By David Iozzia
Elliott Murphy was a New York City-based singer-songwriter in the early to mid-70s. Today, in the spring of 2009, Elliott's career path hasn't changed. His musical travels continue, and he's been based in Paris, France, since 1989.
In addition to singing and songwriting and producing, Elliott is also a journalist and a novelist. A year prior to the release of his 1973 debut album "Aquashow," Elliott's name surfaced when he penned the liner notes for the "Velvet Underground 1969 Live" album. He's affectionately stated that this album "wasn't my first record but it was the first record my name was on." Those liner notes led to a friendship with Velvet Underground's Lou Reed, who was influential in getting Elliott signed to RCA a few years later.
"Aquashow" was a critical success and the record landed on many "best of" lists for the year of 1973. That record included future Elliott Murphy standards like "How's the Family" and "Last of the Rock Stars." As I followed his early musical career from suburban New Jersey, Elliott wasn't the first, and he wouldn't be the last, but it was more than obvious that he would be a rock star.
After being dropped by the major record labels following his fourth album, the Columbia Records release "Just a Story from America," Elliott bounced back with a 1980 independent EP release titled "Affairs." This unheard approach from 1980, where he delivered his records to music stores and radio stations in-person, gives me the privilege of calling Elliott "the world's longest tenured independent musician."
Since then, Elliott's released at least two dozen more records, he wrote a short story collection, "Café Notes," and a handful of novels, including "Cold and Electric" and "Poetic Justice."
Fast forwarding to 2009, Elliott is touring in the United States for the first time in almost a decade to support his outstanding 2008 release, "Notes from the Underground." I was honored when I was given the opportunity to interview Elliott
Dave: Thanks for the interview Elliott. I'm enjoying your 2008 release "Notes from the Underground" every time that I give it a spin. On the song "What's That," you sing your way through the alphabet. The letter "I," to every independent musical artist today, signifies the Internet. It's a tool they can use to market and distribute their music, and to get their music heard. How pro-active are you personally in utilizing the Internet?
Elliott: The Internet has drastically changed my career I'd say; it's drastically changed my contact with my audience. I always used to say that if I could get all of my fans all over the world in one place, that I could sell out Madison Square Garden. That's really what the Internet is for me, it's created one big arena up there in cyberspace. Communication is so much easier. I can make people aware all around the world of when I have an album coming out, or where and when I'm playing. When I did my first independent album called "Affairs" in 1980, it was so difficult to promote. I had to pay for print ads or space in magazines. Radio ads were unthinkable to an indie artist at that time. Fans also have a way of contacting me where hopefully I'll get back to them and answer their questions. Sometimes they're looking for my old records that they cannot find. The Internet leveled the playing field for an artist like me. Nowadays, on a computer, my website is as big as anybody's website. It's like we're all painting the same size picture to fit in the same size frame. The challenge is getting people to visit your website or MySpace and Facebook pages.
Dave: Not only does the Internet help you communicate directly to your fans, it lets fans from all around the world communicate with each other about your career.
Elliott: There are a number of Elliott Murphy chat groups on the Internet that depend on your spoken language. France has a "Night Lights" group, there's one in Spain, and I believe there's still one in Italy. As a musician, I'm taper-friendly and those chat groups are where fans can go to exchange messages about who's taped what show. I'm liberal about that. I let every show be recorded and I'm happy to have a record of it. Sometimes I even let them tape soundchecks. Often I start new songs during soundchecks and then a couple of days later I can't remember it. I'll get in touch with one of my fans to ask if they still have that recording. Letting people record your shows is an artistic tool. I always took rock and roll music as a serious art form and it should be documented. I certainly want every thing I do documented.
Dave: Does the time you spend on a computer interfere with your creative processes of writing and recording music?
Elliott: It could if I don't limit myself and the time that I spend on the computer. My day usually begins on my computer. I'm not much for music in the morning, so most of my mornings until mid-afternoon, are spent on the computer. I can't do everything myself though. I have a wonderful webmaster named Steve Wilkison. He used to have an independent label in Austin, Texas, called Dejadisc that put out a few of my albums and a compilation album of all my stuff from the 80s called "Going Through Something." He was really a pioneer on the computer and with websites. He's a Mac person; he probably bought the first Macintosh computer out of the box. Steve handles all the difficult and technical stuff.
