“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” That’s a line from The Leopard, a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Did I read the book? Well … most of it. But I saw the film with Burt Lancaster and that left enough of an impression. In fact, I liked almost anything Burt Lancaster was in but I especially liked Atlantic City, Vera Cruz and, perhaps my favorite film of all time The Swimmer, which was directed by both Frank Perry and Sidney Pollack. Burt Lancaster considered his performance in The Swimmer one of his finest and paid to complete the film out of his own pocket. The film is based on a short story by John Cheever, a great late 20th century American writer who documented the existential soul of the suburbs better then anyone, and it concerns a middle-aged man trying to swim his way home, pool to pool, somewhere in the suburbs of New York. Along the way he meets old friends and enemies and a beautiful young girl and when he finally reaches what once was his home, now unoccupied and decrepit, he collapses into tears, dressed in nothing but a bathing suit, slumped against the locked front door. And it’s raining.
I related to that film, to Burt, to the main character’s optimistic vanity and final heartbreak. In fact, the promo for the film said, “When you talk about The Swimmer will you talk about yourself?” and that’s exactly what I’m doing now, I suppose. I don’t remember when I first saw the film but it came out in 1968 and you may wonder where was I in that tumultuous year of the Democratic Convention in Chicago where there was a police riot against anti-war demonstrators? Well, if you must know, I was down in St. Thomas, feeling the leeward breeze of the Virgin Islands, living in an old wooden house – hidden bedrooms everywhere – called Hippie House, taking it slow and jamming with the local soul bands. I played in a club called Creek Alley (I think), which was where the Mamas and the Papas began some years before. I already had dreams of making it big and everyone who heard me play the guitar thought I played like Eric Clapton, I could jam on Spoonful forever. I was encouraged over and over again to go pro, try my luck at an impossible dream and so I became a … singer/songwriter.
Don’t get me wrong, I can still play lead guitar and from time to time I do, but I leave most of that to the talented Olivier Durand because I love to hear him play on my songs and it gives me a chance to catch my breath while on stage. I met a girl down in the Virgin Island, we lived together for a month, she encouraged me, she was older, we experimented and the only thing I remember is that her last name was Dick (really) … and I wonder where she is now. Stoned nights in the Caribbean, I sat spellbound as San Francisco drug dealers on the run, told of how they got out of Haight Ashbury just in time, before the whole scene melted down in cops and paranoia as mosquitos the size of paper airplanes banged into windows, I met a shell-shocked old Danish WWII war veteran who owned the ancient house and let us all stay there and didn’t care what we did as long as there was no trouble. He smiled when we passed him and we never spoke.
And I never wrote a song about any of these people, at least not yet, because my first album Aquashow, when it finally came out in 1973 was mostly full of songs about growing up on Long Island, Garden City to be exact, my boredom with the suburbs and my dreams of rock stardom. Now, as I look back, I know I was running from my past, and, as they said in The Leopard, I wanted things to stay the same, the same as they were before my father died. And so I had to change. Up until that time everyone called me Jim or Jimmy. My name was Elliott James Murphy Jr. and it was too confusing having two Elliott’s around the house so my parents called me Jimmy, short for James. I l didn’t mind the name Jim, sounded like a Wyoming cowboy, and was glad to have it because I never liked the name Elliott too much, sounded too formal, too stiff. And it was my father’s name before it was mine and when you’re a teenage boy you don’t want so much identification with your dad, do you? You want to do things your way, with a new name even. Then, when I was 16, one night my father died suddenly and my world turned upside down. In fact, I don’t know if it ever turned right side up again. My grief was overwhelming and I turned to the high life to rise above the pain. It was the good moment to do that; seemed in the 60’s everyone was getting high anyway. Then I had a breakdown and got my act together briefly, went to college for a few years, got out of the military draft, didn’t go to Vietnam, kept playing the guitar. But still, after my father’s death New York had become a cemetery for me: my cousin died, then my Uncle …
I wanted out. I came to Europe and I felt relief. I was an orphan there, no family, and no direction home. I began to write songs, “Last of the Rock Stars” seemed prophetic. I returned to New York, the prodigal son, and I reinvented myself. I became Elliott Murphy again, the name I was born with. Jimmy was dead, buried with my father. I took on Manhattan one against eight million; found the Velvet Underground, dreamed of Scott and Zelda, stayed on the outskirts of Andy Warhol’s pop empire. Saw the Mercer Arts Center, then Max’s Kansas City and then CBGB’s invent and present music that would eventually conquer the world. Most of it was talentless and I didn’t know then, that quality was peripheral to the point, not so important really, what mattered was making it new, feeding the machine, marketing to the masses. Ramones t-shirts sold in every corner of the globe. Andy Warhol knew this. I never wanted to believe it.
