How To Avoid An Imbroglio: A Rodney Graham Musical Primer

“Well here’s a classic rock scenario / don’t fear the reaper / on the stereo”

Internationally renowned artist Rodney Graham (January 16, 1949 – October 22, 2022) passed away earlier this week, and while primarily known as a visual and conceptual artist of uncommon depth and clarity, his career also ran a parallel track over the last two decades as a singer/songwriter and recording artist of wryly observed and perfectly constructed pop songs. Despite Graham’s protestations that his musical work was done as a hobby, it’s just too perfectly realized and too expansive to have merely been the work of a dilettante.

Coming out of the fertile Vancouver art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Graham first started making music with fellow artists Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace in the kinetic sounding post-punk group, UJ3RK5 (whose 1980 soundboard recording of a gig opening for Gang of Four was reissued in 2016 by Primary Information). He largely abandoned music (though not sound) in the ’80s and ’90s for the conceptual photos, installations, artist book works, and films that would make his reputation. Two looped films he created around the turn of the millennium though specifically dealt with music; How I Became A Rambling Man (1999), and The Phonokinetoscope (2001). The first with a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers type cowboy singing a classic cowboy style song played by the artist, and the second in which Graham rides his bike through a pastoral garden on an LSD trip in an homage to LSD inventor Albert Hofmann, while accompanied by a soundtrack the artist created inspired by Piper At The Gates of Dawn era Pink Floyd. Not long after these films he began a solo recording career in earnest, coalescing arch country & western songs and psychedelic rock into baroque pop forms. And like another visual artist famous for his music, Terry Allen, it wasn’t merely done as sideline, but as a central part of his practice.

Though a generation older, his songwriting has much in common with that of David Berman, Bill Callahan, Kurt Wagner, and Dan Bejar—tunes full of sardonic tales of abject failures or self-deprecating exploits, with someone (usually the artist himself) always looking to hit the road or make a much needed career change. If the art/music world wasn’t so bifurcated, you could easily see his albums having come out on Matador or Drag City, with glowing reviews in places like Pitchfork, etc., but as it currently stands his musical work has largely been overlooked among the broader public. He was capable of turning phrases like a classic country pro of old, such as on “How To Avoid An Imbroglio”: “Doing time for the bad idea / that wasn’t even mine / you’ve got to know / when to let it go / cause it’s three gin & tonics in a row / and two or three more on the patio”. Or probably enduring the stultifying banality of Art Basel Miami in “Walking to Walgreens”: “Here’s a thought / Miami’s hot / I’m walking to Walgreens / in flip flops / need a tooth brush and a comb / all the stuff I left at home / hair shampoo I like a lot / apparently it’s bergamot / I knew the name but I forgot / I’m walking to Walgreens.”

Rodney Graham was surely blessed with a restless mind; the writing is so strong that he’s just as equally capable of being deeply moving as he is at being completely hilarious. What follows is a twenty song primer from six of his solo records, from 2002’s ‘Rock Is Hard”, to 2019’s “Rock Buttons”. | m klausman

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