«If you look into the careers of the best writers in Hollywood, there were always ten years of failure… It’s a reality that most people don’t want to face.» —Robert McKee
One day you discover that an artist you have always admired is playing in a theater, not far away from your home, so you buy the tickets. The day after, you decide you should ask him for an interview. You write him a letter, expecting silence as an answer, a polite “no” or an automatic mail from a public relations company. He immediately agrees to give you the interview. The third day, you write what it seems to you like a far too long questionnaire. He will answer all the questions with passion and generosity. Those answers open new questions, not only for the artist, but for the guy who wrote the questions.
So you find yourself thrown in your own mess.
Long story made short, that’s what happened when I saw that Elliot Murphy was playing in La Garriga, on October, 26.
“It’s hard to say what was my first real gig. My first show before a live audience was when I was 14 and played with a trio for a school dance. We sang folk songs like “This Little Light of Mine” which was a hit for The Kingston Trio and I remember being very nervous. I also remember once bringing my electric guitar and amp to a party when I was a teenager and not being able to play anything while all my friends stared at me – it was mortifying! I swore I would never let that happen again. As a professional, my first gigs were when I was 17 and playing in bar bands on Long Island where I was primarily just the guitarist although I sang “Like A Rolling Stone”. We wore matching outfits and I learned to dress up for a show which is something I do to this day out of habit.”
Elliot Murphy and Olivier Durand played the first two tracks of their concert, “Drive all night” and “Something like Steve McQueen”, as an acoustic duo. By the end of that second song, they had everyone in the audience eating on their hands, convinced that Murphy was going to deliver a great show, which he did.
When the rest of the band came onstage, they started a more muscular set. “Take your love away”, especially. They slowed down with a late dylanesque “Fix me a coffee”, my favorite of the evening, to go up again, with a rendition of “These boots are made for walking” followed by “Chelsea boots”.
By the time I heard the first chords of “On Elvis Presley Birthday”, I was aware that almost everyone in the venue looked older than me, and I can hardly consider myself a child, anymore.
There was a sense of community, of reunion of old fans who had become friends. That turned into even more obvious when afterwards, in the bar, I heard groups of fans discussing whether they had seen a Murphy’s gig for the first time in 2001. Or it was 1999. Or even before, maybe.
Once again, I felt absolutely touched by the lyrics of the song. I am struck by the fact that it always makes me think of my son, and not my father, when I visualize that particular car ride.
My father didn’t like Elvis. Or he did, and never mentioned it. But he bought me my first record. A cassette, actually. “48 Elvis’ greatest hits”. That was the present I asked for, on Christmas, 1980. “It was wonderful”, certainly. My father is from Soria, not from Brooklyn. And “the depression”, the 40s in a post-civil war Spain, really “left its mark”. I never saw him “jangling change”. He was more onto counting every single cent, to pay the next bill.
Murphy is a professional and the commander in chief on stage. The musicians follow his directions and respond to his demands. There is an obvious willingness to please the fans in many of the tricks delivered onstage. To respect the customer who paid for the tickets.
That willingness is fulfilled with zeal. The band returned twice from the backstage, to play four more songs. They could have been playing the whole night, and nobody would have moved from their seats.
Murphy opened the show with “Drive all night” and closed it with “Just a story from America”. Both songs belong to an album published in 1977. They have survived onstage more than four decades of laughs, cries and doubts.
After the show, Mr. Murphy spent a great deal of time and energy in signing CDs and taking pictures with his fans. “They are going to close the restaurant we have booked for them”, told me a member of the organization. When, finally, a husky roadie got him to his dressing room, for the first time, Murphy looked like a fragile smiling seventy year old expat rocker.
A couple of hours later, back in Barcelona, I park my car. My son sleeps deeply in the back seat, embracing his guitar, with fresh Olivier Durand’s and Elliot Murphy’s autographs on it. «I was never a child», I think. He definitely is.
Cars, guitars. Fathers, sons. Desire, love.
“On the road / that’s not such a heavy load / just the kind of job we choose”
Greetings from Sydney. 12 . 1990
I did the last interview, before his death, to the painter Eugeni Muxart, a gentleman who had lived in Paris and knew everybody in the trade, starting with Picasso. I asked him what I always ask everybody with a long career: where do you get the motivation to continue the hard work, day after day; year after year? Like Bob Dylan, you spend most of your time touring. Where do you get the motivation? Where do you think he gets it? It does not look like the money may be his great stimulus.
