Graham Parker’s Presence Adds a Gift for Music Fans In This is 40
By Tommy Hough
I have to give a great deal of credit to writer and director Judd Apatow. He’s made some very funny movies over the years, especially The 40 Year Old Virgin and Super Bad, and with This Is 40 he grows up the formula bit, bringing into play what he and Seth Rogen have sometimes referred to as a “John Hughes movies with a dirty mouth.”
That is, funny and heartfelt films with genuine characters whose company you enjoy keeping over the course of the movie, but with an often profane, barking laughter moment lurking just around the corner.
With all due respect to The Hangover and Dumb and Dumber, I’ve never come across a movie as consistently hilarious as Apatow’s Super Bad. Wile some of the films Apatow has been involved in, like Anchorman or Step Brothers, can veer into mean-disguised-as-funny territory (and don’t get me wrong, Step Brothers is very funny, but only the rumble scene in Anchorman was great), Apatow is a reliably funny filmmaker who knows his strengths, isn’t afraid to get serious for a moment and grow his characters, and often hints at greater wells of cultural coolness beneath the surface.
Of course, Apatow cut his teeth working on The Ben Stiller Show in the early 90s, and by the end of the decade was producing the underseen and underappreciated Freaks and Geeks, the show which first introduced many of the comedic faces who now populate his films, like Jason Segel, Seth Rogen and James Franco. So I shouldn’t be surprised he’s been reliably capable at dropping accurate, and cool, musical reference into his movies, specifically dog-eared for someone with my background.
But the inclusion of none other than Graham Parker (!) into the storyline of Apatow’s new movie This Is 40 isn’t just a dog-ear, it’s nearly the whole dog. I was blown away. I mean, really, other than me, who else knows who Graham Parker is?
Maybe, after all these years, Graham Parker gets the joke and thinks the whole thing is funny too. He must.
With the good-natured Parker serving as one of the centerpiece subplots of This Is 40, I realized Apatow (by way of Paul Rudd’s boutique record label-owning character Pete) and I apparently share the same worldview on the mystery of Lady Gaga’s appeal.
We also lament the long-term, general disposability of pop music when compared to artists following the singer/songwriter or band-as-artistic-unit models in place since the 1960s, which was environment in which Parker came up through the popular music ranks.
In other words, we seem to share similar popular music parameters. Our understanding, however nerdy it may be, of the history and depth of popular music enables us to appreciate where some music strives for something more than three minutes of melodically-impaired move-your-ass.
If Apatow doesn’t share my attitude, he certainly understands it, because the character of Pete is earnestly fuel-injected with it.
Squeezing Out Sparks
I met Graham Parker back in 2005 at FM 94/9, when Graham stopped by the studio with nothing but his guitar and a lifetime of songs and stories, to chat with my colleague and buddy Michael Halloran about the release of his then-new Songs of No Consequence album.
I was a little nervous about approaching Parker, a guy whom I’d read about for years as being cranky, even bitter. Instead I met a well-worn singer/songwriter comfortable in his own skin who was nothing if not a pleasant pro.
We even got on the subject of Bob Marley, and he admitted he was at Marley’s legendary London Lyceum shows in the summer of 1975 when the Bob Marley and the Wailers Live! album was recorded, and admitted he had “too much THC” in his system to fully contemplate the greatness of the moment. The following year, in 1976, Parker released his first album with the Rumour, the incredible Howling Wind.
The scene where Pete realizes his hero is happy about having a song picked up for a TV show and making a little cash is a winner, and the song makes it: Parker’s soulfully stark “Watch the Moon Come Down,” one of my all-time favorite songs, off of 1977’s Stick to Me.
The theme of the scene, driven home by a happily congratulatory Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, is your heroes can sometimes seemingly let you down when it comes to contrasting the image you’ve built up of them in your mind, versus the understandable day-to-day minutiae of making a living. “Oh, you thought you were going to make money off my record?” Parker asks, a tad surprised.
It’s a telling moment where Pete realizes this as Parker and Armstrong leave the venue to grab a drink, leaving Pete the True Believer with a bill for a press event and show which he knows will garner little attention, and as they say in the record business, not “move units.” It’s also a moment which the causal audience may miss. Coming at a difficult time financially, and personally with his marriage, Pete’s character handles the fallout poorly.
The Up Escalator
So how unbelievably cool is it Graham Parker is perfectly happy to appear as though he isn’t acting, apparently comfortable in the skin of the guy who has never received the what guys like me thought was the attention and commercial success he and his music has deserved? At the same time, in real life, Graham’s certainly getting a paycheck for the movie, he knows appearing in it will improve his fortunes, and it’s a handy way to promote his real-life reunion with The Rumour. So why not have a little fun with the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia version of events of the way things “should” have gone for him.
At this point, he’s probably used to it, but the fact the script plays so close to reality may have been what attracted Parker to the project. Maybe he was just flattered someone thought enough to ask, or even write a reunion with The Rumour into the script of a majoy Hollywood movie. Who wouldn’t be? And maybe that’s the earned success for Graham Parker someone like me should be happy about.
I’m still stunned this even came to pass, which is why I have nothing but endless kudos for Judd Apatow, who no doubt had to explain to one or two Hollywood boneheads along the who exactly Graham Parker is, and what we music geeks believe he shoud’ve been.
And how those songs are so goddamn great, if you can just listen and enjoy and appreciate them.
Note, by the way, I said “melodically-impaired” earlier.
There’s nothing wrong with sexy or fun, or moving you ass for the sake of doing so. So for three minutes of great throwdown move-your-ass, go to the well: “Shake ‘Em On Down” by Mississippi Fred McDowell, the titanic swagger of “Rumble” by Link Wray and his Ray Men, “Soul Finger” by The Bar Kays. Anything from the Stax/Volt catalogue. Heck, I’ll even take Blackfoot’s “Train Train.”
Suggestions? I’d love to hear them. Three minutes of pure unadulterated shake your ass.
Graham Parker album recommendations coming soon ~ check back.