When my debut album Aquashow was released in 1973 it marked the beginning of a life I started imagining when I first travelled to Europe and began writing songs in cheap hotel rooms in Rome’s Campo di Fiori and played on the streets of Paris and Amsterdam. My fragile rock dreams at that tender post-adolescent, pre-adult age, focused on becoming a temporary member of the Rolling Stones bacchanalian entourage, then living and cavorting in the south of France while recording Exile on Main Street. I mean I was truly a worried man because rock stars were dropping all around me, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin were all dead within a few years and when I said, “Rock ‘n roll is here to stay but who will be left to play” during the chorus of “Last of the Rock Stars” I wasn’t being ironic. In fact, I was a visionary and still am, all the way up to Kurt Cobain. I was actually afraid it would all crumble, the whole rock ‘n roll empire, before I had a chance to get inside and play whatever part, large or small, I was destined to play. Now, forty years later, Aquashow has come to symbolize (along with other albums of its era) the spirited end of a golden age in rock in the same way The Great Gatsby marked the end of the Roaring 20’s or Marilyn Monroe’s death unmasked the dark side of Hollywood glamour. In 1977 rock was given three fatal blows, the sad bloated death of Elvis, the riotous birth of monotonous disco and the revolutionary anarchy of Punk and things in the music world would never be the same again. But in 1973 talented and prolific rock critics such as Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh and Paul Nelson were giving rock an artistic legitimacy that it had never attained before and albums were being treated with the same respect as novels in Rolling Stone, truly, for a while at least, the bible of my generation.
From these few rock insiders the news of Aquashow spread to the mass media and my plaintive lyrics about rock’s demise or the ennui of the suburbs or the tragedy of the modern American family caught the attention of Newsweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times and just about every other news outlet of the time. Unfortunately my management and record company were not up to the task of breaking my music through to the masses I hoped to reach and after a year of tremendous media attention and moderate sales, Aquashow faded from the pop consciousness and I moved on to record Lost Generation in Los Angeles wondering how I would top it. I had been crowned (or damned) as the latest “New Bob Dylan” (Bruce Springsteen has joked that when the critics were calling some of us that, the real Dylan was only 35 years old!) but I personally never thought that Aquashow sounded much like any Dylan album I knew except maybe for my harmonica playing. To set the record straight, Polydor never used the term “new Dylan” in any of their publicity and no serious critic ever actually called me that. But it was an easy tag that stuck then and still comes up, forty years later. Now some might say it’s a curse but I can tell you that everyone who ever held that dubious title – and that includes myself, Bruce Springsteen, Louden Wainwright, John Prine and most lately Jake Bugg – are still out there working so maybe it’s a guarantee of lifetime employment. The truth is that we all represented a different era of Bob Dylan (Aquashow was mostly compared to Blonde on Blonde) but none of us sound much like the other. Explain that …
On my new album Aquashow Deconstructed I sing those ten songs again but this time with wisdom, authority and perhaps even a touch of regret. Like Jay Gatsby, perhaps this is my way of trying to repeat the past, or at least come to terms with it, give it another chance and have a second fling with my Daisy. Aquashow was released on Polydor Records, in 1973 a weak and ineffectual label in the USA, so it was denied any huge commercial success in spite of all the media attention around it. Still, in spite of that, this album has somehow withstood the test of time: a few years ago the UK magazine Uncut called it an “album classic” and it received 41/2 stars in All Music Guide. To be honest, and I suppose with the smallest drop of bitterness, I confess that I always felt cheated because Aquashow deserved more then it got and “Last of the Rock Stars” should have been a hit single, a generational anthem, just like “American Pie” before it or “Born to Run” after it. But in spite of its initial bad luck this album put me on the map and started a career I’m still running with at an age when many of my peers are looking at retirement flats in Florida so my regrets are very few indeed.
