When you're a rebellious, torn-jeans-and-Chuck Taylor-clad teen, the suburbs are about as exciting as getting the Jim Nabors Boxset for Christmas.
I certainly felt that way about the tame town where I grew up. The sort of place, where, if a teacher grew a beard over the summer, rumors flew that he'd become a communist. I wanted to be from some dirty, dangerous place. A city. If I couldn't be Bruce Springsteen, I'd settle for Satch of The Bowery Boys. I told myself I must have been adopted and acted out in such outre ways (drugs, long hair, leaving the toilet seat up), that my parents probably started to ponder that adoption theory, too and wondered if I came with a return policy.
Then I discovered Elliott Murphy. And like that, my world suddenly made sense.
Murphy, you see, whose debut album, Aquashow, had just dropped, wasn't just from the suburbs. He actually wrote rock 'n' roll songs about them. Back then, this just wasn't done. It would've been the equivalent of glowering, perpetually sunglassed Bob Dylan suddenly speaking Yiddish.
Murphy was the first bonafide rocker ever to declare, in song and conversation, that he'd grown up in that most reviled area of real estate, the 'burbs. He sang songs about split-level houses, kids having anxiety attacks in doctors' offices, about eating so much butter at dinner that blood stopped coursing through your veins. I listened to the album constantly and, soon enough, it made the suburbs seem strangely cool — not just a place where people went to bed early and turned their lights off by clapping their hands.
A couple more superb albums followed. But despite great reviews, Murphy's catalog actually started to resemble the Clapper. Lots of early excitement then, it seemed, people took him for granted, the novelty wore off, sales slowed. There were sightings. One night, I saw him play a riveting set at a packed Bottom Line. Another time, a great gig in front of a more, uh, selective, audience at a club called Tramps.
And, one afternoon in New York City, while walking through The Village, I heard a familiar booming laugh, coming from the opposing sidewalk. Looking for its source, I saw Elliott Murphy, my suburban rock hero, actually existing in the real world.
It was so unexpected and electrifying, it was the equivalent of a movie geek spotting Greta Garbo. I nearly had an anxiety attack. All I could think, in bold caps, was, "Oh my God, it's Elliott Murphy!" My second, considerably less compelling thought was, "Hey, he's walking with Bruce Springsteen." I was lucky. This was 1984. And most people who had those kind of priorities, could easily have been taken off to Bellevue for three days Of evaluation.
You grow up. You're not supposed to have heroes after a certain age. Or, they're supposed to be ordinary, decent human beings. And, if you can't find any, then, Warren Buffet. But I was still a rock fan and writing about it.
One day, a large metropolitan newspaper asked me if I had any ideas for stories. I told them Elliott Murphy had a new album out and was going to be in New York. This was after flaming out in the States, decamping to Paris and becoming as big in Europe as David Hasselhoff, except, you know, good.
They didn't quite know the name. But, I promised, afterwards, to do a piece on somebody they did know. Like David Hasselhoff. Then, I made a date in December, to have coffee with Elliott Murphy, my high school hero.
He was already in Starbucks when I got there. He was looking as trim and unchanged as one could after the passage of 32 years. Murphy wore a black leather jacket and a gypsy scarf around his head. But he seemed as anomalous, as out of place in that colorless coffee house, as Garbo eating a Whopper Junior in Burger King.
Approaching his table, I felt an epic attack of flop sweat about to engulf me. All my high school memories started swirling in my head, like a film montage. Smoking pot in my room, while Murphy's "Last Of The Rock Stars" played. Smoking pot in Jeff's room, listening to "Hometown." Kissing Jennifer, who I had chased for four-and-a-half years, under a full moon, on a freezing January night, thinking about Gatsby, who, like me, had finally caught up with Daisy, but just a little too late, with Murphy's song about Fitzgerald's millionaire playing in my head during that endless first kiss.
I paused, cleared my head and introduced myself. I was as nervous as anyone would be when meeting one of the artists that helped them draw the outlines of their lives.
