I will be dating myself in this post, I’m sure, and I’ll also be poaching on the territory of rock ‘n’ roll expert Carl Scott over at Postmodern Conservative. But like a lot of people, I guess, I find that while my musical taste has not stood entirely still with the passage of time, I continue to be drawn to musicians whose work I loved long ago, even though many are now in their 60s. (Hey, my dad still loves the Benny Goodman music of his youth, and who can blame him?) Van Morrison, for instance, is still writing and recording, and his latest, Born to Sing: No Plan B, is surprisingly good (though “Open the Door to Your Heart” is getting way too much airplay). And the great American songwriter John Hiatt is touring on a new album, Mystic Pinball, that is one of his best in a long time. I saw Hiatt play Princeton last month, and he was in fine form.
When I was in college in the late 1970s, a second (or third or fourth?) “British invasion” hit American shores, not only with raucous acts like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, but also less self-destructive artists like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, and Dave Edmunds. One of my favorites, who seemed like the Brits’ answer to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for a moment or two, was Graham Parker and the Rumour. With albums like Howlin’ Wind, Heat Treatment, Stick to Me, and Squeezing Out Sparks, Parker seemed poised to launch a long-haul star career. It wasn’t to be. In the 1980s he had his biggest (but still not very big) hits, even recording a duet with Springsteen on The Up Escalator, but a lot of the fire seemed to be going out of his music at the same time.
Parker resurfaced now and then in the 1990s and 2000s with a few listenable albums, but his material got more and more spotty over time, even while he still showed real songwriting talent. One temptation to which he succumbed now and then was the angry-politics song–always a mistake for a guy who was militantly atheist and woefully ill-informed–and it usually also meant a sacrifice of musical quality when this demon possessed him. But I was usually able to shrug off these fits of ill temper if the rest of an album was passably good. Conservative rock fans have long had to cope with stupid left-wing opinions sprinkled into the songs of artists they like.
Nothing, however, quite prepared me for the assault on common decency on Three Chords Good, Parker’s new reunion album with the Rumour, the band he split with in the early 1980s. When I got to the song “Arlington’s Busy,” a silly screed about the American war in Afghanistan (a shallow effort even if one agrees with him), I shrugged, as of old. But the next song was “Coathangers,” and that did it for me. A revolting celebration of the abortion license, “Coathangers” has such timeless lyrics as this (I quote some of the less contemptible lines):
The ancients are coming by camel or limousine / to criminalize your body and call it obscene / working their way through the ranks right up / to the highest court / cos getting knocked up by your daddy that’s all your fault.
Yeah, it’s that bad–as is the refrain “come on girls, get your coathangers.”
What is particularly disheartening is that back in the late 1970s, on Squeezing Out Sparks, the song that gave the album its title (a reference to snuffing out the unborn) was “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” one of the most sensitive songs ever penned about the tragedy of abortion. Writing in the ambivalent, anguished voice of a young man whose girlfriend is aborting their baby, Parker sang:
Did they tear it out with talons of steel / and give you a shot, so that you wouldn’t feel? / and washed it away as if it wasn’t real? / It’s just a mistake I won’t have to face / Don’t give it a name, don’t give it a place / Don’t give it a chance, it’s lucky in a way . . .