Long after midnight nothing felt right. I was reading a book that didn’t resonate, no streaming TV show seemed appealing and it was too early to go to bed, I could foresee lying there staring at the ceiling so I got my headphones and plugged them into my iPad and started surfing the web and I don’t remember what song I chose but on Spotify the music doesn’t stop it keeps going in a similar vein, and I was digging it, skipping occasionally, and then I heard “Big Man on Paper.”
(Spotify playlist: https://spoti.fi/3DPg6oa)
“Then I drive into town and go to the Hudson Valley Mall And look at the youth in their Whitesnake T-shirts They’re wearing a poor man’s version of the haircut Man they might as well be from another universe”
There’s more truth in these lines than there is in the entire oeuvre of Whitesnake, but Whitesnake was all over MTV and Graham Parker was not.
By 1989 it was almost over. From the promising new thing to a better label to little public acceptance and Parker’s major label career, from Mercury to Arista to Elektra to RCA was finally over, with little to show commercially, despite working with some of the biggest hitmakers from the era, from Mutt Lange to Jimmy Iovine to David Kershenbaum, he was relegated to becoming a footnote, living in independentland back when that was not a badge of honor.
It all started with “Howlin’ Wind,” which sounds like the best bar band locked into a groove, which is essentially what it was, Parker fronting the Rumour, made up of refugees from the pub rock scene. Produced by the man of the moment, Mr. New Wave, Nick Lowe, “Howlin’ Wind” swung, just drop the needle on “White Honey” and you’ll get it, you’ll be entranced. And “White Honey” is not the only cut, check out “Lady Doctor.”
So Parker gets thrown in with the Stiff crowd, but he’s not really like Elvis Costello, Parker was more retro than future, pure rock and roll, albeit with more anger. Not that anybody in America paid attention to “Howlin’ Wind,” it was on Mercury, which was akin to having no label at all, they released an album and then…usually nothing happened.
But then came “Heat Treatment” in that same year of ’76 and Nick Lowe was cashiered for Mutt Lange who was seen as the inferior producer at the time, still wet behind the ears after years in South Africa. And unlike with “Howlin’ Wind” there was a ton of press in the U.S., mostly because the critics believed in it, back when critics were still a thing. And I bought it.
Now at this late date, many consider “Howlin’ Wind” to be the better album, and I might agree, but there are a few tracks on “Heat Treatment” that are so good they’re undeniable, in two cases TRANSCENDENT!
“Hotel Chambermaid” is great, but it’s really about the two second side burners, “Something You’re Goin’ Thru” and “Fool’s Gold,” but I left out “Pourin’ It All Out,” which listening now I realize I love too, but…
“Something You’re Goin’ Thru” was white reggae back when reggae was just truly breaking in America, it was Bob Marley & the Wailers’ live album that finally closed the U.S. on the sound. Meanwhile, reggae was flourishing in the U.K. and there were all kinds of white acts employing the sound, that’s how the Police actually broke through. Anyway, “Something You’re Goin’ Thru” is quintessential white reggae, back when AOR radio programmers were still scratching their heads over the sound, the Wailers’ live album was sold via word of mouth, not radio.
And then there was “Fool’s Gold.” An anthem embellished with Lange’s production, it was big, it would have blasted out of radio speakers and been adopted if…Mercury had a crack team and lowered the hammer, but that certainly didn’t happen.
So then Parker goes back to Nick Lowe on 1977’s “Stick to Me” and…it’s a step backward, the material is not as good and the production is more intimate as opposed to bombastic, in-your-face as it was with Lange and no one is happy, critics, radio or fans, and nothing happens, so to get out of his contract Parker drops a live album, “The Parkerilla,” that no one is clamoring for. At the time live albums were a cleanup move, repackaging the hits in a new incarnation to rake cash from fans or…there was one outlier, “Frampton Comes Alive,” but “The Parkerilla’ could have never fit that paradigm, it wasn’t even close, it sounded like a throwaway, even though Mutt Lange produced it and it sounded bigger.
But now Parker was a thing. A darling of the press. In the last heyday of the power of the rock press, MTV came along in 1981 and undercut “Rolling Stone” and the rest of its competitors either went out of business or became fanzines, even if they had glossy covers. And in 1979 Parker releases an F-You track entitled “Mercury Poisoning,” and gets airplay! But there’s no album to sell. And on the B-side of “Mercury Poisoning” there was a cover, why waste an original, and this remake of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” got airplay too, at this point it could be the most played track in Parker’s canon.
