I have an interesting one for you today. As I am sure you will remember, we discussed Elliott Murphy in an earlier post named Just A Story From America. If you read that post you know I am a huge Elliott fan but I have to say that his songs are not widely covered. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a John Mellencamp cover of Last of the Rock Stars from a 1984 concert in Cleveland, Ohio. I don’t think you will find this one anywhere else. Enjoy.
So….any opinions on the question I posed in the last post? Let’s provide some more background information in the form of a story and see if the answer becomes any clearer.
It’s 1973, the height of the singer/songwriter era, and you have just released your first album called Aquashow on the Polydor label. The headline for the Aquashow review in Rolling Stone magazine is: “He’s the Best Dylan Since 1968”. Here, let’s take a listen.
Great news? Nope….you are officially fucked because you have just been hit with the “Dylan comparison”.
But wait, you aren’t alone. Another young singer/songwriter name Bruce Springsteen has also recently been hit with the same comparison in the April 26, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone in an article titled “Bruce Springsteen: It’s Sign Up a Genius Month”. To quote the first paragraph of the article:
“It’s more than a decade since John Hammond Sr. of Columbia Records signed Bob Dylan to a recording contract. Since then, Hammond has signed a number of other successes and, by his own admission, a number of “stiffs”. Now he has signed Bruce Springsteen, 23, of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Hammond says. “He’s much further along, much more developed than Bobby was when he came to me.”
As it turns out, despite all of the critical acclaim, neither your first album nor Bruce’s first album has significant commercial success. Strike one
Move ahead to your and Bruce’s second albums (Lost Generation and The Wild, the Innocent, and E Street Shuffle). For this album you decide to jump to RCA, perhaps with the hope that they will promote you better. Bruce sticks with Columbia. To quote Paul Nelson’s Rolling Stone review for Lost Generation,
“Elliott Murphy’s first album, Aquashow (Polder), released 18 months ago, showed exceptional promise and intelligence, prompting many, myself included, to ready a place in the higher echelons of rock & roll for the talented Long Islander. Now after a lengthy season of hard times – new label, new manager, new producer – Murphy returns to stand, deliver, and collect. On Lost Generation, a brilliant but extraordinarily difficult LP, the artist is hurt, angry and confused by the shifting role of the hero in modern times and the growing division between intoxicating myth and sobering reality in his personal and public lives.”
Wow, commercial success seems to be a certainty, but once again, your hopes are dashed. Bruce’s fate with The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle is similar. Strike two
You and Bruce both recognize that your careers are behind with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It is time to swing for the fences or go home. For brevity we will skip the story of Bruce’s third record here especially since everyone already knows it. Bruce did swing for the fence and produced Born To Run, an absolutely stunning album. Rolling Stone ranked Born to run as the 18th best album of all time, it was a huge commercial success, and Bruce’s was launched into superstardom.
You also took your best shot with your third album, Night Lights, but its receptions by critics and listeners was mixed. Dave Marsh’s review of Night Lights in Rolling Stone touched on what he considered to be a key difference between you and Bruce,
“In 1973 and 1974 it seemed to many of us in New York that it was a tossup whether Bruce Springsteen, the native poet of the mean streets, or Elliott Murphy, the slumming suburbanite with the ironic eye, would be come a national hero first. Well we all know how that turned out, and while Murphy must be almost as sick of being compared to Springsteen as to Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, their careers have such interesting parallels that it is almost unavoidable.
The crucial difference is that Springsteen’s genius was first perceived as lyrical and turned out to be musical, while it was Murphy’s music that was originally found compelling even though his literary qualities have come to dominate.”
The only positive in Marsh’s review had to do with the first song in the album named Diamonds by the Yard. Marsh noted: “Diamonds by the Yard is such a complete success as a spooky post-Velvet Underground mood piece that it would be a mistake to write off Murphy’s career. “ This ended up being a very insightful comment since Diamonds by the Yard became a cult hit…in France, as the album bombed in the US like your first two. It was indeed too early write off your career as you later decided to move to France where you have had a “successful” European career ever since. Just A Story From America indeed.
Before we leave this story let’s once again revisit the question that was posted in the previous post. I think that some of the answers are highlighted in the background details provided above. Elliott’s music did indeed focus on literary themes as highlighted by Dave Marsh and it was indeed difficult as highlighted by Paul Nelson, too much so, in both cases, for the typical American listener. As in many cases, a genius is not appreciated in his own time or in his own homeland. Jerry Lewis….anyone?
As an epilogue, it is worth noting that Elliott produced Just a Story From America, which many consider to be his masterpiece, as his forth album after switching to Columbia. It was too late to resurrect his US career but it is indeed a wonderful album.
If this post has made you interested enough to explore Elliott’s music as captured in his first four albums, I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that all of these albums are out of print and unavailable at any reasonable price. A quick scan of Amazon indicates that your best option might be a greatest hits CD named Diamonds by the Yard. Only one used CD is listed as being available for this album and it is priced at $99.99! Now the good news. Elliott Murphy has a wonderful website that lists his complete discography, well over thirty albums at this point, and provides in depth detail on each album. More importantly it allows you to listen to the songs for free. Enjoy! As always, let me know what you think.
You didn’t expect me to do all of the work did you? Your homework assignment for tonight is to listen to the song at the following link and consider the following question: Why do some musicians achieve huge commercial success while others who are equally talented never really make it?
We will talk more about this song and this musician this weekend. I wonder if the answer to the question posed above can be found somewhere in these night lights?