This past June on a beautiful spring night I was standing on stage with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band at the Parc Des Prince stadium in Paris playing Born to Run. There were about 60,000 people in front of me but I was hardly seeing any of them because I was only looking at my 18-year-old son Gaspard Murphy who was standing next to Bruce playing power chords on the Fender Strat that Little Steven had given him. Gaspard and Bruce were shoulder to shoulder and in the many photos that fans have sent me since you can see me with this ear-to-ear grin like the proud father I was that evening. Bruce and I had been friends for over 35 years and this was the greatest gift he could ever give me. After the show Bruce put his arms around Gaspard and said, “Hey Mister Cool! You looked like you do that every night.” And I was thinking about all the nights and days that had led me to this amazing point in my life, up there on stage with Bruce, my son and (what seemed like) half of Paris, my adopted hometown, in front of me. And I remembered when I first heard the name Bruce Springsteen way back in 1972 …
Back in those very distant times I was twenty-one and anxious to escape the white middle class Long Island suburbs where I grew up. Luckily, my sister Michelle was a stewardess on Pan Am Airlines (once as well known as Air France and today totally forgotten – a good lesson!) and she managed to get me a cheap ticket and off I flew to Europe with my long hair and a guitar. I was just like thousands of other so-called hippies looking for adventure but something happened while I was there in Europe for close to a year, some creative force was let loose inside me and I started writing songs while playing on the canals of Amsterdam, the grand place of Brussels and, of course, in the Paris Metro. A short detour took me to Rome where I bluffed my way into a Fellini movie but my plan of action was set: I would take my songs back to New York, get a recording contract and become (what else?) a … rock star!
Of course, the only way to climb the same Mount Olympus where the gods Dylan, Jagger and Lennon lived was to start pounding the pavement around Broadway in New York City where most of the record companies were located. And by an incredible twist of fate I found myself in the office of Paul Nelson who was head of A&R at Mercury Records, ready to play my home-made demo for him with “Last of the rock Stars,” “How’s The Family,” “White Middle Class Blues” and a few other originals already road-tested on the streets of Europe.
Paul Nelson was a legendary figure even before he became a talent scout for Mercury Records. He had gone to school with Bob Dylan out in Minneapolis and started one of the first folk magazines The Little Sandy Review back in the late 50’s when the folk boom was just beginning. But by the time I met him he was deep into the current New York rock scene and trying desperately to sign The New York Dolls to his label – he eventually did and it cost him his job! Paul liked my demo although with his dark glasses, tweed cap and Sherman’s cigars it was hard to know what he was thinking. It soon became apparent that we liked the same music, films and books and we both agreed that the Velvet Underground’s Loaded album was nearly a perfect record. Some weeks later, Paul gave me acetates (fragile test-pressings albums) of an upcoming live Velvet Underground double album called Live 1969 and asked me to write liner notes which I did. It began “Its one hundred years from today …” Amazingly, its now forty years since the Velvets recorded that shows captured on that album.
And its over thirty-five years since the day in his office that Paul Nelson handed me an advance copy of Greetings from Asbury Park by a new singer-songwriter named Bruce Springsteen, pictured on the album sleeve with a beard and thoughtful expression. I took the album back to Long Island and was instantly enraptured. Bruce had managed to find a romantic setting for his songs deep in the New Jersey suburbs and his wordplay was truly impressive. We were coming from a different musical angle – I was strictly late Velvets, electric Dylan and occasional Stones influence while Bruce had Van Morrison-like jazzy riffs and some free-flowing time signatures going on. But I found a kindred spirit in his words, his voice, his sense of love and redemption and his sad romanticism. And I thought if he succeeded it might open the door for me as well. It was a good sign if albums like his were getting released, I figured.
