Last of the Rock Stars? An Interview With Elliott Murphy

by Charles Pitter

20 March 2015

As Elliot Murphy tells PopMatters, the new reimagining of his 1973 debut Aquashow may be the most profound musical adventure of his 40-plus year career yet.
 
cover art

Elliott Murphy

Aquashow Deconstructed

(Last Call)
US: 9 Mar 2015

Review [20.Mar.2015]

American singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy has recently re-recorded his 1973 critically acclaimed debut album Aquashow as Aquashow Deconstructed, available on Last Call Records. Over the years, he’s released something like 26 studio albums, as well as numerous live records and EPs; he’s also written for Rolling Stone and published a number of books. Murphy has lived in Paris since the early ‘90s and is constantly on tour in Europe and around the world. He regularly appears on Bruce Springsteen’s stage as a guest artist, and in 2012 was awarded the Prestigious Médaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. PopMatters and Murphy got down to business and talked turkey.

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How did you feel re-recording your debut album, 40 years on? Was it difficult to relate to material from your early days, and why did you head back to the start?

Elliott Murphy: I was nervous about what the final sonic results might be, but I was determined once I made up my mind to begin recording to take apart my Mona Lisa and see what lay underneath and paint it again. I’m sure there will be some fans out there who will resent that I messed with the “holy grail”, but others have been asking me for a “new” Aquashow for years, either live, with my current band, or an unplugged version, and I always smiled but resisted.

Then last autumn, there was a certain synchronicity in the air, a zeitgeist, and for no obvious reason I knew the time was right. Gaspard Murphy, my son and producer, was suddenly the same age as I was when I recorded the original Aquashow, 24 years old, and I realized that will only happen once. It’s like an astrological phenomenon that only comes around once a century. This “deconstructed” approach seemed to give the project a legitimacy for both of us. Admittedly, my concept is a bastardized version of Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction in literature, but the idea was to take the songs down to their basics and then rebuild them with age-appropriate arrangements while still respecting the patina of the original.

When you’re in the “land of deconstruction”, it’s like looking at trees with all their leaves blown off and then pasting new ones on from different trees.

Then there’s my voice, which is 40 years older, so the challenge was to make everything work with that and keep it modern. Many of these songs have followed me down the road these past 40 years—I play “Last of the Rock Stars” almost every show—so it wasn’t a case of familiarizing myself with them. In fact, it was the opposite; I first had to take the songs apart, word-by-word, chord-by-chord, and look at them in a new way and hope to find a legitimacy there.

I understand that you recorded Aquashow Deconstructed in France last year and that you played most of the instruments, keeping the same tempos and keys as the original. How long did it take to record, and were there any songs that you struggled with?

EM: Pre-production took a while because that was when the “deconstruction” came into play. But once I knew what I was going to do it was then pretty straightforward. I mean, I knew the words! I think I recorded all my basic tracks in three days, me on guitar or electric piano with the vocal take done right after that. Then Olivier [Durand] came in for a day and sprinkled his guitar magic dust, and finally came the strings and Gaspard’s 21st century sweetening. The album was mixed in four days, which was a Herculean feat on Gaspard’s part, often finishing at eight in the morning, with my son busy at the board while Daddy slept on the leather studio couch.

The song I struggled with most was “Last of the Rock Stars”. I didn’t want to repeat the rhythm of the original, and I wanted there to be a certain bittersweet or melancholy quality to that recording because the original was almost effervescent with my nascent rock hopes and dreams. When a young man sings he’s the last of the rock stars, it takes a certain bravado and hubris, but for a man of 65 to say that, well, it takes irony, regret, and an audible reluctance. Who wants to be the last of anything? It’s a pretty lonely position to find yourself.

You mentioned pre-production; for the less technically minded, what did this involve? Did you listen to the original album again? When you were in “deconstruction” mode, was there anything you had forgotten about any of the songs or discovered about the production first time around?

