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On Elliott Murphy's Birthday: The Pencilstorm Interview - by Ricki C.

I bought Elliott Murphy’s debut album – Aquashow – at the Discount Records store across from the Ohio State University campus in late November or early December, 1973, the same week I quit college, moved out of my mother's house and got my first apartment.  I didn’t know it when I bought it, but the first verse of the first song on Aquashow – “Last Of The Rock Stars” – contains the lines, “I got a feeling on my back like an old brown jacket / I’d like to stay in school, but I just can’t hack it.”  It was a rock & roll match made in heaven.

I started buying records in 1964, I continue to buy them now in 2017, and Aquashow remains to this day my favorite album of all time.  I bought Aquashow largely because of the blurb in this article about New York Rock, written by Dave Marsh in the December 1973 issue of Creem magazine, my Rock & Roll Bible of the time……

I conducted the following long-distance interview with Elliott Murphy via e-mail in February, 2017.  We're running it today - March 16th, 2017 - Elliott's 68th birthday.  He will be playing two birthday shows at The New Morning in his adopted home of Paris, France, this Friday & Saturday, March 17th & 18th.  We encourage any of our Continental friends to attend.  (I wish I was.)  Details on those shows, pertinent info about ordering all things Elliott Murphy - CD's, books, etc. - and a host of Elliott's prose writings can be found at www.elliottmurphy.com.  You should check it out at your earliest convenience.

 

THE PENCILSTORM ELLIOTT MURPHY INTERVIEW, WINTER 2017   


1)    You've recorded 35 albums since your debut, Aquashow, in 1973: do you know how many songs?  Also, what are your five favorite songs you've written, and - in as many words as you want/need - why? 

I don’t really know how many songs I’ve recorded and that’s a job better suited for a true archivist than myself (any volunteers?) but I suppose it’s around 300, and maybe I’ve written another 100 that I never recorded. And the saddest part is that I’ve probably started another 500 that I never finished. When asked about my favorite songs it always comes down to those I’ve written and those I’ve recorded. Songs that stand that test of time like LAST OF THE ROCK STARS are essential to me but there are a few songs from my upcoming album PRODIGAL SON that I’m particularly fond of, such as LET ME IN and ABSALOM, DAVY AND JACKIE O, which is an 11-minute opus of a dozen verses. I think my favorite recorded song is ANASTASIA, because for me the production is as close to perfection as I can imagine. But I’d have to throw COME ON LOUANN in there too, as well as YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’RE IN FOR..… and on and on.

 

2)    The first prose piece I ever read by you were the liner notes to the 1969: Velvet Underground Live album, released back in 1974, and still to this day in 2017 I consider it one of the five best essays I have ever read on the subject of rock & roll.  How did your authorship of those notes come about?  (And, while we're on the subject: tell us a Lou Reed story we've never heard before.)

I first met Lou Reed in 1971 at a Mitch Ryder show at the Café au Go Go in NYC. (Mitch had covered Lou’s "Rock and Roll" with his band Detroit.) The Velvet Underground had such an avant-garde reputation and a menacing ambiance of sadomasochism in songs such as "Venus in Furs" that introducing myself to Lou took all the courage this 22-year-old nascent rocker could draw up. But I had just returned from a European sojourn, so I had a certain hip bono fides under my belt, having busked in the Paris Metro and appearing in Fellini’s film Roma. But to see Lou standing there in that Mickey Mouse T-shirt, chatting amiably with music business heavyweights didn’t fit the picture of the legend I had heard about. Come on, this was the composer of "Heroin"! The only thing I remember saying to him was that I too was from Long Island. “Oh really?” was his dead-panned response.

A year later my great discoverer, the late Paul Nelson - legendary rock critic and friend of Bob Dylan - who was then an A&R executive at Mercury Records asked me to write liner notes for Live 1969, the posthumous live VU album. Remember that all of this was months before I even began recording my own first album Aquashow, and still to this day fans bring me that VU album with my “It's one hundred years from today …” notes to sign as if it was my very own record and indeed I’m honored. 

I guess you could say that those liner notes contained hints of the suburban fear & loathing that was apparent all over the lyrics of Aquashow and befittingly, I wrote them on the Long Island Rail Road. Paul Nelson passed on my liner notes to Lou for his approval and - much to my delight - Lou liked them a lot, because shortly thereafter he actually called my mother and had a fairly long chat with her, as I wasn’t home at the time. At the end of the conversation my mom told him how excited I would be to hear from him and Lou asked her why.

“Because he’s a great admirer of yours,” said my mother.
“Isn’t everybody?” Lou responded.