So now Parker’s all set up, in the chute, ready to come out with his first album on Arista…which despite starting with Patti Smith has morphed into a Top Forty factory, it was a bad fit from the get-go, never mind the fact that Clive Davis is not in it for the long haul, if a track isn’t reacting he moves on and despite garnering glowing reviews the truth is “Squeezing Out Sparks” wasn’t as good as “Howlin’ Wind” or “Heat Treatment,” just compare the opening tracks, “Discovering Japan” was never going to close anybody who wasn’t closed already…as for the rest of the album…you had to be an invested critic to like it.
Okay, the stars weren’t aligned, we’ll hook Parker up with Iovine and they’ll deliver, only they didn’t. The sound on “The Up Escalator” might have been more polished, more akin to what was on the radio, but that was not the essence of Parker, that was not his selling point, it was his growling vocals and his viewpoint! And the truth is if you were a fan you were wincing, Parker no longer seemed to be able to compose great material, there were no indelible tracks.
And then there were more albums that got promotion but almost no radio airplay that were hard to spread the word on because if you weren’t already a fan these new records would not close you. And now it was ten years later, Parker was no longer the new new thing, he was dated, on his way out.
So Parker releases “Human Soul” in 1989 and no one cares, no one is talking about him anymore, he’s out of time, but he redelivers, assuming anybody cares, which they don’t, especially on the second side, with the “medley,” from “Daddy’s a Postman” into “Green Monkeys” is pure brilliance, Parker no longer seems to care, he’s no longer controlled, he’s singing full-throatedly knowing it’s no longer about success but the music, he’s back to basics, the name producers are gone, he’s working with Brinsley Schwarz of the Rumour, it’s a last hurrah, not that “Human Soul” is perfect, but it does contain “Big Man on Paper.”
“I look at a newscast being broadcast and Try to connect with the events in front of my eyes But I can’t see any further than the bills on the table Or my kid’s first Halloween disguise ooh”
Parker is now living in the U.S., having married an American, which is why he’s at the Hudson Valley Mall, he’s still got it, knowing the specific is what puts songs over the top, the more personal you make it the more people can relate.
And at this point if you came of age in the seventies you can no longer recognize America, it’s been remade in the name of the almighty dollar, greed is seen as good, income inequality is growing, it’s about winners and losers and even though musicians had always perceived themselves previously as winners, the truth is under the new financial paradigm they were not, a banker could make much more, and make it every year, something a musician could not.
And Parker had a kid, he was domestic, he was in the same situation as his fans, and like those of them who’d pursued the arts, who hadn’t sold out and gotten on the financial gravy train, he was concerned with his bills.
“I look at a magazine designed for the successful woman And look for one designed for the unsuccessful man But I can’t see it anywhere on the newsstands Maybe next week, maybe next week So I hit the arcade and then get back in the car And drive drive drive down that empty highway again Surrounded by food you don’t worry about starvation Only temptation and keeping sane”
Parker’s got self-knowledge, something rare amongst musicians, even today, everybody’s on the way up when oftentimes this is untrue and if they’re not rich it’s got to be someone else’s fault, they can’t handle that the world changed or maybe in truth they’re really not that good.
So not having a nine to five job Parker’s driving around, lost. Living the musician lifestyle is great when things are going good, but when they’re not…everybody else is at work, they’ve got a job, they’re moving up the ladder while you’ve got many more questions than answers.
So the truth is Graham Parker is a big man on paper, but a nobody in truth. He’s famous, but broke. People know his name, but that doesn’t feed his family. And to wake up and realize this at forty is not easy, it’s too late to turn around and…
Could it have been different?
Absolutely. Parker could have been signed to Warner or CBS from the get-go, both could spread the word, push the button, get his early records on the radio, but when Parker was delivering he had no machine. Then again, by time Parker launches radio is tightening up, AOR didn’t play Elvis Costello either, but Costello got the benefit of KROQ airplay, and then there was that appearance on SNL and…Costello was selling something different, it was clear he was rebelling against what had come before, his was a new thing whereas in truth Parker was just another rocker, he was just not out there enough, he was angry, but he didn’t need the entire establishment overthrown.
So now it’s 2021. Parker is seventy. He puts out records independently now and again, he goes on the road and plays to the diehards, and when he finally has enough or is no longer healthy enough to do it, he can give up and retire, live on Social Security, just like all those angry young men who loved his music and thought the world was their oyster and had the rug pulled out from under them, not going for the buck when the going was good. You can still squeeze out a spark, but it definitely won’t cause a fire, and there are no do-overs in life, and the truth is you can give it your all and still fail, which is hard for the boomers who thought they’d always win. You can talk a good game, but the truth is you may have your house and your car but it’s all show, you’re just a big man on paper.