Redemption. Once it is out there, it has its own trajectory and can get stuck inside your heart. The world may reject it and relegate it to its second hand bin but I can’t calculate its worth. It just keeps blowing me away…blowing me away…