Elliott Murphy: Fleeing the Suburbs

Elliott Murphy's Aquashow

Until his lease on parental security ran out, Elliott Murphy dabbled with guitar and played in a teenage rock band, but he gave little thought to serious musicianship. Today, after several years on the road, and with his interest more sharply focused, he’s almost back to where he started geographically but he’s come a lot way musically—all the way, in fact, to the release of his fine debut album, Aquashow.

The hardest part of Murphy’s trek out of obscurity was making the break with his easy suburban life. “Most middle-class parents,” he says, “have enough money to provide their kids with pretty much anything they want while they’re young. The thing is . . . they can’t really support them for their whole lives. So suddenly, they have to do something. And the kids say, ‘Why should I have to do anything? What should I do?'”

When he himself faced those questions, his answer was to flee the suburbs and backpack through Europe with his bass-playing brother. There, they played cafes, passed the hat, and barely survived. But Murphy became increasingly intense about his music and composed many of the tunes that would later find their way onto his album.

While some of those songs put down the “styleless” suburban culture that he’d left, others express admiration for a flamboyance made possible only by great wealth. On the one hand, there’s “Like a Great Gatsby,” which eulogizes the decadence of Fitzgerald’s era, and “Marilyn,” a bow to film star Monroe. But when Middle America is the subject, Murphy turns to the kind of sarcasm found in his “White Middle Class Blues”: “There’s so much food on the table / You can throw away your vegetables,” he sings. “Ain’t life a blast . . . “

As unenthusiastic about the instant superstars of today as he is about the overabundance that produces them, Murphy treats the big names of the 70s with none of the reverence he accords Fitzgerald and Monroe. His “Last of the Rock Stars,” for example, makes the point that cult figures now grow up overnight and disappear just as quickly. “Andy Warhol believes that in the future, everyone will get a chance to be a star for 15 minutes each,” he says. “That’s what I had in mind.”

On this tune and others, Murphy’s use of a female chorus and his rough-edged New York voice recall Lou Reed. He says, however, that until recently he hadn’t heard any of Reed’s music, except the first Velvet Underground album. “When I was over in Europe, I wasn’t listening to anything,” Murphy explains. “‘Cause when you’re traveling, you can’t carry a phonograph. Then I got back to the States and I was playing San Francisco. And people told me that I sounded something like Lou Reed.”

From Frisco, Murphy’s trail led to Los Angeles, where he attempted a first recording. Unhappy with the initial results, however, he decided “to go back to New York and do the album right.” After only a few gigs in Manhattan, at Mercer Arts Center and Max’s Kansas City, the record companies were bidding. Auditioned by Polydor producer Peter Siegel, Murphy was immediately signed to the label and Aquashow began to take shape.

Though he may well sustain audience interest on his own merits, record buyers might first be attracted to Murphy’s album by its impressive list of sidemen. Dick Wagner, one of Lou Reed’s guitarists, and Maeretha Stewart, who has sung with Dylan and the Stones, are among the backing vocalists. Another luminary, ex-Byrd Gene Parsons, handles the drumming.

How were the musicians chosen? “Peter [Siegel] and I started talking about people that we really liked,” says Murphy. “And it was funny: we agreed on all the same people. I didn’t know Frank Owens’s name, but I said, ‘Whoever played keyboards on [Dylan’s] “Ballad of a Thin Man” has got to be great.’ And Peter got him.”

Striving for a “live” sound, Murphy had at first been apprehensive about being backed up by people he’d never worked with previously. “I was afraid we’d have a studio musician sort of album,” he says. “Too much overdubbing and any music will become lifeless. But we played together a lot before we actually turned on the recorders and the songs got very tight. Then we did most of them in just a few takes.”

With the album completed, Murphy is getting ready for an upcoming U.S. tour “with my brother and some musician friends from my hometown.” And, he says, he’ll play Europe—this time without having to pass the hat—early next year.

Murphy’s base of operations, however, will remain New York because it’s his home turf and he now feels that “the scene” is basically the same everywhere. “You could be in London at the Hard Rock Cafe,” he sings on the album, “but Max’s Kansas City got the same things to say.”

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