A ‘Second Act’ in Cinema for a Resilient Native Son

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Maybe novelist Thomas Wolfe had it wrong. For Elliott Murphy, world-renowned singer-songwriter and Garden City, LI, native, it seems you can go home again.

Elliott Murphy

Elliott Murphy

Murphy, who moved to Paris in 1989 to satisfy the demands of his growing European fan base, still returns for occasional visits to see his family and friends, and for a handful of performances in the Northeastern U.S.

But on July 26, at 9:15 pm, he will return to Long Island for a special event: the American premiere of The Second Act of Elliott Murphy, a 90-minute full-length feature film about his resurgent career, to be screened at SBU’s Staller Center for the Arts as part of the Stony Brook Film Festival.

“Once I became aware of the Stony Brook Film Festival, I knew that was where The Second Act must have its U.S. premiere, and so I submitted the film,” Murphy said.

When Staller Center Director Alan Inkles accepted the film in this year’s festival, Murphy said he was overjoyed.

“It’s really a well-made documentary about a very interesting character. That’s the most important thing,” said Inkles. “He’s a local guy who played here some years back and people remember him from ‘My Father’s Place’ in Roslyn. He might be the most famous rock and roll guy living in Paris.”

Following the film, Murphy will appear with his acoustic guitar and harmonica and perform a short set and then field questions from the audience with Second Act filmmaker Jorge Arenillas.

For Murphy, it will be his fourth appearance at Stony Brook. Alumni will remember that he opened for legendary psychedelic blues band Hot Tuna, joined by his brother Matthew on bass and boyhood pal George Gateson Gates on guitar on April 29, 1974. He also took the stage here on April 10, 1976 with ex-Modern Lovers members Ernie Brooks and Jerry Harrison (who later joined new wave pioneers the Talking Heads).

On December 6, 2009, WUSB folk deejay Charlie Backfish featured Elliott and his band, The Normandy All-Stars, in his Sunday Street Series.

Backfish said, “One of my goals in producing the Sunday Street Series has been to showcase artists who were very much an important part of what I programmed on WUSB in the late 70s and early 80s but who seemed to be less visible on the music scene in the years following that, only to re-appear and receive much-deserved attention after 2000. That would include Elliott.”

Murphy refers to Stony Brook as “the Berkeley of the East Coast” and “where you went to learn how to be a hippie if you couldn’t get to San Francisco.”

Elliott Murphy

Murphy in “The Second Act of Elliott Murphy”

In 1973, Murphy’s first album AQUASHOW was released and he was proclaimed “the best Bob Dylan since 1968” by a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. But by 1978, with four albums on three major record labels under his belt, his U.S. career was inexplicably in ruins. A year later, he played his first concert in Paris, sold out, to six encores. Not long after that, his entire touring schedule became Europe-based.

Elliott, who is a friend of living legend Bruce Springsteen and who occasionally joins “The Boss” onstage for a few musical numbers, said that Springsteen and Long Island piano man and icon Billy Joel agreed to be in the film as well.

“After Jorge did a first cut, he felt the film needed more gravitas and he really wanted to interview Bruce because we were closely linked as the ‘new Dylans’ in the early 1970s. I called Bruce and without a moment’s hesitation he graciously agreed,” Murphy said.

Murphy had recently gotten back in touch with Joel and sent a photo of himself, Billy and gumbo-rocker Dr. John along with an invitation to also participate in the film. Like Springsteen, Joel accepted.

“I can’t express how grateful I am to both of them for taking the time to be interviewed for the film.”

Thanks to “Show Archives” that his fans helped create, Murphy is able to count more than 2,500 documented performances he has logged between 1973 and 2017.

He is also a published novelist, poet and short-story writer. He penned a novel, Marty May, the story of a rock guitarist, partly inspired by a one-and-a-half-year enrollment at Nassau Community College studying literature. Always persistent, he finally earned a bachelor of arts degree from SUNY Empire State in 1987.

Two other rock and roll novels followed — a trilogy he would love to see published in the United States — Diamonds by the Yard, co-written with brother Matthew) and Tramps, named after a club he played in New York City in the 1980s.

Murphy also wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine and composed the liner notes for 1969: Velvet Underground Live, which led to a friendship with the late Lou Reed.

Murphy recalls how he found time to devote to what he refers to as his “religion”  — writing.

In 1978, after an “abrupt exit” from Columbia Records, he finally had time to settle down to do some serious writing.

“My hero at the time was F. Scott Fitzgerald and I was reading his “Pat Hobby Stories,” which concern a screenwriter in Hollywood on the skids,” said Murphy. “I found my own character come to life in the personage of Marty May, a talented white blues-guitarist whose own career, after a very promising start, had been cut short.”

A fortuitous meeting with Jann Wenner, the editor and founder of Rolling Stone, on 57th Street in 1978, propelled Murphy to continue to follow his literary muse. When Wenner asked what he was up to, Murphy told him about Marty and his envisioned series of a collection of rock ’n roll short stories. Wenner immediately wanted to publish one in Rolling Stone as soon as it was ready.

But first Rolling Stone published a few poems of Murphy’s; then, in the January 1980 issue, they published his story “Cold and Electric.” Wenner did the editing himself and encouraged Murphy to expand that story into a novel. Through a long, convoluted history (which included several editions in Spanish and German) the novel was published in its entirety in French and English as Marty May.

“Since moving to Paris, I’ve also published a neo-western novel Poetic Justice and Paris Stories, a collection of short stories I wrote in the 1990s. There’s also a poetry collection, Forty Poems in Forty Nights, Murphy said.

If literature is his religion, Murphy describes music as his addiction. He has a strong musical vein running through his family — in addition to his brother, Murphy’s father, Elliott Murphy Sr., was also a musician and introduced him to music.

“He could play anything and he bought me my first electric guitar at Manny’s Music Store on West 48th Street,” he said. His mother, Josephine, who he once took guitar lessons with, is 91 and still a huge rock fan of rock in general.

And the legend lives on. Murphy’s son Gaspard earned a degree in studio production at SUNY Purchase a few years ago, produced his past few albums and translates his ideas in the studio to the other musicians. He has even joined him on stage to help Springsteen sing “Born to Run” on a few occasions as well.

So, what songs should you count on hearing Murphy play on July 26? “Probably ‘Last of the Rock Stars,’ ‘Drive All Night’ and maybe ‘Elvis Presley’s Birthday,'” he said.

“Thirty-five albums on, Elliott Murphy is  in his words from ’73  ‘The Last of the Rock Stars.’ We welcome him home on July 26,” said Norm Prusslin, director, media arts minor and academy and co-founder/board member of The Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

Murphy frequently jokes about how it never hurt his career to be cited, along with others, as one of the new Bob Dylans. “All the new Dylans seem to be still working (as well as the old Dylan too),” he said. Perhaps it was a guarantee of lifetime employment. We’re all strumming these guitars and rhyming words to infinity.”

— Glenn Jochum

 

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