Is There Something More? A Conversation with Elliott Murphy by Gilles Farcet

Elliott Murphy - Photo by Patrick Dupon

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Interview by Gilles Farcet / Photo by Patrick Dupon

Early October 2023 in Paris. The summer is still dragging on, as if it did not want to leave the stage for autumn. Well of course, climate change and all that… Still, frightening as it is if one thinks of it, that weather can be pleasant when you temporarily choose to stop reflecting on all that and just be an unconscious cheerful Parisian innocently walking the streets of his city. 

Here I am, at 64, strolling on the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle to go and meet Elliott Murphy, 74 at one of his favorite cafés [Café Delaville]. I have seen him play live but never met him personally until today. Yet, he has been part of my life for 5O years, since as a 14-year-old kid I brought back home his first record Aquashow and played it again and again on my turntable in the sanctuary of my room, my homework never complete [from “Last of the Rock Stars”] … 

Over the years, as we both grew older and hopefully a bit wiser, I never lost touch with him, or rather with his output. 

I remember around the age of 40 listening to his album Milwaukee (I had switched to CDs, before, like so many old timers, recently going back to the pure delights of vinyl) and being impacted like a 40 years old can be by songs such as “People don’t learn,” “Taking the silence,” ”Clean it up” … Mature songs,  for sure. 

But his very first songs were already so deep… Think, to take just one among many possible examples, of “Hanging Out” on Aquashow, in which an already timeless voice asks and begs whoever may listen: “I feel just like a whore.  Is there something more?” Those first songs of a 24-year-old are so imbued of that particular brand of rock ’n roll wisdom which is the touch of the greats: the likes of Lou Reed, Bowie, Saint Bob Dylan, and of course, his friend Bruce… 

To me (and many others, those who constitute his devoted fan base as well as even some rock critics) Elliott Murphy as an artist, performer, and song writer, stands in the same creative league as those huge names. 

In fact, going through his abundant production (he averages an album a year) one is amazed by the sheer persistent quality of the songs. Take “Wonder”, his last opus to date: it is not one of those records by an aging icon on which you will find one or two good songs amidst lots of rather feeble material you will listen to once or twice to be polite and for old times’ sake. Here, each song is a gem, powerful, deep, and yet fresh, dripping with that beat, those sounds you grew up with which he manages to explore and celebrate anew … 

Bear in mind that he gives at least 100 concerts a year, mostly in Europe, gigs during which he performs with a radical generosity; that a remarkable documentary on his life and career, The Second Act of Elliott Murphy, is now available on Prime Video, and that he stars in Broken Poet [available on Apple TV], a poignant film he has written, shot in Paris and New York … And you get a very much alive and kicking artist. 

So, you can guess I am quite happy and a bit impressed, walking towards the café on that pleasant Paris afternoon. Yes, I have rubbed shoulders, even been friends with some of the greats in my time, even with a few icons, but there definitely is “something special, something consequential”, in going to chat with one of your rocks ’n roll references, a voice which has travelled with you for such a long time…

And then I see him coming up the boulevard, bandana, and cap (no hat today). 

In Paris, it so happens that we dwell in the same neighborhood, close to the Grands Boulevards where we meet today at a short walking distance from our respective homes. 

As we sit and order (café for him, Perrier for me), we chat about our “quartier.” 

EM I love this neighborhood, it has changed very much… It’s like the Brooklyn of Paris. I have lived here for 33 years …

Longer than New York, then? 

Longer than Manhattan. I lived in Manhattan for 20 years, grew up in Long Island… But yes, this is the one place where I have lived the longest, and at the same address too … 

Beauregard … (the title of one of his albums and the name of the street he lives in)

Yes, Beauregard. On the side of some buildings, you can see the old street signs from last century, and it used to be “Beau Regard” [meaning Good View]. 

He has written to me in one of the e-mails we exchanged to set up our meeting that after one hour of talking about himself, his eyes start to glaze over, so I am quite conscious of the time as we launch into our proper interview. In the end, we’ll have spent almost an hour and a half together, with plans to stay in touch. 

