Evening has come surprisingly fast as I sit here at the desk of my finely appointed very mauve hotel room. In front of me, just out the window there, the long lights of Geneva’s opposite shoreline arc around the lake and almost every formidable building I can see is crowned with the logo of a Swiss watch manufacturer – Hublot, Patek Philippe, Rolex. There’s the whooshing sound of traffic coming up three floors to my room from the lakeside drive below which, bizarrely enough, I find comforting. Through the other window I can glimpse the famous fountain of water that spurts up one hundred and forty meters out of the lake, the universally recognized symbol of the city, and tonight, for some reason, its bathed in blue lights. Now I know that today is Armistice Day in France, but that shouldn’t affect Switzerland, which has been neutral forever. Maybe they’re celebrating the blues just because I’m in town – I’m often mistaken for a bluesman, and I guess, in a way, I am, because a bluesman is by definition someone who sings songs about the reality of the conditions around them, no matter what your class strata may be.
Now it being the 11th of November 2011 means that tonight at eleven-eleven the time and date will be 11:11 11/11/11. I like things like that, makes me smile, makes me feel like I caught up with time for one fleeting moment; like I made sense of the utter haphazard arc of my own life. And today I did stop time and that brings me back to the Hotel de la Paix in Genève. Yes, I stayed here before, in another lifetime, and there’s something else, truly mind-blowing, which I’ll tell you later.
Now Geneva, Switzerland is a quiet city by anyone’s standards, especially mine, after living in New York and Paris, and I feel like I’m here on vacation. But I’m not. I’m here on business, to do a presentation of my latest album Elliott Murphy in the local FNAC, a French multi-media store with branches all over Europe. But that event takes place tomorrow so tonight I’ll just stay in, reminisce and watch the small ferrys that lazily cross the lake. The last time I stayed here, at the Hotel de la Paix, was exactly forty years ago, in a small single room, in the midst of a European and then American voyage that changed my life. There were two of us back then, Geraldine and I, staying here in a small room because I had checked in as a single to save money. Back then we stayed in many a small bed together in fine hotels like the Hotel de la Paix because we had wide and luxurious dreams, and this was where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stayed back in the 1920’s. The problem was that we had to make these expensive dreams work on a very inconsequential budget. Foolishly, we spent most of what small funds we had staying a mere weekend at posh ski resort in the Swiss Alps and I didn’t even ski at the time. Or was it foolish when the memory is priceless and I can write about it now? Anything I can write about, in song or prose, has to be worth the money, that’s my motto. Anyway, after a few months Geraldine and I left the fluffy pillows of Europe and headed for the mean streets of San Francisco with some flowers on our hair – but that’s a different story.
To prepare for my European journey I had bought a very nice oak leather suitcase from the Salvation Army in Hempstead, Long Island, something like Ernest Hemingway would carry in Africa, and I shined the brass latches and used it to carry the seeds of my rock wardrobe, a few pairs of velvet pants, oriental vests & scarves (you remember the look) plus a cassette recorder. All of this came with me to Europe where I figured I’d be staying a few years at the minimum. This was my return voyage after spending most of a year in Rome and my first stop was London where I left a red 1962 Fender Stratocaster Guitar with a friend to sell. I bought the guitar for three hundred dollars back on Long Island, knowing it would sell for triple that amount in London. I’ve always imagined it was the guitar that Mark Knopfler bought and played on “Sultans of Swing.” Today, a vintage Strat like that would fetch ten thousand dollars easily – maybe more. So there I was with my Sun Also Risessuitcase and another guitar too, an acoustic Epiphone Frontier, and I went looking for Geraldine who was literally locked up in a boarding school outside Montreux. Her parents had put her there, thinking it would keep her out of trouble and it read very well on paper; the brochure was enticing, but the reality was she was holed up with the daughters of the latest crop of South American dictators. The only diploma the school guaranteed was that any girl who arrived a virgin would leave in that same condition.
What I didn’t bring with me on that trip was my own typewriter; a small Olivetti that my parents had bought me many a Christmas before, I think, when my father was still alive. That pale green writing machine had served me well, giving birth to many songs and stories and more. But it was too bulky to carry around while trouncing around the continent and I knew that Olivetti made a smaller, more portable model that I hoped to buy that some day and write detective novels like a modern day Raymond Chandler only living on the island of Ponza. And that was all I needed back then, a guitar, a typewriter and a girl who believed in me. The fact that I brought two guitars and no typewriter should tell you something about my priorities, I suppose, but I hope I’ve incorporated most of my literary aspirations into my songwriting.
So Geraldine was in her Montreux boarding school where they would let those girls out unchaperoned for just one hour a day – that was it. I camped out in a nearby two star hotel and played guitar, took baths, recorded new songs on cassettes, went to visit the Château de Chillon where Lord Byron carved his name in the wall, and imagined one day playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival (which I finally did in 1983). Geraldine was up in my room one afternoon, during that precious hour of freedom and I played a few of my latest original songs for her: “Peter Rabbit,” about a guy I knew from Garden City, a drummer who battled with demons far more villainous then any I’ve known. He stole a car, got chased by police through three states. And then they shot him dead. I never recorded it. I also played her “Last of the Rock Stars.” Her face lit up, she was adamant and said we must go to America and I must become a rock star, right away, for she had a vision, a plan and a mission to fulfill – which was to make me famous. Sounded good to me and we finally made it to San Francisco. But again, that’s another story.
Nights in Lausanne were slow with Geraldine in school until I decided to take my guitar into the highlands of Lausanne and do some “busking.” I must have stood outside that first Swiss restaurant for a good twenty minutes before I got up the nerve to go in and ask if I could play a few songs and pass the hat. Amazingly, the owner agreed, I sang “Wild Horses” and people put money in my hat and I left feeling absolutely marvelous! Never had stage fright again. I hit a few more restaurants and cafes that night as well and did all right. When I told Geraldine of the money I made, we decided she had to bust out of school right away, no time to lose – this was a sign. We threw all her clothes out the window of her school and took the boat to Geneva. I don’t remember how or when but I met a Swiss guy who said he could help me, said I’d make more money if I just played and sang while he passed the hat and cleared things with the owner. My first manager, so to speak! And it worked.
After a few weeks it was time to leave. We got a flight to London where I picked up the cash for the now sold Strat and then on to San Francisco where I quickly began playing in wine bars down by Fisherman’s Wharf. I also got a nice case of hepatitis, something I ate, and my skin turned yellow and so after a few months I came back to New York to recover, make a demo, sign with Polydor Records and record my first album Aquashow. It all happened so fast, as if Geraldine’s vision was coming true. Maybe it was, maybe it did.
Oh … there goes a small green boat on the Lake, with a green light, at the aft, kind of like the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock that Jay Gatsby mooned over in a impeccable white suit, hands in pockets, thinking what could have been, what will be. My own green light has kept moving like that on that boat; it always seems to be one thought ahead of me and I can’t grab it. Maybe next year on December 12th, when its twelve minutes after noon – 12:12 12/12/12. That will be the day!
So today I checked into Hotel de la Paix today, forty years later, and the attractive assistant director of the hotel was at the reception to welcome us. I told her I had stayed in this same hotel forty years ago. “I bet it’s changed,” she said. “Everything’s changed,” I said. She smiled and I thanked her and right before she left, I asked her name.
“Geraldine,” she said. And that’s the truth!
Photo by: Mark Russo