Monday, May 19, 2008

DEPEND ON ME. An old friend came into town this weekend and I went with him to see Graham Parker at Joe's Pub. I hadn't seen Parker since Squeezing Out Sparks days, when he played with the Rumour in a cruddy rock theatre in Long Island. (The Atlantics opened!) Back then he was a stick of a guy, creeping among the players as if they were providing him cover -- not fearfully but cheerfully, a hide-and-seek thing, like the occasional lifting of his sunglasses and flare of his smile through his tight, thin lips.

Friday he was still skinny, still cheeky, but all alone, and obviously used to working that way in small rooms -- my friend saw him in Cleveland once playing for a sadly small crowd, and in a career like Parker's, sustained by memories of glory and the rare custom of afficianadoes, you have to expect a lot of those. Joe's Pub was packed and loving, but Parker still gave out with some chagrined memories -- very amusing and told with a smile, but chagrined -- of bad gigs in unappreciative towns (he named some; chivalry forbids). That was just roughage, though. He sang beautifully -- a little husky at the edges, but pleasingly so, and with the same twang an old fan would recognize from Howlin' Wind.

There was less aggression in his voice. Some of that might have been in deference to the size of the room or the rigors of the road or to a diminution of his strength, but it felt as if Parker had turned a few corners and come naturally to a gentler approach. So "Local Girls" was a romp, not an indictment, and "Passion is No Ordinary Word" was passionate but in a more rounded and reflective way than it had been in that noisy Rumour show. The later material, which I hadn't followed, suited his new gentility even better. Those songs were as lit from within as his others, well-crafted and deeply felt, but with rue and accommodation built into the lyrics. "Depend on Me" stuck with me particularly. There isn't a lot of very clever wordplay in it (though "if you lose your mind, it's only in your head" is very good), but the clarity of the sentiment makes up for it. It's the sort of song you get when you don't have to try so hard because you've been doing this long enough that you can let the feeling take over. I don't know how "Come on, baby, take my word/My word's about as good as it gets/I know the language of your heart/Better than the alphabet" looks printed out like this to people who haven't heard him sing it, but in context it's just damned lovely. One might with some justice see it as a lazy trope, built out of common speech, but rhythm-and-bluesmen -- and that's what Parker has always been -- know how to make common speech luminous. It sounded to me, not like it came from his heart, but like it came from mine, and was saying things I couldn't say. That's not just a good song. That's why songs exist in the first place.

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