My first question will be long, so please bear with me, but I’d like to set a perspective. I was thinking, coming to meet you today, that it would not be easy to find someone with your status. What I mean is that, in many ways, you are a rock ‘n’ roll star …  but not quite!  Some will label you as a cult artist…  Which you probably are, technically speaking. But I cannot think of any “cult artist”, at least in the rock ‘n’ roll world , who has had your level of both critical acclaim and aura. I tried, and Jonathan Richman came to mind. Of course, he is a cult artist, and he’s had some critical acclaim in his day, though I would say probably less than you had. And, charming and interesting as he is, I cannot think of him as a rockstar… When I say that, I do not mean the fame. What I am really alluding to is the aura. If I look at many of your album covers, certainly Aquashow but also many others, what I see is a rockstar, the whole magic of it, the whole halo of it…

Then I thought of Johnny Thunders …  Well, okay he certainly had some critical acclaim, and he certainly had the aura of a rockstar. And of course, he is dead, and also, no judgement here, even when he was still alive, and making some music, it would have been difficult to picture him at 60, let alone at 74… 

So here is Elliott Murphy, alive and well in Paris today. He has survived and aged, and he has, so to speak, crossed over to the other side, learned many lessons…  He is some kind of rock star, and yet he is approachable.  He can walk the streets, quietly sit in a café, and live, I imagine, a fairly normal life… 

So, thinking back to those posters at the beginning of your career who proclaimed “Elliott Murphy is going to be a monster,” I would say, yes, Elliott Murphy is some kind of monster, a hybrid between the rock star and the simple all approachable musician- songwriter guy   

Care to comment on any of this?  Sorry for being so long …

Beautiful introduction!  First of all, I will have to say that the definition of a rock star has changed much in the 5O years since I began. I mean, now they call doctors “rock stars”, they call architects “rock stars!”  If you rise to a certain level of celebrity, then you are called a “rock star”. And then, in the rock ’n roll world, people such as Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones … Those people are beyond rock stars… They are rock icons.


Yes, that are gods! I will have to say that when I began my career all those years ago, my goal was to become a rock star. Because, at that point, in the early seventies, there was really no such thing as a cult artist. There was not such a thing as an independent artist. You really needed to sign to a major label, put out those albums and try to get a big public if you wanted to survive. I was very fortunate to be able to do that with my first four albums. For instance, I would not have been able to move to France and continue my career if I had not already begun in America. I must say I think I have the perfect level of fame! 

I do know (and I’m friends with some very famous people, Bruce Springsteen of course being the one who first comes to mind) that when you get to that level of fame, you lose your anonymity. Whereas I can walk on the streets freely. People do come up to me to tell me that they like my music, but literally, without fail, every time that happens, it’s a very pleasant occurence. They’re not trying to rip off my clothes or anything … My fans have always been very respectful, and I don’t think it is anything based on celebrity. I always say, pop music is really created for people who do not like music! I think artists such as myself, we create music for people for whom music really means something lasting. 

So, relating to your question, yes, I am something in between a rock star and a cult artist… There was always some tragic element to being a cult artist, like Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls who I knew, whom you mentioned. And I don’t have that! I never wanted to join the 27 club [Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain] …


Because, Gilles, you see, my heroes were painters like Pablo Picasso who kept painting into old age, or writers like Tom Wolfe who kept writing. So, I never thought that being a recording artist was something you did in your twenties and then it was over. I always thought it should be something which you develop and get better at the older you get.

But the music business is so youth oriented … The young keep the business rolling. You look at a Taylor Swift audience, you basically see girls between the age of sixteen and twenty. If you go to my concerts, you see men and women between the age of, say, forty-five to sixty-five! 

So, maybe there should be a new definition between those two worlds … In the documentary (The Second Act of Elliott Murphy) Billy Joel called me “a career artist.” Such an artist is not someone who just makes the hits for the moment … I always looked at it that way, as a long-term investment. This is what I always wanted to be, I never wanted to be anything else. Last thing I will say about that: I was talking to my son, Gaspard, some weeks ago and I told him, “You know, I never really had that enormous kind of success, I don’t have gold records all over my wall.” And he said, “Dad, a 50-year career is kind of a gold record in itself.” 


So, I am grateful and yet I’m still hungry and I’m not envious of the people I began with who went on to be huge stars, especially people like Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen. I am not jealous of their fame or wealth but I am jealous sometimes of the means of creativity they have at their disposal and the support team that works for them. For example, I have never really been able to really create a light show for my concerts and with my band I work with kind of a skeleton crew. And yet perhaps that’s what makes my shows very real, very authentic, and maybe that’s just my nature. Bruce once said, ‘this kind of fame is not for everybody,” and maybe it was not for me. 

