April 13, 2007
With a song called “Stick to The Plan” on his new album Don’t Tell Columbus, Graham Parker proves that mixing rock ’n’ roll and political commentary doesn’t have to result in heavy-handed screeds — and in fact can be good wicked fun.
Parker went into the amazingly strong latest stage of his 30-plus-year career when he began his association with Chicago’s Bloodshot Records in 2004. “Stick to the Plan,” while topical, is one of his strongest statements ever.
The just-under-six-minute song reminds me a lot of the cool blues-rock found on Dylan’s Modern Times. The lyrics also show the influence of prophet Bob — a little apocalyptic, a little tongue-in-cheek, outrage balanced with hipster humor. Starting out with the image of hurricanes “howling up the Florida coast,” the song, over the course of five verses, skewers the White House, the religious right, polluters, paranoia, and pigheadedness in general.
In perhaps a sly reference to the first verse of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” Parker sings,
The song bounces along, with images of persecuted scientists, philandering preachers, and Arabs being tortured — punctuated by cheery choruses in which Parker and a female chorus sing, “Good things are coming if we stick to the plan ... Keep your finger on the trigger, stick to the plan.”
“Well God said to the president listen to me/I will advise you on
the way it’s gonna be/So the president got to his knees and accepted his fate/It’s a done deal now if you got some objections too late/Meanwhile in the corner there’s a drunk on a stool/Slurpin’ up ketchup and acting the fool/Pretending to fight for the truth but he ain’t getting far/Because he’s working for the same team just from the other side of the bar.”
After what can only be described as a murderous kazoo solo, Parker slides into the last verse,
which concludes with,
“Inside the airport every worker wears a turban/At the check point they’re stripping a suburban/couple of all their clothes and smelling their feet/But the found out the odor of stupidity isn’t too sweet.”
Parker has other politically charged tunes that you’ll never find on George Bush’s iPod.
Just last year he released a digital-only single called “2000 Funerals,” a somber tune about Americans killed in Iraq. (The number, as the press release for Don’t Tell Columbus points out, is “sadly outdated” — though if you count Iraqi casualties, it was outdated long before it was written).
And on the new album there’s “The Other Side of the Reservoir,” a slow, seething song about the destruction of a community for the sake of a water project — which might just be Parker’s equivalent of John Prine’s “Paradise”: “What were they thinking when they dug that hole/and bulldozed that town down/wall by wall,” Parker spits.
No, Columbus is not a protest album. It’s not Parker’s Living With War. It has soulful love songs like the sweet “Somebody Saved Me” and the desperate “Love or Delusion,” a smoldering, understated rocker.
There’s the scathing “England’s Latest Clown,” which concerns the well-covered travails of drug-plagued British rocker Pete Doherty (who gets out of prison “looking handsome with a ton of pride/With muscles on his muscles and Kate Moss by his side.”)
And there’s “I Discovered America” (the album’s title comes from the chorus), a harmonica-and-organ-driven folk-rocker in which Parker recounts moving to this country from England while looking back at his career.
“There was smoke up to my eyeballs/Poison burned my throat/But I said I’d keep on going when everyone said don’t/With my bony-chested T-shirt/Some stolen guitar licks/navigating by dead reckoning in 1976.”
A quick Creedence Clearwater Revival riff cleverly answers the “stolen guitar lick” line. Indeed, Parker’s pilfered from some of the best. But like Johnny Cash in “One Piece at a Time,” he’s used his stolen parts to create a unique vehicle. Let’s hope he sticks to his own weird plan and keeps it going.
* Standard Songs for Average People by John Prine & Mac Wiseman. This has been a good year for good country cover albums. There was Last of the Breed by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price, as well as Southern Culture on the Skids’ Countrypolitan Favorites. And now this Marvel Team-up of one-time “New Dylan” Prine and venerated octogenarian bluegrass sensei Mac Wiseman. It almost makes me suspect that something big might be gurgling below the surface of country music, but I’ll leave that line of thought to the mystics.
While I would have preferred some new Prine songs, this is an easygoing, friendly little album, with some fine takes on some good ol’ songs.
There’s a couple of Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions classics (“I Forgot to Remember to Forget” and “I Love You Because”); a Bob Wills obscurity (“Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age”); a Lefty Frizzell faux-folk tune (“Saginaw, Michigan”); an Ernest Tubb tune (“Blue Eyed Elaine”); a Patti Page pop hit (“Old Cape Cod”); some hymns (“The Old Rugged Cross,” “In the Garden”); and a couple of wonderful examples of ’70s country — Tom T. Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Just The Other Side of Nowhere.”
Standard Songs won’t take a place in the upper pantheon of records by either artist. But when you hear these old guys trading verses on these songs they both obviously love, it’s hard not to love it back.