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.
Jonathan Richman: Dignified and Old
Less than a year after B.B. King’s opened its doors, a club called Northsix popped up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a signal event in the ascension of the contemporary hipster. Northsix was the first rock outpost in the borough. Basically just a concrete box with a wooden stage that lifted performers barely above eye-level, it ensured that the scruffy, DIY spirit that had been priced out of Manhattan would live on across the river. Its presence had a bracing effect on the city’s music scene. Boozy storytellers the Hold Steady played their first show at Northsix; Elliott Smith made his last New York appearance there.
I first visited the place in 2005 to see Jonathan Richman. Richman is an essential figure in the history of rock‘n’roll and not just because the earliest incarnation of his band the Modern Lovers was a bridge between the decadent experiments of the Velvet Underground and the boisterous primitivism of the Ramones. He is one of rock’s preeminent philosophers, the first artist to explicitly reject Pete Townshend’s generation-defining declaration, “hope I die before I get old,” the first to see growing up and growing old as an experience rock‘n’roll should embrace, an ideal even. (Paul McCartney could lay claim to this distinction, but I’m not buying it, both because there’s something tongue-in-cheek about “When I’m 64” and because it isn’t rock‘n’roll. It’s as if the idea of being 64 years old was so alien to the rock‘n’roll ethos, McCartney could only imagine it in the form of an old-fashioned music hall ditty.)
Richman stakes this ground on his very first album with the characteristically earnest “Dignified and Old”:
I say someday we’ll be dignified and old
Someday we could be dignified and old together
The album also features “I’m Straight”, a sneering rejection of hedonism, and the epochal “Roadrunner”, which appropriates the riff from the Velvets’ sonic orgy “Sister Ray,” speeds it up, and straps it to a celebration of driving alone at night with the radio on — a kind of chaste rapture. As a straight-laced guy myself — someone who loves rock music but has never been enticed by the accompanying lifestyle — The Modern Lovers had a profound effect on me when I first heard it in college.
Richman has spent the rest of his career figuring out how to age with dignity. Parker’s approach is to crack wise in the face of obsolescence (his peers’ and his own), while keeping faith with the basic elements of rock‘n’roll — electric guitar, bass, drums, maybe some Hammond organ, and a horn section. Richman’s style is altogether different. Satire isn’t in his nature. Instead, he has taken the wide-eyed innocence and sense of wonder in songs like “Dignified and Old” and “Roadrunner” to such an extreme that it would seem like a put-on if his commitment weren’t so total. Song titles like “I’m a Little Dinosaur”, “Ice Cream Man”, and “Rockin’ Rockin’ Leprechauns” give a sense of what he was going for in the years following The Modern Lovers. He was determined to move beyond rock’s fixation on adolescent debauchery and rebellion, which had peaked with Alice Cooper’s horror shtick and the Stooges’ feral antics just a few years earlier. But he didn’t want to lose the genre-defining spark of vitality, so rather than aspire to a sober maturity, he retreated into childhood.
This concerted goofiness might have seemed like an arty affectation — think of Talking Heads’ clean-cut image and naïve ad absurdum lyrics — if Richman had retained the raw sound of the original Modern Lovers. Instead, he boiled down his arrangements to the simplest possible combination: his own guitar (acoustic or clean, undistorted electric) and drums. The result is kind of like the strummy, proto-rock called skiffle, kind of like a mariachi version of Raffi. It’s rock without a trace of danger. You’d think this wouldn’t go over well with the Williamsburg hipsters, but you’d be wrong. Unlike Parker, whose diligent songcraft leaves the cool kids cold, Richman has the same snob appeal as an outsider artist like Daniel Johnston; recognizing the charm in the gee-whiz lyrics and the flat, nasal singing is a sign of discernment. (Which is to say I had no trouble getting a girl to come with me to Northsix.)
I’d seen Richman before, opening for Randy Newman in the pouring rain in Central Park, and this show started with the same idiosyncratic mix of themes: songs in Spanish and French, songs about famous painters, songs offering left-field advice (“Let Her Go into the Darkness,” “Give Paris One More Chance”). We cheered for the fan favorite “I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar” and whooped at his dweeb Elvis hip-swiveling routine during the drum solos. Richman had found a true alternative to Townshend’s seductive nihilism and, damn it if it wasn’t a lot of fun.
