MACUILXOCHITL: Five Flower”, the Aztec god of music and dance
By Francisco H. Ciriza
Having played alongside the likes of such famed and accomplished musicians and performers as Mick Taylor, Billy Joel, and Phil Collins, Elliot Murphy may just be the most unheralded major artist most music fans have never heard of. His music can be described as a natural and minimalist, post-Dylan poetic rock propelled by driving acoustic and electric guitars and harmonica.
Heavily influenced by the “Golden Age” of American Blues, folk, and rock and roll, Murphy, like many of his generation was changed by witnessing the American television debuts of both Elvis and the Beatles. He refers to Bob Dylan as the “Picasso of rock and roll.” Proud he once shook Muddy Water’s hand; Elliot Murphy has been produced by former Talking Heads’ keyboardist Jerry Harrison and once recorded a duet with his long-time friend Bruce Springsteen, who often has invited him on stage during his European shows.
Murphy’s debut album, Aquashow (Polydor 1973), was a huge critical success and found its way on to many “best of” lists for the year. Major publications like Rolling Stone, Newsweek and The New Yorker ran feature stories on Murphy and his music. However, Murphy became an ex-patriot choosing to live in France and continue his career as an independent recording and performing artist as well as a writer.
Murphy recently was gracious enough to speak with La Prensa San Diego while in the midst of one of his many tours through Spain and other parts of Western Europe.
Like fellow Americans Jimi Hendrix and Arthur Lee before him, Murphy, a native of New York, found European audiences to be friendlier than their U.S. counterparts. “Ironically, American music and culture is taken more seriously outside its frontiers. But I guess it’s always been that way,” said Murphy.
He was forever changed after playing the streets of Amsterdam, Paris, and Rome on a fateful voyage in 1971. With his records selling well across the Atlantic and his constant touring throughout Europe, Murphy moved to Paris in 1989.
“My overseas audience was more faithful than my homegrown one. When I first played Paris in 1979, it was sold out and I did six encores. I knew then, my second life had begun. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives and that’s why I moved to Europe...to have a second life,” said Murphy who has also had a handful of books published in Europe and none of them here. “I feel like Henry Miller,” he added.
While his sound is definitely Americana heavy, he tends to write from a distinctly European perspective having learned from French singers like Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens as well as from the passion and spirit of flamenco. His guitarist, Oliver Durand, a Frenchman, has also left his mark on Murphy’s sound perhaps best exemplified by the double CD, Strings of the Storm (Dusty Rose Records 2003).
“America is about action and the unlimited future and Europe is all about ambiance and the weight of history. I tend to lean toward that side as well. I write more about what I’ve done than about what I’m going to do...if that makes any sense,”said Murphy.
Murphy’s search for explanations tends to turn into prose with his keen ability to describe with precision sans any hint of judgment. “The longer I stay in Europe, the more I become aware of how American I am and yet when I return to the states the culture changes so fast I can hardly keep up. The last time I was in New York City, I felt like someone had turned the city upside down and filled it with all new people and attitudes. It’s probably not far from the truth,” said Murphy.
Although at times he may seem a bit tainted if not critical of his native land, Murphy’s heart and soul are inhabited by the very elements of distinctly American culture and thought he seems to negate. “I don’t think I criticize the American experience per se because it’s as valid as any other. America is a lonely country that was inhabited by discontented Europeans. I suppose in a few thousand years outer space will be just like America, but even more so,” said Murphy.
In this time of world conflict, Murphy says his being American does not subject him to abject treatment by his adopted countrymen. He tells of sincere and heartfelt phone calls expressing concern after the events of September 11th. And although he says most Europeans oppose the war in Iraq, he still feels no prejudice aimed at him.
Elliot Murphy continues to live in Paris with his wife and son making and playing music and writing books.