Last of the Rock Stars? An Interview With Elliott Murphy

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.
Elliott Murphy
Aquashow Deconstructed
Last Call

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.

On Emulating Fitzgerald

Getting back to Aquashow: your brother, Matthew Murphy, played bass and sang backing vocals on the original, and your son Gaspard Murphy produced, mixed, and arranged Aquashow Deconstructed. But much of rock ‘n’ roll, and a song like “How’s The Family”, is based in rebellion, and does not seem to fit well with a full family life. How have you managed to reconcile this in your own life?

EM: Well, Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks were brothers and often had fights on stage. And what about the Allman Brothers and the Everly Brothers? Just because it’s a family affair does not mean it goes smoothly. To Gaspard, I’m anything but a legend and sometimes his criticism of a song or a vocal can be pretty devastating to me. To this day it’s hard for me to get my brother Matthew to acknowledge my music in anything but the most passing way. I probably ask too much, am too needy for my own good. My wife Françoise is an actress, and she met me before she knew my music, so we’re pretty much like any married couple. Let me tell you, no man is a prophet in his own land, and in his own family it’s even worse!

To be a successful painter you just have to sell each painting to one person, but a successful recording artist has to sell each album to hundreds of thousands of people.

“Like A Great Gatsby” changed its title to “Like A Crystal Microphone” on the US vinyl release of Aquashow What was the story behind the change?

EM: It was just a case of curiosity killed the cat when an over-zealous employee of Polydor, looking for a promotion, sent Aquashow to Paramount Pictures in the hopes of getting some kind of synergy going with Robert Redford’s then current film version of The Great Gatsby. To everyone’s surprise but my own, Paramount’s lawyers responded and threatened a lawsuit if we used that title. So I suggested changing it to “Zelda on My Mind”, but that only seemed to piss them off more. The truth was that Paramount had no case, but Polydor was spooked and for the next printing of the album they changed the name. There are some copies where the name on the record and the name on the sleeve are not the same. But for all the CD reissues “Like a Great Gatsby” came back to its original title. I’m sure F. Scott Fitzgerald would prefer my song to any of the movies made from the novel, don’t you think?

Ha, yes, probably. I really like the cover photo taken for Aquashow Deconstructed. Where was it taken?

EM: Actually it was taken at my haircutters shop here in Paris! I loved the gold chair and the half-moon window and asked Antoine, my coiffeur, if we could shoot there. The original Aquashow cover was taken at the Palm Court in the Plaza Hotel and now I’m in a beauty salon in Paris. There’s got to be some kind of message there. Aren’t haircutters where we kind of deconstruct ourselves in a way? Change our look? Take what’s elemental and reshape it or recolor it? Just like my new record.

Have all the songs from Aquashow been performed live by you over the years? Have you ever performed the album in its entirety in one show?

EM: I’ve performed them all at least once, because some years ago we did an Aquashow night in Barcelona and I played the album in its entirety. Still, there might be a few, like “Don’t Go Away”, that have been fairly ignored these past four decades, while others such as “Last of the Rock Stars” and “White Middle Class Blues” have been evergreens. Now I’m planning some upcoming shows doing Aquashow Deconstructed all the way through as much as possible, but I need strings, strong backing vocals, and a white suit.

It was suggested in the ‘70s as part of a record company promotional campaign that you could be writing books as well as playing music, and you have. But if you were starting out again, would you still choose music over literature as your main career?

EM: Like most performers, I’m a shy extrovert and I like being on stage because I don’t have to deal with people on a one-on-one basis when I’m up there. But writing is another thing, and when I sit with a manuscript all day long, either creating from scratch or editing — which is most of the work of writing — I get stir crazy and I’m too much inside my own head for too long for comfort. The challenge has always been how to harness the tremendous energy of rock ‘n’ roll without going down the slippery slope of drugs, booze, and the finally disappointing path of hedonistic excess. Some, like Bruce, have managed to harness their demons in a pretty healthy way while others, such as Keith Richards, seemed to have survived and prospered in spite of them. Others such as Jimi Hendrix were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If I were starting out again… but wait, with Aquashow Deconstructed isn’t that exactly what I’m doing?

According to John Prine, even Jesus had some “missing years”; was there ever any period in the wilderness for you, when you dropped out and grew a beard?

EM: My years in the wilderness were spent in an entertainment law firm in New York City for two years from 1985 — 1987, where I worked as a legal secretary and contemplated actually becoming a lawyer. I went back to school and got a degree and yet still managed to record during this time (Change Will Come was recorded almost exclusively at night after my law firm work was through for the day) and I even slipped in a few short tours of Europe during vacations. I was discouraged and broke and seemingly invisible to the U.S. music business. RCA paid over $100,000 to buy my contract from Polydor, and then Columbia did the same thing. But when Just A Story From America didn’t break, I was done in their eyes. I wasn’t even 30 years old.

I remember once the famous rock photographer Annie Leibowitz came into the office and I hid under my desk so she wouldn’t see me, I was so ashamed. You know the biggest “American Sin” is not being successful when everyone expects you to be successful, when it looks inevitable. At the time of Aquashow, my rise to fame and riches seemed unstoppable for a brief moment, but then it all stopped, and I was trying to find a way to live with that. I didn’t grow a beard, but I changed my wardrobe considerably and started waking up before noon to get to work. I don’t know if Jesus even went that far.

