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70snycscene

Elliott Murphy, Part 1

Some say my songs are long and over-complicated
But they’re highly personal – I say they’re underrated

So sang Elliott Murphy in 1990, summing up the state of his now 34-year rock & roll career. The Long Island native debuted promisingly on Polydor Records in 1973 with Aquashow, which Rolling Stone graced with a sprawling, rave review by Paul Nelson (who, still working in A&R at Mercury Records at the time, had unsuccessfully attempted to sign Murphy to the label). Other feature articles appeared in Penthouse, Newsweek, and The New Yorker. Over the next few years, Murphy would record albums for RCA and CBS, among others. None of these corporate music giants had any idea how to publicize this young singer/songwriter who penned songs as literary as they were lyrical. (Columbia Records’ lofty but misguided ad campaign boasted “He Could Write a Book but He Chose Rock and Roll Instead.”) The critics were sold – the albums didn’t.

Just when I thought I'd take that Hemingway shot
The F. Scott in me said, “Man, you better not”
It’s so hard to remember
How very, very tender is the night

Had F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway formed a rock & roll band, the result might have sounded liked Murphy. His lyrics read like good fiction – no coincidence since in Europe he's a published novelist and short-story writer. His best songs capture the feel of reading The Great Gatsby and sipping Pernod at the Cafe Napolitain while on the boulevard some kid’s radio plays Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

Going through something, but I don't know what it is
I don't feel like an adult, I don't look like a kid
Caught in the grips of a rock 'n' roll dream
Like twenty years of loving someone you've never seen

Whether the major labels gave up on Murphy or he gave up on them was rendered moot through the musically unsatisfying Eighties by a string of impressive albums for independent record labels. In 1990 he emulated his Lost Generation heroes and forsook the US for Paris. Thanks to a well-deserved and loyal following, in France he found the success that had eluded him on American soil. “It’s either because they pay more attention to the words,” Murphy speculates of his European audience, “or because they don’t understand the words at all.”

This is the last thing I wanted to be
A broken-hearted troubadour in sunny Sicily

Hemingway wrote, “Nobody that ever left their own country ever wrote anything worth printing.” Disproving that dead man’s dictum, Murphy’s work finds favor with both the critics and his peers (not least among them Lou Reed, John Mellencamp, and the Violent Femmes). When Bruce Springsteen, who sang on Murphy’s Selling the Gold in 1996, plays Paris, it’s not unusual for him to invite Murphy onstage to duet at least one of the émigré’s songs. Elvis Costello, another wordsmith extraordinaire, told Musician magazine, “The fact that someone as good as Elliott Murphy is virtually unknown in America would be downright funny if it weren’t so outrageous. As soon as you get someone who can put a literate sentence together, bang, they’re compared to Bob Dylan and thrown on the scrap heap.”

Try to accept that you'll keep searching
That's the thing you will do for most of your life
And all these answers, they just don't exist here
Here lie the questions
And they rule your life

In 1996, Murphy toured the US for the first time in almost twenty years, driving from the East Coast to the West with his French wife Francoise and their young son Gaspard, playing acoustic sets in small clubs along the way. Audiences were sparse. He seemed incredulous when, following a splendid Salt Lake City concert before an audience of barely a dozen fans, I asked whether rock & roll had ultimately failed him. “I’ve gone all over the world on the tailwinds of rock & roll. I’ve been to Japan. Hell, I’ve played concerts on the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. For me, it expanded my life in ways I never would have imagined. So no, rock & roll hasn’t let me down. I sometimes think we’ve let whatever that dream was down a bit.”

Undeterred by the lack of success in his homeland, and continuing to pursue his art on his own terms, last month Murphy released Coming Home Again, his 29th album. More about that fine recording in Part 2.

*

This post is dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut, who died last night in Manhattan at the age of 84. So it goes.

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