Dave: One of my favorite cuts from your new record is "Frankenstein's Daughter." My kudos go out to your son Gaspard for his guitar playing on that track. Seeing and hearing the musical talents of your offspring, and being able to utilize that talent and document it on your record, must be so rewarding.
Elliott: It is, and it's so easy to do that. Thanks to technology, the cost of recording has come way down. You can still spend a million bucks if you want to do everything a million times. I like to go in, having my songs, and knowing how I want to sing them. Recording is also very portable and transportable. After I did the basic tracks for "Frankenstein's Daughter," I brought them to Gaspard and I told him that I knew he could do something with it. I gave him carte blanche, he stayed up a few nights until five in the morning, and he gave it back to me. All of the guitar playing on that song is his. It's one of the few songs that I don't play any guitar on in my 35-year career. Gaspard also played on a song from my previous record "Coming Home Again" called "Canaries in the Mind." It was a pretty straight-forward rock and blues track. He did a Stevie Ray Vaughn kind of thing that was less of a challenge, but on "Frankenstein's Daughter," he brought a whole new ambiance to that song.
Dave: That song title, and the way you juxtaposed those two words, to me implies anything but beauty. Yet you cleverly wrote and sing about the nightmare of most red-blooded and hot-blooded males: a beautiful girl whose father is a monster.
Elliott: That title was from a long line of Frankenstein's relatives. Maybe Marilyn, the pretty one from The Munsters television show influenced me a little bit, but she was Lily Munster's niece and not Herman Munster's daughter. When I was growing up, there was all of these iconic images of Frankenstein and Dracula. The amazing thing about Frankenstein and Dracula is that the two legendary monster figures were created the same rainy night in a little chateau outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were there and the thought was for everybody to write a monster or horror book. Shelley's future wife Mary, who was his mistress at the time, wrote "Frankenstein." A friend of Lord Byron's, physician John Polidori, was inspired by fragments of a story Lord Byron wrote about vampire legends. He wrote a book, called "The Vampyre," although other vampire books written years later, including Bram Stoker's "Dracula," became more famous. With my song, I tried to carry on a tradition that's worth following.
Dave: Songwriters of the 21st century place a greater emphasis on being politically correct than the songwriters of the 60s and 70s. Is that a trend unique to the American music marketplace, or do you disagree with my statement altogether?
Elliott: I would agree with your statement for the most part. Europe does not have the same tradition of music being the soundtrack to social movements like it was in America for the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Paris, France, in May of 1968, had a student riot that lasted two or three days, and it shook up the whole country. Many of the best-known French rock stars from that time period were on the other side; they weren't for the students. You don't have the same counter-culture in the music here in Europe, except in England and of course in America. The whole concept of singer-songwriter is not as prevalent in Europe. There are more songwriters who write songs for other singers. It's a different approach in Europe.
Dave: Johnny Cash once sang "God Bless Robert E. Lee," and that song title might be seen as politically incorrect today. The confederate general is a hero to many Americans south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Others view the days of the Confederacy as one of darker periods in American history, a period that advocated inequality and bigotry toward African-Americans. Your song "And Robert E. Lee" is a song chock full of heroes and anti-heroes. Why did you choose to reference him, and how are you portraying him?
Elliott: When I was a 10-year-old kid, I was crazy about the Civil War. I was a Civil War buff. I got my family to go down to Gettysburg. Part of my family came from Mississippi. The rest came from the North. I think I had relatives who fought on both sides of the Civil War. I do know a whole lot about Robert E. Lee. I know that he became president of Washington College after the Civil War. It's now called Washington and Lee University. I also know that in 1975, President Gerald Ford finally pardoned him. But in my song, he is just an iconic image of my youth. Lee was quite a tragic figure. He did not believe in slavery, and he did not own any slaves yet he led the southern armies. He was a man who took a wrong turn. My song is a dream song with images of Mighty Mouse and James Cagney. He was my hero. I must have seen "Public Enemy" 100 times. Plus, I write the music to my songs and the lyrics at the same time. Most of my songs are about "me" so that the words and names that rhyme with that come in pretty handy.
Dave: I still think of Elliott Murphy as a New York singer-songwriter who happens to live in Paris, France. Previous record titles like "Never Say Never" and "Coming Home Again," plus your song titles, lyrics, and the different musical paths I'm taken down as I listen to "Notes from the Underground" make me think that you're torn between Europe and the United States. Do you ever consider re-locating back to the United States?