Well, money is always a motivation because I rarely perform for free because musicians and agents have to be paid and I like to live fairly well. In some ways being a touring musician is like any other job – you have to prepare carefully and after years of experience you better know how to prevent things from going wrong. For instance, I tape down anything on stage that I might trip over – mic stands, guitar stands, cords etc. – because I once fell off a stage in France and had to continue the tour on crutches! In many ways touring is part of an endless cycle that begins with picking up my guitar or playing the electric piano and eventually finding a song in these instruments and then recording that song and eventually many others that somehow fit together as this thing, this work of art, that’s called an album. And once you have that thing you want to expose it to your audience in every way you can and that includes live shows. I don’t know where Bob Dylan gets his motivation but I suppose from the same well as The Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney. Touring becomes an essential part of your life-style and no matter how much money you have you can’t get away from it. The irony is that when I’m at home I think I should be on the road and when I’m on the road I think I should be at home. You can’t win! Picasso kept painting until the end and Muddy Waters kept singing the blues and Elliott Murphy keeps Murpyland alive …
Like anybody who works in export business, I have spent a lot of hours in planes, airports, trains, etc. How does your seventy years old body cope with the continuous trips? Did you learn to sleep in those hours spent on the van? Or between sound check and the gig, for example?
I stay in good shape and I don’t drink alcohol or take drugs or smoke. Those are the basics. When I’m in a hotel with a gym I usually find time to exercise. Getting enough sleep is crucial for the singing voice. If you’re tired your voice is the first victim. The worst time for me on the road is riding in vans because it’s terrible for my back and you can’t read and the noise of the van really gets on my nerves. I’ve spent far too much time looking at passing trucks and road signs, but like I said, that’s part of the job. I’m not in the private jet world yet!
Do you have a routine to survive all that touring?
I have reduced the number of shows I do now to around 50 a year and try to pick the best venues and situations and that’s plenty to reach my audience. I always try to get to the hotel a few hours before the soundcheck to rest and to make sure I’ll get seven or eight hours sleep each night. Then I do soundcheck, dinner, show and signing CDs in that order with little time in between. The worst is getting sick on the road because you have to keep moving every day so I try to avoid catching colds, etc. What else? I take vitamins and I try to be grateful for the long career I’ve been blessed with.
Do you keep a Journal? “The touring diaries of Elliot Murphy” could be a very interesting book, for sure.
I’ve never really kept a journal on a consistent basis and I’m jealous of those who do because I have plenty of half-filled notebooks in my office. But I’m always writing fiction or poetry or just record random memories and I try to carry a pen and paper with me at all times like every good writer should. Maybe I’ll begin that diary now from age 70 on …
“Come on mama, please, don’t cry / don’t you know what I feel inside?”
Last of the Rock Stars. Aquashow. 1973
You come from the white middle class suburbs of Long Island. Your father died when you were in your teens. Were your parents supportive of your artistic desires?
Both my parents loved show business so there were no obstacles put in my way. My father left me when I was only 16 so he didn’t really get to understand what my artistic desires were because I don’t think I had any clear desires besides girls at that age. But he bought me guitars and amps and filled our house with musical instruments – piano, organ, accordion etc. My mother was a good singer and sang Broadway show tunes around the house. She also loved rock ‘n roll and my brother worked as a tour manager, so she saw many great shows – Talking Heads, Eurythmics and of course me. Toward the end of her life my brother and I filled an iPod with music including a lot of my music and gave it to her to improve her memory. But she thought it was a radio and would say to me, “Elliott! They’re playing you on the radio all the time! You finally made it!”
Was it always obvious for you that you would be a musician?
More obvious than anything else. I also wanted to be a lawyer because I admired Clarence Darrow who was a famous lawyer during the 1920’s who defended teachers who taught Darwin’s theory of evolution and defended two rich kids who killed another boy just for the thrill by using the “insanity defense.” Funny how so many elements from the 1920’s influenced me such as F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even Charles Lindbergh who flew to Paris like me although he did it in a tiny plane with no windows. But guitars have followed me through my life since I first started playing at 12 years old. I just fell in love with the instrument so I guess that is the essential ingredient for dreams of being a musician – to love your instrument. I didn’t start singing or writing songs until much later. I also loved the little portable Olivetti typewriter my parents gave me for Christmas once. Whether I was going to be a writer or a musician was never an either/or situation. And now I’m both.
I think it was J. M. Coetzee who said something like, “I never doubted my talent. I wondered how I was going to pay the bills”. Did you ever doubted about your gift or your grit?
