Graham Parker a Zen trickster at the Rubin

IN TUNE: In one of the more unique performances of his career, Graham Parker skewered organized religion Friday night as only the most soulful social critic of our time could. The story of Siddhartha was the backbone of an amusing musical lecture at the magnificent Rubin Museum in Chelsea, where giant slides flashed behind him while Parker toppled totems like tenpins.

Photo Credit: No re-use without permission from CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM
Photo Credit: No re-use without permission from CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM
Photo Credit: No re-use without permission from CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM
Photo Credit: No re-use without permission from CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM
Photo Credit: No re-use without permission from CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM


Not one of the 20 or so Parker performances I’ve witnessed the past three decades — from an acoustic living-room show in Ringwood to a rock-and-roll raveup with the Rumour at the Calderone Concert Hall on Long Island — has been like any other. Friday night, in an auditorium so acoustically perfect he didn’t need a microphone, the basher of all things hypocritical unveiled a few new songs, as well as a batch he’s never recorded.

Parker digressed at times, poking fun at everyone from Duran Duran’s lead singer “Simon The Good” to Arianna Huffington (“I used to be a Eurotrash Conservative,” he said in an affected voice, “until Larry David’s wife turned me on to a Prius”).

He also told of how he once lived around the block from the 17th Street building that now houses the Rubin, in a 2,000-square-foot loft where he’d invite friends to get stoned, look down at what was then the Barney’s women’s store, and laugh as “rats the size of Rotweilers” darted in and out of the construction site, terrifying the well-to-do passersby.

But it wasn’t all scoffing and scowling. Parker, who turned 60 last month, told some touching stories, one involving his young daughter:

During a walk one day in Queens, he convinced his wife to take the redheaded Natalie to a fortune teller as “a big goof.” The “seer” told them the girl was destined to break a lot of hearts (“overstatement of the obvious,” he said) and that she possessed an old soul. This led to the obvious question: How many times do you have to be reincarnated to have an “old” soul?

Parker followed with a song he just wrote, a New Orleans-style march that he said he “turned into one of my usual psycho-sexual dramas.”

Lots of venom in a shot glass,
Lots of liquor in a hip flask,
I knew that love would not last
With an old soul like you

“Songs are ephemeral,” he said afterward. “It’s not something you can grab hold of. You can’t weigh it. It emanates from your mind.”

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Parker then riveted the house by reading a letter he said he found backstage after a concert in San Francisco. In it, a woman stricken with breast cancer told him she made it through the “darkness, fear, pain and uncertainty” thanks to two of his songs — “The Kid With the Butterfly Net” and “The Sun is Gonna Shine Again.”

Both “gave me and many others the courage to survive,” she wrote, signing the letter simply “Robin.”

At the very moment his listeners could have been overcome with emotion, Parker declared that “The Kid…” is “a real pig to play,” then turned it into a silky version that didn’t exactly sound, as he contended, like Melanie’s “Brand New Key.”

“The Sun Is Gonna Shine…” came later. Parker had more to say about Siddhartha, the subject of many of the colorful 20-foot-high slides. He imagined the Buddha returning home to a wife who had to question his excuse for being gone 10 years — he’d basically hung upside down and sat beneath a tree, Siddhartha said.

“Can you imagine what it was like? ‘Bloody ‘ell, where have you been? It’s been 10 years,” Parker said, as the crowd laughed. “You left us alone here in the palace. Nobody gives a shit about us.”

“ ‘I starved myself,’ Siddhartha said to her. ‘You got any of that rabbit stew?’ All he got out of it was being hungry.”

Siddhartha, however, claimed he had “reached that exalted state,” Parker said through his orange-tinted glasses. “And speaking of Nirvana….”

After wondering whether Kurt Cobain has been reincarnated (“I hope he comes back with a less insane girlfriend”) Parker pulled a delightful surprise: “In Bloom.”

“I have no faith and no beliefs,” he told the polite, restrained crowd afterward. “But it’s tempting.”

Once again, the greatest pub rocker of his time revealed a depth of empathy that has emerged over the years, as he sang of the pain of losing a loved one you wish you could someday be “cavorting (with) in some paradise, saying things you never said to them before.”