About success. In a famous song John Lennon thanks, the woman in his life “for showing him the meaning of success”. In the movie you wrote and in which you act, Broken Poet, at the end, there is this dialogue between the main character, once rock star Jake Lion who has faked his own death, and his old lady (played, I believe by your wife Françoise). He tells her he hopes the journalist girl who has sort of unmasked him gets that “… success is freedom.” Isn’t that exactly what Elliott Murphy is saying today? 

Yes, it is! Because, you see, Gilles, the irony is, when we begin making records we are totally unknown and we are just trying to get close to this public, as close as possible, and get them into our world… And then, the more famous you get, you must separate from your fans, you need security and all of that. So, my level of success does encompass a lot of freedom. Not so much security! There still is a lot of hassle in my daily working schedule, but freedom, yes… And I truly think this is what success should be defined as: freedom. 

We have just talked about success, and it is a fact that your work is haunted by the figure of the beautiful loser. Scott Fitzgerald, who is one of your big references, Jim Morrison to whom there are many references in Broken Poet. Of course, Scott or Jim had fame in their lifetime at an early age, and then came a sort of decline. Scott was altogether broken and forgotten, died in his forties… Jim was still famous when he joined the 27 club, but he was, by all accounts, already on the way down, his voice gone, a severe alcoholic…  Whereas you made it you the other side, you were as you often say, given “a second act”. It is as if you achieved what they could not pull off, so to speak… Being an expatriate in Paris, reinventing yourself and, instead of an early death in a depressed state of mind, you lived on and managed to find a measure of contentment while remaining very creative. This is quite a feat, isn’t it? Touching, in human terms, and also rather unique as far as I know. I can’t think of many artists having thus crossed over, broken through to the other side … Do you believe it was destiny? Did you have from the start a hunger for sanity, for life? You mentioned earlier you never aspired to join the 27 club…

I certainly have always had a hunger for sanity. I think there were many elements involved that enabled me to arrive here today with you Gilles… I first came to Europe in 1971. As you probably know I was playing on the streets, in the metro … I was in Rome, had a little part in a big Fellini movie [Roma]… And this trip cemented my love for Europe. When I did my first four albums, Aquashow, Lost Generation, Night Lights and Just a Story from America, I was trying so hard to push them in the USA. I was touring, doing a lot of promotion … And I did not realize they had made some impact in Europe, particularly in France, Spain, and Italy. So, when my career virtually fell apart in 1978, when I was dropped from Columbia Records, I was really busted, I had nothing. And when I played my first concert in Paris in 1979 at Le Palace, just around the corner from where we are presently talking, that was a life changer, just that show, because the audience was so enthusiastic. They knew my songs! I think I did six encores because I could not leave the stage – I was so happy to be there. And then I said OK, maybe there is a second act in my career. And from 1979 to 1989, my career shifted to Europe. It expanded in France, in Italy, in Spain. Then I moved here in 1989.  There are some other artists who could have done that, I think of Garland Jeffreys who had a good success here and some of the punk artists could have done that too. When I first moved here Stiv Bators from the Dead Boys was living here, also Johnny Thunders and some others. But for all of them – though Stiv died here, unfortunately- something called them back to America. As for me, I was ready to cut ties with my country. I think I was resentful that, if not America, at least the American music business, had judged me… Because the greatest sin you can commit in America is when you are supposed to be successful and finally you’re not. You will never be forgiven for that. 

So, I was ready to cut my ties and move here, and then things just fell into place. I met Françoise who, being French, helped my adaptation, to the point where I eventually became a French citizen with all the advantages it brought. And because I was living in Paris, it was so easy to go play in Spain, in Italy, up to  Sweden, everywhere … all of which was much harder when I lived in New York. You mentioned the word destiny and, yes, it almost feels like it was my destiny to do this. I have made attempts to regain a big following in America. I mean, I still have a following there, I think on Spotify, my biggest number of listeners is in America, but they are spread all over that huge country. But still the fact is, nothing really exploded for me in the USA, even when Bruce Springsteen graciously sang on one of my songs with me. So I guess this is not my fate. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the “Lost Generation [also the name of an EM album], Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller… But I think I may be the last of  the lost! I do not know of any other American semi rock stars who still live here. So, maybe I am the last of a breed, not to mention that rock ’n roll no longer is on the cutting edge of the culture these days.