Coetzee is a great writer and “Waiting for the Barbarians” is one of my favorite books. But I have to say that I have doubted my talent many, many times, and sometimes wondered if I would ever write another song when I’m going through a “dry spell” and have even considered giving up. By and large music has paid my bills for over forty years and when I complain to my son Gaspard, he always points out to me that I am in that rare 10% or less of musicians who actually made a living so I should be grateful. And he’s right.
Like many musicians’ kids, like Patti Smith’s, Tom Waits’ and others, your son Gaspard plays with you, and produces some of your albums. Did you try to avoid it, so he could pursue a sort of standard career?
I’m thrilled that Gaspard has chosen music to be the river he sails on but mainly that is because I am very secure in his great talents. He plays with me and produces my albums but he also works with many other artists. He deserves to be successful and not because he’s my son but because he has dedicated himself to playing and recording and writing songs since he was very young. I would never want him to pursue a career in something he didn’t have passion for, that must be a living nightmare. Of course, to be an artist is a kind of torture as well because we are never satisfied. When Mick Jagger sings “I can’t get no satisfaction” he’s not kidding!
Was Paris closer to NYC than to your Long Island’s suburb experiences?
Paris is a big international city like New York but still the cultural difference between France and the USA are substantial. I never liked the suburbs where I grew up and found life boring there although I can truly understand why parents would want to raise their kids in that kind of environment. In my beautiful hometown of Garden City, there were trees to climb and green grass to lie down and dream in. But still I was attracted to the bright lights of the gritty big city. Honestly, even though I am often identified with New York, I never felt truly as at home there as I do in Paris. I have the soul of an expatriate – we are more at home when we’re not at home. I hope that makes sense.
Did France’s laicity shocked you?
I actually thought that France was more Catholic than it turned out to be. I don’t have any friends that I can think of who go to church regularly. But sometimes I go to the American Cathedral for Christmas or Easter just to be part of the ceremony. So France is more laic then me!
The crowd is leaving now / they’ve had their fill”
Something like Steve McQueen. 12 . 1990
I have the sensation that your audience enjoys your touring life, and they repeat gig after gig. Does your audience get old or do you add new young fans?
We do add new young fans every year and sometimes they are the children of our old fans. Many times a pretty young girl comes up to me after the show and says how much she likes my music and when I ask her where she first heard of me she’ll say from her father … or even her grandfather! For the most part, my audience is younger than me and that’s a good thing.
Do you feel that younger fans, on their 20s today, understand what you are transmitting with songs like “On Elvis Presley Birthday”, “Sicily” or “Last of the rock’n’roll stars”?
I think they do even though for most of my public English is at best a second language. The music gives the lyrics wings and that’s where the public connects, on that astral plane. So the melancholy of On Elvis Presley’s Birthday, or the black humor of Sicily, or the youthful exuberance and frustration of Last of the Rock Stars, I think these elements are unavoidable. You can’t hide your emotions in a song. It’s like getting undressed in a glass house.
Do you think they get to understand the artisan’s patience and faith to learn the trade, and keep performing it, night after night?
I don’t even know if I understand that because if someone doesn’t have some indescribable talent no matter how hard they work they will never be great. It’s sad but true. What is difficult is making every night seem new even though you’re singing the same songs as the night before and the night before that. This takes a leap of faith and buckets of perseverance.
“What the Fuck Is Going On?” seems to be working greatly on Spotify. Is that approach “easier” to them?
“What The Fuck is Going On” was the second single we released from my new/old album Ricochet and it is doing far better than I ever imagined possible. And it’s a live track so that is pretty amazing. People are calling it the protest song of the 21st century and Spotify is the perfect place for that. It’s like the Gutenberg press of right now. As Marshall McLuhan said, «The medium is the message» and the Spotify is the place to be right now.
Unlike many musicians, it is refreshing to read you stating that Spotify and itunes are helping you a lot to promote your work.
It’s ironic but true that the internet has really helped artists like me reach their audience. So far, the major labels have not taken it over and I’m not sure if they can. There are limitations to the size of things on the internet and when we look at them on our iPhones or computers. My website is as big as anybody else’s.
Is there any place in the music markets for concept albums, anymore?
I hope so because my next album will be a concept album. I suppose all these Marvel film are concept films too about comic book characters. Maybe there could be reoccurring characters in music too who come back album after album to tell their story.
