To begin at the end of Elliott Murphy’s memoir Just A Story From America, Murphy and his pal Bruce Springsteen are riding bikes to Springsteen’s hometown at the height of Born in the USA mania, and Springsteen asks Murphy what he would want if he could have anything in the world. Murphy suggests a hit record. Springsteen wisely responds that a hit record is something great, “but it’s not everything”. Murphy tells us that now the answer would be to see his father again.
Murphy’s lost father and Bruce Springsteen are two of the notable individuals that bring this distinctive memoir to life. As we know, there have been many, many volumes of rock and roll biography and autobiography published over the past few years (including Springsteen’s own Born to Run), but Just A Story From America is one of the few which delivers what many readers may be hoping for in a music book: some inside stories on “rock stars” (although Murphy suggests in the book this is now an anachronistic term) and the music industry.
Murphy’s first review in Rolling Stone magazine (by Paul Nelson) for his 1973 debut Aquashow appeared alongside Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and suggested Murphy was a spiritual descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that Murphy’s work would be with us as long as we have rock and roll. Murphy’s press proclaimed him as the bard of suburbia, and a “new Dylan” along with Springsteen, John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III. Murphy’s reputation as a literary songwriter has stayed with him throughout his career, as has his pre-occupation with literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is reflected in this well-written memoir, with the ghost of Fitzgerald never seeming far away; Murphy references his own “crack up”, the world of East Egg, and at one point suggests that he and his first wife took Scott and Zelda too seriously as role models for their shaky marriage.
The memoir provides some insight into Murphy’s song-writing process by focussing on the detail: ”Diamonds by the Yard” is inspired by seeing a New Yorker ad for a new Tiffany & Co diamond strung necklace; Murphy recounts a failed attempt at writing with Chrissie Hynde, despite Murphy’s suggestion of writing around the Bardot focussed title of “And God Created Women”. He tells us that the composition of “Rock Ballad” was like “automatic writing” because the story was so clear in his head; when it came to the chorus Murphy settled on a purposefully “generic” theme, as a homage to all the slow songs that moved him.
But what of bad behaviour, throwing televisions through windows and rock and roll excess? Isn’t this what the reader truly wants more than anything else? John Tottenham has commented in the Los Angeles Review of Books (“Heroin Heroism, on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor Narrative”) that “[T]he fawning journo can take just as much credit for glamorizing decadence as the musician-author. These wide-eyed chroniclers, accustomed to treading tentatively on the wild sidelines, gape in awe at the fearless chemical exploits of their musical idols and eagerly promote their tales of degradation.”
As may be expected from a musician with Gatsby on his mind and his own green light at the end of the dock, Just A Story From America contains some decadence but fortunately little degradation; on the whole, at least by his own telling of the story, Murphy seems to have avoided the tantrums and traumas and, perhaps regrettably for a more salacious reader, comes across as a reasonable human being. However that is not to say Murphy did not struggle with some issues in the ‘70s. He describes his cocaine use with some poignancy; making night runs to Marina del Ray around the recording of Lost Generation, with a line or two of cocaine making Los Angeles “even more fabulous”. However with the help of his second wife Rita, Murphy gave up drugs and alcohol in and for album, Milwaukee.
Murphy’s music career has longevity, and he makes good various debts of honour through this memoir; rock historians would be well served by a “Murphyland” rock family tree, because Murphy has worked with many of the greats. Murphy describes his creative holy trinity as “the Bob Dylan of Blonde on Blonde, the Lou Reed of Loaded, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald of anything he ever wrote”, but readers may still be surprised by his significant connection with Lou Reed.
Even before Aquashow was released, Murphy had written liner notes for the Velvet Underground’s Live 1969. Murphy was one of the few to spend time with Lou and Rachel listening to the early stages of Metal Machine Music. Reed bought Murphy to the attention of RCA for Murphy’s second album, which Reed considered producing; in preparation Reed, probably with the aid of some special “medication”, blitzed though all night work sessions with Murphy lagging behind, only for the project to be derailed by nefarious circumstances. As well, the book details a comic encounter between Murphy’s mother and Reed on the telephone, and the story of Lou being mistaken for a priest in Paris.
It would be fair to say Murphy was often in the right place at the right time to observe rock history unfolding in front of him. He toured with the Kinks to promote his debut Aquashow (Murphy nearly signed with Ray Davies’ label, Konk Records). Pre-production for Lost Generation took place at Laurel Canyon in the mid-70s with Frank Zappa, the Eagles and Bobby Neuwirth in the immediate vicinity. Murphy visits David Bowie at Electric Lady Studios to listen to the forthcoming David Live and discuss whether Bowie is to produce Murphy’s next album (unfortunately Bowie was too busy at the time). Murphy recalls his friendship with Billy Joel; hearing him sing the intro to a then unreleased song, “New York State of Mind”, and Joel laying down a “perfect, one take no sweat session” for “Deco Dance” (on Murphy’s album Night Lights). When the art rock group the Modern Lovers disband, bassist Ernie Brooks and future Talking Heads keyboard player Jerry Harrison are recruited for Night Lights. Phil Collins cracks Murphy up recording together on Just A Story From America as “one of the funniest musicians I ever worked with”. Murphy hears an undiscovered Shawn Colvin sing in a Tex-Mex restaurant and later asks her for backing vocals on Change Will Come.