I needn't have been. Friendly, both cool and warm, eager to talk about guitars, books, his career, Murphy felt more like long lost friend, than high school idol. I asked him, of course, what brought him to France and how, without an army, he'd managed to conquer most of Europe.
"About 1980, after I'd lost my major label deal, I put out my own EP (Affairs), which did really well," said Murphy, drinking some sort of overly-foamy coffee. "My brother and I took the record to all these stores in Manhattan ourselves. In one, the manager recognized me as the guy on the cover. He asked what I was doing bringing my own record all over. I told him, just cutting out the middleman."
The disc sold well. Regardless, by the late '80s, Murphy was without a deal, basically broke and "The New Dylan," was sleeping on his old mother's couch. After some gigs, Murphy was understandably living in a minor key. He was supposed to be the "Next Big Noisy Thing." But life had grown considerably still.
Then came that overseas call. A promoter in Paris tracked Murphy down, said he had fistfuls of fans in France and would he like to come over and play some gigs. And just like that, this rockin', literate songwriter decided to join other famous expatriates, like F. Scott, and play to his foreign fans.
He thought it would be a nice diversion. Instead, he arrived to a hero's welcome and didn't come home again except to visit.
Sitting in Stabucks, we didn't merely have a great time; talking about records, amps, his friendship with Bruce. Elliott also silently imparted to me, that frosty day, what you do when instead of becoming a superstar you settle for being extremely successful and more serious than ever about your craft.
As humbly as possible, Murphy also described a life richer, stranger and more romantic than he could have had, if he'd stayed in America and done nothing but play the Enormodome.
"I do about 100 gigs a year now," he said, with a Cheshire Cat grin. "I've published a couple of novels. I got married and had a son (Gaspard, who is now Murphy's producer) and my experience in New York really helped me to do pretty much all of it myself. I was one of the first DIY guys! Anyway, the new album is a blues record (Murphy Gets Muddy). I was casting about for ideas when my wife said, 'Wasn't Brian Jones your man when you were growing up. In a way, due to your roots and your longevity, you're really sort of a bluesman, too. Why not do a blues album?'"
He did. Since that time he's released about five more albums including Notes From Underground, which not only made my Top Ten List that year, but wasn't just a watered-down version of the guy's debut; it was easily its equal.
The list of people who came up in the '70s and are making music as strong as when they started, is shorter than that of moderate Republicans. Murphy's on that list. He's also touring the States again, writing ridiculously entertaining reflections on his website (elliottmurphy.com) and, maybe, more importantly, being a good role model, for those of us who hope to be called "artists" someday.
I don't mean simply because he's clean and sober, although he is. It's more what he does when he's not drinking coffee with me, which is often. He's honing his craft. He's writing about the age he is now, what he's learned, how he fucked up, how he fixed what he fucked up. And he's doing it with greater and greater aplomb.
Only Ian Hunter, Ray Davies, David Johansen and Elliott's longtime pal, Bruce, are still treating this art form as something you can acually get better at. At least until your brain gets mushy and the need for Depends descends.
We finished our coffee and walked outside. Elliott promised to stay in touch, which he has. I have this singular image of him in my head from a couple years ago, sitting opposite me, in my friend's recording studio in Mamaroneck, N.Y. I'm playing blues licks on Elliott's guitar. We are talking about George Bush.
Although it escapes me at the time, the irony is as thick and resonant as the power chord I suddenly hit. We are, Elliott and I, back in the heart of the suburbs — our spiritual home; the place I finally could cop to having come from, mostly because Murphy did it first. It's also the place we vowed to leave.
When I was young, I thought that meant just physically, but things turned out differently. Our bodies were still there, but our spirits had been to some wonderfully-strange and dangerous places. And, forget the art for a second or where our corporeal bodies were, we had both, in separate ways, achieved our great escape acts.
And, to this day? I've never stopped marveling about it.
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