Songwriter Interviews

Elliott Murphy

by Jeff Suwak

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Billy Joel inducted him into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame; Springsteen said he's got "soul and spirit." Long appreciated in Europe, Americans are starting to discover Elliott Murphy.

It's not easy being the next-best Bob Dylan. Not for Elliott Murphy, anyway.

Murphy's 1973 debut album, Aquashow, was well regarded by critics and peers. Rolling Stone's Paul Nelson wrote in 1974 - back when Rolling Stone reviews mattered - that Murphy was "the best Dylan since 1968" (a particularly interesting observation considering the actual Dylan had just released Planet Waves two weeks earlier).

Murphy's second album was also well received, as was his third, but they didn't catch on: Murphy simply wasn't selling a whole lot of records.

That "new Dylan" thing sometimes felt like a yoke around his neck as opportunities in America dried up. But Europe was more welcoming: the French audience had been admiring his work from the early days. The story was the same in Germany, Spain, and across much of the continent. He moved to France, and there he's carved out a career as a musician, poet, and author. He was awarded the Medaille de Vermeil de Ville de Paris in 2012 and the Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2015.

Murphy has gradually earned some appreciation in the States, and can always count on support from Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom came on the scene with Murphy and have been talking him up from the beginning (see them speak his praises in this clip from the 2016 documentary The Second Act of Elliott Murphy). In 2018, Joel inducted him into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame; Springsteen said of Murphy, "He's got so much soul and spirit and never gives up, and I just have tremendous admiration for him. I admire him greatly."

Murphy's songs are a mix of fact and fantasy, with rather intriguing stories behind them. In this interview, he tells the tales of many of the characters - real and imagined - that inhabit them. He also explains how he nearly fell victim to celebrity culture, and what it's like sharing a stage with Billy Joel.
Elliott on stage with his guitarist, Olivier Durand
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): "Prodigal Son" is the title song from your latest album, which I'm guessing (perhaps erroneously) means it has some special significance to the album as a whole. What inspired you to write that song and name the album after it?

Elliott Murphy: I had a premonition that this album, Prodigal Son, would lead me back to America in some way. I'm not sure why, but I was reminded of the fable of the prodigal son, who squanders his fortune and then comes back to his family dressed in rags and is still welcomed home.

Not my story, exactly, although in retrospect perhaps my career in the '70s was more decadent than it should have been. Along with this album, the documentary film The Second Act of Elliott Murphy was released and received an incredible welcome at the Stony Brook Film Festival on Long Island, which is where I'm from originally.

So, I guess you could say my intuition paid off. The album was produced by my own son Gaspard, so there was the father and son connection there as well. If you look at the song "Prodigal Son" itself, I think it's a good example of how now I write more from experience and regret.

And every step of the way
You'll have something to say
To justify your time
And save your place in line


But ultimately, my songs know far more about me then I know about them.

Songfacts: Is it true that "Lady Stilletto" was about Patti Smith? If so, can you say a bit about your relationship with her?

Murphy: I have never really had any relationship with Patti Smith on a personal level. In fact, she never seems to acknowledge me when we are in the same room together. Not sure why. We've shared some musicians, most notably the late Richard Sohl, who played magnificent keyboards on a few of my albums and toured with me in Europe in the 1980s and was also a member of the Patti Smith Group.

I was a big fan of her early books of poetry, and when she began performing with Lenny Kaye on guitar that was something I paid close attention to early on. I even offered to produce her first album, but she was not very receptive to the idea if I remember well.

"Lady Stilletto," which I intentionally misspelled, was meant as an homage to her and to myself as well. You see, Stilletto is an anagram for St Elliott... not that I'm a saint by any means. Perhaps she resented the song, I don't know, but she's a fine writer and her place in rock history is secure.

Songfacts: You kicked off Aquashow with "Last Of The Rock Stars" in 1973, which, if I'm not mistaken, was near the height of the rock star phenomenon. What is that song about?

Murphy: You know, I was traveling all over Europe in 1971 when Jim Morrison died, and his death along with that of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix started me thinking that "rock 'n roll is here to stay but who will be left to play," and in some way I was trying to gain the confidence to jump in with those immortals with "Last Of The Rock Stars."

The song is also kind of a character sketch of any budding rock musician from my generation, about not being able to study in school when you're obsessed with the guitar, about putting your music in front of your relationships and about the epiphany of seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. I still think it's strange that the first song of my first album would begin with the word "last." Looking back, I think that song deserved to be a hit single for all it was saying and for the timeless production of Peter Siegel. The record company blew it on that one, but maybe there is still hope.

Songfacts: In one interview, you mentioned that the "singer-songwriter" label at some point became toxic (I think that was your word for it) in the US. Do you have any ideas as to why that cultural shift came about? At one point, "singer-songwriters" dominated the airwaves.