My mother - who is in her nineties - still remembers that conversation and I still remember seeing Lou in the Mickey Mouse T-Shirt at Cafe au Go Go, so I guess you could say that Lou made a big impression on all those he came into contact with. When Aquashow came out critics imagined Dylan's Blonde on Blonde as my great inspiration but the truth was I listened to the Velvet Underground's Loaded over and over before daring to even put my toe in the rock 'n roll sacred waters.......

By the end of that tumultuous year 1974, My life had irrevocably changed; not only had my first album exploded on the scene garnering rave reviews from Rober Christgau (Village Voice) and Bob Hillburn (L.A. Times) and Paul Nelson himself (Rolling Stone) but there was my name for all to see on an actual Velvet Underground album. It was almost too much to handle! Or to quote the title of The New York Dolls’ second album – Too Much Too Soon

The last time I really spoke to Lou was when he came to Paris in the early 90’s and called me out of the blue and we had a café and we were crossing one of the bridges of the Seine and it was windy and Lou had his collar up and a passing French woman thought he was a priest! Lou didn’t like that. Then we stood on the bridge and Lou asked me what had happened with my life and career and I told him how it got difficult for me in the US during the 80’s and I moved to France and got married to the love of my life and now we have a son together, Gaspard, and my career took off again in Europe and Lou put his hand on my shoulder and said “So it all worked out okay, eh?” like a benediction from a priest!

3)    Who was the biggest influence on your prose writing? (And, I guess while we're on the subject: on your songwriting?) 

When it comes to songwriting I’m just a product of my generation: step one was watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show; step two The Beatles conquered America; and, step three Bob Dylan changed the possibilities of lyrical content in a rock song forever and ever. In my case, my father brought me to a lot of Broadway shows when I was a kid so I was introduced to the story telling aspect of songwriting right away. When it came to prose the first “important” book I read was EAST OF EDEN by John Steinbeck when I was 12. I had seen the James Dean film on TV and then searched out the book and it was such a larger universe than the film. After that there was of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and I related to GATSBY especially because it took place on Long Island where I grew up and also because I shared some of his romanticism, or as Scott said, “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” But there were so many other writers I admire all the way from Graham Greene to Kerouac to Raymond Chandler to Joyce Carol Oates to Hemingway to Wallace Stevens to John Cheever….. the list could go on and on. But honestly, I can’t say that any of them ever consciously influenced my style, they just showed me what great writing could be and how important it was to get it right.


4)    In your early career (circa 1973-1977) you made it a point to dress above/apart from your hippie rabble contemporaries (sharp white suits as opposed to patched bluejeans 'n' plaid flannel shirts): What was the worst fashion mistake you ever made onstage?

I think I avoided the worst mistake when Polydor Records hired an ad agency to promote Aquashow and they came up with the brilliant idea that I was the “prophet of my lost generation” and should wear long robes. I could live without seeing a few of my Miami Vice 1980’s shirts but aside from that I don't have many sartorial regrets. And my boots were always correct, which is the most important thing!


5)    How hard was your decision in 1989 to leave New York for a new home and life in Paris? 

It was more gradual then you would imagine. I first played in Paris in 1979 and by 1989 I’d say most of my career was Europe-based. I had a good record company in France -New Rose - and I was touring all over the continent and in Scandinavia. I didn’t know how long I would last here because there are legal matters like visas and working papers, but then when I married Françoise everything worked out. She has been my guide through the French bureaucracy so it’s been fairly smooth even if I get stressed out like any immigrant. But leaving New York was not so hard; I had a bad memory on every street corner and it was time for a second act. 


6)    Were you already playing guitar when The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February, 1964?  And what was the very first rock & roll song you sang in front of an audience?

I started playing guitar when I was 12 (around 1961) and the folk boom was happening, so I think the first song I performed in front an audience was "This Little Light of Mine" by the Kingston Trio. When “Murphy went electric” in 1964 my father bought me a Kent guitar (same guitar as Bruce S. had!) and my band did mostly surf music instrumentals. So probably “Walk Don’t Run” or “Wipeout” was the first rock ‘n roll song I sang. For a guy best known for his lyrics it’s ironic wouldn’t you say?


7)    Circa 1975, after the split of Boston bands The Modern Lovers and The Sidewinders, you hired Ernie Brooks, Jerry Harrison and Andy Paley as your backing band: What or who was your Boston connection?