It took me a while to notice, though, that the tone had changed. Richman was giving a rambling introduction to “The Night Is Still Young”, his most recent ode to the pleasures of staying up late. He was recounting a night spent in a town square in Spain, how the good times didn’t get going until the regular folks had gone to bed, how these regular folks didn’t know what they were missing. I’m not sure how long he droned on like this with his adenoidal inflection, but it was starting to feel long, more like a harangue than an invitation to party. I realized something as I shifted from foot to foot, waiting for the song to start: I was tired. Like every rock concert in history, this one had started much later than advertised. It was a Friday; I’d worked all day. I was one of the regular folks, the hopeless squares Richman was ridiculing. Sure, the middle of the night is a magical time for a man-child who’s never had a nine-to-five, but us working stiffs would appreciate it if the man-child would just play the damn song already so we can have our bourgeois fun and go to sleep. These are not very rock‘n’roll thoughts, and I was annoyed at Richman for provoking them.
Eventually he did play the damn song, and basking in its wistful sway, all was forgiven. Not for long, though. Richman didn’t just introduce the next number; he stopped the show cold for an interminable lecture (it had to be at least ten minutes) about its subject: the imprisoned radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. “Abu-Jamal” hadn’t been released on record at the time and to say it came as a surprise would be an epic understatement. Jonathan Richman is the last artist anyone would expect to make protest music. Woody Guthrie once mixed political activism and artless good cheer into a single, coherent sensibility, but Richman had never shown any inclination to follow his lead. And while Guthrie delivered topical spiels and children’s ditties with equal verve, Richman seemed to think “Abu-Jamal” called for a more somber, delicate approach than, say, “Abominable Snowman in the Market”. On the studio version that was subsequently issued, the only accompaniment is an eerie harmonium; at Northsix, he performed it a cappella.
He could have performed it with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for all I cared by that point. Did I mention he stepped off the stage to hand out pamphlets with information about Abu-Jamal’s case? On paper, this may sound like a winning gesture of intimacy. In the moment, it made me want to heckle for the first time in my life. I don’t remember much after that; the show effectively screeched to a halt. Even a rare encore of “Pablo Picasso”, one of the nasty early classics Richman had renounced, couldn’t redeem one of the weirdest nights of my rock‘n’roll life.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Richman was in the midst of a new phase, trying to shed some of the overt silliness he’d come to be known for without losing the hard-earned simplicity of expression. His songwriting had grown more detailed and cerebral throughout the ‘90s, but in the 2000s, he started drawing attention to it with quasi-poetic locutions and the occasional woodwind arrangement, as if he was chafing against the limits of the idiot savant character he’d created. Compare the titles of his ‘90s albums — Having a Party with Jonathan Richman or Surrender to Jonathan — with the ones he put out in the 2000s — Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow, Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love — and you can detect the awkwardness of the shift. Tellingly, his last album of the ‘90s was called I’m So Confused.
Jonanthan Richman – “Here It Is”
There are moments on those more recent releases when the hectoring that ruined the Northsix show creeps into the writing. “When We Refuse to Suffer” chides people who take anti-depressants (and use air conditioning!) for choosing an impoverished experience of life. Oy. There are also moments when Richman gets it exactly right, when he’s as compelling a young old man as he was once an old young man: 2008’s mournful “As My Mother Lay Lying”, in which he follows dignified and old to its inevitable end (“as my mother lie dying I learned some more”); 2011’s self-deprecating “My Affected Accent”, in which he takes his younger self to task for pretensions to adult sophistication (“I droned like William F. Buckley does / I should’ve been bullied more than I was”). There’s even an elegant cover of “Here It Is” by Leonard Cohen, who may have been rock’s first and greatest old young man. (Robert Christgau says of Cohen, “he was always old — older than Elvis and also more sophisticated, the kind of artist you’d look up to at 24 only to find yourself surprisingly, alarmingly entering his age group four decades later.”) Richman has yet to attempt another protest song, except insofar as every song he’s ever written is a protest against cynicism and insincerity.