On the face of it, references to these illustrious individuals may sound like name dropping, but in context much of Murphy’s life has been spent amongst the talented and (in)famous. In the ‘70s Murphy was a major label major deal, with the promotional campaign for Murphy’s debut proclaiming that “Elliott Murphy is going to be a monster” (as in monster hit, as opposed to monster diva) in an attempt to outrun the wave of attention the album had received on its’ own. Murphy views his brush with celebrity with wry amusement and sometimes amazement, recalling how as a nascent recording artist he stumbled into Bob Dylan, Jack Nicholson and Joni Mitchell on the Sunset Strip. Later on in the book he wonders how he became a semi-regular at Studio 54, the mother of all discos. Encounters with John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Hunter S Thompson fill the pages. He is insulted by Basquiat but photographed by David Bailey.
As one would hope, Murphy’s memoir lets the reader some way into his personal life. His childhood was memorable, growing up around this father’s waterpark attraction “Aquashow”, where legendary orchestra leaders such as Duke Ellington and Cab Callaway performed, and at his father’s Sky Club restaurant, where Bobby Kennedy received a striptease, and a place, to use a Sinatra phrase, “the elite meet to eat”. We learn how the dramatic death of Murphy’s father affected him and his family and how he escaped being drafted to Vietnam.
The serious is often mixed with the comic; on a trip to Italy, the young Murphy turns out to be a terrible DJ, wanting to musically educate a disco’s patrons but managing to clear the dance floor. Later in his career Murphy is told the secret to music industry success by Roger Taylor, the Queen drummer: two successive hit albums are required to make any money, with the first hit album funding the artist to free themselves from all the bad contracts the artist was obliged to enter into to have the hit in the first place. There are also some entertaining foot notes: for example, in reference to being invited to the home of businessman Huntington Hartford, we are advised that playing “double up” is not swapping sexual partners, but a game of double-sized table tennis or ping-pong.
Just A Story From America focusses mostly on Murphy’s early years and up to 1990 album 12. It is truly a memoir, in the sense that it interweaves Murphy’s Proustian recollections, not always in chronological order. This makes the book an easy read due to its’ informality, with Murphy escaping the despotic rigours of any particular structure. He effortlessly takes us from the highs of cocaine and valium in a white stretch limo to the “lost years” of working as a legal secretary and an office job at the Chelsea Hotel. He quietly admits that he was never a “real bohemian”, “never attracted to a marginal existence, never seeing the allure in it nor the necessity of being a starving artist in order to create great works of art”, and directly addresses his status as a “cult” artist by suggesting America does not always know how to celebrate less mainstream acts.
Malcolm McClaren suggested Murphy move to Paris after his 1982 show at Le Palace, as the only place for a poet and Murphy describes his final arrival with some élan: on his first morning there he wakes up and it is Bastille Day with the blue, red and white smoke trail of the French military jets in the sky above him. Murphy goes on to find a trusted sidekick guitarist, Olivier Durand; his personal life is renewed with a wife and son, and his music career is reinvigorated in Europe.
In retrospect moving to Paris seems like an obvious move or easy fit. As Clive James has said, Paris is “a natural home for gifted people fleeing from repression, incomprehension or just bad cooking”. Moreover, there is a sense that Murphy was following a great American tradition. Paris was a temporary home for F. Scott’s Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the 1920s as well as other American (Murphy) expatriates; Gerald and Sara Murphy, blazoned a trail for the Lost Generation on the French Riviera. In any event Elliott Murphy’s move to Paris turned out to be a continuation of a colourful and indeed somewhat fabulous life. It may be that Paris suited him not just because of his poetic nature, but because his intellectual approach to rock and roll easily assimilates into a discursive French culture. Murphy’s successful European years are only briefly touched upon here, but his two French medals for services to culture indicate his level of artistic success in these subsequent years. The story from America became “travel on a Euro train, and Eiffel Tower blue”; hopefully this may be documented in time to come.
Just A Story From America is available in paperback (in English); there is also a French translation by Belkacem Bahlouli (Editions du Layeur), the editor in chief of the French edition of Rolling Stone, with additional input from Murphy’s wife, Françoise Viallon, so that the “Murphyisms” of the text make sense in French. Finally there is also an audiobook, read by Murphy himself in his inimitable American voice.
Publisher: Murphyland Books
Publication Date: 18 MAY 2019