Not only have I come to his music 48 years late – and keep in mind that even in March 1973, a month before this was released, I was keenly aware and waiting for the latest sounds, coming home one day that month with that month’s release of Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” – but I have also come to the memoir late. Fortunately, not 48 years late! This brilliant memoir was published in English in May 2019, and in French last November. So I am only a little behind on that! And the way I have started this blog post will make me look quite ignorant to the millions who have known and loved Elliott Murphy’s music for nearly 50 years!
As far as I can see, Elliott Murphy’s memoir, “Just A Story From America” is a self-published – or I should say, independently published – book in English, but with a bona fide French publisher in the translated version. And it also came out in a Spanish translation at a publisher in Spain under the title, “The Last Rock Star.” So maybe the promotion and marketing of the English edition was a little lacking. (Unless I am being arrogant again!) In any case, I have now read this memoir as quickly as I read that memoir of Steve Forbert a few years ago, or Terence Rigby’s memoir (by Juliet Ace) a couple of months ago. Forbert, like Murphy, was another of the many “new Bob Dylans” and Rigby was another “supporting role” kind of artist, which you could almost say in some small way Murphy was too. Someone who was never a household name, but played as well as the big guys, and often WITH the big guys. On the other hand, in fact, no. You can only say that the comparison between the great actor of usually secondary roles, and the great musician who was eclipsed in the fame sweepstakes by friends such as Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Billy Joel, and many more, is a great and real act of his own. End of story. So I am writing this blog post today to say to any of the few readers of this blog who do NOT know Elliott Murphy’s music AND Elliott Murphy’s writing, to please, waste no more of your life’s time and get to know him.
While reading the memoir, I went to YouTube and started my searches for his albums, in order of appearance. There are now some 40 of them, so to listen to all of the Elliott Murphy albums will take me some days. But I was immediately astounded upon hearing his first: Aquashow, released in 1973, by Polydor. Here I was listening to a cross between David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and wait for this, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, all wrapped up into one.
But there’s more, much more: At the same time that I discovered the musician I also suddenly discovered Elliott Murphy the writer and journalist, and there will be many more discoveries yet to come: Elliot Murphy has published in Rolling Stone, Spin, Vanity Fair, among other magazines, and written books in addition to the memoir – novels, short story collections and poetry. As a writer, he has as great a voice as he does as a singer. That voice and the story it tells so beautifully makes this memoir a touching work from beginning to end. Extremely touching. It is the highly personal story of a man who confronted the death of his father when he was 16, when his father was 48, and actually witnessed his father’s fatal heart attack, running off to find a doctor to help – too late – and then having his fairly wealthy, Long Island idyllic life disintegrate around him.
His father was a show business impresario, having created an amusement attraction called Aquashow, with dancing girls and water shows, that was hugely successful; followed by a successful restaurant that hosted stars and the political elite. His mother dined with Eisenhower, met with Elizabeth Taylor, the world of Elliott Murphy Sr., revolved around high style and success. Until the heart attack showed how flimsy the world really is.
For the boy, Elliott, known at the time by his middle name, James – or rather, “Jimmy” – it was, naturally, his whole world that fell apart. As it did for his mother, who at first tried to keep the restaurant going, but it failed eventually. Eventually, she ended up as a salesperson at Tiffany & Co. and stayed there for 20 years.
No wonder Elliott Murphy was angry at life. But it was an anger that he channeled into his touching first album with his new name, his real name: Elliott Murphy. The album being called…Aquashow. Yes, Elliott Murphy’s Aquashow lived on.
Without the backstory, I think that no one could have known where this album came from. Except in the authenticity of the cry of pain.
Watching his life unfold as an artist in this memoir is a lesson in life and career: So much of his life was made by his audacity – and a little arrogance? – as he always went directly to the source of what he hoped would be a launching platform for his career. During a trip through Europe when he was 21, he stopped off at Cinecitta in Rome hoping to finagle his way into acting as an extra in films, arriving decked out in such a way that he thought they would believe his story that he was an actor in cowboy films in the U.S. Fellini took one look at him and offered him a role as an extra – actually something a lot more than that – in his film Roma!
Returning to the U.S., he made a demo with his brother of some of the songs he wrote in Europe, and he headed off to Polydor, knocked on the door, said he wanted his demo listened to, and they were invited up immediately into the office of one of the A&R people who listened to it, liked it, and arranged an audition later in the week with the head of A&R. He liked it and they got a deal! Off the street in a company they knew nothing about, except that James Brown was with Polydor, as was guitarist Roy Buchanan.
This kind of thing is repeated again and again throughout his life and career as he found himself scoring deal after deal, moving from Polydor to RCA – where Paul Rothchild produced the album, “Lost Generation,” in 1975, and where he then recorded his “Night Lights” album – then to Columbia, where he recorded his last album for a major label, “Just a Story From America,” the same title as the memoir.
During this period, he lived a life that he turns into a dream read with fabulous anecdotes about meetings with a seemingly endless string of household names in show business, that includes such a diverse cast as Frank Zappa and Liza Minnelli. Zappa invited him into a studio while he was recording an album, Zappa’s guitar amp was in the studio, but Zappa was seated in the engineering booth with the engineer, and playing his guitar from there that was attached to the amp in the studio! Minnelli he met at a party, and the two were encouraged to sing together…but he knew none of her broadway music show tunes, and she knew no pop, rock, folk, Dylan or otherwise! He met Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was just as arrogant about him as I was (until now), who looked away from him while they shared a stretch limousine, and said: “I hear you’re a has-been.” (He regrets now that he was so pissed off at that that he did not buy any of the drawings Basquiat was selling for only a hundred bucks each. Imagine the value today – that would be a very much “living well” kind of revenge.)
Here we see the life of a rock star up close and personal throughout the 1970s, and then the fairly sudden change for the singer songwriters when punk suddenly took over and made them all irrelevant. (How did Forbert come out and thrive at that moment?!!?)
That period coincides in his life with the moment he goes entirely and almost fatally off the rails. Like so many others – not Zappa – he was taking drugs – mostly cocaine – and alcohol as a daily diet. He was in so deep that he did not even know it. In short, he managed to discover his own problem with the help of a freak moment meeting an attractive woman who had herself been an alcoholic, and who took him to a meeting where he discovered he DID have a problem, and he had an epiphany. He never touched a drop of alcohol or drugs again, some 30 years ago now.
In fact, he had fallen so low that after all these successes in the 1970s, he had ended up moving back to his mother’s place, sleeping on a cot, and then working as a secretary in a law firm just to survive! But he had learned a lesson about life that he would never forget, and soon begin to apply: “Looking back, it’s hard to deny that my daily drinking and regular cocaine use had something to do with my bad decisions; what happens when your lifestyle instead of your work becomes your priority.”
That was it. From then on, his work took precedence over his lifestyle. But his lifestyle also improved. He ended up moving to France in around 1989 – a country where he had had quite a big success that he was not even aware of for years thanks to the record company’s keeping it secret from him – and then he met his future wife – Françoise – and then had a son, Gaspard, in 1990. He has lived here ever since, worked on something similar to Bob Dylan’s “never ending tour,” – not to mention getting invited to play with Bruce Springsteen during his Paris visits on several occasions – and he has expanded that writing career too. With this memoir as the latest result. Go out and get it! I have told only a fraction of the fabulous tales this book contains. It’s a real discovery…of course, as I indicated earlier, I’m probably preaching to the converted and I’m the only idiot out here who didn’t know much about Elliott Murphy until now!