'Criminally Underappreciated' Graham Parker on the Road

A record warning label made me buy my first Graham Parker CD, but I wasn’t on the prowl for naughty lyrics at the time.

I had heard about Parker, the craggy voiced songwriter who came of age along with fellow angry rockers Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson in the late 1970s. But I knew precious little about him. When I saw his 1992 album Burning Questions at the record store – that’s a place where people once bought music from clerks who thought they were rock stars themselves — the affixed warning label gave me pause. I never had the need to rebel with dirty lyrics as a teen, and I wasn’t in the mood to start now.

But this sticker simply said, “meaningful lyrics enclosed,” so I snatched the record and headed to the checkout counter. I’ve been a rabid fan ever since.

Parker still records new music, but his early fame has all but evaporated. So when Parker hit my new home city of Denver last weekend he played at the Lion’s Lair, a dive bar that wears the label proudly. I didn’t dare venture into the Lair’s bathroom during my visit. I’ve heard the stories, and that was more than enough for me.

The house was packed as Parker took what passed for the stage, while about 75 people clapped as if it were 1978 all over again.

The bald, bespectacled singer played his early hits (“Fool’s Gold,” “Discovering Japan”) as well as tracks from a forthcoming album. He was in fine voice even if the club’s speaker system needed a booster shot, but he didn’t push himself to hit the higher notes of songs like “Temporary Beauty.” He had evidently soaked in enough local culture to lob a few medical marijuana jokes at the Colorado crowd.

The local alternative weekly dubbed Parker “criminally underappreciated” before his arrival, and I couldn’t agree more. But for one night he was just another singer belting out songs in a bar, and he looked as if he wouldn’t want it any other way.