EM: Pre-production is basically a three-step process of making, working, and refining the rough demos of the songs before you get to the actual recording. First, I usually make some very basic guitar/voice demos (sometimes just on my iPhone) that could still lack a few words or rhymes or even a whole bridge section and then I play those for Gaspard and he tells me whether he likes the song or not, in as kind as way as he can. Then we make real demos in our home studio and finally we dissect those demos, figuring out the final arrangement, and talk through what our approach will be when we get into the studio, what kind of guitar I’ll use, for example.

Nothing is worked out 100 percent in pre-production, but I record on an “independent legend” budget so we have to be pretty efficient when we get into the real studio and the clock is ticking Euros. The pre-production for Aquashow Deconstructed was different from my other albums because we knew from the start what songs we were going to be recording and we already had a rough concept in mind. When you’re in the “land of deconstruction”, it’s like looking at trees with all their leaves blown off and then pasting new ones on from different trees. Oak leaves on palm trees!

I hadn’t examined those Aquashow lyrics this closely in 40 years and sometimes I couldn’t remember how in the world I came up with some of these lines. “Graveyard Scrapbook” was the most mysterious: “Like your notes on napkins and your hooker stroll”. Even I had to congratulate my 24 year-old self for coming up with that.

I listened to the original Aquashow less than you might imagine, just checking for keys and tempos. But we never played them back-to-back. That would be a nice radio show, wouldn’t it?

Absolutely. This is probably a question you get asked a lot, but will the original Aquashow ever be re-released?

EM: Aquashow has been re-released a few times, but always in small quantities which quickly sell out. CDs of those re-releases can be found on eBay for a hundred bucks! I only wish I had a thousand of them to sell myself. When the Uncut review came out, there was talk at Polydor UK to get it out again but nothing came of it. Fortunately, the other three of my “sacred four”—Lost Generation, Night Lights, and Just a Story from America—are all available on CD. I would be thrilled for Polydor to dig deep into their vaults and release a deluxe Aquashow with all those outtakes I’ve forgotten about. Come on guys!

I understand there was a first attempt at Aquashow which was scrapped because you weren’t happy with it. Do you have the tapes of those sessions or are they locked up somewhere by the record company?

EM: Polydor wanted me to work with producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, who had a hit with Louden Wainwright’s “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road”. We did some demos together at Electric Ladyland studios in New York that were great. I thought Thomas was a cool guy and understood what direction I wanted to go, but when I got to LA he seemed to have changed and been taken over by the wave of country rock that was infecting the West Coast at the time. I love country music and I can listen to Ray Price sing “For the Good Times” any day, but I didn’t think of myself as a country-rock artist, and I wasn’t going to turn into one just because I came to LA and everyone was wearing a cowboy hat.

We did one day in the studio and that was it. The musicians were great, but it didn’t sound like me. So I called Polydor and said “bring me home!” Finally Peter Siegel, the head of A&R who had signed me, agreed to produce the album himself at the Record Plant. I only did one day’s worth of recording with Kaye, and I have no idea where those tapes are today. Sadly, he passed away some years ago. He did teach me to acquire a short-lived taste for Kahlua and cream cocktails, which is something like chocolate milk for adults. 

You received a huge amount of headline press for Aquashow. How did this affect you?

EM: It turned me into a drug addict and a sex maniac of course! Isn’t that what sudden rock stardom is designed to do? Seriously, all of that international media attention made me both confident and anxious: an egomaniac with an insecurity complex.

I suspected I had done something that merited attention when I wrote and recorded those ten songs, but I had no idea that the world would pick up on it as it did. The first wave of reaction was among the music intelligentsia of the time, the rock press of course, and as I was someone who read and admired rock critics such as Paul Nelson, Dave Marsh, and Robert Christgau and took their opinions very seriously, their unanimous stamp of approval was a huge validation for me. They were the ones, through their glowing reviews, who convinced my record company to finally start a real promotional campaign around the album with posters all over the NY subways. You see, I was not an important signing to Polydor; they were putting most of their energy into James Brown, and I only had Peter Siegel, the head of A&R, and his then wife Shelly Snow (who also worked at Polydor) believing in me. The hardest thing was finding a manager who would take all this excitement and transmute it into a career.