You see, Europe respects history. America, much less. 

About Jake Lion, the Broken Poet character, a question of curiosity … I was wondering if your Jake Lion character was somehow inspired by the character of Jack Fate, played by Bob Dylan in the movie Masked and Anonymous? There are some similarities between the two movies and characters …

I have indeed seen that movie with all the Hollywood stars in it, incredible! About Broken Poet, it came from a short story I wrote, called “The Lion sleeps tonight” [Collected in Paris Stories] and that was definitely influenced by Jim Morrison, the idea that he could have faked his death and still be living here. And, yes, I do see that element, though I am not sure I had seen Masked and Anonymous before making Broken Poet. I do not know Bob Dylan personally and I can’t speak for him but it would seem that he has always tried to protect himself from his fame – which relates to what we were just talking about. There’s still so much mystery around him which he has somehow managed to retain. Unlike Mick Jagger or Keith Richards… How shall I say it ? At some point, they started playing a part and then that part became them. They became their own character. Mind you, I love them, and I think there’s no other choice when you get to that level. Maybe Bruce Springsteen has kept his distance with celebrity by making the characters of his songs very normal and anonymous, non-decadent working-class people and Billy Joel just stopped writing songs for a very long time now.

To go back to Broken Poet and the similarities with Masked and Anonymous. Fame is a very difficult subject to make a movie about. Because I think it is very hard for the public to believe that anyone who had that level of fame would throw it aside. If you ask people the question: “would you rather be rich, or happy? ” they will think before answering!  That shows you how crazy society has become. Of course, the character in Broken Poet had the Jim Morrison element, but he also became a lot of myself. 

I read your autobiography, some of your Journals, listened attentively to your lyrics of course … And I am struck by the recurrence of remorse in your work. I am not saying guilt because to me there is a difference between guilt and remorse. You often allude to people you feel you have somehow let down at some point, you wish you had been more loyal or more attentive, more compassionate… It seems to me that feeling of remorse is not so common in rock lyrics. Sometimes there is guilt, or shame, or self-hatred like in a lot of Lou Reed’s songs… But remorse is something different. Would you care to comment about that? 

That’s a very interesting question, first time I have been asked that … I’ll give you a metaphor. There’s a man I mention in my memoirs, whose name is Paul Nelson. He kind of discovered me and took me under his wing. He wrote the first review of Aquashow in Rolling Stone Magazine, called me “the new Bob Dylan” … Many years later, in the mid-eighties, I was playing in a NYC club called Tramps, a blues bar. I lived nearby, it was a small club, a hundred and fifty people. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life at the time and Paul Nelson came to my show. And that very same night Bruce Springsteen was playing Madison Square Garden for twenty thousand people. Paul and I talked after the show and I said, “Thanks for coming, you know, you could have gone to see Bruce. It is amazing how successful he has become since we started together.” And Paul said: “It could have gone either way.” And it was the last time I saw him. So, how could it have gone either way? That’s where remorse comes in … 

If I had made that decision instead of that, if I’d stayed on RCA records where I had a very good relationship with the president of the label [Ken Glancy] – but I chose to go to Columbia because that’s where Bruce and Bob Dylan were… Should I have stayed with Ken stayed faithful to his patronage? And so remorse with no definite conclusion comes in ..

The great thing about writing theses memoirs is that, you know, you, me, everybody, we go through life kind of in chaos and we just try to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time. When I wrote my memoir, I had the feeling that I had arrived exactly where I was supposed to be, that everything was somehow laid out… So, remorse, is it good? Maybe it helps the songs a bit. No one wants to hear a song where someone brags, where he or she never made any mistakes like some master of the universe! There’s a certain vulnerability which makes a good song. Take Wild Horses by The Rolling Stones: that song is full of remorse. Now, at this point in my life, 74 years old, all I can do is accept my past and move on. 

Indeed …

By the way I like your hat! I have a collection of hats …

Me too! Everything going okay for you so far, Elliott? 

