Graham Parker was among the grandest of malcontents to rise from the cleansing fires of punk and new wave, which (at least temporarily) decimated rock conventions in the '70s. He was angry and bilious, but he was intelligent and eloquent as well. Nasty as an asp, his keen senses of irony and humor never abandoned him.
His music helped revolutionize rock 'n' roll from within its own pre-established parameters, instead of just trashing it for the sake of destruction itself. He never fit comfortably into the anachronistic niche of such British brethren as the Sex Pistols, Clash and Buzzcocks. His sound was more akin to such contemporary blue-eyed soulsters as Mink DeVille and Bruce Springsteen.
Parker--who plays solo tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--didn't need the freak show accouterments of the "No Future" boys to vent his finely honed, passionate vision. No Mohawks or safety pins were necessary to communicate his sense of outrage--words were quite enough. The subversive elements were in the ice-angry lyrics and in the venomous rasp of his vocal delivery. Parker's impeccably crafted, radio-friendly songs were like poisonous delicacies.
At age 42, with 15 albums behind him since his debut in 1976, he remains as cynical and indignant as ever.
"When I was a teen-ager, I was a bit more of a spud, I think," he recalled during a recent phone interview from his home in Upstate New York. "I was willing to accept that what you did was get a job, get married as young as possible and be as stupid as possible as early as possible. And then, that wonderful revolution, the psychedelic age, came along, and other possibilities opened up, shall we say.
"From then on, whatever seeds of disruption I had were exploded, and I started to look at the world as a farce, really, as a sham--all those cool, '60s things we discovered. But it still holds true today. We all know about this now; everybody knows that the whole setup is a farce. It's all about corporations and businesses. The whole morality thing is phony and comes from religion anyway. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that anymore; it seems to be relatively accepted as fact among intelligent people."
Parker and his band, the Rumour, parlayed the musical structures of soul, rock and reggae--crossed with the boozy energy of pub rock and the hostility of punk--into an artistically (though to a lesser extent commercially) winning formula. He has never released an aesthetically disappointing record, and his "Squeezing Out Sparks" album from 1979 regularly makes critics' all-time Top 10 lists.
Parting ways with the Rumour in 1982, he adopted a slicker, less hostile tone in his music without descending to the mawkish, confessional nature of many singer/songwriters. " 'Introspective' is another one of those narrow sorts of words I'm not comfortable with, like 'anger,' " he said. "You have to be sure you're not talking about the cliches. There's a whole lot of different levels in between which, thanks to Bob Dylan, I guess we all know are there."
A lovingly compiled, 39-song retrospective of Parker's career has been released by Rhino Records with full cooperation from the artist. "Passion Is No Ordinary Word" culls tracks from all Parker's albums and features some choice cuts previously rare or unavailable in the United States.
"I'm usually embarrassed by my old stuff, and I wince when I hear it--no doubt about it," Parker said. "But as a whole, this set is so worthwhile that I'm actually doing a tour behind it, promoting this set. Six months ago I wouldn't have thought about doing this, but the time has come to just sort of look at this stuff, and I'm proud of it."
His most recent recordings indicate that he has come full circle, unmellowed by age and fully capable of composing the same sort of acid-tongued indictments with which he carved his reputation. Included in the new anthology is a previously unreleased track from last year called "Museum of Stupidity" in which Parker names names and points fingers; it is every bit as seething as the title sounds.
One difference these days: Parker is comfortable enough with himself that he can tackle his material single-handedly, without the safety net of a band behind him.
"In the early days, I'd go to a radio station and people would say, 'Can you bring an acoustic guitar along and play?' and I'd say 'No! No way!' It wasn't my idea of a good time. And now I really enjoy it more than playing with a band, generally. Playing solo I find is better for the voice, and you can find different ways of doings songs every night. I don't have to think about anyone else imposing speed or rhythm."
However--and a good reason for fans to be sure to catch him on this tour--Parker is thinking about discontinuing his musical career.