“The Seventies, oh such a strange time / No one knew what to do”
You are gonna chase love away. 12 . 1990
“Lost Generation” (1975) was produced by Paul A. Rothchild , who had previously produced Tim Buckley and most of The Doors’ albums. Was his figure intimidating? Did he try to impose his views on your work?
Working with Paul was wonderful for the most part and it introduced me to the LA scene of the early 1970’s and I met great singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne who I consider a friend to this day. I was tempted to move there but New York pulled me back. Paul lived in Laurel Canyon which was a magical place back then. Late at night, when we were in the studio he would take out Doors tapes and play them very loud and it was like a barbarian army was crashing in the gates since you mentioned Coetzee earlier. My main problem was with RCA Records who wanted me to sound like John Denver who was a really good almost country singer and had nothing to do with me. But Paul fought with RCA and he won. If I was mixing “Lost Generation” today, I would make it a little more simple as some of the musicians overplayed. But you can’t have everything!
You started busking in the streets and the tube. Your songs are sort of short distance proven. Did that help you to manage the audiences in small clubs?
Busking takes courage so I’ve never had any stage fright since those days. It’s a lot easier to walk onto a stage where a thousand people are waiting for you and greet you with applause than to stand on the street with your hat in front of you and hope someone will stop and listen and throw in a few coins. To this day, wherever I pass a street musician I always try to throw some coins their way.
Keith Richards says something like he has to play a song naked, with the acoustic guitar, to feel like the song is good enough. Do you always compose acoustic?
When Keith Richards did his first solo album I interviewed him for an Italian magazine and when he met me he said that he heard I was a musician and asked what I play. When I said the guitar, he shook his head and said,” That damn thing!” And he’s right about the acoustic guitar. I’ve written most of my songs on an acoustic and still do. I have the feeling the songs are hiding inside the guitar and I set them free.
In your case, which comes before, music or lyrics?
Usually a bit of both – maybe a line in the chorus and a chord progression. The hard part is not writing songs it’s finishing them. I must have more unfinished songs than finished ones and that’s saying a lot. Olivier Durand and I wrote the music for about 15 songs over the past summer and now I’m going to put words on the which will be challenging.
What do you listen and read while in the van, airport, planes, etc?
Like the rest of humanity I watch CNN on my iPhone! But I like to listen to Frank Sinatra too and lots of music unlike my own. Of course, whenever my friend Bruce Springsteen puts out an album I listen to it over and over. “Western Skies” for me was just brilliant. It was my go-to album on Spotify whenever I went to the gym. For reading I keep some books on my iPad. Lately I’ve been reading Jonathan Lethem, an American author, and I like musician’s biographies too. And histories of the Blues and Paris. The last book I read was about the film “The Wild Bunch” and how it was filmed by Sam Peckinpah. It’s one of my favorite films.
In “Murphy Gets Muddy”, you covered blues standards. Other great artists have done so. The Rolling Stones, for example. Is there any of those records that you felt it was specially accomplished?
I don’t know if you can use the word accomplished with the blues because it’s the very primitive nature of that music that makes it so real, so appealing. It can’t be too sophisticated or it loses its power. But the Stones still know how to get down and dirty! Dylan did a couple of acoustic records with early folk songs, “World Gone Wrong” and another and I liked those and thought it was courageous to do. For me, Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” is as close as my generation has gotten to the blues. And John Hammond and Robert Cray are great too.
The record is dedicated to Muddy Waters. Is he your favorite bluesman?
Muddy Waters is the Buddha of the Blues! And he was unique because he recorded as an acoustic bluesman in Mississippi in the 1940’s and then later with a band in Chicago. And he sang so many songs by Willie Dixon who was the greatest blues composer in my opinion. But I also love Robert Johnson and learn something new whenever I listen to his one and only album. But when it comes to just being cool I’d have to say John Lee Hooker takes the prize.
“And just when I thought I’d take this Hemingway shot / The F.Scott in me says, “Man, you better not”
Hollywood. A touch of mercy. 1975
Unlike some of the rock stars who made it when you started, the Springsteens or Billy Joels, you have a literary background, like Dylan, Cohen or Jim Morrison. Do you believe that the literary approach made it difficult to sell your music?
Definitely the last thing people want in rock ‘n roll or pop music is an intellectual of any sort and that’s gotten worse as song lyrics get dumber and dumber with the exception of Lana Del Rey. There was a time in the 1960’s when music and literature seemed to be converging. Look at the cover of The Beatles’ “Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band” and you’ll see it’s full of writers. When my album “Just A Story From America” came out in 1977 Columbia Records ran publicity which said, “He could write a book but he chose rock and roll instead.” And I think that worked against me because it made it look like music was my second choice. But I disagree about Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen because I can find literary influences in their songs as well. Billy’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a 3 minute journey through the cultural watermarks of my generation.
