Living Under The Shadow

Elliott Murphy - Photo by Willy Dumalin

When I first started writing “Cold and Electric” (my short story that appeared in the US edition of Rolling Stone in 1980 and would eventually be published as the novel Marty May in French and English editions) it was a different world both inside and out indeed. Of course there was no internet nor smartphones nor Amazon and the closest thing to Google that I knew was the thirty-volume set of the Encyclopedia Americana that my late father had bought for the family’s edification some years before. In fact, when search engines arrived decades later I was well prepared, almost in the avant-garde you might say, because when I was kid, and once I could read fast, furiously and with passion, I loved nothing more than to hang around the bookcase in our family living room where those formidable encyclopedias were kept. I think I was the only member of the family who really adopted those books into the family. And they smelled so great too – leather bound and fine paper – as I’d happily jump from one subject to another via connecting themes (example: Jesse James to Missouri to the battleship Missouri to Japanese Kamikaze fighters to … you get it!) for hours on end, sitting among those heavy books that were sprawled around me on the floor in absolute nirvana of knowledge. To this day, I remain a source of useless facts and I can thank those encyclopedias for starting me up that tree of enlightenment.

When it came to reading, the other thing I really liked to do during my early teenage years was to hang out in the Garden City Public Library because it stayed open late on selected weekday nights so I could get out of the house and disappear among those bookshelves until closing time. I’m still not sure what I was running from (and perhaps I’m still running from something to this day) but I found the solitude and enforced silence of that library and the stern looks of the librarians who enforced the decorum of the place liberating for both my mind and soul. I suppose such libraries still exist (in fact I can see the massive four edifices of the Mitterrand Library from my window here in Paris) but I must confess I haven’t been in a public library since I left Long Island and that was a long time ago indeed. It was in that tomb shaped one floor building (since demolished to make way for a larger media center) that I discovered among other racy literary treasures, East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I searched for it after watching the James Dean movie of the same name on Million Dollar Movie – a late night film show on local TV channel 9 which showed the same movie all week long. And I can remember the amazed look of the librarian when I checked the book out along with The Lodger about Jack the Ripper. I’m surprised she didn’t call the police …

I was reminded of how different it really was back then as I was glued to my TV these past few evenings watching the gripping three-part documentary “Hemingway” by those modern masters of the form, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. As I watched Hemingway tapping away on his own typewriter (standing up!) I thought of how grateful I should be to my junior high school teacher Miss Towers who taught me to type. I can do a few things very well and one of them is typing. Maybe the others are playing the guitar and songwriting but I’ll let you be the judge of that. I loved the rhythm of the typewriter keystrokes and to this day I pound the keys of my computer with far too much gusto and verve trying to recreate that same frenzied race to squeeze letters together to form words, sentences, paragraph and … hopefully some books (I also often write the lyrics to my songs directly to my computer as well – what will there be to leave to my archives? A harddrive?)

My parents bought me an aqua colored Olivetti typewriter that came in a beige case with key and lock for my birthday when I was twelve, around the same time I got my first guitar, and I fell in love with that stylish Italian machine in the same fashion as my Japanese Kent guitar. When I first came to Europe in 1971, I lugged that typewriter with me along with my Epiphone Frontier acoustic guitar and for a while there I didn’t know which direction I would take – writer or musician. But as you’ve probably heard me say before: Literature is my religion and rock ‘n roll is my addiction.

I’ve read that Tom Hanks has a large collection of vintage typewriters and I wonder if he has my same Olivetti model? Of course it’s long gone now as is the Smith-Corona electric I used to write “Cold and Electric” and while writing that short-story I was no longer in the bosom of my long-gone family home and the encyclopedias were now disintegrating in my mother’s uptown apartment. After she passed away in 2018 I don’t know what we did with them. I can only hope they are somewhere and someone is reading them and being as uplifted in spirit as I was.

In 1980, after some heady years when I had major label contracts and the resulting large cash advances, I had downgraded to a pleasant but tight-fitting one-bedroom apartment in Gramercy Park that had two windows but absolutely no light. The only light that got into that apartment was emitted from my Sony Trinitron TV. During the time of writing “Cold and Electric” I remember three things in particular: that I would watch the eleven episodes of a dramatized version of Evelyn Waugh haunting “Brideshead Revisited” starring Jeremy Irons on public television after a day’s writing; that I was reading Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, the devastating story of an alcoholic British consul in Mexico before going to sleep; and, that I was ingesting several Ricard apertifs with a splash of water when I shut down each days writing something that I had learned to do in Paris and surely in the style of Hemingway! You might even see an emerging theme in these three items if you connect the dots …

Marty May, the principal character of my short-story, was consumed by a sense of loss and desperation as he had once been a celebrated blues guitarist on the top of the rock ‘n roll mountain but as the winds of trends in popular music shifted he was left out of the club. Of course, my own identification with Marty was not by chance as the 1980’s were when I entered the wilderness myself: Columbia Records and I had parted company and I had yet to establish a solid base for my music in Europe. If I had a navigator to keep me on course toward eventual redemption perhaps it was Marty May himself.

The point of all this being that as me and everybody else has been living under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic for over a year I’ve looked for diversions to keep my sanity, shape and sense of purpose. Co-writing a novel with Peter Redwhite has been a glorious experience of discovery about the age of discovery, doing a daily thirty-minute workout has hopefully kept me in shape (we’ll see how I feel the next time I’ve finshed a two-hour show!) and my Corona Couch Concerts on Facebook/Instagram (of which I’ve done around one-hundred) has given me a purpose and a reason to pick up my guitar and sing some songs and probably most important, to stay connected to the fans and friends who have stayed loyal to me and my muse this past difficult year. Thanks for believing!