” Many years ago, on a TV show, they asked me to define myself in one sentence,” Elliott Murphy recalls, musing upon a varied career that has taken him from cult stardom to crisis—he was dropped by Columbia Records after the commercial failure of his fourth album, Just a Story from America (1977)—and, finally, to renewed success in Europe. “I said, ‘literature is my religion and rock ‘n’ roll is my addiction.’The two have gone hand in hand with me.”
Murphy gained early acclaim for pieces such as “Like a Great Gatsby,” from his breakthrough album, 1973’s Aquashow. That song, along with “Lost Generation,” pointed to an affinity for the sparse, romantic lyricism of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Today, however, with the perspective of middle age, Murphy seems to draw upon his love of books in a less referential way. Notes from the Underground, his newest album, surges and builds like the chapters in a fine novel, peaking with a cycle of heartfelt ballads— ”The Valley Below,” “On My Mind” and “Ophelia”—before relaxing into the warm, playful groove of “What’s That.” Supported throughout by Murphy’s captivating guitar work, it’s the kind of recording that suggests a complete sense of artistic control.
“Originally this title was just going to be Underground,” Murphy explains. “I was reading an interview with the artist Man Ray, and toward the end of his life they asked him where the next great artists were going to come from; he said he thought they would come completely from the underground.They would only be people who could totally avoid any commercial temptation.”
Here Murphy laughs knowingly. Despite his early success, he’s always occupied a space outside of the cultural mainstream. Born and raised on Long Island, Murphy fell in love with performance through the influence of his family’s business—his father owned the Aqua Show, a nautical and musical spectacle located on the site of the 1939 World’s Fair. “Duke Ellington played there, I remember that, and there were all kinds of acrobatic swimmers, but I think what I remember most was just the excitement of the event. Probably that’s what’s kept me on the road all these years.”
In 1966, at the age of 17, Murphy won a statewide “Battle of the Bands” contest with his group, the Rapscallions. “It came at such an important part of my life because I had lost my father just a year before, and my world was pretty dark. My soul went to the music.That’s where I found happiness and redemption.”
Within seven years, Murphy had released Aquashow and was already being touted by critics as the next Dylan. “It was a great feeling, of course, but it was also a very confusing time for me and my career, because that first album got so much attention and I wasn’t really ready for it.They were just raving about that album, and I didn’t know how I was going to top it for the second one.” With the assistance of Lou Reed, Murphy moved from Polydor to RCA. His albums, however, were never big sellers, and by the time his contract with Columbia ended in 1978, the 29-year-old had been through three major labels in five years.
“I kind of felt my career was over. I had my shot and this was it. Then I had an offer to come play in Paris, and it was like a couple of thousand people, sold out, and I did six encores. I had no idea anybody knew me over here, so it was a total shock and surprise.”
Eventually Murphy relocated to Paris, where he married, had a son (now in college in the United States) and hooked up with the French-owned label, Last Call. He now performs about 100 concerts a year. His forthcoming show at the Living Room (on a bill with singer Jann Klose, who is also promoting a new album, Reverie) will be his first U.S. appearance in eight years.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. Well, this is my second act over here, in Europe.”
Dec. 15, The Living Room, 154 Ludlow St. (betw. Stanton & Rivington Sts.), 212-777-6800; 7, $15.