Elliott Murphy

September Song

Elliott Murphy
Photo: Johan Vanden Borre

This weekend I was supposed to go to my 40th High School Reunion which was held out on Long Island, New York near where I grew up in Garden City. I didn't make it. Not that I didn't want to go and live in the escapist land of déjà vu sleepwalking for a few days, seeing those same faces I walked the school halls with suddenly reappear but I had, as Robert Frost said, miles to go before I sleep... You see, it was my son Gaspard's 17th birthday and as (I hope) he goes to university next year this might be the last at home birthday celebration for him for a while. So I bought him a new guitar amp and some nice shirts and sweaters and he got to hang out with the great band Incubus when they played in Paris on his birthday night because my brother Matthew is the tour manager. What a life!

When I was his age I was just beginning to drive and playing rhythm guitar in my band The Rapscallions. We went through various transformations starting out with a wonderful girl lead singer Jan Rundlett with whom we went on to win the New York State Battle of the Bands. What a thrill! Jan was marvelously talented (and very pretty) and sang like a pro and when we did "Twist and Shout" and the judges started dancing I knew we had it all wrapped up. This all took place in Eisenhower Park on Long Island in 1966 not far from where my high school reunion is going on tonight. Later on, after Jan dropped out, The Rapscallions turned psychedelic with the times – it was 1967 – and I started playing a Telecaster and singing 13th Floor Elevator songs. Then I read a book by Tony "Little Sun" Glover called Playing Blues Harmonica and it changed my life. Not that I became a great harp player like Paul Butterfield or an extraordinary blues guitarist like Mike Bloomfield but rather I just started looking at life with different eyes and hearing Muddy Waters songs in the back of my head. There I was walking down the decidedly un-mean streets of Garden City humming "I'm a Man" and wishing I had gold shoes like drummer San Lay and that my mojo (whatever that was) would start working ...

Weekends we'd go into New York's Greenwich Village armed with a fake ID to get into clubs and see bands like The Loving Spoonful and The Blues Project. I saw the Beach Boys when Brian was still playing bass on stage and they all wore striped shirts and white jeans and sang perfect harmony. I can't remember why but the Rapscallions broke up and I joined another band of older guys called "The King James Version" and we played every weekend at the 305 Lounge in Hempstead. The mythic 305 Lounge is now nothing more then a parking lot so don't even try to visit! Mostly I played soul rhythm guitar and sang back-up on Wilson Pickett songs but my moment in the spotlight came each night when I took the lead vocal on "Like A Rolling Stone" – I knew all the verses (still do) and there was something in my own suburban angst that made it easy to wrap my head around the song. Sometimes I didn't know if I was the narrator or the character in the song but whatever it was it worked. One night someone told the band that a writer from Crawdaddy came out to the 305 Lounge just to hear me sing "Like A Rolling Stone". I don't know who it was (Paul Williams?) or where he was sitting in the audience but apparently there were a few members of the Nassau County Detectives in the audience as well. They read the riot act to the club owner saying that the kid guitar player with the long blond hair looked too young to be singing in a bar and soon I was thrown out. Six months later I turned 18 and formed my own band – a three-piece power trio called … (sorry) Stud and we played all over Nassau County. The only tender moment of the night was when I sang the Bee Gees hit "Words" and the girls stopped dancing.

In 1971 I traveled to Europe on a cheap flight ticket and a little help from my friends and started singing on the streets and somehow evolved into a singer/songwriter (whatever that term means) and a year later I had my first recording contract and was on my way. Those Long Island years seemed farther away back then than they do now. Funny, huh? Or is it that my short-term memory is starting to solidify while the deeply rooted stuff is just starting to melt and come to the surface. I think of my bassist Doug McCormick who my mother had to co-sign for a bass guitar rental – he ended up being CEO of an important TV network and my dear pal and great singer Bill MacHarg who went on to find Jesus and then died in a car crash just after the last class reunion 20 years ago. I guess Jesus finally found him as well. And John Kuhn who was a fine singer back in high school and became a fine architect and recently put out his own first (I think) album. And Tommy Tucker who shared all the passion for guitars and was always a better player then me.

It all began with high school bands (that rhymes) and now I don't even know if that tradition still exists. We would play at school dances and our parents would drive us and our guitars, amps and drums around in their station wagons and let us rehearse in their basements. Back then, there was so little information available – not even Rolling Stone – and we searched 16 Magazine for something serious about rock 'n' roll or Downbeat a jazz mag that occasionally wrote about the blues. And we had to play records over and over again to try and figure out the words slowing 45's down to 33 and scribbling notes. Hell, does anybody reading this even know what those numbers mean?

Shortly before my father died he brought me into New York City to Manny's Music Store to buy me a brand new Gretsch Tennessean guitar. I can still remember the smell of that guitar and I think I polished it more then I played it. I certainly wish I had it today. And my father too. But I don't and that's life. But I do have the good tender memories of a rock 'n' roll high school where I learned my trade and set my course to where I am today and I guess that's good enough.

September 30, 2007 - Paris

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