The first time Graham Parker played Minneapolis, it was 1976 and he was on tour with his band The Rumour.
“I remember getting out of the tour station wagon and I’d never felt cold like that,” he recalled by phone from his home in upstate New York last week. The next time Parker played Minneapolis, it was a rollicking set at the old Guthrie Theater in 1978 for his landmark “Squeezing Out Sparks” album. For the past decade, the once-angry young punk (now 58) who once sang “don’t use me to fill up your empty lives” has performed annually at Brit’s Pub, which he deems “my favorite gig of the year.”
Parker, who returns to Brit’s rooftop Sunday (6 p.m.), took some time out to chat about Michael Jackson, paying his dues and being dubbed “the next Bob Dylan.”
MinnPost: Back in the day, you and the Rumour covered [The Jackson Five’s] “I Want You Back.” It was always a great, swinging encore. What made you want to do it, and how were you struck by Michael Jackson’s passing?
Graham Parker: Yeah, I forget that I did that song, like I forget I did quite a few songs, really. People sometimes call out for me to play it solo, which is not logical if you’re a musician and you know just how tricky and difficult that song is and how many parts there are. I never even learned to play the song. We recorded it in 1978, just before “Squeezing Out Sparks.” I must have heard it on the radio and just thought that it would be absolutely unbelievable if me and The Rumour walked out on an encore and did that at Hammersmith Odeon in London or something.
MinnPost: Did Michael ever hear it? Did you meet him?
GP: I had a picture of me and Michael on the front page of my website, www.grahamparker.net but [early last week] I emailed the web manager and said it’s probably time to let the circus take over. It was during “Off the Wall.” It was in a bank in Beverly Hills, and it was a party for a million sales of that record. It was a daytime thing, and I was on the scene then and getting places and playing in town, and somehow the record company took me there.
The photo is of me, Michael and Lene Lovich, of all people, and her boyfriend and musical collaborator Les [Campbell], who must’ve been in town promoting herself at the same time. It’s a peculiar-looking photo. He was definitely not shy about getting his photo taken with names, even if they were only little names like me.
In fact, I said to him, “Hey Michael, I covered your song `I Want You Back.’ ” And he looked at me like I was from another planet; he was already getting spaced out then, I think. His only comment was, `Oooh.’ Sort of Dylanesque in a high-pitched voice.
MinnPost: As you see people die, contemporaries of yours, what have you gleaned from this whole punk-pub-showbiz thing?
GP: I really appreciate where I am. Very much. And learning to expect the unexpected as well, because 33 years without a day job is quite remarkable for someone who didn’t become a superstar. It’s quite strange to be in that position, and I’m very grateful for it. I had no ideas I’d be paying my dues now, though.
MinnPost: What do you mean?
GP: I was in the suburbs of England when I started, and I went from nothing to having Sounds magazine ringing up going, “Can we do an interview with you?” The first thing written about me in the paper was, “Could this be the new Bob Dylan?”
I never played anywhere, and now I do gigs all the time. I’m gigging my ass off. Now I’m doing what I really dreamed of before I had a career, which is, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a few people know my name and I’d play in their clubs and a few people would come and they’d like my music and I’d get paid? What a dream.”
And it didn’t happen to me, because I went from nothing to being a relative star, and there were huge amounts of money that went into a business. It wasn’t like, “Here’s the cash for the gig, Graham.” I never saw anything. I had a manager, and a tour manager, and it was not like paying dues at all. I became a star of sorts, straight away.
MinnPost: Every time I see you at Brit’s, I get the feeling you’re very appreciative to have people come out and hear you.
GP: Ah, yes. This is the eighth or ninth time, I think. They fly me in, they treat me well, they pay me well. There’s always a price to pay, though, because it’s on a rooftop, and one year storms were rolling in the whole set. It’s an outrageous thing: You find yourself on a roof in Minneapolis with the sun going down and it’s like, “It couldn’t be much better than this.” It’s often the best gig of the year for me; I’ve got a lot of affection for Brit’s.
MinnPost: You’ve got a real tenacity to not quit. Have you thought about what’s in your personal makeup or DNA or family roots that keeps you going?
GP: Yeah. It must be that I’m a working-class boy. I never got to the level of superstardom where you could become a bastard. I became a bit of a bastard, because suddenly people are doing everything for you, and you expect things. But I never let that take over.
My dad would have done the same thing. He was a soldier in the war for one thing, and he was a wood machinist for a while. Then he got a job as a stoker, so he’d do night shifts shoveling coal into all these huge furnaces. He’d be there all night long. Sometimes I’d sit with him and just marvel at this unbelievable job he had. He’d be there with his roll-up cigarettes the size of a Rastafarian joint and a mug of tea, stoking coal. Tough as old boots.
MinnPost: So you’ve got Michael Jackson on one end and the kid in his basement that’s just starting out. In the great pop music hierarchy, where does Graham Parker fits these days?
GP: I think it’s become someone with longevity, rather than someone whose peak was over by 1980. I get people who are coming to gigs now who weren’t coming in the ‘90s at all. Things are much better for me, attendance-wise at these little gigs, and I get a lot of people who don’t know I’ve had a career since 1983, around “Another Grey Area.” They lost touch after that, because they had kids and families, just like I did. And now of course they’re either divorced or their kids have grown up, and now they’ve come back.
You know, you’ve got “Deep Cut to Nowhere” in 2001. “Struck By Lightning” in the ’90s or whenever. “Your Country” in 2003. “Don’t Tell Columbus” [in 2006]. These are highlight records, man. And what I get is an appreciation from people, often in the media, saying, “The guy hasn’t lost it.”
Now, I don’t think that’s what the epitaph will say. The epitaph will be that my peak was “Squeezing Out Sparks” and “from then on Parker played to a dwindling audience.” That’s what they’re gonna write when I’m dead. It’s gotta be a sad tale. Some people see the reality, which is a successful career. But some people don’t want to see that; they want a tragic tale of mediocrity.
MinnPost: An excellent name for your next record.
GP: Wouldn’t that be great? We’ve got it, mate: “A Tragic Tale of Mediocrity.” Maybe a B-sides collection or something.