Elliott Murphy: The Middle Kingdom

Elliott Murphy’s poetry collection “The Middle Kingdom & 50 other poems” was published in 2017. In its’ preface, Murphy writes that Lou Reed once told him that he wanted to write a poem with just three words, “brush my teeth”, because Reed thought this could be the perfect poem. Uncle Lou often aimed for simplicity and directness, and as Andrew Epstein has commented for the Poetry Foundation (“’I’ll Be Your Mirror’: Lou Reed and the New York School of Poetry”), Reed’s body of work represents a “crucial but overlooked instance of poetry’s rich back-and-forth dialogue with popular culture”. A similar statement can be made about Murphy; his song lyrics are often described as “poetic”, and Reed and Murphy share a literary rock and roll sensibility.

Murphy asks in the preface to the collection – “who reads poetry these days anyway? We find our rhymes and stanzas in song lyrics and advertising stanzas.” Although some assert otherwise, song lyrics are not poetry and poetry are not song lyrics, but there have been many attempts to “cross-over”. Both Reed and Murphy’s lyrics have been printed as standalone collections on the basis they were worthy of attention without the accompanying music, and both musicians have had poetry published; some of Reed’s early poems were collected posthumously as “Do Angels Need Haircuts?” in 2018 with a recorded reading from 1971, and as well as “The Middle Kingdom & 50 other poems”, Murphy has published “Forty Poems in Forty Nights” (2016).

The idea for The Middle Kingdom, with “words by Murphy and music by Olivier Durand”, was conceived during Covid 19 lockdown when it was difficult for Murphy and Durand, two long term musical collaborators, to perform or record together with both of them in different locations (Paris and Le Havre respectively). Durand chose eighteen poems from “The Middle Kingdom & 50 other poems”, with Murphy then providing spoken word vocals to Durand for him to compose and record accompanying musical themes in his home studio. After contributing his own musical ideas to the title cut, producer and prodigal son Gaspard Murphy mixed the final album in Paris.

Appropriately one of the highlights of the album is the Lou Reed-inspired, “Last Night I Dreamed About Lou“; Durand uses a heavy “Sweet Jane” riff to back up Murphy’s fantastical dream about Reed, with Murphy capturing him in detail, with his “waist length leather jacket” and “all-knowing smile”.

Murphy also turns his eye to an equally controversial character, the famous French actor Gerald Depardieu in “Like Gerard Depardieu Do“; it captures a bon vivant who doesn’t “give a damn what these good times cost”. Murphy draws on his own American pronunciation to make a pun on “do” and the “dieu” of Depardieu, so that with its’ authentic Frenchy accordion backing, it creates an evocative (American) snapshot of a big personality.

Another well known character making an appearance is Prince, the artist formerly known as Prince, or the squiggle (which cannot be replicated here). Murphy’s invocation, “On the death of Prince”, is particularly striking for its’ portrait of a super talented musician, who “played electric guitar so effortlessly/it was hard to believe/he could be that good”, but died leaving “two vaults full of unreleased music/but no wife, no kids, no parents”. Murphy admits he found Prince’s “mascaraed salaciousness/his bare chested lascivious come-on/so corny”, but clearly identifies with the Purple one’s battle against “the ever-changing presidents of his record company…the suits weren’t invited to orgy”. Durand commits to a gnarly Prince-like guitar solo to drive the point home.

Murphy has a deep, warm American voice on The Middle Kingdom reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s recordings with pianist Steve Allen, and some of the poems are Kerouac flavoured, particularly “Forgotten Already“ with its scribbling pen, and “Do Angels Wear Shoes?“ which asks in Kerouac-ian way, “Do the streets get cold in heaven at night?”

The title track, a seven page epic as a poem and over nine minutes long here, may initially present itself as a third party narrative but is more of a Kerouac confessional with a “sad post-nuclear family”, which then heads into a story of doom and panic as if an Edgar Allan Poe story. Murphy fans will be aware of his long form story-telling in song through “Put it Down” (on 2014’s Rainy Season), and “The Middle Kingdom” takes a similar shaggy dog approach, which despite the title has nothing to do with any Tolkien style adventures.

Durand’s backing adds a great deal through different techniques. For some poems he matches the subject with appropriate music: “A Worried Man“ and “Blues Progression” (the latter with spooky background vocals by Durand) use blues themes, and the beat of “Tapping” described in the poem is cleverly paired with Durand’s musical accompaniment. Durand also plays at opposites to provide contrast. He puts the downbeat ideas of “300 Words“ to an upbeat, funky stroll. For the circular, numerical structure of “Grandpa Murphy On 10th Street“, he creates a moody, Western theme, so that family immigration from Hull, a northern British city which Murphy imagines “quite dull”, is in sharp contrast to the American voice and music (as an aside, Hull was the home of British poet Philip Larkin, who complained the city was a fish-smelling dump, a hole with “witless, crapulous people”, so perhaps Murphy’s imagination is not far off the mark).

Another method Durand uses is to focus on the rhythm of the poem. On “A Poem A Day“, the driving guitar circles around Murphy’s words, and on “Nasty Wife” the playful riff brings out the underlying comedy of the poem. Durand also uses some imagination: he plays a detective-type theme on “Chagall“, making us wonder more about the subject (the Cubist artist, Marc Chagall). For “Freedom Of Line/Spontaneous Light“, he uses light guitar figures to put the poem in its’ location – on Barceloneta Beach with Picasso. On “Uninspired And That’s Ok“, the snappy lines are set to a quirky, Seinfeld-type theme with idiosyncratic backing vocals as the poet is “staring at a screen” in repetitious boredom.

Much of this interpretative work may now be second nature to Durand, who has been working with Murphy for twenty seven years. Durand is a virtuoso guitarist, but in some ways Murphy and Durand are an unlikely pairing from different generations and backgrounds. However their partnership is undoubtedly successful both from a practical perspective (touring as a duo – Durand serves as a lively onstage foil, with an almost telepathic anticipation of Murphy’s next moves) and in an artistic sense (with some co-writes). On this release Durand has really pulled it out of the bag, and together alone Murphy and Durand have hit a creative jackpot.

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Label: Murphyland
Release Date: 18 OCT 2020

 

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