A New Song By Graham Parker and the Rumour
As the greatest artist of our times turns 65 and heads into his later wonder years he offers us a new take on his story, offering himself and his fellow rockers as American heroes. All by examining the lowly railroad spike, just one unnoticed brick in the wall of modern civilization.
The artist songwriter/performer Graham Parker, who is but a little wisp of a thing, remembers himself as a powerful young man hammering out railroad spikes in an imaginary foundry. When GP was young and Squeezing Out his Sparks as a first tier rock star, GP was that man, the Village Blacksmith of Longfellow fame:
And the children coming home from school
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor
Every rock band was building something, creating a little part of a giant whole. As Parker here explains about his Railroad Spikes or his favorite bands, “They weren’t perfect, nice or sleek, but just like snowflakes all unique.” We, the children, would come and listen and be mesmerized by the achievement of our favorite bands. Those railroad spikes kept the trains rolling just as the rockers, in typical Parker double meaning, “laid those tracks all over the land, North and South to the Rio Grande”, a great American line in opposition to that of Dylan’s Idiot Wind which found only nonsense from “The Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol”. Rock and Roll was the spiritual railroad, a connection in an age where there seemed to be no connections. It was the road where the strong young GP once found that “some kind of truth emerges.” The sound of the railroad is the sound of Rock and Roll and Parker and his mates helped lay the tracks that took us where we needed to go.
As with all with all things pure, the forces of greed got hold and took it and turned it into something else. The Railroad Spikes got melted down “for boats and planes and artillery rounds”, toys of the rich and powerful. But to Parker, the ideas didn’t die when they were transformed, they emerged perhaps victorious, “Some of that metal made bullets for sure, Railroad Spikes might have won the war.” Now what war is he talking about? The Railroads were a 19th century creation but he is not talking about any 19th century war. The only war he could be referring to is our war; the one which we fight every day led by artists like Chairman Parker. It is the war for truth justice and a new American way. Great art was and remains our best weapon in that fight.
In the end all things change. The automobile replaces the railroad as certain as Rock and Roll itself dies, or is transformed (“or does it just smell bad”?). But the song itself defies that reality. It is a great little ditty that rolls along the tracks. As long as Bob Andrews and his like can play piano like that and there are still children to listen to it in awe, there is still hope. It is hope that just might win this war. And as Homer Simpson might say as in the fitting coda of the song, can I get a …”Woo Hoo”?