Murphy: For me, the year 1977 was a dismal year for rock 'n roll. Elvis died obese and on drugs, rock critics were obsessed with punk, and disco dominated the airwaves. For singer-songwriters, especially rock singer-songwriters like myself, if you hadn't made it big already, like Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen did, the doors to success were closing fast and no one else was being let in.

The '80s were a difficult time for me. No US label wanted to sign me, but fortunately my career continued to grow in France and soon all over Europe. I played my first sold-out show in Paris in 1979 and I saw my future. Finally, in 1989, I made the move and never looked back.

It's important to note that my kind of singer-songwriters came from a rock background – I was never a folkie – and so we weren't at all part of the soft-rock genre of great artists like James Taylor. Folk clubs didn't want me either. Why did it all change so drastically? In mythological terms I'd say the King died and his empire fell into chaos!

Elliott performing "Walk On The Wild Side" with Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, November 10, 2018
Songfacts: It's an interesting coincidence that the documentary on you borrowed from Fitzgerald with The Second Act of Elliott Murphy, while one of your earliest songs was "Like a Great Gatsby." Do you recall where you were when you wrote that song?

Murphy: In 1972, I was in Montreux, Switzerland, living in a little one-star hotel halfway up the mountain. My girlfriend at the time, Geraldine, was going to a posh finishing school on the lake and I was allowed to see her for only an hour a day. It was all very 1920s like, and we'd have chaperoned tea while sitting in a café.

I had always felt a connection to Fitzgerald as The Great Gatsby was set on Long Island where I grew up, and my own father, Elliott Sr. and his brother, Arthur, were Gatsby-like figures, poor boys who reinvented themselves. In fact, my Uncle Arthur lived in Great Neck, which is where the fictional East Egg of Gatsby was located in and where Fitzgerald himself lived for a while.

I began the song with, "Waiting for some dream lover, like a Great Gatsby" as I would wait for Geraldine to come to my hotel. It was also in Europe where I escaped from all the sadness I was carrying with me after my father's sudden death when I was 16. Too many pictures gonna make you feel sad.

Songfacts: I'm unfamiliar with New York, especially New York of the 1970s, but from what I've gathered from the material on you, Long Island was kind of the uppity suburb and you were going downtown to "slum" it. What do you think it was that drew you to that scene, to the Velvet Underground, and to the grittier side of things?

Murphy: Well, Long Island is a very big island, the largest island in the contiguous United States, so there are all kinds of towns and villages in it. I grew up in Garden City, which is an upper-middle-class town of 25,000 where many people commute to Manhattan every day to work. I was never into slumming it and I thought the punk scene was ridiculous when suburban kids would rip up their clothes to be cool. Hey, whatever it takes!

I was drawn to The Velvet Underground because of the highly literate quality of Lou Reed's lyrics and especially loved their album Loaded, which, along with Dylan's Blonde On Blonde was very influential in my early writing. Downtown was where the clubs were – Max's Kansas City and The Mercer Arts Center – so that's where I went but I would have followed that music wherever it was leading me. I was more attracted to Keith Richards' "getting wasted elegantly" style, although I couldn't understand why anyone would want to get involved with heroin, although for the punks it was almost sacred. William Burroughs and all that nonsense. Never understood the attraction of the junkie mentality, although cocaine and champagne held a dangerous allure for a while. Fortunately, I left all of that behind me a very long time ago.

Songfacts: "Chelsea Boots" has an anthemic feel about it. "It's a long walk home when you got no roots. Wherever I go I'm coming back to you." Can you tell us what you were thinking about when you wrote this song?

Murphy: I was thinking about the sudden death of my bass player Laurent Pardo, and I was thinking about being an American exile in Europe, and I was thinking about a new pair of boots I had just bought. It's hard to say where home is anymore. I think I was on the road when I wrote the song, that's where I tend to write most of my songs now.

And it's true, I rarely wear shoes with laces. I hope that "Chelsea Boots" will join similar rock paeans to footwear such as "These Boots Are Made For Walking." When I first saw the Beatles, what really impressed me aside from their music was their hair and boots! Both ends covered in style.

Songfacts: A lot of musicians I talk to today find it hard to survive in the modern music industry environment. You were a pioneer of independent music. Do you have any advice or insights for musicians starting out?

Murphy: Don't give up! That's the only thing that has gotten me through all these years and the only solid advice I can offer.

When I was a so-called "pioneer" of independent music, there were very few indie labels or artists. Then in the '80s the indie scene exploded, first in the UK and then everywhere, but unfortunately now there are less and less labels, indie or major. But recording has become less expensive and it's not difficult to make your music available on the Internet. It's hard to say where music is headed in the future, but I know it's not going away, that's for sure. People need music like they need color, like they need travel and film, and all kinds of stories to give us some clue to guide us through the mystery of life.