Yeah, it’s like going to a psychoanalyst … 

(At that point I wonder who’s curing who…, Anyway, we go on)  

Let’s talk about the mystique of rock ’n roll… As you know more than most, rock ’n roll is in a way some kind of religion with its devotees and rituals. I can distinguish among my friends those who are into it and those who are not. Those who are devotees have this particular take on life, this vibration … This mystique, I believe, is rather unique. Of course, there are some jazz musicians who have a mystique around them … Miles Davis, John Coltrane …

Thelonious Monk …

Of course! The point is, the mystique of rock ’n roll is very present throughout your work. Of course, the very first song of the very first album [Aquashow], Last of the Rock Stars, but then so many songs along the way, the latest being “That’s the Scene  on Wonder. It is as if some part of you still was that kid whose “life was saved by rock ’n roll ” to quote Lou Reed  – and, by the way, let us remember you wrote the liner notes for The Velvet Album “Live 1969” on which the song Rock ’n roll is featured … That is interesting because through your work you relate to the rock ’n roll devotee, but with the perspective of the rock ’n roll star … Which, again, is quite unique. 

I think, artists such as myself, who are second or third generation … I mean, the first generation came with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the second with the Beatles and the Stones… So, people like myself or Bruce Springsteen, or Tom Waits or Tom Petty, we were the third generation. And it’s like this, rock ’n roll was the cultural circus of my generation. There I was in my little suburban town where the rock ’n roll circus came by on that train or wagon [actually on TV via The Ed Sullivan Show], however you want to picture it. And it was a real circus with all the temptation and desire that contains, and when it was moving by, you knew, at least I knew, I wanted to join that circus… Run away from home and join that rock ’n roll circus! So, back in 1956 when I saw Elvis Presley on TV, that was the first ray of hope [laughs]. And then came the Beatles … 1963 was such a dark time in America because John F Kennedy had been killed. Nothing like that had happened in my lifetime before, and I so much wanted to be part of that circus and escape. So, for those of my generation of rock musicians, even though we have become a part of it, we still are somehow still in awe of the very thing we’ve dedicated our lives to. We were not like Elvis or Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan, we did not have to break down those cultural barriers. It was all wide open by the time I began. So, rock ‘n roll was always the obvious escape route for me. “I never liked where I came from and I tried to fight”- those are lyrics from my song “Drive all night.” That’s what it was like, you know, growing up in that stifling American suburban environment during the 1950s and 1960s with its conservative cultural mentality and, one night, the rock ’n roll circus comes to town via Television! So in a metaphysical sense, I ran away from home, jumped on the bandwagon and joined the circus wherever it might lead me. And I am still on it, in a way. 

I remember talking to Bruce about the time when Paul McCartney joined him on stage. He was thrilled to see Paul Mc Carney standing next to him because he could remember seeing him as a kid on television. That way we always feel… maybe like honorary members! Although, for my son and his generation, we are not. Gaspard my son (32 years old) said to me once: “Dad .. You knew Lou Reed! ” And it was as if he’d said to me “Dad, you really knew Albert Einstein?” It was this mythical name for him. You know, I always say: “I wish I could be the man who writes my songs.”

Yes, you say the songs know more about me than I know about the songs … You have this quality of innocence which is very present in your songs. It is like an undercurrent of your work… Innocence and experience! 

Somewhere lives within me that sixteen-year-old.  You know when I started playing the guitar at twelve… I still remember when I got that instrument, one of the greatest days of my life. My mother was kind of mad at my father that he bought me this guitar for no reason, but he went ahead and did it, God bless him … Anyway, innocence … I was never too much attracted to the decadent side of rock ’n roll. Not that I haven’t had my share of it but it just never did sit well with me. I was attracted to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriters especially, rock-singers, song writers, because they tend to expose more of their inner life than other genres like pop. And innocence … It has to be one of the most attractive qualities in this world.  I mean, the innocence of a beautiful young girl is something which still captivates me to this day. I hope I have kept some of my own innocence. 

Another quality, generosity. Each time I saw you live, I was stuck by the generosity with which you perform. It reminded me of seeing Leonard Cohen during his last tour. You could sense that, though he was elderly, in his eighties in fact, he wanted to be doing what he was doing. It was not just a professional performance, he was really giving something. I brought my eldest daughter, 32, to your last New Morning show here in Paris…

Same age as my son!

Yeah, and she was really touched. She sensed the generosity of it all…

I’m very happy to hear that. 

I suppose you are aware of this quality in you. It is something which you consciously do. It also shows in the interaction you have with your musicians on stage. 

Well, two things. First of all, you mentioned Leonard Cohen, and I do think we have something in common. You know, he had his early career. Then he went up on a mountain to take care of his guru for years, then he came back down, and his business manager stole all his money, so he really had to start this new career which turned out to be much more successful than the first one. 

