Someday we’ll all be dignified and old together
—Jonathan Richman, “Dignified and Old”
The burger cost 35 bucks.
It was the year 2001. The previous summer, a month after I graduated from college, B.B. King’s Blues Bar & Grill had opened in Times Square. I may have been the only person in my age group in the entire city who was excited about this development. See, I have a special place in my heart for singer-songwriters of a certain age. “Old man rock,” my friends call it. Since I was a kid, my favorite artists have always been the voices of a generation…my parents’ generation. Even my attempts at teen rebellion were curiously, um, mature: playing Tom Waits’ Bone Machine at Passover dinner; getting deeply into the Beach Boys, who would always be hopeless squares as far as my mom and dad were concerned. And while I was as insecure as any adolescent about my clothes and car, it never occurred to me that my attempts to hit on girls could benefit from a more contemporary soundtrack.
When I moved to New York for college, I finally had the chance to see my graying heroes in person. Right around that time, though, venues for established acts were going into decline and disappearing. The legendary Tramps nightclub closed in 2001, along with jam band habitat, Wetlands Preserve. The even more legendary Bottom Line (stomping ground of Bruce Springsteen in the ‘70s) shuttered in 2004. The arrival of B.B. King’s meant that rockers and troubadours who had outgrown the scuzzy dives but couldn’t fill a theater like Radio City would still have a respectable home in the city. The key to its business model was its poshness; the atmosphere was closer to venerable jazz hotspots like the Blue Note than your typical rock club, perfect for the new, post-Giuliani Times Square. That meant table service and a two-drink minimum, and since I’m not a drinker, I was stuck with that $35 burger.
I was there to see Graham Parker. Parker is exactly the type of artist B.B. King’s was made for. He started out in the mid-‘70s as a kind of British Springsteen: in the age of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, his nervy stage presence, sharp-witted songs, and passionate embrace of rock’s R&B roots looked like the future. A year later, punk broke, and suddenly the same qualities looked quaint. Critics and casual listeners came to write him off as a beta test for Elvis Costello and the Clash. Unlike Springsteen, who reinvented himself as the voice of the heartland, or Costello, who caught fans off-guard with his forays into country and classical, Parker just kept mining the same vein, honing his craft for a shrinking audience. He tinkered with his sound every now and then (slick and keyboard-heavy in the ‘80s; stripped down and acoustic in the ‘90s), and his songwriting grew funnier and more lyric-driven, but he remained a font of articulate, no-frills rock‘n’roll. My kind of guy.
Not, however, my friends’ kind of guy. They weren’t ageists exactly. I had a girlfriend who worshipped David Bowie and a roommate who collected Grateful Dead bootlegs. But Bowie was cool; in fact, by the 2000s, he was more an ageless avatar of cool than a working artist. The Dead were far from cool, but they represented a community of gentle stoners and air guitarists. In different ways, they both offered an instakit identity for budding adults still figuring out who they wanted to be. Parker has never been one of those artists. He’s just a regular dude who happens to sing catchy songs about hating stupidity and loving his wife. This anti-persona was just the ticket for a kid like me, too self-conscious for tie dye, let alone Ziggy Stardust-style make-up, impatient with the carefree, unsettled, know-nothing phase of life. No surprise, I went to the concert alone. I was the youngest person in the club by at least a decade.
The opening act was a power-pop outfit called the Figgs. Rock‘n’roll lifers themselves, they’d been toiling in obscurity since 1987. The audience impassively sipped martinis and nibbled buffalo wings as the band bopped around the stage, bashing out chipper nuggets with titles like “Cherry Blow Pop” and “Girl, Kill Your Boyfriend”. They shuffled off to the kind of applause that can only be described as a smattering and returned a half hour later, decked out in thrift store suits and skinny ties, to back up Parker.
He was thin as a whippet in t-shirt, dark jeans, and sunglasses, his voice raspy but rich. Unlike Mick Jagger’s latter-day prancing, his sinuous movements didn’t make me cringe, but they didn’t incite any hip-shaking in the audience either. No one even stood. Parker didn’t try to win us over. He just reeled off each song with an easy confidence. His new album was one of his best, and he hit the highlights like he knew it. The older tunes showed off the depth of his catalog. (Parker has a wealth of memorable songs, but unlike Costello and Springsteen, no hits he’s obliged to play lest a certain type of casual fan feel ripped off at the end of the night. This is the upside of obscurity. Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” is undeniably brilliant, but as someone who shows up for every tour, I tend to zone out when it gets its inevitable airing.) The crowd cheered respectfully for the new stuff, warmly for the old favorites, but the vibe remained staid.