Elliott: I have. I've been in France for 20 years, and it wasn't a decision I made out of any rejection of the United States. My musical career was here in Europe. I had record companies here, and I was touring in Europe all of the time. My career had shifted to Europe so I would have been on a plane crossing the Atlantic Ocean all of the time. I already loved Europe and I still do love Europe. I first came here in 1971 and I was singing on the streets. But I always miss America. My roots are American; my cultural roots are American. I speak French with an American accent! Now with my son Gaspard studying music production in New York, it's given me more of an impetus to move back. The North American tours of 2008 and 2009 are hopefully the first steps toward coming home.
Dave: If it happens, would you return to the East Coast? After all, you once called California your "promised land."
Elliott: When I was growing up in the 60s, everything I loved came from California, from custom cars to Walt Disney to Hollywood to the Beach Boys. I was an East Coast surfer living on Long Island, which meant three months of surfing and nine months of watching surfing movies. I've lived my whole life in cold winter places, either here in Paris or New York. I have this vision of myself under palm trees at some point of my life.
Dave: What factors made you wait almost nine years before touring in the United States?
Elliott: It was not a conscious decision. It was a lack of time to plan things. I do 100 to 150 shows a year in Europe. I'm on the road or in the studio recording all of the time. I have written a few books that have been published in Europe. I never had the time to think about it and say it was time to plan something for America. By sheer happenstance, Anne Leighton, who manages a great young singer-songwriter named Jann Klose, got in touch with me about a year ago. She said she had a vision of the two of us touring together: the new guy on the block and the legend returns. I said it sounded interesting if I could find the time and if she could put it together. We played December 2008 on the East Coast, and it was so gratifying with all of the fans who came out. I hadn't played the East Coast in 10 years. Then, in January 2009, we played on the West Coast. It was even longer since I had played there. Some of my fans are old enough now, either they can take time off from work or they're retired, and they can come out on the road with me for a couple of weeks. Like I said, it wasn't a conscious decision to avoid the United States. I had no time and nobody was knocking on my door. Now, that seems to have turned a page.
Dave: The April 2009 East Coast tourdates were the new guy and the legend, or as your website billed it, "Memory and Desire."
Elliott: Jann Klose has a wonderful voice and I love doing some songs together. He has a wonderful classically trained voice, and he started to sing harmony on some things with me, particularly on "How's The Family" from my first album. That song has some very high notes that I'm not sure I can hit any more. But he can. On the road for these two tours, we haven't had much time to sit down and work together. We started to write a song together, and we've played a couple of things together. I hope that it's just a beginning and we'll do more of that.
Dave: In an era of cost-prohibitive touring, I was surprised to hear that you brought a full band across from Europe.
Elliott: It was a pleasant surprise for me also to bring my band, The Normandy All Stars. Olivier Durand plays guitar, Alan Fatras drums, and Laurent Pardo plays bass. They all come from an area of France near Normandy. Most Americans think of the D-Day invasion when they hear Normandy. I've been up there and it's an awesome sight to see what the soldiers achieved there. My record label wouldn't give me any tour support; it shows how things have changed. They're even bailing out Elliott Murphy here. European countries in general, and the French in particular, spend an enormous amount of their budget on cultural things. In America, it's mostly private funding but over here in Europe it's mostly public funding more than anything else. They view music as a valuable cultural pursuit and they give us a little money to cover our plane tickets.
Dave: One-way or round-trip?
Elliott: (laughing) Round-trip thankfully.
Dave: In 2008, you and your son Gaspard joined Bruce Springsteen on stage in front of 50,000 fans at his concert in Paris, France, to play "Born to Run." Too bad for you, and for me, that Bruce was touring in April and that he couldn't join you and play "Last of the Rock Stars."
Elliott: The last time he joined me in New Jersey, I was playing not too far from Asbury Park. I don't remember exactly where. After all, I'm a Long Island guy. The New Jersey side is like foreign land; I don't really know my way around there so well. It was a night with myself, Marshall Crenshaw, John Eddie, and Greg Kihn. Bruce came to the show and at the end he came up and we did four or five songs together. It was great. Bruce and I are always like ships that pass in the night. Luckily, some of the more recent times that he played in Paris I was there.
Dave: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are renowned for their lengthy concert performances. Is it true that you once played a four-hour and twenty minute set at a concert in Belgium?
Elliott: I did about two or three years ago. I broke a record at the club there.
Dave: That might be a world record, never mind a club record. Who's ever played longer than that? I can't even think of a Grateful Dead show that lasted more than 4 hours and 20 minutes!