Well, you can divide my career in two parts: when I made those records with the major labels in the 70s. And after that initial fame and success ended abruptly, I was kind of left in the wilderness, until I moved here to France and began my comeback and all that came with it. So, I think one thing I share with Leonard is being really grateful to my public. He came back and I came back only because of my fans. There was no major music business force pushing us back into the limelight. I always say that after my family, my fans are my greatest treasure. But I do have to say, Gilles, I was not always like this as a dynamic performer. In the early days, I did not have that generosity. I didn’t know who to be when I was on stage, I didn’t know how to expose myself,  I didn’t know how to be vulnerable… Also, I didn’t know the job as well as I do now. All the preparation it takes to give a good show. 

You know, I had been to Europe in 1971 and when I came back to New York, it was just the right time to get a record contract. There were lots of things happening in New York, there were a lot of clubs. This glam band, The New York Dolls was exploding and rock ‘n roll was catching the media’s attention again. I think in three months of trying, I had a record deal and was recording my first album. But I had very little, almost no experience being on stage, really. Of course, before that, I was in many Long Island bands, but at that time I wanted to be a guitar hero, I wanted to be Eric Clapton… Whereas Bruce Springsteen, he was playing in ball rooms and on the Jersey shore for years. Billy Joel was doing the same on Long Island. I was the new kid in town and I had to fake it until I made it [laughs]!

So, it took me a long time to really learn how to do it – recording and performing – because it’s a job, it’s a craft. To be able to arrange all the elements so that inspiration can come and create that magic in the studio and with the audience. You have to know how to make it work. So, I wasn’t always like that. A big element was when I started working with Olivier Durand, my French guitarist. We’ve been together for twenty-eight years! 

That’s impressive…

A long time … And I think that freed me and enabled me to concentrate of my singing as well. Because by that time, I had lost interest in being a guitar virtuoso and Olivier channeled his own musical sensitivity into my songs. It’s just wonderful what he does on the guitar with my songs … So, that freed me up a lot and it gave me a musical partner which I’d never had before. I’m very grateful to Olivier for that. You know, when I’m on stage now, those are the best two hours of the day. It takes eight hours of travel, often times, for two hours on stage but when I am on that stage it’s magic and I am healed .. I just did a show in Barcelona celebrating my fifty years on the road and the love I got from that audience was just … well, it almost brought me to tears. You know, that’s the greatest feeling in the world! It only lasts for a few hours, then you get back to real life but it’s so good while it lasts.

One thing about your collaboration with Olivier, particularly the shows you do just the two of you: you both perform with acoustic guitars and do a whole show like that. So, basically the set-up is that of a folksinger but the whole feeling of it is pure rock ’n roll…


It feels very natural when you’re in the audience but when you think about it, that’s most unusual. Two guys with Taylor acoustic guitars managing to make one feel one has been to a rock ’n roll show! 

Well, there’s a couple of reasons for that. Number one: now you can plug in an acoustic guitar. In the old days you had to stand with your guitar facing a microphone and the sound of the guitar was not very defined. Of course, I was never a folk singer, I never came from that tradition, knowing all the songs in the Harry Smith book of folk songs… I may perform with a folk rock set up, but what I do is not folk rock, it’s definitely rock. 

The term “folk” precisely implies that you are coming from the tradition of this endless repertoire of folk songs, and I have never done that. I might play a few folk songs [Worried Man, The Banks of the Ohio] but mainly I’m doing my own material and always have. When I began in the early seventies, there were people like James Taylor or Cat Stevens… These were soft rock artists coming from a folk background. But that was not the case for me. I was never drawn to the folk tradition and by the time I was a teenager the folk boom was long over. If what we do, Olivier and I, works so well, it’s because our roots are the same: rock ’n roll, rock music. Well, maybe Olivier knows a few more AC/DC songs than me!

I always looked at music as a means to tell my story. That’s what I wanted to do with it, that was my motivation. I felt I had a story to tell, and I say that in the most humble sense. You know, express my take on the world and my place in it and I just wanted to tell it through song. I have also done that through writing, in some of my books, but in terms of an emotional investment it’s not the same thing. 