Toward the end of the night, Parker tipped his hand. “So, B.B. King’s,” he said, scanning the candlelit room, “What do you think of this place?” Pandering, I figured. Our politeness had finally worn him down, made him desperate for a reaction. Sure enough, the question drew the loudest cheers of the night. But Parker wasn’t as eager to please as I’d supposed. “Yeah?” he muttered, wincing. “I don’t know.” He seemed to be thinking what I had only intuited: the existence of a rock club modeled on the Blue Note implied that rock, like jazz, was becoming a music of the past, patronized by an aging elite more interested in the preservation of an established canon than the exploration of new ideas or the discovery of fresh talent. To them, Parker was like an underappreciated Dixieland soloist or Delta bluesman, less a vital working artist than an embodiment of the past. “You may remember him as one of England’s Angry Young Men, king of the ‘70s pub rock scene, a forerunner of punk and New Wave…”
This fate had been on Parker’s mind for some time. In “Museum Piece,” an outtake from his 1991 album Struck by Lightning, he namechecks John Prine, Lowell George, and Sam the Sham, fellow cult artists overlooked by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and goes on to imagine himself as a living statue relegated to a lonely corner of the Hall:
An inch of dust lies on my shoulders
In my head’s a touch of mold and
Half my foot has crumbled in my shoe
No one ever visits this wing
It’s just like the cut-out bin
Little Milton ended up here, too
Well I don’t wanna be a museum piece
I don’t think there’s any chance of that
Five years later, in “Obsessed with Aretha”, Parker acidly appraises a great talent reduced to a living legend:
Yeah, but when you hear Aretha singing on some advertisement
Or with a big fussy band on some hall of fame concert
She’s still got the lungs and the dress and the mink stole
You might even say the girl’s still got soul
But not that much
Graham Parker - “I’ll Never Play Jacksonville Again”
Trading on past glories may spell death for an artist, but the alternative—continuing to plug away at your craft long after fame has faded—exacts its own price. The Parker I saw at B.B. King’s knew better than to flail around like a callow punk, but in the new songs, he seemed to concede that rock‘n’roll might just be a young man’s game. He fretted about the mundane responsibilities of fatherhood (“You’re tough on clothes / It’s gonna cost me a fortune to keep you in ‘em…I’m gonna have to get a job and make an honest living”) and cast a gimlet eye on his own descent into middle-aged frumpery (“One thing I can tell ya, baby, one thing I know/Socks and sandals ain’t rock and roll”). The highlight of the show was “I’ll Never Play Jacksonville Again”, a lean-and-mean account of some ominous long-ago gig (“They put me on at the milk bar and said, ‘Hey, good luck, kid / Here’s your Jagermeister, here’s half a lid”) The chorus is exquisitely ambivalent: “I’ll never play Jacksonville / I’ll never have that weird thrill / I’ll never play Jacksonville again.” Is this a statement of defiance or wistful regret? Hearing Parker belt the line that night, it was both. Because if not some sordid pit in Jacksonville, then where? A mausoleum like B.B. King’s? This is what it meant to be Graham Parker in the year 2001.
(This year, Parker is poised for a revival. He’s playing himself in an upcoming movie by Judd Apatow, our culture’s foremost champion of old man rock. Like many a Parker song, the movie, This Is Forty, is a comic rumination on family life and middle age. In a stroke of good timing, he’ll also be touring with his beloved early band the Rumor—after insisting for years that a reunion didn’t make economic sense.)
“All right,” he said, almost sighing as the encore wound down, “this one’s for Joey.” Joey Ramone had just died of lymphoma at the age of 49. The Figgs tore into “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”, that immortal anthem of juvenile exuberance, rock‘n’roll at its purest. I thought about getting up and pogoing, but I was too self-conscious to be the only one. Instead, I just nodded along to the rhythm and took a bite of my burger. I admit, it had some flavor. But not that much.