Highway 61 Birthday Signs

Elliott Murphy - Highway 61 Birthday Signs

I’ve been doing shows at the legendary New Morning club in Paris for 20 years or more and every time it just gets better. For the past 10 years I play there within a week or so of my birthday on March 16 and a celebratory air impermeates Rue Petites Ecuries. The New Morning is a big old Jazz club with a great stage and solid sound system so you really feel the weight of the crowd and the finesse of the musicians. This year was sold out well in advance so we might go for two nights in 2011. My son Gaspard Murphy joined us for quite a few songs on electric guitar and even sang most of Born to Run in an impromptu although not unexpected deviation from Drive All Night. Gaspard is 19 and has two great bands of his own and is writing songs and singing with a passion he only hinted at. The best thing I did as a musical Dad was to never discourage him about pursuing music as a career and a way of life although I never tried to make him believe it was easier then it is. Talent is only a small part of the formula for success and although he’s got a lot of that I try my best to teach him about the music business, how to protect himself while following his desire. Hopefully he’ll make different mistakes then I did. Similarly, I came from a show business family myself and my own parents were not opposed for me to follow in that same direction. Of course, they were very supportive in buying me guitars and paying for lessons and letting my band rehearse in the basement – all of that very necessary stuff – but most important was giving me the freedom early on to find my own path.

When The Unfinished Complete Lyrics of Elliott Murphy was published earlier this year I took stock of my songwriting history. My first song came at 12 and was called “Was It A Dream” and I can still sing it for you. I started seriously writing songs when I was 18 and honestly I still work in about the same fashion: pick up my guitar, get some words, find some rhymes, try to remember it all the next day. No real method, mostly creative anarchy: words on scraps on napkins, melodies sung into my cell phone – whatever works. The most important trick I’ve learned is to respect the muse when she’s sitting on your shoulder and whispering in your brain because she often takes extended vacations. In the early days the words and music came together in a flash but that’s changed now so anything can happen. I co-write a lot with Olivier Durand so many songs of my songs are half finished until he comes in with his guitar and wonderful melodies and chord progressions. When we work together I just try to keep it as spontaneous and unconscious as possible.

Is songwriting poetry? I don’t know but I believe if Walt Whitman was alive today he’d be playing in a rock ‘n roll band, probably a very loud one, from Brooklyn. Chuck Berry is the most underrated poet I know. Did you know that in the middle ages all poetry was accompanied by music, strolling troubadours and all of that. The minstrels probably seduced too many of the local farmer’s daughters so the powers that be took away the music and forbade lutes in church and sentenced poetry to academic solitude and a safe sterility. Although I still have to say that Jack Kerouac is the greatest poet of the 20th Century and I truly believe he was hearing all that Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk bebop in his head while he was typing On The Road. Music gives the words wings …

After my first album Aquashow I told my record company that I wanted to put out an album each month reflecting the latest world events – they thought I was kidding them. Maybe I was. But I do like to comment on what’s going on around me. When the global economic crisis hit I wrote a song called “What the fuck is going on” and we played it live for about 6 months and people got it and cheered. Now its already dated and that was just a year ago. I would like to put the interviews I did with Tom Waits and Keith Richards to music. Keith called the guitar That Damn Thing! – good song title.

April is here and I have 15 shows in 30 days in 4 countries. Not bad. I like the ritual of touring. Each night, just before the show, Olivier Durand and I prepare the set list and its like two sorcerers doing alchemy. Then I brush my teeth and walk out on stage. Some US journalist called Olivier France’s secret weapon and maybe that’s true but I know my own secret weapon has been my dogged perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds and adversity. Some might call it stupidity! And honestly, I’ve been very lucky to find a home and public in Europe.

There’s a misconception about American artists like me who have a substantial following in Europe. People think European audiences discovered us while the US ignored us but that’s not really true. I know of only one artist who became big in France without a major label push in America and that was Calvin Russell. Everybody else that I can think of, myself included, were discovered by Europe thanks to all the promotion and media coverage we got in America. Europeans tend to be skeptical of artists who are completely ignored in their home country. I did four albums on the US majors before coming to Europe for my first show so I was ready. On the other hand, the public here is not so fickle and there’s more support of the arts in general. Did you know that no Philharmonic Orchestra in the world would exist without government financial subvention? It should be the same for rock ‘n roll in my humble opinion.

Journalists still love to compare my career with that of Bruce Springsteen and I’m kind of bored with the questions but I do think that would be a really interesting thesis subject for someone preparing their master degree in contemporary communication skills. There’s no easy answer. There are many business factors – the right label and management – and then there is the image of the artist and the particular zeitgeist of the moment. Bruce represented particular strata of society to a lot of people who wanted to identify with the idea of a blue-collar hero even if their own lives had nothing to do with it. And he had (and still has) just layers and layers of incredible talent in so many areas, songwriting, singing, handling his image correctly. And who can deny his magnetic presence on stage? Tom Petty is another All-American hero and an extremely talented musician and songwriter. And they’re both sexy guys! I know I made some mistakes along the way but I also know that there are so many talented artists who are not playing a hundred shows a year like I am so I really try to be grateful for what has been an incredibly long career. Do you think Van Gogh lost sleep wondering why he wasn’t selling like Monet? No … but he did lose an ear!

When I was a kid in the late 50’s there was this song called “All American Boy” which was about Elvis and it was a signpost for my life. Then in the 60’s there was another musical arrow pointing my way this time by the Byrds called “So You want to be a rock ‘n roll star.” There’s a quest for mortality for those who seek fame and fortune but what will all of this mean in 100 years? Where is the Van Gogh of today? Is there absolutely astonishing words and music being created right now that almost nobody will hear and years from now that person posthumously will be declared a genius and his picture put on a postage stamp? I ask myself where is it all leading? Is “Like A Rolling Stone” going to be The Odyssey of this century? The attention span of the public is the rarest commodity that exists today and I believe it will run out before fossil fuels do. I’m more worried about Global Boredom than Global Warming. Is there a shortage of personality and is that why celebrities have reached a level of absurdity no one could have predicted? Come on, Marilyn Monroe had more in common with Emily Dickinson than she does with Paris Hilton! And having said all of that, I still hope and pray and believe that one of my fans will buy me a nice cottage on Venice Beach, California to walk the sunset years with a metal detector on the sand looking for … a hero!