1975ish
Songfacts: "Winners, Losers, Beggars, Choosers" has some great imagery. Can you tell us what you were thinking and seeing when you wrote that one?

Murphy: The problem now is that I remember the songs, but I don't remember who I wrote the songs about. Who was Shakespeare thinking about when he wrote Hamlet? Probably lots of people, but most of all he was thinking about himself I suppose. "Winners, Losers" is one of my more cinematic efforts. I saw it as a film, a divorced musician and a high-priced call girl, maybe, trying to escape their worlds and ending up in Venice.

Songfacts: How about "Party Girls and Broken Poets"?

Murphy: True story: I was walking down Third Avenue around Gramercy Park where I use to live in the early 1980s. I stopped at a red light and there were these two young beautiful Puerto Rican girls standing next to me and suddenly one of them says, "When you go out with a bad boy..."

And the other one finished her sentence: "You do things you thought you wouldn't do!"

I have no idea what they were talking about, but I turned right around and went home to my little apartment and wrote that song. Those girls' remarks sparked that song and they will never know it.

"Party Girls" might contain my most telling line:

There's not a word of truth in anything I say
And I can't tell a lie – I was brought up that way


There's a Fitzgeraldian tone to the song, about a party gone wrong and a doomed heroine. Also, I was living in East Hampton and sometimes we would take midnight swims in the ocean, a dangerous thing to do after a night of partying.

Songfacts: I'm probably unqualified to say this because I've never lived in France, but something about "Hey Little Sister" feels like a distinctly American story. What's this song about?

Murphy: It's about The Wizard of Oz meets The Story of O (a famous French erotic novel) I guess. More seriously, it's about a young girl's thoughts on love and life as a tornado bears down on her house. I always try to keep my songs relevant to the times I'm living in and I mention Taylor Swift and Fifty Shades of Grey and Amazon and overdosing on crystal meth in the same song. This has to be some kind of a record!

Songfacts: Is Karen in "Karen Where Are You Going" a real person?

Elliott with Bruce Springsteen, back in the day
Murphy: I think all the characters in my songs could be real people, but if they are specific people who I might have known is a different story. On a recent visit to New York City I found myself on Canal Street and memories of long nights at the infamous Mudd Club came streaming back to me. It was a lost decade for me and I often found myself strolling around Manhattan alone in the wee hours.

When I sing, "You came into the city like a girl looking for God," I guess you could say that about anybody drawn to the Bright Lights, Big City.

Songfacts: Bruce Springsteen mentioned "Rock Ballad" as one of your great songs. What was your inspiration in this one?

Murphy: It was such a generic title that I was hesitant to use it. David Johansen loved the song when he first heard it but told me to change the title to something more memorable. I tried, but couldn't think of anything, so I stuck with "Rock Ballad."

This was really a paean to all the slow ballads that I loved listening to on the radio when I was first seriously getting into music: everything from Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" to Percy Faith's instrumental "Theme From A Summer Place." These rock ballads would transport me to a place of teenage romanticism that I only wish I could return to today.

David Johansen was the frontman for the New York Dolls. He and Murphy were friends, neighbors, and occasional collaborators in the early '80s - Elliott played on Johansen's 1981 solo album, Here Comes The Night, and co-wrote the track "Havin' So Much Fun." In 1988, Johansen's alter ego Buster Poindexter had a hit with the party song "Hot Hot Hot."
Songfacts: Who are you going after with "Deco Dance"?

Murphy: Probably the whole New York media scene that I found myself almost drowning in after my first few albums received so much attention. It was so easy to be diverted from what was important and focus on being famous. It was the beginning of the celebrity culture and magazines like Andy Warhol's Interview could make almost anyone famous overnight. But I knew how transient those thrills were when I wrote, "The past is the only thing that lasts if you move too fast."

Songfacts: Is "Deco Dance" your only studio collaboration with Billy Joel?

Murphy: So far, but just a few weeks ago he inducted me into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame with a wonderful speech and then I joined him on stage at Madison Square Garden to sing "Walk On The Wild Side." It was quite a week!

Billy and I were friendly in the '70s and were both on Columbia - I opened many concerts for him. He's an amazing musician. I'm so grateful that the two greatest musical voices of my generation, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, have both contributed to my albums.

Songfacts: Do you have any new projects in the pipe that you'd like fans to look out for?

Murphy: I've been acting in a film called Broken Poet that will be released this spring. The third act of Elliott Murphy is about to begin...

December 3, 2018
More at elliottmurphy.com

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