Elliott Murphy: Writing What He Knows

Elliott Murphy is still swinging it, more than 40 years after his critically-acclaimed inaugural album, “Aquashow,” hit the stores in 1973. His stories are rich and varied — from his band The RapScallions winning the New York State Battle of the Bands in 1966, to his upbringing in a show biz family in Garden City, to touring around the U.S., Europe, and beyond (Murphy lives in France), to the people he has met and performed with (Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Mick Taylor, Phil Collins, and many others have cameos on Murphy’s 35 albums).

In 2012, Murphy was awarded the Médaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris for recognition of his career as a musician and author. In 2015, he was decorated with the Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2018 he was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame by Billy Joel.

Aside from the music he creates, Murphy — who is a frequent visitor to the East End and a regular performer at the Stephen Talkhouse — has penned books from the autobiographical to the not-quite-so, especially with his latest opus, “Tramps,” the roman-a-clef middle child in a rock-and-roll trilogy that began with “Marty May.”

“Rock-and-roll to me is something like snow to an Eskimo,” Murphy said. “It’s been my primary cultural environment since I picked up the guitar at age 12.”

His first short story, “Getting Away,” was published in his Garden City Junior High School literary magazine when he was 13, and told the story of a kid from the suburbs who is frustrated with his guitar lessons and so he runs away from his suburban Connecticut home to Greenwich Village. “Writing fiction inside of a music setting always seemed obvious to me, like that was what I was born to write about,” he said, also referring to a short story, “Cold and Electric,” which was published by Rolling Stone Magazine in 1980. That short story was the basis of “Marty May.” “Diamonds by the Yard” will be the final installment with the current “Tramps” coming in between.

Set On The East End

“All three books feature chapters that take place in the East End, where both my brother and sister have houses and I’ve spent many summers,” said Murphy.

“Tramps” is set during those 1980s death-to-disco years and features a gritty realism to those who lived through it. “They were challenging years for me, as singer-songwriters became nearly extinct, with punk and disco taking over the pop music media focus,” Murphy acknowledged. “I retreated to the legendary New York City blues club Tramps, where I played a weekly gig for years and chose it as the setting for the novel of the same name.”

Hoover, the protagonist, is “not me,” Murphy continued. “For me, the historical problem with rock novels has always been that they rarely capture the life of real working musicians, that bottom rung of the 10 percent of players that actually make a living playing music. What saved me during those death-to-disco years was a faithful public in Europe and particularly, France, where I always returned year after year to tour and release albums until finally making a permanent move to Paris in 1989,” he said.

“On a softer note, I have been writing my own story, a memoir of sorts, entitled ‘Just A Story From America’ (the title of my fourth album) and that will be out soon as the companion piece to ‘Tramps.’”

Murphy’s introduction to the East End was coming out “to Westhampton to try to see The Rascals perform at The Barge, a seaside bar on the beach. Music was my motivation,” he said. “But I was only 16 and couldn’t get in, and so I stood outside with my ear pressed to the door listening to them play. Many of the songs from my album ‘Just A Story from America’ were written in Quogue, where the late, gracious Johnson & Johnson heir Libet Johnson loaned me a cottage one summer to work in. In 1977, I rented a house in Springs with my brother and manager, and when that was through, I moved to Amagansett for a few years.” Murphy’s sister, Michelle Murphy Strada, lives in Amagansett.

The Murphys came from a show biz family, with their father, Elliott Murphy Sr., as producer of the original Aquashow water-show spectacle on the site of the World’s Fair, and later was owner of “a fairly posh restaurant,” The Sky Club in Garden City, “where all the local political heavies came to hobnob, including Nelson Rockefeller and Bobby Kennedy,” Murphy continued. “Show biz was our religion, and I was encouraged to make music from an early age.”

Cautionary Tale

Throughout “Tramps,” Murphy uses an interesting literary tactic — lots of footnotes that instead of sitting at the end of each chapter, take up pages and pages at the end of the novel. And they’re just as funny and quirky as the book, sort of telling their own story.

Murphy explained, “To really understand a character like Hoover you have to appreciate his cultural references, this is what defines his character. There was lots of information I wanted the reader to have to understand Hoover, and as I started adding footnotes, they kind of became their own story, so instead of interrupting the chapters, I decided to put them all at the end. The great thing about the Kindle version is that you click on a footnote and it takes you right to it and then you can click back to where you were reading. And, after all, the fictional owner of Tramps is John Foote,” he said with a laugh.

Although the book will surely resonate with those who lived through it, Murphy believes it speaks to a broader range of readers. “I mean, I don’t think you have to have ever been on a whaling ship to be enraptured by ‘Moby Dick,’ or lived the Bohemian life described in Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ to identify with Sal Paradise. I suppose that’s what defines us all as being from the same tribe in some fashion.”

The final book in the trilogy, the as-yet-unreleased “Diamonds by the Yard” is about a singer-songwriter who starts out in Amagansett playing the Talkhouse, “falls in love with a rich and beautiful heiress, and is drawn to the wild NYC of the late 1970s,” said Murphy. “Perhaps all three could be described as cautionary tales, but isn’t that what ‘The Great Gatsby’ is as well?”

Hall Of Fame

Murphy shared about being inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame last year. “It was a glorious night, totally unexpected, and I’m grateful to the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for including me. Legends such as Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane are in there as well. The impetus came when the film ‘The Second Act of Elliott Murphy’ was shown at the Stony Brook Film Festival a few years ago. Billy Joel inducted me and his speech was just brilliant — insightful and funny and so moving it nearly brought me to tears as I stood next to him and he said, ‘It’s time to bring him home,’ and I was handed the LIMHOF statuette, which I call the LIMMY.”

Murphy has “known Billy ever since we were both profiled in a 1974 Newsweek article called ‘A Pain in the Suburbs’ about suburban rock, a term that luckily did not catch on,” he said. “I came on the scene in the early ’70s around the same time as both Billy and Bruce Springsteen, and I love them both dearly and have shared some memorable experiences. During the peak of the ‘Born in the USA’ success, Bruce and I were eating dinner at a Tex-Mex place in the village called Cottonwood. When the waitress came to take our order, she just stared at Bruce before finally saying, ‘You know, for a minute there I thought you were Bruce Springsteen,’ and then walking away.”

He also fondly remembers “going out to dinner with Billy at around the same time and coming up to his East Side apartment and he was still at the piano writing a song which I remember as ‘New York State of Mind.’ They’re both incredibly talented icons and lovely, generous guys who deserve all the success they’ve earned,” he said.

Murphy hopes to return this August to play the Talkhouse, where he first appeared in 1977. “Also, I have a film ‘Broken Poet’ coming out soon that I wrote and also acted in with a marvelous cast including Marisa Berenson and Michael O’Keefe, as well as remarkable cameo appearances by Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa,” he said.

In the meantime, folks can get their Murphy fix with a read of “Marty May” and “Tramps,” both available through Amazon. His website is www.elliottmurphy.com.

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