#334: Graham Parker, "Squeezing Out Sparks" (1979)

I teach English at a private high school with a one-to-one model. One student, one teacher together in a (small) classroom. It’s a full-time school set up like tutoring and intended to allow to disappear completely that seemingly inevitable gap between what a student needs and what a teacher is under obligation, under contract, to give. Lessons become conversations built around questions firing off from both sides. Inside jokes ricochet off the walls the longer the year goes on. If a kid’s having a shitty day, everything can stop. You can catch up on the academics later. Relationship, emotional health, growth over all else.

Given this opportunity, I’ve recently started ending my semesters with a very particular assignment. First, I ask the student to make lists of their favorite books, movies, TV shows, and bands. Then, I ask them look at those lists and see if any themes pop up among and between them. We discuss at length what they’ve discovered, and the results are typically two-pronged: the student has a definite “taste,” and the student’s taste is all over the map. They like bands within a single genre (usually emo/screamo/goth) but like movies of a different genre altogether. They might be into a couple shows with dark or supernatural themes (like, well, Supernatural), but might like three different shows with entirely different purposes, as well.

The point is this: everyone makes their own story from the art they ingest, and that story is allowed to mutate over time. I’d say it should be encouraged as natural, in fact. Especially in high school, and especially-especially early on in those years, most humans are trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing and who the fuck they really are. In my classroom, I want these particular humans to be honest with themselves about themselves. I want them to see their own story laid out before them, and I want them to watch it change. I want them, above all else, to take ownership over this story. It is theirs. It is them. That’s empowering.

Or at least that’s the hope. I feel a little bad about hijacking this piece on Graham Parker to write instead about Prince. But tbh I don’t feel too bad. I’m sure Graham Parker has his place in music history and I’m sure he has his fan base that will roil from the injustice. But as the editor of this project, I pushed for others to write the Parker thing for months and no one was interested. And now Prince has died. And I know these things aren’t related, but they’re also unavoidable. Once I watched This is 40 and in it Paul Rudd represents an aging musician who no one remembers or wants to go see on his reunion tour and I thought that musician was fictional. It was Graham Parker, playing himself. I’m sorry if it seems unfair to bring this up. Some histories are bigger than others. Someone write the Graham Parker piece this piece should have beenI will read it. I want to be educated. But Prince has died.

A lot has been said about Prince both while he was with us and in the week since he’s passed on. I don’t have much to add beyond another story, another familiar perspective. I always teach my students what Joan Didion taught the world, that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and what DFW then flipped on its head, that we tell each other stories to “become less alone inside.” So all I can do is try and live, try and be less alone. This is what Prince and his music is for a lot of us, too. A reason to live, to try, to connect, and in living, try to connect at all costs.

I’ve started getting my students to flay themselves open so their own stories become apparent to them, and so they can dispense with any foolhardy, outdated notion of shame toward themselves and their interests. One student listed Marvel superhero blockbusters as her favorite films and then quietly went on with the addendum: and it’s embarrassing, but The Lion King is actually my favorite movie though. I made her write it down at the top of her list. I should have made her circle it three times and underline it in red pen. It’s beside the fact that The Lion King is a good movieit could have been The Guilt Trip or North or The Room, and it still wouldn’t have mattered. Ownership is everything. Confidence is only the start of it.

Prince is infamous at this point for saying “I can’t be played. A person trying to play me plays themselves,” and I want it printed in all-caps on high school diplomas. Your story belongs to nobody but you. The power to comprehend that story, to shape it and brand it and live it out the best way you can figure out how, is in your hands. That isn’t just importantit’s everything.

And this was Prince to a lot of people. It was Bowie to a lot of people. Believe it or not, it’s also Kim Kardashian to a lot of people. All three of them, and about a thousand others, are that for me. I make lists sometimes to remind myself of myself. I find it rejuvenating, even essential. What are my favorite foods, my favorite music, my favorite words? Who am I and where did that come from? How have I changed, and is this evolution or devo? It isn’t easy to remember, on a regular basis, who you are. It isn’t easy figuring it out in the first place. But it starts with influence, it ends with a mirror, and everything in between should be true.

So I’m sorry-not-sorry for neglecting Graham Parker. He doesn’t factor into my story. Of course I listened to this record, Squeezing Out Sparks, a number of times through. It sounded like Elvis Costello, which doesn’t sound like much to me. But it might to you, and you should ask yourself about it. Question the themes that got you there, and if you like the answers then print your name on them, all-caps, size 72. Find your Prince, even if it ain’t Prince. Maybe someday it could be, and maybe not, but go looking. Don’t quit. Don’t hide. Go looking.

—Brad Efford