Pretty good with words
To write about Elliott Murphy’s music, you better be pretty good with words (though words won’t save your life, to lift a phrase from John Berryman via the Hold Steady). Why so? Murphy is a thoroughly literary songwriter who wears his influences proudly like a slick leather jacket. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, the Beats, André Breton, Roberto Bolaño, Lou Reed, in fact a multitude of movers and shakers, regularly appear as part of his story or in his songs, and anyone who wants to try to understand Murphy’s broader artistic vision had better know his or her onions.
To almost prove the point, Lost Generation, Elliott Murphy’s 1975 album, opens with some culturally heavy lyrics, sung in a provocative and jaded tone: “I remember when you were on the farm / dreaming about Andy Warhol / getting felt up in the barn / wondering if that’s moral.”
The song (“Hollywood”) goes on to reference Greta Garbo and James Dean in a savage attack on the illusion and artifice provided by cinema. And where was this particular album recorded? Los Angeles of course.
Two years earlier, Murphy’s debut, Aquashow, was released to what in today’s terms would be called a media frenzy of attention. Some call the album a lost classic, although it’s recently been re-released on iTunes. Murphy’s first attempt at Aquashow was scrapped after an aborted session in L.A., but he went bounding back to LaLa land for Lost Generation, which due to previous form must have been a bold move in itself.
Lost Generation is as a result musically informed by the West Coast sunshine. It’s mostly upbeat, and has a more country influence than its predecessor. However Murphy’s appetite for New York cynicism is undiminished, as he searches for answers as to why he’s feeling so let down.
Springsteen and Murphy have been much compared, and with good reason. Both were dubbed “New Dylans” in the ‘70s, they were peers and friends, and they undoubtedly synthesize their heroes. But Springsteen does it mostly through the music itself whereas Murphy addresses what inspires him (or what is the source of his disillusionment) directly in his lyrics. In “Touch of Mercy”, Murphy sings about “thinking about Brian Jones and the final getaway”. and deliberates between being a Hemingway man of action or a more reflective Fitzgerald. The only answer Murphy can come up with is “mercy and a little touch of God”, but a Hammond organ swells in the background as if to say, the only solution is the music itself.
You could say it’s an unacceptable position to point at the comedown, the disparity between real life and the world created by the entertainment industry, while still glamorizing the very people in that world by mythologizing them in a rock song. Is Murphy just a name-dropper? He seems to have considered this himself. Perhaps unexpectedly, the literary Lost Generation itself is not referenced at all in the title track. Instead Murphy’s focuses on every day survival, doctors, police sergeants, Vietnam vets. The girl on the street realizes that “what she’s been seeing in the movies just ain’t the same.” The generation isn’t so much lost as can’t find its place, and God is dead with no divine being to divide the oceans.
The music just about keeps pace with the quality of the lyrics, but it has been said elsewhere that the session players don’t add a huge amount of character. It’s perhaps noticeable only because the ideas are extravagantly rich, from a commentary on how a nation became so enraptured with the cult of personality that it fell into the thrall of Hitler’s fascism (“Ava Braun”) to the corporate cash-cow of the music industry (“Manhattan Rock”). Murphy triumphs more easily in the personal, when describing a doomed romance in “History”. Similarly, “When You Ride” uses Western imagery and a sweeping melody with success to describe a declining relationship.
Lost Generation has been conveniently bundled onto one CD with Murphy’s third album, Night Lights, together labelled The RCA Years, Polydor having been blown (or paid) off by enthusiastic new management. In the sleeve notes Murphy tells how his RCA experience began with a phone call from Lou Reed to his mother, and whilst Reed did not end up producing the album, he did convince Murphy to jump ship from Polydor. The Reed influence is there on record. This is street poetry put to music, helped by the Velvet Underground’s Doug Yule on guitar and producer Steve Katz who also produced Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal.
Night Lights is a purposefully city-orientated album, with what would become fan-favourite songs “Isadora’s Dancers” (complete with a resplendent fourth graders school choir) and “You Never Know What You’re in For”. The very New York “Deco Dance” has some distinctive piano courtesy of Billy Joel, and “Lady Stiletto” is an elegant homage to Patti Smith. There’s a continuity of themes with Lost Generation, both “Lookin’ for a Hero” and “Never As Old As You” are respectively disenchanted railings against barbarism and failed romance. Murphy’s lyrics were tough and aggressive, but with some substance underneath. This was rebellion with a cause.
However Night Lights has a soft side too. “Diamonds By the Yard” is romantic and brooding, and Murphy seems back in his element in the city, as “the sounds of the night” keep him warm. Perhaps there’s a nod of the hat to Lou Reed with what sounds like a heavy bass guitar intro, but in actual fact was Murphy on the pedals of a Hammond C3.
For Murphy’s RCA years, it’s difficult to tell where the truth ends and fiction begins. Murphy makes an album in Hollywood about being seduced by Hollywood, and calls it Lost Generation in honour of his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald. But when Murphy returns to record in New York, the follow-up album is almost certainly better. Murphy’s green light turned out to be neon, and his orgiastic future a thousand miles away from either New York or Los Angeles. Paris was where all the Lost Generation hung out.