Shake that mortal coil, leave us to toil
Take off that weight, take off the weight
Listen to the silence, know the end of violence
Here’s a clean slate, here’s a clean slate.

His voice, always husky, has spawned varied shadings: It virtually danced the title to “Success” across a scale — up, down, and back up again. After more than 35 years in the business, few modern-day folk singers — save maybe Martin Sexton or Jack Johnson — swing with as much soul as Graham Parker.

He’s been reading the Bible, but isn’t sure whether it made sense to start at the beginning. Tales in the Book of Genesis of men who lived into their hundreds “made a land inhabited by hobbits and wizards seem plausible,” Parker told the crowd.

“Whatever we think we know, whatever experiences we have, we could level the playing field in this world a bit if the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and all the other holy men would say, ‘I think this, but I really don’t know’.”

After a rousing “I Don’t Know,” Parker stuck with the theme of beliefs, pulling yet another surprise: It was 1978, he said, when he dreamed of walking through a desert between a pair of walls that stretched to infinity. From above, he said, two bright spheres descended onto his shoulders and, in robotic voices, sang the lyric “waiting for the UFOs.”

Many in the crowd sang the tagline — albeit sotto voce. Meanwhile, Parker looked upward as he sang, feigning anticipation of another visit. He kept the diehards delighted with an oldie only a scant few would recognize: “Urban Spaceman” (1968), by the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band, complete with a kazoo he crammed into the harmonica holder.

(The Bonzos were part of a British children’s TV show, “Do Not Adjust Your Set,” which featured, among others, future Monty Python stars Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones. They also performed “Death Cab for Cutie,” at Paul McCartney’s request, in “Magical Mystery Tour.” And their song “Trouser Press” gave a name to one of the most popular music magazines of all time. Find them on YouTube and Wikipedia.)

The penultimate of Parker’s 21 songs Friday night was an unrecorded rocker that took a virtual wrecking ball to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — noting, among other slights, that “John Prine sits by the door, but people walk in and ignore him.”

Lowell George won’t make it into the Cleveland hall — and neither will he, Parker claimed. “I don’t want to be a museum piece,” he sang. “I don‘t think there‘s any chance of that.”

The rousing number segued perfectly into “The New York Shuffle,” one of two songs he did from “Stick to Me.” The other was the reggae-influenced “Problem Child” (Nothing from “Howlin’ Wind” or “Heat Treatment”).

All that was left for Parker was to bring it on home — and he did, with a vengeance, playing yet another unrecorded tune that he said even he finds “grossly offensive”:

I can’t wait till all the mosques turn into discos
I can’t wait till all the priests go to San Francisco
I can’t wait till the synagogues turn into dance halls.

Yearning for a time when “the Holy Books are all final editions” and “Heaven’s Gate” is “just the name of a movie that cost too much…. I can’t wait till the end of faith,” Parker underscored his belief that faith isn’t about promises of an afterlife, or of another time or place.

“I think the closest a lot of us come to Nirvana is when yo
u hold a baby,” he said earlier in the set. You clutch your child to your chest, rock a little, and, slowly, he or she sinks to asleep.

At that point, “you get infused with this deep sense of bliss,” Parker said, before playing “Guardian Angels.”

Who could challenge him?

Graham Parker remains one of the most productive and prolific singer-songwriters around. Besides the usual outlets, he distributes much of his music himself — as well as a sparkling new concert DVD, ”  Live at the FTC,”
with the airtight revelation of a band, the New York-based Figgs. Parker has also produced a bevy of live CDs recorded straight from the soundboard. Go to: GRAHAMPARKER.NET

If you haven’t been to the
Rubin Museum of Art, find a good excuse. It’s a fascinating place dedicated to collecting, displaying and preserving the art of the Himalayas and surrounding regions, from Myanmar (once Burma) to Afghanistan. But it features more than exhibits: There are discussions, lectures, and performances like Parker‘s. The five-floor, 70,000-square-foot museum also has a cafe and a gift shop that offers a library of books about Buddhism and various other Eastern religions, faiths and beliefs, and an enchanting six-story steel and glass spiral staircase. That it’s not on the Museum Mile or near other galleries only adds to its charm.

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