Elliott Murphy was one of my musical heroes in the 70’s. After his first two albums he was going to be the next big thing, the new Bob Dylan, a rival with Bruce Springsteen to be the one who’d bring poetry and rock and roll to the top 40 and stadium shows. About five years ago I saw him in a bar in Somerville. He lives now in Paris and was doing a short US tour behind a strong new album and a couple of reissues. He usually plays solo or with one other guy but tonight he had a full band. There were maybe eight of us in the audience. “I told myself when I was starting out,” Elliott began,” that as long as there were more people in the audience than on stage, the show would go on.” He squinted out into the mostly-empty room. “But you know, I feel like playing, so maybe we’ll grade this one on a curve.”
He proceeded to do a great hour and fifteen minute show, sang the old favorites and the better of the new songs, never for a second giving the impression he resented us, the people who’d shown up, on behalf of everyone who hadn’t. (I’ve been to lots of shows by other never-quite-made-it heroes from the 70’s where that was the case.) He even came out for an encore.
So that’s a story about staying true to your early ideals, and here’s a song about reinvention. It starts with a quiet guitar strum. The voice enters, almost mid-sentence: spoken, not sung. The guitar continues to play in the background. Perhaps we’re in a bar, sitting next to an immaculately-dressed guy, handsome, the kind of person who exudes power and confidence. He’s alone, we’re alone, he starts chatting. First, a philosophical observation about how he doesn’t love this place where he lives, but he’s grown used to it, and misses it when he’s away. That passionless endorsement of his current life starts him talking about his childhood, about driving around the Bowery with his father, a small-time appliance salesman who wore a hat with a puff of feathers and talked with his hands in his pockets, jangling change.
We wait for the punchline: for someone this accomplished, this powerful, the past is always a punchline, right? Useful only in so far as it measures the distance he’s come. Plus, we’re in a bar, here to have fun, keep it casual. But instead he burrows more deeply into the memories of his father. The guitar gets louder: it’s the sound of the bar filling, offering a million distractions. He stumbles onto a memory of being in a car with his father on Elvis Presley’s birthday, listening to an Elvis song, one of those perfect bubble-moments of warmth and safety even terrible childhoods provide. “My father liked Elvis,” he tells us, “and it was wonderful.”
There’s such sadness in his voice, and suddenly he’s an Elvis figure, someone who got what he wanted and lost what he had. He’s a Gatsby figure, someone with all the trappings of a perfect life who knows he’s left something important behind. He could be Gatsby himself, thinking of the failed farmer father who’ll show up at his funeral with proud stories of his son’s self-improvement regimen, the father he loves and misses but his current life can’t accommodate.
Back in bar, we’ve moved on, uncomfortable, but this guy keeps talking, to himself now, nearly drowned out by the guitar:
Later, I liked elegant hotel bars, where I could drink under F. Scott Fitzgerald skies. The coolest of the cool. Never a child. On Elvis Presley’s birthday. My dead father. Jangling change.
This is an unreal city. You can be anybody you want to be. When you’re alone.
There are more reasons Elliott Murphy isn’t as big as Bruce Springsteen than that Bruce wanted it more, as Elliott is on the record as saying. Ambition had something to do with it, but there were also lots of lackluster albums and misbegotten songs and generally poor career decisions. But, to be a fan is to sign a contract for disappointment. So maybe we should try to grade on a curve too, and judge our heroes by their best work. If Elliott can come up with a song this good every five years or so, I’m willing to keep listening.