So, I definitely am not a folk artist although every time I see Phillippe Manoeuvre, [famous French rock critic], he exclaims:” Ah, Elliott! My favorite folk singer!” I just laugh… By the way, Philippe wrote of the first long review on my work [Lost Generation review in Rock and Folk], back in the day …

Yes, he is a good guy, generous. 

I do like him, even if he keeps calling me a folk singer!

About guitars … There is this scene in Broken Poet in which Jake takes the journalist girl to talk in some guitar shop, presumably in Pigalle [Woodstore]


And they sit and talk among all those beautiful guitars on the wall…  And Jake says: “these are sacred objects…”  Artefacts! You are never without a guitar on stage. That’s your relationship to the instrument? 

I try to play the guitar everyday … If I see a guitar, I have to pick it up and play some. I now have sitting in my living room a Gibson J 200 which I bought when I got my RCA contract in 1975. And there are so many songs which came out of that guitar … “Anastasia”, I wrote on that guitar,: “Rock Ballad” … So, yes, to me guitars are sacred objects. I have written very few songs where I wrote the lyrics first and then the music. Usually, it is some combination of the two. It’s really the music that gives the words wings to fly. If you read the lyrics to a great rock songs written out on a page of paper, they don’t really have the same emotional impact. Now I have about fourteen guitars …

Well, being a guitarist myself, I quite understand …

Yes, you know! And my son Gaspard also has about fourteen too. 

He is great, by the way. He did a great job playing his Stratocaster at the New Morning show.  And he’s a very good producer. 

He is!

To finish, let’s go back to a few philosophical questions … I mentioned remorse, I mentioned innocence … There is also in your work the importance of compassion and kindness. When we first exchanged e-mails, I told you to introduce myself that among other things I had spent a bit of time with Allen Ginsberg [Beat poet and cultural icon] and had done long dialogues with him. And one thing struck me: in your reply you said you had met Allen a couple of times and were touched by the fact that he was kind. 


That’s very true, and yet, I thought that no so many people, having met such an icon as Ginsberg, would have that one thing to say first about him.  To me, it spoke about you and connected to what I feel listening to your songs. What Elliott has to say about Allen Ginsberg in one sentence replying to someone he hasn’t yet met is that Allen was kind! 

That’s telling and kindness is a quality present in your songs. Of course, there is “A  Touch of Kindness” …

My most popular song on Spotify! It amazes me! And a relatively recent track. 

And one finds it in many of your other songs, I think. It’s a quality you have wanted to both express in your work and develop for yourself? One feels it is important to you to be a responsible and caring human being and that’s powerful…

I guess my answer would be … When I lost my father at sixteen … * (* Elliott’s father died suddenly and in a matter of minutes from a heart attack one night at home, an episode which of course has shaped his sensitivity and on which he has poignantly written in his memoirs) I think anyone who has a traumatic event like that at an early age … They go in one of two directions: either in some way that wound stays open and they look for kindness and compassion as a way of healing… Or else they just close up completely and become tough as can be. I have had a little bit of both. And certainly, in the music business, there was not a lot of kindness to be found! When I got into the music business, I thought it would be full of people who love music. And they did, but what they really loved was selling it! I understand that, I have nothing against that, it is commerce, after all. But I was always looking for that compassion within the music business when I should have been looking for it from my fans … 

Bruce discovered that very early on. He looked to his fans for redemption, whereas it took me a while. About Allen Ginsberg: when I first met him, I was struck that when we were introduced, he was so completely focused on what I had to say, completely paying attention to me … And then some years later, I was taking part in the organization of a festival in France called “Etonnants Voyageurs ” and I tried to get some of the Beats to participate and I was on the phone with Allen to invite him. I had been trying to get in touch with other people, writers and musicians, who all referred me to their agents, you know … But when I got Allen on the phone, he was so considerate… It seemed truly important to him that I should not take it personally that he would not be available. 