Elliott: I believe we played without a break. I didn't plan on it. My normal shows aren't short. Usually, we play a minimum of two hours. The audience kept asking for songs and they wouldn't let me leave. The electrolytes in my brain were just popping and I remembered all of the lyrics! They got me on a good night. My fans, after my family, are my greatest treasure. I have a song called "Put It Down" from an album called "Rainy Season." It has 12 verses and it's 11 minutes long. It was always hard to remember all of the verses. The fans would clamor for it and I joked that they should buy me a teleprompter. One night, they had a huge roll of white paper with two sticks on each end. They twisted their hands to make the words go by me for all 12 verses. They did that on a number of occasions. It was amazing.
Dave: While doing research to prepare questions for this interview, Wikipedia stated that you are planning to release a record called "Elliott Murphy Sings Dylan" later in 2009.
Elliott: I mentioned that once in an interview years ago that I had an idea about doing that type of record. Somebody added it to Wikipedia; it wasn't me. So many people have asked me about it since that I'm getting more attuned to doing it. I have recorded quite a few Bob Dylan songs already, so I could record a few new ones, add in the old ones, and have enough for an album.
Dave: You've already covered Bob Dylan, and you've covered a Bruce Springsteen song, "Better Days," and a Tom Waits song, "Hold On." If they were to return the favor, which of your songs would be a good fit for their musical styles and voices?
Elliott: Tom Waits works well with bizarre images. I had a song called "The Prince of Chaos" that his voice would be great on. Bruce and I first sang together in 1992 in Paris on my song "Rock Ballad." I'd like to hear Bruce sing that one by himself. I think he could do a very soulful rendition of that song. Bob Dylan could sing the phone book and make it sound meaningful. Bob could do a rave up of a song from my first album called "Last of the Rock Stars." There's harmonica in that song also.
Dave: After being dropped from Columbia Records in 1977 following the release of "Just a Story from America," you've released almost 30 records as possibly "the world's longest tenured indie artist." Which of the two words is better fitting: gratification or validation?
Elliott: Validation. There was a time period where, if you didn't have a major record label behind you, then you didn't have a career. When I stopped working with the majors in the late 70s, it was a blow to my ego and a blow to my self-esteem. I'm not sure it should be but it was. Part of me said that I was down, but I couldn't let the labels decide if I was going to have a career or not. I had something to prove. I took the bull by the horns and put out my own record, which was unheard of at the time. It got radio airplay and it sold pretty well. That was like a big screw-you, I'm still here, to those records labels. In that sense, it's definitely validation.
Dave: An "arena-rock" musician who I interviewed recently said that the size of the venues his band played back when insulated him from his fans whereas the smaller clubs he's playing in 2009 provide intimacy with his fanbase. Has the intimacy you've experienced playing clubs ever been problematic?
Elliott: Not really. I have such a loyal fanbase. I see so many of the same faces at so many shows. That establishes the level of intimacy right away. I've played in front of a hundred people, I've played at festivals where there are 10,000 people, and like you said I was on stage with Bruce Springsteen in front of 50,000 people. I think it's more about how the artist feels about his audience and how they feel about him; it's not about the numbers. Intimacy is a big part of the energy formula. That's how it all works. They give me the energy, and I give it right back to them. I need to feel it. It's difficult for me when I can't see the audience. No matter how many there are, or how few there are, if I can't see them it's hard to get the energy I need.
Dave: Is there ever a point where you just want to be alone or you want to hide, and the club doesn't offer you that type of setting?
Elliott: Sometimes. There's a club that I once played in Spain where the building is shaped like a "V" with the stage at the bottom end. I stood in the middle, and the audience was either on my right or on my left. Nobody was in the middle. That was very disconcerting. That was one of the most difficult nights I had.
Dave: You were once quoted that "literature is your religion and rock and roll is your addiction." Do you have any writing projects planned for 2009 and beyond?
Elliott: I'm working on a new book that takes place in New York during the early 80s called "Tramps." I hope to have some time this summer to really get into it and finish it so that I can release it by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
Dave: Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to interview you. Feel free to close the interview with a comment to your fans worldwide.
Elliott: The two words that I say more than anything else are thank you. Each and every night that I'm out there on stage, it's really because of the people in the audience and not because of any big corporation behind me. My fans are my inspiration and my motivation. This rock and roll river that my boat has been floating on for 35 years has brought me to some incredible places, including Paris where I live today. I'm just grateful.