You have always spoken of the influence of Scott Fitzgerald in your writing. What other writers did influence your lyrics?
Where to begin? Steinbeck, Kerouac, Edgar Alan Poe, Rimbaud … even Graham Greene for a while. But sometimes the influence is really subconscious and it’s hard to link a certain lyric with a certain writer or book. Sometimes I use incorrect grammar just for the effect. Critics always think lyrics are completely autobiographical and nothing could be further from the truth.
You have been linked with Springsteen, Dylan, Cohen and Fitzgerald. How do you feel about the writing of some of these gentlemen: Tom Waits, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Nick Cave, Paolo Conte, Gainsburg or Jacques Brel?
What good company to be in! I absolutely love every artist you named. Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits are my peers (we’re all born in 1949 and began our careers at the same time in musical history) but Dylan and Leonard Cohen came before me, from that generation of folk singers and, in a way, opened the doors for me and all the other singer-songwriters whose fruit falls from the same tree where poems are harvested. Fitzgerald was a writer but he was also from a very glamorous age, the roaring twenties which was much like the nineteen seventies, so he was a bit of a rock star too at least in his overindulgent lifestyle. I adore the music of Nick Drake but there is so much tragedy there too that it can be hard to listen to. And Nick Cave is truly one of a kind when it comes to performers and an excellent writer too. Paolo Conte, Gainsburg and Brel are all Europeans who come close to the American/UK version of singer-songwriters so I feel a kinship to them as well.
Was your writing influenced by cinema and TV series?
Definitely I was more influenced by cinema than TV series because in my youth TV shows were interrupted by commercials and songs are not. I once said that Literature is my religion and rock ‘n roll is my addiction and I should probably add that movie theaters were my church. By the way, my favorite film is “The Swimmer” with Burt Lancaster. TV has only gotten interesting recently. Before that it was to sell soap!
One of your heroes, Lou Reed, spent some time in Berlin. Did you think about his experience before moving to Europe, or were you more influenced by the books of the Lost Generation?
I don’t think Lou spent a lot of time in Berlin like David Bowie or Iggy Pop but I could be wrong. Lou’s great iconic album Berlin, at least to my understanding, has little relation to the city of the same name in Germany. It’s almost as if it took place in an American city of the same name. I think he was just trying to find the setting for a very modern and young decadence where lives are wasted. The Velvet Underground were always more respected in Europe and France in particular than they were in the US and that might have influenced me. But I’m the only American rocker I know who really found a home in Paris. Most of the Lost Generation eventually went back to America. Jim Morrison lasted three months in Paris. I’ve been here thirty years …
“Ever since I was a child / my manner was described as mild”
Let it rain. 12 . 1990
You left an individualistic, sort of Amy Rand USA to establish yourself in the very, for the Western standards, statiest France. From “In God, we trust” to a laicism. How was this transition, from driving to the mall to walking to the corner épicerie? Did that have a reflex on your music? If it has, I never sensed it. Your music sounds to me as American as can be.
I don’t think my music was every influenced by Long Island shopping malls either! Not much romance there no matter how hard you look. But my musical roots are clearly America – rock, blues, country – although my literary influences spread more to Europe and these days one of my favorite writers is Haruki Murakami who is Japanese although living in America I believe. We’re living in the global village now or at least close to something like that although when I travel outside of France (even back to the USA) I don’t recognize the local celebrities. Anthropologists say that the reason human beings have been so successful in taking over the animal kingdom is because we love to gossip about each other. Isn’t that what all TV news shows are? A form of gossip? And music today is very difficult to classify. I’ve heard bands in Spain that sound like US Garage bands from the 60’s and singer-songwriters from Sweden who resemble a very quiet Leonard Cohen. So in answer to your question, I think if you went to America today you would find little music that sounds like mine!
I felt in love with “In Elvis Presley birthday” immediately. You accomplish that sort of intimacy with the listener, which I feel like you are telling me a story close to my ear, a sort of confession. There is a quality in the American storytelling, in the cinema, in the writer, musician, and the guy you meet in the train or fills your cup in the bar, which you hardly find here, in Europe. I believe it is a capability of making a local story feel like it is universal. Do you also feel like that? Is there a reason for that?