Recording Aquashow Deconstructed was a very moving experience and singing those songs forty years later with my son (and producer) Gaspard Murphy sitting in front of me at the studio console was not easy. There were moments where I thought I couldn’t do it; the emotions that arose and the demons it summoned were almost too strong to bear – I came close to breaking down during my vocal take on “How’s The Family.” We are all born to lose, that’s the nature of life, and there was no way I could recapture the youthful innocence of that Elliott Murphy in his early 20’s who wrote and sang those songs with no idea what was waiting for me down the road. They say if you want to be young when you’re old you have to be old when you’re young and when I recorded Aquashow I had already seen my world fall apart both personally with the death of my father and in the larger sense of my generation cutting ties over the Vietnam War, so I felt very old indeed. The gods of my youth had feet of clay and rock ‘n roll, whose feet were dancing, was all I believed in. I assure you, I have no nostalgia for those days, in many ways the immediate fame that came my way was terrifying, so now with Aquashow Deconstructed I am reliving that experience from a safe distance, an ocean apart and forty years down the road.
Why now? For me, it seemed like a natural thing to do although I can’t think of any other artist who has re-recorded their first album in such a way. The album’s title came from the literary theory of Deconstruction that was proposed by the French philosopher Jacques Derrrida who said that literary works must outlive their author to still be meaningful. Songs are born to be immortal and when I first wrote the songs for Aquashow I had no idea that within a year I would be recording them and soon after my photo would be in Rolling Stone, or that the album they were on would attain the cult status that it has today or even stranger, that I would be re-recording them again forty years later in Paris. Back in the early 70’s I saw a certain elegance and artistry in rock ‘n roll and I wanted to define it in my own way so I wore a white suit on that cover and posed in the Palm Court of New York’s Plaza Hotel – now again on the cover of Aquashow Deconstructed I wear a white suit although this time posing from the second floor of my coiffure in Paris because I loved his gold barber chair.
Studio notes: I recorded all my basic tracks in three days, me on guitar or electric piano with the vocal take done right after that. Then Olivier came in for a day to sprinkle his guitar magic and finally came the strings. The album was mixed in four days, which was a herculean feat on Gaspard’s part, often working past eight in the morning – my son busy at the board while his daddy slept on the leather studio couch. The song I struggled with most was “Last of the Rock Stars” because I didn’t want to repeat the rhythm of the original and I wanted there to be a certain bittersweet or melancholy quality to this new recording because the original almost overflowed with an effervescent energy. When a young man sings “he’s the last of the rock stars,” it takes a certain bravado and hubris but for a man of sixty-five to say that, well, it takes irony, regret and even reluctance. I mean, who wants to be the last of anything? It’s a pretty lonely position to find yourself marooned, Robinson Crusoe like, on a desert island surrounded with … your own albums!
Aquashow has been re-released a few times but always in small quantities which quickly sell out. Now, those rare CDs can be found on EBay for a hundred bucks! I only wish I had a thousand of them to sell myself. When the Uncut review came out in 2006 there was a rumour that Polydor UK might release it again but nothing came of it. Fortunately, the other three of my gospels – Lost Generation, Night Lights and Just a Story from America are all available on CD. I would be thrilled for Polydor to dig deep into their vaults and release a deluxe Aquashow with all those outtakes I’ve forgotten about. Come on guys!
In the Rolling Stone review for Aquashow in 1974, Paul Nelson called me a “spiritual descendant” of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and said that I seemed to “… want something better, something with the glory of F. Scott and Ernest’s Paris …” and now here I am, living in Paris these last twenty-five years, walking up five flights to my top floor apartment where I can see the Tour Eiffel. I’m living the dream when I’m mindful enough to realize it. And now, with Aquashow Deconstructed, I have proved my hero F. Scott Fitzgerald right again as I emulate the last lines of The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” And so I had to dedicate Aquashow Deconstructed to my parents Josephine and Elliott Sr. because each of them gave me permission to follow the path I’ve taken and live the life I’ve lived. Each of these songs will always have a highly personal meaning to me, almost like a secret code, and many of them, like “Last of the Rock Stars” and “White Middle Class Blues,” are still part of my live repertoire and have evolved through the years. The stunning cellos and violins on Don’t Go Away, the closing track on the album, that Gaspard arranged is so quietly moving, as if the song stands still in time, and the perfect way to end the album. It’s my prayer to myself, I suppose.