Rocker in Repose
Home in the Catskills after a grueling tour promoting his new album, singer Graham Parker catches up with family, soccer, and the great outdoors.
Rocker in Rural Repose
At home in the Catskills, singer Graham Parker relaxes after a grueling tour promoting his new album
By Thomas Staudter
Photographs by Elliott Landy
Here¡¯s the aging yet still fervent rock ¡¯n¡¯ roller in quotidian repose: on the porch of Winchell¡¯s Pizza in Shokan, hiding from the sunshine as he smokes a hand-rolled cigarette, an icy China cola at the ready. ¡°I¡¯m sore,¡± says Graham Parker, the immediate connotation being that he is welling with the kind of angry discontent that marks his lyrics in songs like ¡°Don¡¯t Ask Me Questions¡± from his 1976 debut album Howlin¡¯ Wind. Or perhaps the short, wiry 54-year-old has been in a recent brawl somewhere, his mind and attitude still stuck in the rough-and-tumble London pub rock and punk scene with which his music will be forever associated.
Actually, Parker was merely recuperating from the previous evening¡¯s hard-fought soccer game. For the past decade, he has been a mainstay on local teams like the Hurley Mountain Men, his present squad, which participates in various mid-Hudson soccer leagues. Having missed a month¡¯s worth of games while he was on tour, Parker has been eager to lace up his cleats and get kicking again. There was a brawl, though. ¡°We were playing this team of particularly fierce Mexicans, and one of their guys elbowed, head-butted, and clawed his way through the entire game,¡± recounts Parker. Near the end of the contest his teammates, most of whom are ignorant of Parker¡¯s musical side, apparently had had enough, and fists flew. ¡°GP,¡± as Parker often refers to himself, wisely stayed away from the scrum, and even chatted up some other pacifists from the opposing team.
Parker may have been saddle-sore, too, as his competitiveness and resilience were indeed tested this spring while on tour to support his new CD, Your Country. Starting in Philadelphia on April 16, GP and three backing musicians performed 23 club dates in a month, traveling across the country by van with all their gear. (Parker says he ¡°pulled rank¡± and flew ahead of his fellow road warriors on a few occasions.) ¡°With all the traveling costs it¡¯s hard to break even with a band now,¡± says Parker, especially since he¡¯s no longer booked at the larger venues. Still, ¡°the road¡± is addictive because it¡¯s ¡°an escape from real responsibilities, like mowing the lawn ¡ª all that stuff just gets dumped on your wife while you¡¯re gone.¡± He remembers fondly the era a quarter-century ago when Graham Parker & The Rumour, riding high on the success of their most popular and critically acclaimed album, Squeezing Out Sparks, flew first-class around the world and rode big tour buses ¡ª one large coach just for the band and big enough to walk around in during the drive.
Although the progress of his career in popular music was never stymied by the delusionary egomania or self-inflicted abuses that befell many of his contemporaries, the truth is that GP now inhabits a level of prominence in which ¡°cult following¡± fairly describes his audience base. This, of course, typifies the paradoxes inherent in the music business: the major record companies offer artists and acts a chance at global exposure but without any guarantee of maintaining the offer. In fact, by constantly trying to ¡°break¡± new acts and create new stars, the companies are essentially undermining the marketplace for the musicians they¡¯ve already nurtured.
Having released 17 albums of original material and nearly a dozen different ¡°live¡± recordings along the way, GP¡¯s forward march included deals with four of the five big music conglomerates during the first 16 years of his recording career, a sad distinction for such a noteworthy figure. In 1995 he signed with Razor & Tie, an independent label based in New York City, and Your Country is his first album for Bloodshot Records, a similarly small yet respectable outfit out of Chicago. Meanwhile, Parker¡¯s songwriting talent has grown and evolved to the extent that it can be argued that some of the best compositions and recorded performances of his career are found on albums from the past few years (like Loose Monkeys and Deepcut to Nowhere, both of which were largely ignored by the media).
To counter this neglect and media indifference to his work, Parker incorporated a country music theme on his new album: mid-tempo tunes with ¡°storytelling¡± lyrics and arrangements that feature heart-tugging pedal steel guitar. Needless to say, the ruse worked. ¡°Your Country is definitely a thumbs-up from sales and publicity perspectives,¡± notes Lee Gutowski, a Bloodshot Records exec. As for Parker, he thinks the album, for the most part, is hardly a departure from what he calls ¡°the blueprint¡± of his music, forged from the rhythm and blues, soul, and Jamaican ska sounds that he grew up loving. ¡°I knew pointing the music in a certain direction, saying this was my ¡®country¡¯ record, would get people to pay attention to it in a way that they normally wouldn¡¯t have otherwise. I mean, I can¡¯t be bearing my breast to get people to notice me because I don¡¯t have much there to see.¡±
As a frontman and singer, Parker early on perfected a snarling articulation that he coupled with a high-energy delivery reminiscent of Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson. Keeping in mind a number of declamatory lyrics filled with venom and bile, and, Parker agrees, ¡°Fans usually think I¡¯m completely surly and are surprised to find that I¡¯m a nice chap.¡± And he is: behind the trademark sunglasses (¡°My first manager saw me wearing a pair and told me to never take them off¡±) is a relative homebody, married to wife Jolie for 24 years ¡ª they met while he was recording Squeezing Out Sparks in Los Angeles ¡ª and a doting father to Natalie, a college freshman, and eight-year-old son Jimmy. Besides soccer and sports like tennis and skiing (¡°When I started I thought it was devil worship, but I wanted to make use of the winter¡±), Parker can be found gardening on his 10-acre property a few miles outside of Woodstock, or indoors typing. He has a new novel, The Other Life of Brian, and a collection of short stories, Carp Fishing on Valium, to his credit. He is also a devoted birdwatcher.
The image of Graham Parker, shades on and strutting around the Woodstock area, is not really as incongruous as it might seem, despite the rather urbanized spitfire of his onstage persona. Raised in the small village of Deepcut in Surrey, England, Parker, an only child, spent most of his youth exploring the woods near his home. It was the idea of bringing their own children up in the country that caused the Parkers to sell their Manhattan loft in 1988 and move north to a region where Jolie, who grew up in Queens, had vacationed.
At Winchell¡¯s Pizza, Parker is joined by Natalie after lunch. With a little time to spare before he has to get Jimmy off the school bus, father and daughter decide to walk around the Ashokan Reservoir. Heading toward home, they stop in Phoenicia to see if there¡¯s any tubing on the Esopus yet. (There is.) Walking back to their cars, the still-feisty rock ¡¯n¡¯ roller looks more like a proud, loving parent. ¡ö