Northsix was sold in 2007 to a Manhattan-based promotion company, a casualty of rising rents in gentrifying North Brooklyn. I’ve seen Richman in the years since that show and enjoyed myself. No more prickly stage banter, none that I’ve been subjected to, at least. I’ll always remember that night, though, as a meaningful one, a scene in rock‘n’roll’s mid-life crisis. Put away childish things, sure. But what if childish things are, you know, your thing? What do you do then? Jonathan Richman has answered that question the only way an artist can: Learn some more.
Alejandro Escovedo: Always a Friend
You bust your ass in the margins of the music industry for as long as Parker and Richman have and there are bound to be ups and downs. One night you’re pouring it all out for apathetic boomers at an overpriced tourist trap — or passing out pamphlets to jaded hipsters in a glorified garage. The next you’re up on the silver screen, America’s favorite elder statesman of indie rock. (When Parker appears in Apatow’s This Is 40, he’ll be following in the footsteps of Richman, who served as a musical Greek chorus in the comedy smash There’s Something About Mary.) Mostly, though, you’re just working, flogging your latest album and merch at whatever venues you can reliably fill and will reliably pay you. As the Texas singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo puts it, “More miles than money / Look at our lives and it’s so funny.”
But the consequences of life as an aging cult act are no joke, as Ecovedo himself discovered. After living with hepatitis C for several years, he collapsed onstage in 2003. He was near death and uninsured. It took a string of benefit concerts and a tribute album featuring famous friends like Lucinda Williams and his niece Sheila E. to pay his medical bills.
I knew Escovedo’s reputation as a Zelig of Americana. His punk band the Nuns was the opening act for the Sex Pistols’ last-ever concert. As a member of Rank and File and the True Believers in the ‘80s, he was part of the roots rock movement that also spawned Los Lobos, the Blasters, and Green on Red. He collaborated with Whiskeytown on their 1997 y’allternative landmark Strangers Almanac. I’d given a few of his early solo albums a spin out of curiosity, but I wasn’t a fan. There was a formal quality to the lyrics I associated with other revered Texans like Townes Van Zandt, a sense of high seriousness I found alienating. The ballads, on first listen, were a tad snoozy. His gimmick of covering Stooges songs with a string quartet struck me as, well, gimmicky.
Hardcore Escovedo’s devotees would object strenuously to this characterization, and I’ll concede that the older stuff has grown on me. But Escovedo has been the first to admit his recovery from illness marked a major shift in his career. In 2011, he told the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era — when you’re an aging cult hero, you always have time for the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era — “After I was sick, my musical life changed completely…It became something else entirely. And it’s not like I hadn’t made good records up until then, but I don’t know that I had the focus and the desire to really get turned on by it.”
The transformation began with 2006’s The Boxing Mirror, produced by John Cale, who probably holds the patent on Escovedo’s blend of jagged rock and chamber music. My conversion happened a couple years later at a street fair, the kind where you can stock up on tube socks and funnel cake. At the CD stall, the cover of 2008’s Real Animal caught my eye. The photo — by Mick Rock, the man behind iconic images of Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, and Davie Bowie — depicts Escovedo against a white backdrop, sitting on an amp with his legs splayed. He’s clad in black, with black sunglasses and a red scarf, clutching a guitar that matches his wickedly pointy oxblood boots. It’s impossible to overstate how badass he looks in this picture. Once I noted the equally badass title and the presence of producer Tony Visconti, who defined the sound of ‘70s glam, I was in.