I was identified with some kind of Urban singer/songwriter East Coast music scene but I wasn’t really part of any of it; I wasn’t punk or new wave, I wasn’t a band from the Jersey Shore, I wasn’t Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen, I wasn’t folk rock or hard rock or country rock or anything they had a name for. I was not a poor boy going to make it big and show the folks back home when he bought the biggest house his parents could never afford. And that was not good. Everyone needs a flag to rally around, a mold to fit into, and I had none. I could have been from anywhere. When my father was alive we lived in the one of the biggest houses in town and now I live in a very old building in Paris where I walk five flights to get to my own funky lovable apartment. And still, I think I’m doing better then my parents because I escaped something which just didn’t move me in the ways I wanted to be moved. I saw the good life when I was a boy and it wasn’t so good. I had it all and I lost it all, so far two times. I’m not sure what round of the fight I’m in now or even who my opponent is. Oh yes, I do know that. Same as its ever been … me.
Way back when, I thought someday I’d write serious fiction, and make that part of rock ‘n roll. I saw modern pop cultures colliding, music and films and poetry and painting – all coming together in a mighty mosaic that would change the world. The cover of Sergeant Pepper come alive, a wonderful night of the living dead. And you know what? I was right. But I didn’t realize that to find the common denominator, to pass under the bar of public recognition, all of that, the music and film and everything else I loved, would go so low that it would become unrecognizable and meaningless. But I stuck to my guns because I’m a fool for love and I loved Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Raymond Chandler and mentioned them in my songs, I didn’t mind being compared to Bob Dylan or Lou Reed, to me it was like a painter being compared to Picasso. I wanted to be part of whatever they were part of.
And in that I was wrong. It was a winner takes all game and I was not the winner, this time around. I lacked the courage of my own convictions, felt embarrassed by the crowd’s adoration, my vanity only went as far as the next mirror I looked into and, above all, I was full of guilt for something I had done although I never figured out what that was. In short, I was no Mick Jagger. But I loved writing songs, rhyming words, finding the right bridge just to detour out of the melody for a moment. And I never stopped playing the guitar because I loved the instrument; I even loved the smell of the plush lining in the guitar case. I remembered the day my father took me to Manny’s Music on East 48th Street in 1965 and bought me a brand new Gretsch Tennessean in a white case with a western motif. It was like getting something holy, otherworldly. I felt I didn’t deserve it. But I did.
When I read about myself in reviews, in bios, on the net, just about anywhere it’s always bittersweet. The critics have been kind to me, that’s for sure, and they continue to talk about me as “the one who got away” and they wonder why I haven’t found a huge audience like the aforementioned Bruce and Billy. And then journalists ask me these same questions and I swear, I still don’t know the answer. I’ve heard it said that if God hates you he grants your deepest wish to come true. I don’t know if there is a God or not but if so I can’t believe he, she, it … whatever, hates me. My deepest wish? Probably to see my father come alive again. And I became Elliott Murphy, same name. Calling Dr. Freud. And once again, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, we beat on, into the past. And that, my friends, is what rock ‘n roll always sounded like to me.
August 24, 2012