I never found my own Jon Landau, and I’m still looking.

You were cited as “the best Dylan since 1968” by Paul Nelson in Rolling Stone, and this transformed into being heralded as one of “the New Dylans” (along with Bruce Springsteen, Loudon Wainwright and John Prine). Do you think this tag helped your career at the beginning, or was it a burden in any way?

EM: It was a tremendous help in getting the general public to pay attention and I had quite a bit of TV coverage, but at radio level it was a hindrance because those guys were pretty jaded and just inundated with hype on a daily level. Their attitude was kind of, “The new Dylan? I’ve heard that before.” With a few notable exceptions, it was always a struggle to get FM radio to play “Last of the Rock Stars” or “How’s the Family”, the two singles from the album. The words were too serious or too difficult or too obscure. If you look back at the charts in 1974 you will see what I was up against. Not a pretty picture. But I must say, in defense of all the members of the “New Boys on the Bob Block” club, we all seem to keep working year after year. So I’d say rather than a burden, it was the guarantee of lifetime employment! 

Speaking of New Jersey’s favorite son, what do you consider his last great album, and do you think you would have coped with his level of success?

EM: I always say that if I had become as successful as Bruce Springsteen it probably would have killed me, and if he had not become that successful it would have killed him. Don’t ask me to be Bruce’s critic because I’m prejudiced; I love the guy and his music, and I think he deserves all the fame and riches that have rained down on his sweet head. Of his later albums, Devils and Dust resonates very strongly with me both lyrically and spiritually, and the solo tour that followed it was awe-inspiring. The only thing I can say in comparing the two of us, and I say this with a very wide wry and ironic smile, is that my first album was better than his first album. So there!

You’ve also been associated with Lou Reed. How did you meet him, and was he a tough cookie?

EM: As the ancient Greeks use to say, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum—“of the dead nothing unless good”. So when I talk about the great Lou Reed, whose contributions to rock ‘n’ roll were enormous and often ignored, I try to keep that in mind.

Sometimes Lou was very supportive and other times he was, let’s say, distant. I met Lou when I wrote the liner notes for the Velvet Underground’s album 1969 Live. He telephoned my mother looking for me, to thank me. She told him that I would be very happy to hear he called and when Lou asked why, she said, “Because he’s a great admirer of yours,” to which Lou responded, “Isn’t everybody?” At least that’s how my 88-year-old mother remembers it.

Lou really seemed to appreciate Aquashow and to see me as a kindred spirit for a while. He went out of his way to say nice things in the press about the album, and came to my early shows at Max’s Kansas City. Once we got to be friends and were hanging out, he insisted I leave Polydor and go to RCA Records where he was signed, and introduced me to Dennis Katz, his manager at the time. The plan was for Lou to produce my first RCA album, but that never happened obviously and I think he resented me for that. Many years later he called me in Paris and we crossed the Pont Neuf over the Seine and someone mistook him for a priest and Lou got pissed off. I’ll never forget that.

He also told me never to read my good reviews. That advice, I didn’t follow.

Last year Nils Lofgren put out a mammoth career-spanning box set (with some songs co-written with Reed). Is a box set something you would ever consider?

EM: I would love to do exactly that, but it seems like too big a task for me to take on by myself—something like king Sisyphus [in Greek mythology, a king who was punished by having to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill]. But maybe somehow I can try to get things moving in that direction now that three of my first four albums are all under the Sony corporate umbrella. I own all my other recordings apart from that. What I really need is for someone to give me a million dollars—okay, half a million—and say “go ahead” and really do everything that needs to be done to find old tapes and videos and get everything mastered into shape. It’s a dream I have that probably will never come true.

I’ve had a few retrospective collections released over the years—Diamonds by the Yard (Razor and Tie), Paris/New York (Last Call) and Going Through Something (Dejadisc)—but a really fully researched and annotated boxed set would be a lovely way to go out through the big door, so to speak. The question is whether I have enough fans to justify such a project and investment. Or maybe that shouldn’t even matter.

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