Well first I have to ask myself if I agree with your analysis. There is a French writer Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel prize for literature who I think has much in common with American writers like John Cheever or Raymond Carver in that he makes the reader immediately identify with the setting of the story and the characters that inhabit that world. I’ve heard the French say that American easily open their arms to you but not so easily close them around you, which I guess is there way of saying there is something superficial going on in us. Americans don’t have the formality or class structure of Europeans so we found other ways to protect ourselves from unwanted emotional invasions and one of those is a kind of cozy emotional distance, helped by a jazzy dialogue. It’s interesting that you mention “On Elvis Presley’s Birthday” because that song began as a pure poem that I eventually put to music a few years later, which is very rare for me. I’m still always amazed at the audience reaction to it, all over the world in places where English is barely spoken. And the ironic thing is, like most poetry, I wrote that song to myself and no one else and now everyone relates to it. Was Jung right? Do we all share the same consciousness?
When I think of your music, I immediately think of “this particular track. While watching “Second act” I discovered that it is your most popular song. That story of father and child is what struck me of your art in the very first place, and never left me. Is that the usual reaction among your fans?
As I said, that song consistently gets a very strong reaction. Bruce Springsteen has said that much of rock ‘n roll is about a son trying to get his father’s attention and so many artist that I know of seem to have lost their father at a young age like I did. My songs know more about me than I know about my songs. There is a beautiful mystery to songwriting that I don’t try to understand.
The phrase «I was never a child» is the enigma of this song. It speaks loud to me, because I always considered myself old. If you had only written that song, still everything would have been worth it.
That’s very kind of you to say. If you want to be young when you’re old you better be old when you’re young. I don’t idealize my youth because in many ways it was a fearful yet wonderful time full of fantasy and it’s where we learn to dream out loud so to speak. And then when we enter adulthood we want freedom and especially to be free of all those parental restraints we felt. We long to be cool! Perhaps, that’s why rock ‘n roll is so appealing to teenagers because of the very energy encapsulated within the rhythm. And freedom is a sort of energy in itself – we’re running to be free of something that’s chasing right behind us.
Your translator to Spanish is Alberto Manzano, who has a vast work as translator of someone like Leonard Cohen whom, I guess, you also admire. Do you believe there is a link with both your writings?
I will gladly accept any link between my writings and those of dear Leonard Cohen who I first discovered as a novelist. I suppose we are both self-absorbed, sexually-obsessed, over-verbal songwriters. So there’s the link! Leonard began his career much later then me, I think he was in his thirties so you’d have to look at my albums from the 80’s to find the true connection. Dear Alberto always believed in me as a writer and we immediately bonded. It’s because of him that some of my early books were published in Spain and I’m very grateful to him. I have not seen him since Leonard’s passing which I imagine he took very hard as they were truly close. I played at the Leonard Cohen tribute near Barcelona some years ago and performed “Diamonds in the Mine” and Adam Cohen, Leonard’s son, was very complimentary and said his father would like my version which later came out on CD.
What about Buddhism? Sentences like “try to accept that you’ll keep searching”, from “The Loser”, make me think of this particular link.
I only know that Buddhism preaches that life is suffering and once you accept that you will suffer less. I’ve read of Buddha’s life and it seems he was quite a playboy and wild guy in his youth, sort of a rocker so to speak. What I always wonder about Buddhism is why it did not catch on in India, where Buddha was born? Is there a link there between my greater acceptance in Europe than in the USA? No man is a prophet in his own land? I do like to sit under trees and contemplate the universe so Buddha and I have that in common. And I’ve been searching and searching for so long that I don’t even know what I’m searching for anymore. Beauty? Truth? Justification? Proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity? Or just the perfect Cheeseburger? Or maybe the perfect song that will change the life of everyone who hears it!
“Rock’n’roll is here to stay / but who will be left to play?”
Last of the Rock Stars. Aquashow. 1973
Those verses were written when I was one year old, and here we are, talking about rock and roll, and you are still playing it.
And I’m still asking the same question …
In 1976, you published “Just a story from America”, with Phil Collins on the drums. Mick Taylor played the guitar in some songs. The album is filled with precious songs, but that was not enough to push you in the charts. Was it really frustrating or you had already developed a sense of copying with that sort of small success?
I stopped the concert tour that I was doing to promote that album in 1977 and that was one of my biggest mistakes. But I disliked my band and I was opening for Electric Light Orchestra and half the audience was still walking in when I started playing and by the time ELO was through nobody remembered my name. Honestly, I think I was completely burnt out after being on 3 major labels in 4 years. For a while in the 1970’s it was as if I was being traded around like a hot stock on Wall Street and I couldn’t handle it. I went to Japan and found an admiring public and so I came back to New York and fired my managers and thought I could do it all on my own which, of course, I could not. So I entered into one of the darkest periods of my life.