Some musicians tend to take long breaks in between albums and tours. Have you ever had a year off, or some kind of sabbatical?

EM: Not lately! I would like to take a year off and drive through all those parts of America, especially the South, that I don’t really know, stay in different hotels, and try to pick up a gig here and there. You know my grandfather was from the same town as Elvis — Tupelo, Mississippi — and I’ve never visited that town! But life always gets in the way. Now that my son is out of school, maybe I could consider that. Maybe someone could finance my wanderings out of the kindness of their heart. But my work ethic tells me three things: first, that I should always be writing songs; second, that once those songs are written it’s my responsibility to see that they are recorded in a professional way and released to the public; and, finally, if the songs are written, recorded, and released the obvious last stop is to play them live before an audience. Once I’m out on the road, I start writing more songs.

Having started out on major labels in the ‘70s, and having also worked with independent labels, what do you make of the music industry today, and what’s your view on David Lowery’s ongoing struggle to improve artists’ rights? Do you think the internet has helped or harmed your own career?

EM: The problem with artist’s rights is very simple: music business people are thinking about their business all day long, as well they should be. Artists are supposed to be thinking about creating music all day long, and not their publishing royalties or what the record company is charging them for. So you as an artist hire people to take care of this very complex business for you, and then you have to watch them to make sure they’re not stealing from you.

There was a terrible lesson I had to take away from my early negotiations with record companies and managers: basically, they will take everything you have, completely legally, if you don’t fight them for it. In the ‘70s, I never had a label or manager propose a contract that my lawyer didn’t describe as outrageous and totally one-sided. When the music business started going down some years ago, there was a lot of talk about the huge advances some artists were getting, but no one talked about how the executives themselves had their hand in the honey pot. A&R men went from making a hundred thousand a year to making a million.

I’ve found the world of independent labels more compatible because the guys that start these labels are closer in spirit to the artists they sign. But then they run out of money, or they didn’t have enough in the first place. To be a successful painter you just have to sell each painting to one person, but a successful recording artist has to sell each album to hundreds of thousands of people. I do think the internet has helped my own career greatly because it’s brought all my fans into the same venue, under the same tent so to speak, and I can easily communicate with them. But even with the internet, the music business is still mostly a winner-take-all game.

Your touring schedule seems constantly hectic and wide-ranging. Are there any countries you haven’t visited yet that you’d like to play?

EM: I’m hoping to get to South America next year. My novel “Poetic Justice” was translated into Spanish, and my publisher is active in promoting their books in Argentina, Columbia, Chile, and Mexico. We included an EP of music with the book (called Soundtrack in Search of a Film), so the idea is that I will do a tour promoting myself both as a musician and an author. My wife Françoise visited a fortune teller many years ago who told her she would be living in South America and speaking Spanish someday, so who knows?

Françoise is listed as your stylist in the sleeve notes to Aquashow Deconstructed. Have there ever been any diplomatic incidents between you where you have disagreed about fashion?

EM: Are you kidding? All the time! I use to buy Françoise fine clothes when I was on tour and bring them home expecting her to be thrilled, but I always got the size or style wrong, so now I just bring home the money and let her buy what she wants. There is a practical aspect to what you wear on stage, and sometimes she will suggest outfits that are too restrictive or don’t really work when you’re strumming a guitar. But she’s an actress so she has a good idea of dramaturgy and what attracts a public’s attention.

Your last “new” material was released on two EPs, “Intime” and “Justicia Poetica”. Are there any plans for an album with new Murphy compositions?

EM: Before I was side-tracked with Aquashow Deconstructed, I was making demos of new songs for a new album, I think I’ve got 15 or 20 new songs that I’ll keep working on. I like to keep recording all the time, as if it’s an on-going process. Some people look upon each album as a new novel, but I think they’re more like chapters in a long book that will someday end.

In the Rolling Stone review for Aquashow, Paul Nelson called you a “spiritual descendant” of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and said that you seemed to “want something better, something with the glories of F. Scott and Ernest’s Paris”. Did you ever find the green light?

EM: I suppose I actually did find my green light, or at least I’m aware of that when I’m lucent enough to evaluate my life’s journey on a grand scale and not bitch and moan about what I’m missing today. I’m not rich and far from a household name, but I do live in Paris, a city that still delights me after all these years, with my own Daisy who I came back to claim after being apart from for six years. That’s a long story…

I can see the Eiffel tower sometimes exploding with light, from my terrace, which is not a bad substitute for a Long Island dock’s green light. I’ve outlasted Jim Morrison’s Parisian venture by decades, and once I found my niche in Europe, I stuck with it, and for the most part, made very few artistic compromises that haunt me. Along the way, my ears took a beating and my tinnitus can drive me crazy, but no one gets out of this life unscathed.

Now, with Aquashow Deconstructed, I have proved my hero F. Scott Fitzgerald right again as I emulate the last lines of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. I’ve travelled far, spent the last 25 years of my life in a foreign country, and still, this redoing of my first album may be my most profound musical adventure yet.

Finally, are you still the “Last of the Rock Stars”?

EM: Yes. And Gaspard is “The Son of the Last of the Rock Stars”. Good name for a song, no?

Splash and thumbnail images: press photography of Elliott Murphy from his official website.