Alejandro Escevedo – “Always a Friend”
To say “Always a Friend”, the first track on Real Animal, is the best rock song I’ve heard since “Roadrunner” is to make a statement so sweeping and subjective as to be nearly meaningless. Yet any caveats or qualifications and I’d be selling it short. From the unaccompanied snap of the opening guitar chords to the lilt of the violin and cello (the first time Escovedo’s use of traditional string instruments has served his rocker instincts to a T), from the locked-in drumming of Hector Munoz on the breakdown to the revved-up refrain — “Oh oh oh oh oh oh!” — “Always a Friend” is an unstoppable hook machine. It cries out for an open stretch of highway, a last, reckless play for the one that got away. The lyrics, and how Escovedo sings them, strike a rare balance between passion and cool (“Every once in a while, honey, let your love show / Every once in a while, honey, let yourself go / Nobody gets hurt”). He jives his way through the verses (or what passes for verses in the song’s ingenious sequence of interlocking parts) and you can picture his woman rolling her eyes:
But if I do you wrong
Take the master suite
I’ll take the floor
Sleep in late, get your rest
I’ll catch up on mine
But when he hits the last line of his mea culpa — “Still be your lover, baby!” — he lets himself go, with that wide-open yowl he lets his love show, and while I don’t get hurt exactly, I do get the complacency and cynicism knocked out of me, and I’m jumping up and down like a kid again.
The rest of the album isn’t too shabby either. By the time of its release, I was a married homebody. I rarely managed to drag myself to shows. But seeing Escovedo live had climbed to the top of my to-do list. Lucky for me, he came to town in 2011 and played a show just a ten-minute walk from my Park Slope home. Even luckier: my wife, an old man rock skeptic whose favorite artists — Wilco, Radiohead, Built to Spill — are fast becoming old man rockers themselves, loved “Always a Friend” as much as I did and was excited to go with me.
The venue, a club called the Bell House, opened in 2008. Now, unlike Williamsburg, my neighborhood isn’t a haven for statement beards and lady-mullets; in fact, it’s well known as an enclave of uptight parents and pushy liberals. Socks and sandals everywhere you look. The Bell House, however, is situated in an industrial no-man’s land near the Gowanus canal, a safe distance from the strollers and artisanal cheese shops. (There used to be a rock club called Southpaw in Park Slope proper, but the Bell House siphoned off the best bookings until all that was left was Baby Loves Disco, a monthly dance party for all the little Jaspers and Fionas.) Housed in a converted 1920s warehouse, it’s a special space, unpretentious and intimate, but just large enough to make a concert feel momentous. There’s air conditioning and a lounge in the front in case you feel like sitting out the opening act, but those are about the only concessions to delicate flowers like me. Not a $35 burger in sight. Perfect.
Escovedo didn’t look quite as cool in person as on the cover of Real Animal — he wore a flowered shirt and no sunglasses — but it was close. From the start, his performance was masterful. It wasn’t just the singing and the interplay with his band, the Sensitive Boys. It was his gentle handling of an overzealous fan who squawked out a request (“No, we’re trying to do a bit of a program here”). It was in the self-deprecating way he confessed he was sick of playing the song “Castanets” (with its tart refrain “I like her better when she walks away”) without denying us the pleasure of hearing it. It was the disclosure that “Down in the Bowery” from 2010’s Street Songs of Love isn’t a love song, or rather it is, but the girl he wants to see “out on the street making a scene for everybody” is his daughter. Those snoozy ballads felt less snoozy when I could see the conviction in his face as he delivered them to us.
He saved “Always a Friend” for the home stretch. The song had been a hit on my mind’s radio (maybe you’ve heard it in a commercial for Payless Shoes. They must have liked the line about burying his “snakeskin boots somewhere I’ll never find.” That man needs new shoes!). I didn’t know it was a favorite of the faithful, though, until he struck those first switchblade chords and everyone screamed and threw a fist in the air. I could tell you I lost myself in the moment, but that isn’t true. As we grooved and “oh oh oh”-ed along with the band, I got to thinking — about Graham Parker and Jonathan Richman, about my dad, who has health problems of his own and often feels like his best days are behind him, and about me, too. Now that I’m the grounded, knowing grown-up I always aspired to be, it’s hard not to dwell on what I might have lost along the way. But then there are nights when it all comes together, and you need to have lived a little to know how rare that is and how blessed you are to be there. If you’re really lucky, you won’t even realize how tired and sore you are. Not until tomorrow, anyway. Because rock‘n’roll, no matter how gray and august it gets, will always be about rejuvenation. The night is still young, even if we’ll never be again.