When I was 12, which was in 84, I was already a great fan of Bruce Springsteen. You were pouring excellent records by that time, but it took me years to get to you. Later than Bruce, later than Mellencamp, later than Tom Waits, later than Dylan or Cohen, later than you name it. Like anybody else, I would still wonder why if I did not know that the forces of the market exist. How much of your effort was devoted to satisfy those forces? During those years, and afterwards.
Obviously, in your particular case at least, I was ahead of my time! Seriously, some of my music sounds more current now than when I originally recorded it. There is a song on my new album Ricochet, “What the Fuck is Going On” that I wrote about the economic crisis of 2008 that is currently getting over 25,000 plays on Spotify and it’s only been out a few weeks. Why are people relating to it now? I have no idea. Am I a visionary? And even if I am how would I know it? I certainly did not set out to be the Vincent Van Gogh of the music business and in some ways I always tried to satisfy the market and record music that would be played on the radio. But no radio station will play my song “Put It Down” which is over 11 minutes long.
“There you have it, the end of the tale / I’m not telling you to search for the Grail”
The Dolly Sisters. 12 . 1990
Was Bowie an influence? “How’s the family” makes me think a lot of him.
In “How’s The Family” there is the octave jump in the vocal melody which is similar to both Bowie’s «Starman” (which was inspired by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) so maybe that’s what you are hearing. I was basically listening to three albums when I made “Aquashow”: Bowie’s “Changes”, The Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” and Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”. And maybe a little Rolling Stones “Sticky Fingers” when I wanted to dance.
You spent some moths in a legal firm. Paolo Conte spent years. I do not know I you were aware of this fact. He has, also, a very particular way of approaching the storytelling, far from the industry standards. Do you like his work?
Like everyone I am most aware of “Via Con Me” with its magical line “That’s wonderful, that’s wonderful, I dream of you, good luck my baby!” that works so well in the chorus. Sometimes Paolo reminds me of Serge Gainsbourg in his vocal approach. I wish I could understand his lyrics better. The curse of the tower of Babel!
I saw you in a square in Gràcia, years ago, with my daughter still in the pram. Was your son a rebel any time with you? In the studio and outside the studio. If he was, how did you handle that?
Gaspard is still a rebel in many ways and I have to give him plenty of room to be himself especially when we’re working together or he’ll get fed up with me very quickly. But we really have a wonderful relationship and our mutual interest in music and recording and many other things bonds us together. I don’t know if Gaspard has read any of my books though. Perhaps that would be looking too deep into the darkest corners of the mind of his father!
What does your wife say about all this constant touring?
Françoise is an actress so sometimes she is also on the road with a theater production or a film. She went to South Africa for some weeks about ten years ago and I was lost without her! But I don’t think she is as lost without me. Plus she is French and so when I go away she is still in her country with her friends. I’m more of a loner, not so many friends as her. She seems to be happy when I leave and happy when I return and she believes I must never give up giving concerts or I’ll fade away.
Is it easy living with you? Working for you?
What a question! I don’t know. And compared to who? I think it’s easier living with me than it was living with Picasso or Tolstoy or even John Lennon. As for working with me, I give my musicians a lot of freedom within very defined limitations of what I’m looking for in the studio and on stage. Most of the time I think I’m fair but I can lose my temper and say things I immediately regret like anyone else. I’ve never had a musician quit on me yet so that’s a good sign.
You have toured with great bands like The Kinks or John Lee Hooker. Which one of them impressed you specially and why?
Like I said, I began my career in the golden age when some of the originators of this music I love were still out there performing. I also opened for Chuck Berry although actually Chuck opened for me because he insisted he go on first so he could catch a flight back to Saint Louis. With bands like The Kinks or Jefferson Starship or Electric Light Orchestra I was always impressed how professional they were – they didn’t make noticeable mistakes – and I learned that when people are paying for a ticket you have to be ready to give them a show that’s worth it. And it better be good every night without exception.
Did they try to help you to make your life easier?
Some groups were easier than others. The English bands tend to treat their opening acts worse than American headliners and I think that’s because of a really bad tradition. I opened for Toto at Bercy Arena in Paris (17,000 people) and Steve Lukather, the guitarist, came into my dressing room and jammed with Gaspard on guitar both playing “Little Red Rooster” – really a great guy. I also use to open for The New York Dolls and it was completely anarchy backstage.