“I really can’t,” he said. “But thank you so much for inviting me… ” He went on to tell me all the other things he had to do …

My God, Allen Ginsberg was an icon! He went from being in the avant-garde of Beats in the fifties to a guiding spiritual light for hippies in the sixties, etc. … But still, he did not want to hurt my feelings! And I was really touched by that. It served as an example to me. I try to do that also. Of course, I get approached to do a lot of things, some I want to do, some I do not want to do … But I always try to reply with empathy. Because of my relationship with Bruce, for example, I am constantly asked by people if I could get them in touch with him… Each time, I reply something like: “You know that’s really not my role in my relationship to him,” but I do my best to say it delicately. Someone in Spain recently told me: “It’s my brother’s birthday. Can you get Bruce to call us? ” I replied: “Happy birthday to your brother. I don’t know if Bruce would do it but I couldn’t ask him to do such a thing, but I will certainly call your brother to wish him a happy birthday myself if you want me to …” In one of my songs, there is this line about these times which “are turning mean”. And yes, there’s a certain meanness in the world, and incredible mind-numbing competition among us all. It’s much harder nowadays for young people to get ahead and make a living, find a place to stay and all that … It’s much harder than it was in my time, your time … 

So, I am aware of all that. And art is about helping us understand life, find some redemption, in all kinds of art, paintings, music, films … 

There is one your songs which I think is very special. It is not of your best-known songs, by far. It’s a spoken song, you do not sing on it, just say the lyrics. It is called “Jesus.”  I can see that you are not a religious man in the usual sense of the term. And this song is so powerful: Jesus on the cross realizing he cannot control the power which belongs to his Father and thus is unable to save himself. And you say: “… when he lost his power, he lost his faith, like all of us.”  Where does a song like that come from? If you have an answer to that …

I don’t know if I have an answer to that … maybe I had recently read a book about the historical Jesus … but I don’t think it really was the inspiration for that song. I was just trying to put that story, the most mythical story that exists in our western world, in some kind of human terms. Of course, I am not in any way comparing myself to Jesus! No way! But sometimes, I know I have to get on stage. And I know I have to get that power from somewhere. And I never know if it will come! There was this show I gave in Germany last summer, and I was so sick … I could hardly stand up before the concert. I was just lying down in the dressing room before the concert and my wife was there, and I was almost carried to the stage. I didn’t know if I could sing, if I could remember the words, yet once I got on stage, it all happened like a miracle! And they say it was one of my best shows! 

So, about this song: the story of Jesus is so embedded in our culture that I wanted to explore it from a more human sized perspective. You know, you read the Bible and here is Jesus making the blind see, healing the lepers, making the cripple walk… But did it always work? What if there were times when it didn’t work? Why didn’t he save himself up there on the cross? For me, that is the most fascinating part of the story. And I am not religious at all, really… I try to be spiritual in some sense. I look for the spirituality in other people, but I think the humanity in this story of Jesus is what we must really understand. Although religions tend to take us away from that, they just want us to believe in the magic and the mystery … and the guilt from being human! Well, maybe Jesus existed, maybe he didn’t, but the message “love your neighbor ” … Man, we could use that today! 

Thank you so much Elliott! 

Thank you, Gilles, your questions made me think! 

Though we have now been together for more than an hour, I haven’t noticed Elliott’s eyes glazing over. In fact he seems quite willing to keep chatting once we have concluded our formal interview, though I understand he has to get back to his place. We talk a bit about people we both have met, particularly his friend poet Michel Bulteau… He graciously autographs the two vinyl records I have bought with me, including of course the original Aquashow as well as Milwaukee, one of my favorites. Like many music lovers, we agree on the beauty of going back to vinyl

EM: Vinyl is a different listening experience, you put it on, listen for twenty minutes, then you have to go over and turn the record over. And the covers can be part of it all!

We of course take a picture together and then I let him go, with plans to see each other again, a somewhat frail figure on the Boulevard. Yes, fifty years have elapsed since I first listened to his songs on his very first album and I then think of the lyrics to one my favorite tracks on his latest opus, Wonder, “Lack of Perspective… ”

I’m going back in time – to find what I’m looking for
I’m going back – to change my mind
I got a lot to learn – not so much time to burn
I’m gonna stop and press rewind
And it’s a fact you’ll see – you can’t fight destiny
And if you think you’d be – acting any differently
Then you’re a fool – who lives on lies.
I got a lot to learn – oh so much trash to burn
To discern – what’s really mine

Going back to my Parisian place a few blocks away, I marvel at the wonder of those connections which defy time, space and linear causality. From my teenage room back in Lyon where my family lived when Aquashow came out, his parents’ grand house in Long Island, to the Grands Boulevards, here where two men of a certain age (him the elder of course) who technically never met before had a rich conversation, all because of the music, the songs, because of rock ’n roll, and the never relinquished  quest for some kind of dignity in an often mean but also always surprising world.