In 1973 Paul took me to see Bruce perform at the legendary Max’s Kansas City where the Velvet Underground had made their last stand the summer before and where I myself would begin doing gigs for the next five years. I don’t remember if the place was packed or not but I do remember Bruce’s incredible energy and professionalism on that small stage. Now, in addition to being a super talented songwriter the guy was also an unbelievable showman. Kindred spirit or not, I was getting worried! After the show, Paul took me to meet Bruce and we shook hands and looked each other in the eye and I’m grateful to say that we’ve remained friends ever since. We’re the same age and both come from the suburbs surrounding Manhattan – him from the Jersey shore and me from the Long Island flatlands – and the bright lights, big city pulled us both to make our stand down in Jungleland.
Paul was unable to sign both me and the New York Dolls to Mercury Records – heavy glam makeup won out over songs about The Great Gatsby – but I quickly found a better deal at Polydor Records and was soon recording my own first album Aquashow with the help of some incredible musicians including my brother Matthew on bass, Gene Parsons ex-Byrds drummer and Highway 61 veteran Frank Owens on keyboards. Peter Siegel who knew Paul from the folk music days in Greenwich Village produced the album. When the recording of my album was finally finished, I think one of the first people I played it for was Paul Nelson and he just stood there and gave the faintest smile that meant, of course, that he loved it. I was, to say the least, relieved. Paul promised he would do what he could to help spread the word about Aquashow.
But he did so much more then that. Paul reviewed Aquashow in a double-review with Bruce Springsteen’s second album The Wild The Innocent and The E-Street Shuffle in Rolling Stone magazine under the headline “The best new Dylans since 1968” and an incredible press frenzy began. That’s where the whole “New Dylan” tag came from and because Bob Dylan himself was kind of laying low at that time everyone was looking for a successor, someone to take the crown and proclaim themselves emperor of 4th Street or some such nonsense. Of course, I was thrilled that Aquashow was being compared to Blonde On Blonde or Highway 61 Revisted but I had no intention or desire at replacing Bob Dylan at anything. I was his greatest fan and I only wanted him to make more great albums and soon he did just that with Blood On The Tracks and Desire. I don’t know how Bruce felt about the comparison but maybe we both can take a secret pride in getting Bob Dylan back in the action once he felt us young hungry wolves barking at his tail. I’d like to think that is true.
But Bruce wasn’t as haunted by the New Bob Dylan curse as I was, probably because he didn’t play harmonica on a rack like myself and perhaps his scat-like singing owed more to Van Morrison than Dylan. So my career stayed in the Bermuda triangle of Dylan-Reed-Fitzgerald for a while and Bruce hit the road and established himself as a true rock ‘n roll road warrior. A few years went by where we didn’t see much of each other and I soon moved from Polydor to RCA where I released Lost Generationand Night Lights and finally to Columbia, the same record label as Bruce, for a short while with my fourth album Just a Story From America. Bruce had some legal troubles with his ex-manager, which held up his recording career for a year or so. He had found his ideal manager and producer in Jon Landau, an ex-rock critic and close friend of Paul Nelson who wrote the famous line “I have seen the future of Rock ‘n Roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen” in a Boston review. I don’t know if Columbia signed me to hedge their bet in case Bruce was hung up in court for years but I’ve heard rumors to that effect.
During this time of legal-limbo for Bruce he did a series of shows in Red Hook, New Jersey – must have been 1976 – that were creating an incredible buzz. My manager took me down to New Jersey in a limousine one night to see Bruce’s show and it was everything and more then people were saying. Even before Bruce sang a note the stage lighting was just incredible, it was like a set out of West Side Story and when Bruce came on stage it was like Brando and Pacino and Dylan and Dean had all morphed together. Bruce’s singing was both operatic and intimate and the E-Street Band had obviously become one of the tightest and self-assured outfits on the road. The show was stunning and I was completely blown away. I imagine Bruce was playing many songs from The River double album and I don’t remember how long the show went on but he could have played for hours and hours. After the final encore, I went down to the dressing room and soon Bruce appeared to say hello. After such an amazing success he was still the same soft-spoken and humble guy I was introduced to a few years before. We drank a beer together and promised to stay closer in touch.
