A crimson autograph is all we leave behind / Everywhere man set foot
Thus today’s birthday boy Graham Parker in his early song “Don’t Ask Me Questions.” Parker, 64 today, came up in Britain, after a workingman’s knocking about in the late Sixties to places like Morocco and Spain, just before punk and New Wave hit. His irascible lyrics and somewhat nerdy look would seem to anticipate Elvis Costello—both did some early recording for Stiff Records—but Parker was more R&B than Costello or Nick Lowe, who produced them both, would be. There’s rockabilly in Parker too, as with Lowe, but Parker started out as a leaner, meaner Van Morrison—like maybe if Van had stuck with Them. In the time when rock bands had stopped playing driving R&B-inflected rock’n’roll, Parker’s first two albums, Howlin’ Wind (1976) and Heat Treatment (1976) brought it back, via pub rock.
Which was fine for the times. The big ticket version of rock was all coked up and stoned out. Parker & his crew were for the mates at the pub, fed up with the stupidity of the times and glad to step out to some white soul now and then. “White Honey” and “Soul Shoes” definitely make one want to put on non-disco moves, and today’s song’s white reggae strut is prime Parker.
The song was the first thing I ever heard by Parker, who didn’t get a lot of airplay in the States, but some Philly DJ put this on one night when I was having trouble sleeping off a tab of acid taken at a Jerry Garcia Band show at the Tower Theater. In my addled state, the voice on the radio seemed to have something to say about our general existential condition. Addressed to God, “Hey Lord, don’t ask me questions” struck me as the very thing our man in Eden, Adam, should’ve said to his inquisitive Maker when he came around asking him about that there fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It’s at that point our first forefather should’ve stated for all time our species’s lack of any foundational truths: “Ain’t no answer in me.”
Parker’s ire against an omniscient being that would bother to ask a question is funny but it also makes its prickly point, especially when he notes that Our Father is apt to “raise his mighty hand and break the precious rules” (you know, that part about “thou shalt not kill”—well, why not make that apply to the Lord of All Things as well). So, the next time you’re contemplating something like our topic yesterday, such as a ship going down and drowning 29 good men, you might say “the same one”—who art in heaven—“must understand who wasted all these fools.”
And yeah it’s infantile, perhaps, to call out God for his cruelty to his creations, but, still, it can make you feel a little better—“Who does this treachery?” I shout with bleeding hands / Is it you or is it me, well, I never will understand.” Sure, volition, free will, all that good stuff, and yet, the cards seemed stacked against us. Parker’s no friend of the “if it be thy will” type, humble before it all. He’s trying to get at just how much of this carnage and chaos is willed. We don’t even have to be talking about deliberate death—though the song does start with a glance at “war mongers”—but can concern those nice “natural disasters,” like the lemmings into the sea that Parker references. Mass death, mass destruction, enough for everyone.
“Well I stand up for liberty but can’t liberate” Parker says and there’s the rub. What can a poor boy do but sing for a rock’n’roll band? The breakthrough album for Parker, that made me acquire all his stuff up till then, was Squeezing Out Sparks (1979), and at that point his barbs at all manner of nonsense—“Protection,” “Nobody Hurts You,” “Local Girls,” “Saturday Nite is Dead”—were hitting their marks, fully empowered by a rocking band and the attitude that tilting at windmills was a noble thing to do.
I caught Parker on his 1980 tour, the last with the Rumour, and kept up with him into the Eighties but it’s one of those things—the more he sought a kind of mainstream acceptance (a guy’s gotta make a living)—the less interested I became. After 1980, the Rumour’s drummer, Steve Goulding, had peeled off and joined an even more lethal punk pub band, the Mekons, and that’s where my ears went. Still, two songs on Howlin’ Wind—which is one of the best albums of 1976—still stand up to be counted whenever I think of songs from my early romantic days with Mary: “Gyspy Blood” and “Nothing’s Gonna Pull It Apart.” And “Black Honey” on Heat Treatment is a passionate outburst I remember well from that those hazy, crazy days of 1979.
Pent-up agony, I see it take first place