I came into my music fandom clumsily. As a young kid, I was surrounded by music, sometimes literally. I lived in a home dominated by a record collection, my stepfather’s vinyl effectively serving as the walls of the living room. Each and every night, whatever new rock record was dominating his attention served as the soundtrack. The Dark Side of the Moon was released when I was two-years-old and its gloomy lushness was such a constant presence that I would sing along to “Money” while I played with my Tonka trucks.
Despite this, I wandered into my teenage years with only limited knowledge of what was out there in the realm of music. (If that particular stepfather had lasted longer, it may have been a different matter, but his impressive library disappeared from my life after a divorce.) Local radio in Madison was little to no help, dominated by stale playlists. There were no resources to draw upon, either. The vast tutorial available on the Interweb was years away, and the magazine racks in my dirtbag town didn’t offer any of the few periodicals that would have proved useful. Still, I dug and I tried, eventually bringing my knowledge and meager collection to respectable levels. Finally, with a little encouragement from Paul Schaffer and the least cool jingle ever attached to a product using coolness as a primary selling point, I scraped together some nickels and subscribed to Rolling Stone.
I’m quick to disparage the magazine now, but it was a godsend at the time. In many ways, the first issue that got folded into my mailbox wasn’t especially promising. Quickly, though, matters improved. While I can go back and testily identify all the blind alleys I went sent careening down by the ever-stagnating Rolling Stone editorial approach, I also learned about several performers who wouldn’t have registered for me otherwise. One of those performers was Graham Parker.
It was viewed as something of a comeback for Parker when he released the album Mona Lisa’s Sister in the spring of 1988. Three years had passed since his previous album (which did yield his only top forty hit, “Wake Up (Next To You)”). More significantly, the Rolling Stone writers were quick to term it his best album since his late seventies artistic peak. Luckily, the lead single did get some airplay on one local station and MTV (this was right when the channel was devoting select chunks of the programming day to “postmodern” music), letting me actually hear what I was reading about. Parker’s singwriting was something of a revelation: acerbic, sly, endlessly clever. Parker got compared to Elvis Costello quite a bit, but that wasn’t quite right. Costello, especially by the late eighties, was always very willfully cerebral in his writing. Parker, on the other hand, was earthy and tough. They were both writing novels in pop song form, but it was the difference between Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway.
When I got to the college radio station a few months later, I dug deeper into Parker’s work, finding the hidden gems on The Mona Lisa’s Sister and other older albums. I can’t say that Parker was an artist who fully stuck with me. I sampled his work, but I didn’t absorb it. Instead, he helped me make a transition, to hear songs differently, to expect something more from them, something smarter than what I’d settled for before.
And the opening verses of “Get Started. Start a Fire” remain one of my absolutely favorites, a perfect depiction of dashed opportunity in just a few terse lines. By now, she must be ready to burn that painting.
(Disclaimer: I came into today’s post assuming that “Get Started. Start a Fire,” arguably the second or third biggest single of Parker’s career, would be available somewhere, despite the fact that The Mona Lisa’s Sister is out of print. You can get a live version or two, but it appears to me that the original version of the song is entirely unavailable through means that would put money directly into Mr. Parker’s bank account. The song is presented here under that assumption. If anyone with due authority to do so asks me to remove it, I’ll gladly comply. Especially if it’s Graham Parker himself. I’m pretty sure he could take me in a fair fight. He’s got that look about him.)