In the few years since our dual review in Rolling Stone there had been, I suppose, some sort of unspoken competition between us – who would be the next big thing – and although neither of us took this very seriously there were some journalists who tried to pit us against each other. But on the drive back to New York after his concert it may have been me sitting in the back seat of that long black limousine but I knew in my heart who it was about to take the crown of rock ‘n roll and it wasn’t me.
But something more important had happened that night in Red Hook because I had learned so much from Bruce about performing, about playing to your public and about respecting your fans. Many of these lessons took me years to appreciate and the fact that today I continue to play over 100 shows a year owes a lot to all that I have learned from watching Bruce and knowing him as a friend. Early in the 1980’s when the term singer-songwriter was a dirty word and the radio seemed full of punk, new wave or disco I played a show in a small club down in New Jersey in Asbury Park, Bruce’s mythical hometown, at a club called The Alley and Bruce came down to the show. Later that night we went back to his rented house and talked music till dawn. This was before his marriage and family and Bruce was really living with just himself and his music – no extra baggage. He told me that when he left these rented houses and moved on he would leave any furniture he bought in the house so it wouldn’t weigh him down. And he said that with his royalties from The River he had bought himself two cherished objects: a grand piano and a Corvette convertible. His priorities were perfect! When he showed me around the big house he was living in I was impressed that the band’s rehearsal room was in the living room – the largest and finest room in the house – and that’s where all the gear was set up from Clarence’s saxophone to Bruce’s Telecaster guitar to Max’s drums and Gary’s bass and Steve’s amps and Danny’s accordion and Roy’s keyboards. Later we ate Philly cheese-steak sandwiches (don’t even ask me what that is!) and Bruce played me some of the music he was listening to. He was especially into The Sex Pistols at the time and also played me a new track of his own “Roulette,” which had the same passion and raw energy as the punks. I was not surprised when Bruce included Johnny Rotten among his ten favorite rock singers of all time in a recent Rolling Stone survey. Often, when I ask Bruce what he’s been up to he says that he’s been listening to a lot of music and I believe he does and always did. Mention a band or a singer to Bruce and nine times out of ten he can sing the chorus to one of their songs – no kidding.
In 1992 Bruce invited me to sing with him onstage at Bercy Arena in Paris and he suggested we do my song “Rock Ballad” from Just a Story From America. It was an incredible moment for me and I got to admit I was nervous as hell. When I walked to the stage with Bruce’s late and truly missed assistant Terry Magovern I think I was visibly shaking and Terry put his hand on my shoulder saying “Elliott, its just like the old days only more people.” That calmed me right down and Bruce and I settled into the song in front of 18,000 fans like we were back at Max’s Kansas City. Hearing our voices together was kind of an epiphany – they blended together better then I would have imagined and so when it came time for my next album I wrote a song for Bruce and I to sing together called “Everything I do (Leads Me Back To You)” and hoped he would agree to my duo idea. By this time I had been living in Paris for a few years already so the next time I returned to the USA for a visit I drove down to New Jersey to play Bruce the demo. Funny thing was that we ended up sitting in his car playing the cassette in the rain – a moment out of Rock Dreams. He listened all the way through and said “Yeah, I could sing something on that.”
I was expecting him to put on a background chorus but when I received the tapes back from him he had not only sung on the chorus but also done a whole verse. It was a verse about how you keep riding even when your tires are flat and I guess he couldn’t resist the car metaphor. But again, he proved his friendship and his generosity to me in a big way. And having him on my album Selling The Gold opened up my music to the wonderful world of Bruce fans who are among the most dedicated and cool bunch you could meet. I think its Bruce who sets the example and they carry on.
Now its 2008 and as I write this little memoir I’m getting ready to play a show in New York City tonight at the Living Room and its my first New York show in eight years. I don’t know if Bruce will make it down but what’s more important is what I learned from him about performing, about giving your all and how he always says its such an “honor” to perform for your audience and the strength his friendship has given me. I’ll be thinking of Bruce when I hit the stage and Terry Magovern’s words will echo in my ears I’m sure, “Its just like the old days …“