Well, let me see..…when I came back from Europe in 1972 and was hanging around in Max’s Kansas City there was a lot of talk about The Modern Lovers although very few people had actually heard them play because they were really a Boston band. Then they opened for the NY Dolls on New Years Eve at the Mercer Arts Center (I played there a week later) and I think I said hello to Ernie Brooks and we became friends. The touring bands I had for Aquashow and Lost Generation never really worked out because they weren’t the same musicians who were playing on the albums and that was frustrating for everyone. So when I started to plan Night Lights I thought I’d get a band together, do some shows, and then go into the studio, which is kind of what happened. Ernie introduced me to Jerry Harrison (who 10 years later produced some cuts on my album Milwaukee) and also to Andy Paley because, I think, he had gone out with his sister. We opened for Sha Na Na in Canada, which had to be the worst pairing of acts in the history of the music business. But we did go into Electric Lady Studios and record quite a few songs, including "Diamonds By The Yard."

left to right: Elliott Murphy (guitar), Ernie Brooks (bass), Andy Paley (drums), Jerry Harrison (keyboards)


8)    As with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, your career is no exercise in nostalgia, you’re constantly recording new records and playing shows, what new releases do you have coming up?

I was actually writing a lot of songs and making demos and about ready to start a new album right before we decided to do AQUASHOW REVISITED (wherein I re-recorded the songs on my first album in a new way and through the ears of my son and producer Gaspard Murphy), so I gently put those songs aside and dug back into my past, like Proust searching for lost time. And then, when I revisited these new songs again after letting them lay dormant for about a year or more they had..… improved! Or at least that was the impression I had when I went back to the demos, and so I thought OK it’s time to put together that album again. I was haunted by this idea of working with a gospel choir and Gaspard found four great singers and a wonderful young piano player by the name of Leo Cotton who played like Leon Russell. We're looking toward a spring release. I don’t know how any artist can live in nostalgia-land. 

 

9)    Tell us about Jorge Arenillas documentary The Second Act of Elliott Murphy; any idea when we will see it in America?

I first met Jorge Arenillas when he was involved in some kind of futuristic horror film as a writer, I think, and the director wanted me to play a role in the film as a crazy rock star living like a hermit in a haunted house. That film never got made but when Jorge directed his next film - Another Summer – he asked me if he could use my song "Summer House" (from Just A Story From America, 1977) over the end credits, so I went into the studio with my son Gaspard and we made a new version of "Summer House" that went into the film. It’s a great film, by the way, about a haunted man who is trapped in his memory of a summer romance. Anyway, following that Jorge said he wanted to make a film about..…me! I was shocked and doubted that he could pull it off, but you know what? He did! Jorge started following Olivier Durand (my great French guitarist) and myself around on tour in Spain and soon we became used to his presence, almost like he was haunting us. He filmed a concert in Bilbao, where I’ve been playing for over twenty years, and it really was a magic night. So the film was finished and was even shown at one festival in Spain but Jorge said it needed something else. I asked what? He said … Bruce Springsteen. So I called Bruce and asked him if he would agree to be interviewed for the film and being the generous wonderful man that he is, he agreed. And then it just so happened that I was back in touch with Billy Joel around this same time because I came across a photo of Billy, Doctor John, and myself backstage somewhere and sent it to him. So I asked Billy if he would agree to be interviewed as well and being the generous wonderful man that he is too, he agreed. Jorge jumped on a plane and interviewed Bruce in New Jersey and Billy in Florida and voila! 

The film is available on DVD but in PAL, and will have its U.S. premiere at the Stony Brook Film Festival on Long Island this summer. Hopefully a release on Netflix or Amazon will follow…… 


10)    Tell us Ohio boys about a spring Parisian twilight……… 

The best part for me is always to be crossing one of the beautiful bridges that span the Seine on my Vespa scooter at twilight and to see the Eiffel Tower in the distance and all those gold-domed buildings and just the wonderful Parisians themselves all decked out, each in their own universe and to pass all those cafes and think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Picasso and even Jim Morrison and to know that you are really at home. At least that’s my story from America.….

 

Ricki C. formerly ran his own blog - Growing Old With Rock & Roll - from January 1st, 2012 until 11:59 pm December 31st, 2013, and now writes exclusively for Pencilstorm.  He has been involved in rock & roll - as a musician or as a roadie - since he was 16 in 1968.  When not penning prose he deploys a solo singer/songwriter act he dubs action-packed acoustic rock & roll.  He's worked for the three W's of Columbus rock & roll - Willie Phoenix, Watershed and The Whiles - and believes he's a better man for having done so.  He last saw Elliott Murphy perform live in May 2012, you can read about that here: Elliott in Piermont, 2012.