I am 40 years old, the same age as Graham Parker was when he recorded and released Struck by Lightning, one of his best records, in 1991. Yup, when Graham Parker was 40, he made Struck by Lightning. And what, exactly, have I done with my life?
Tagged (quite fairly, as these things go) as one of the premier British “angry young men” of the late Seventies, Parker had come roaring out of the gate in 1976 with the twin salvos of Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment, and, three years later, released the classic Squeezing Out Sparks. After several relatively fallow years in the Eighties, he reminded everyone of his greatness with 1988’s wonderful The Mona Lisa’s Sister, a record that prominently featured acoustic guitar and Hammond B-3 organ, and which contained songs like “Back in Time,” “I’m Just Your Man,” and “Get Started, Start a Fire,” among the finest pieces Parker has ever written.
He followed The Mona Lisa’s Sister with a solo live record (Alone in America), which was decent, and a curiously over-polished studio album (Human Soul) that for the most part wasn’t. You couldn’t help wondering if The Mona Lisa’s Sister was an anomaly, a bright spark from a flame that was rapidly cooling.
The lowered expectations might have made Struck by Lightning seem even better than it was at first listen, but it does indeed hold up, two decades later. Most reviewers at the time zeroed in on the chorus of “A Brand New Book” as the key to the record:
Because the words came out
Not twist and shout
Cause that’s not what a grown man writes about
That chapter’s over, let it blow over
I found that I’ve become the owner
Of a brand new book
What does a grown man write about? Well, if you’re ensconced in Woodstock with your wife and daughter, you write about what you know—la vie domestique. Parker obliges, and the best tracks on the record are the ones concerned most intimately with family and fatherhood. “Strong Winds” floats on a cloud of acoustic guitar and Hammond organ, the latter courtesy of longtime Woodstock legend and ex-Band mate Garth Hudson. In the song, Parker paints an evocative portrait of a young girl:
Have you seen her run through the wild things
Dropping behind her the child’s things
That she’ll no longer need
Scattering like seeds they are discarded then
Nothing can give them a life again
They’re comfort only when she bleeds
It’s at once a caring and canny description, one that he immediately follows with “The Kid with the Butterfly Net,” where again Hudson’s keyboard work buoys an almost effervescent description of a child at play, a description tinged with sadness at an innocence soon to be lost to maturity:
And when you look into her eyes
You see what you want
When everything was undone, every field was open
Nothing was impossible yet
A grown man also writes about the love of a good woman, of having his world rocked at first sight (“And It Shook Me”), of having to meet her seemingly impossible demands (“She Wants So Many Things”), and, in “Wrapping Paper,” of following up boorish behavior by begging for a little make-up nookie:
Speak to me girl, speak to me darling
You’re not a princes, I’m not Prince Charming
Speak with your tongue, use body language
Pull your skin like wrapping paper ’round my heart
A grown man can also have a lurid imagination, and Parker gives voice to his on “They Murdered the Clown,” in which Larry Hoppen’s carnival keyboard work supports a sinister story of homicide under the big top. Parker also lets his cynical side loose on tabloid culture in “Weeping Statues,” which ends with as cold a knife thrust as the man has managed in his long career:
But statues only weep for some
And Elvis just shows up when he’s hungry
Lightning strikes at everyone
But only hits the very lucky
But, at the end of the day, a grown man is quite often the one who finds himself dealing with the detritus of daily life in all its inglorious splendor, as Parker does in “Children and Dogs”:
Now I’m outside freezing to death
Just walking the dog
Instead of throwing myself at my wife
I’m throwing a log
We haven’t slept for two nights
He howls out at the moon
The kid says sometimes he bites
Can you bring a bunny rabbit home soon?
Descriptions like this one remind me of another grown man, John Hiatt, who had, in the years before Parker put out Struck by Lightning, released a trio of records that mined the same minutiae of family life, to great effect. Those were the best records of Hiatt’s career; for a period of about five years and through 30-odd songs, he could not be touched as the poet laureate of minivans, working stiffs, and the nightly family dinner. Likewise, Parker found in his domestic situation the fodder for one of his handful of artistic peaks, a record that touches a nerve with thirty- and fortysomething family folk even some 20 years later.
The angry young man as proud papa. Who’da thunk he had it in him?