Your story makes a good narrative, because it is not linear. There are ups and downs, scenes that change from positive to negative, and then again from negative to positive. Your public, probably, feels that you are flesh and bones. Could that be a cause and a consequence of your constant touring and the way you treat your fans?
After my family, my fans are my greatest treasure. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a record company supporting me so it really comes down to the people who like my music and I’m very grateful that I’ve got so many interested listeners all over the world. I wouldn’t want to let them down because it would be like letting myself down. I love to go out after the show and sign CDs and meet people and take photos. I never get tired of that. Now I know many of my fans names although as I get older I seem to be forgetting everything but the lyrics to my songs.
“And I can’t find a happy ending / But that’s all right”
Hollywood. Lost Generation. 1975
The day I presented my short story book, somebody in the audience asked me why all my characters seem to be so fucked up? «Happiness is not literary», was my answer. I obviously hided my middle class angst and life dissatisfaction, but I really believe happiness is hardly the theme of a good story or song. What about you?
What is happiness? It seems to be an invention of Hollywood and it rarely exists in literature. We’re all looking for something in this world to keep us warm be it power or just a sense of contentment, to find our place in this sweet old world where we feel accepted. Children need love and adults need acknowledgement. I like writing short stories because there is less pressure to make it complete with a true beginning and recognizable ending, things that rarely occur in real life aside from birth and death. Also, I don’t like writing descriptive paragraphs, I prefer to let the dialog speak for itself. Short stories are like a vignette or a small glimpse into lives or situations and then you’re out again back into the real world. Much like songs.
Olivier Durand is seventeen years younger than you. Did your relationship evolve in a sort of father and son relationship? A mentorship, maybe? From the outside, it does not look like he could ever be just an employee, for you.
I’m fairly immature, my emotional growth probably stopped when I was 16, so I don’t think we ever had a father and son relationship. If you ask Olivier he’ll probably tell you that he’s probably learned a lot about how to be a professional musician from me. I don’t treat him like an employee, at least I try not to, but he always recognizes me as the boss, not his boss, but the one who ultimately decides about my shows and my recordings. I never think of myself as 17 years older than Olivier but the year he was born I was graduating from high school and just having sex for the first time! The greatest difference between us is not our age but rather that he is French and I am American and that’s profound.
When you are back in the USA, do you like what you see? Could you ever live there again?
Last summer, my wife Françoise and I went back to the USA for two weeks and then to Montreal, Canada for a week and you know what? I felt more at home in Montreal then in New York! Probably because everyone is speaking French. I have lost track of the cultural landmarks in America now, I’m not a tourist but I’m not a resident either. I’m an alien, I suppose.
I know eighty years old Capoeira Angola masters that are still in activity. You feel like they will never stop, while they can still move their feet. You see the joy of someone like Mestre Joao Grande and you feel like the man would die the day after retiring. The art gives them the strength to keep pushing. Do you see yourself as a retired American musician in your Paris neighborhood? Or in a small villa in Provence?
I would not want to retire even though I’ve been tempted because of the problem I have with my hearing. I have a serious condition called Tinnitus which is a constant ringing in both ears and I need to wear earplugs in concert so it doesn’t get worse. It has really impacted my life in that it’s difficult to go to concerts where the volume is so loud. So each time I get up on stage I am facing the same element – sound – that in some way has become my enemy. I’m counting on a medical miracle to find a cure and in the meantime I keep moving forward and try to just live with it. No one gets out of this life unscathed and that includes me.
Would you miss being in the road? Even the discomfort of the road.
I would not miss the hours and hours travel, the hassles of going through security at airports and riding forever in vans on highways which all start looking the same. But I would sincerely miss those magical moments on stage when the public lifts me to a place I’ve never been before. Getting off stage always leaves me with a wonderful feeling, a kind of euphoria, but it doesn’t last long. It’s like a drug you have to keep taking over and over. I just hope that someday one of my fans will strike it rich and lend me his private jet whenever I need it!
Do you ever stop and ask yourself «Why did I put so many records on the market? Shouldn’t I restrict my production?»
We are in the age of more not less. The internet does not support minimalism. And I’m prolific and I never saw the point of making music that nobody will listen to or writing books that nobody will read. I’ve written well over 300 songs and each one of them deserves a chance to fly.
“Rock ‘n Roll is my addiction and Literature is my religion”