Elliott Murphy is the anonymous rock star. A recording artist for 40 years with 35 albums to his name, he lives in the anonymity of fame, or perhaps it’s the fame of anonymity. A staple of the New York underground scene in the ‘70s who counts Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen as fans and friends, he’s been awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture, the country where he’s lived since the ‘70s. He’s never had a huge hit, but still performs regularly to good-sized crowds, and for the most part can walk the streets without recognition.
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Touted in the early ‘70s as one of the new Dylans, Murphy was one of several artists (along with Springsteen, Loudon Wainwright and John Prine) destined to grab the musical poetry baton and lead us into a new wave of folk enlightenment. It’s a label he doesn’t particularly think fits, and one we’re only using to give historical context. But like Dylan, he did get the travelin’ bug when he was young, and in 1971 the wordsmith of Garden City, NY hit the road for Europe with guitar in hand and set up shop in Paris, where he built a dedicated following.
All this leads to Broken Poet, the new movie written by Murphy and directed by Spanish director Emilio Ruiz, which, in a roundabout, metaphysical way, parallels a few elements of his own career.
Based on a short story Murphy wrote in 1985 entitled “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the plot centers around the ‘70s rock star Jake Lion, who is presumed to have committed suicide 40 years ago in Paris. A former roadie happens to be riding the Paris Metro years later and hears an old street musician singing who sounds just like him. Is it Jake? Time to investigate, says Rolling Stone magazine, who sends a journalist to unravel the mystery.
Broken Poet’s plot line is cleverly advanced via key songs in Murphy’s music catalog sprinkled throughout the film, from “Last Of The Rockstars,” the first song off his debut Aquashow to his most recent releases.
Broken Poet also features a rare cameo appearance by Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa, playing themselves. The two discuss their time as contemporaries of Lion and reflect on what made him tick and why he may (or may not) have killed himself.
The film also features Michael O’Keefe, Marisa Berenson, Joanna Preiss and Françoise Viallon. Originally intended to premiere in March as the opening film of the 2020 New York City International Film Festival, but cancelled due to the pandemic, Broken Poet is available online via Vimeo On Demand at the Springsteen fan site Backstreets.
We chatted with Elliott via phone recently to get his take on the mythology of dead rock stars, fame, New York City in the ‘70s and rock journalism.
Did you enjoy acting?
I did in this particular role. It wasn’t that big of a stretch for me. The guy I’m playing is a musician who’s my age. And I wrote the original story the movie was based on, so I had a lot of sources to dig into to play the role. I had done a bit of acting before, but this was my first real role.
Have you ever played on the streets like the character does?
I did. When I first came to Europe in 1971, I played on the streets in Amsterdam, Paris, Rome. Quite a few songs on my first album Aquashow I began there. I realized it didn’t matter what you were playing on the streets. If people heard a good sound, they would throw money in your hat.
When did production for the movie start and end?
It was in the fall of 2018. I had a book of short stories published called “Paris Stories,” which was picked up for Spanish translation. I did a festival in Spain in the spring of 2018 and I met this director Emilio Ruiz and we hit it off. I gave him one of my books and then he searched and found another. He got back to me and thought that particular story would make a good film. Over the summer we wrote the script, started the casting process and I reached out to people I knew, like Michael O’Keefe. Things came together quickly. We did three weeks in Paris and then another week in New York.
How did you decide to feature Bruce Springsteen in the movie playing himself, along with his wife Patti?
We had finished shooting the film in Paris and were heading to New York. Emilio felt it still needed something else to give it a sense of reality- a real rock star talking about this fictional rock star. And I suggested Bruce. There was a documentary about my career a few years back called “The Second Act of Elliott Murphy” and Bruce had appeared in that, along with Billy Joel. I called Bruce and being the incredible, generous and supportive guy, he agreed. I wanted Patti in there too. I thought it would be more interesting to have them as a couple, and also to get a woman’s point of view.
I was not there when they did the scene. Bruce had to change the date because he was doing the Broadway show. Patti stuck more to the script and I think she kind of led Bruce in the way they responded. Bruce didn’t stick to the lines. It was his general picture and view of the character Jake and when he knew him, and it was accurate.
Bruce improvised some of the dialogue?
I gave Bruce the script but most of what he said, he said off the top of his head. He knew the story. He talked about how that kind of fame, that huge kind of fame, is not for everybody. And it’s not. You lose that anonymity where you can’t go out on the street without security. That’s living in a whole different world. Unfortunately, in our world of rock and roll, the usual way out is drugs, rather than faking your death or settling in Tasmania.
His performance in the scene is very believable.
Not only in the way that he spoke about Jake, but in the way he responded. You can hear him thinking in the scene. When I saw it afterwards I was amazed. I can’t thank him enough.
How did you come up with the name Jake Lion?
The original story was ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’ I wrote it in the early ‘80s during what I call ‘my dark period.’ I left the majors, or they left me. I had done four albums and was trying to find my way as an independent, which hardly existed at that time. My career was slowly shifting from America to Europe. I was writing a lot of fiction, including a story for Rolling Stone magazine. And I wrote quite a few stories for a magazine called Music and Sound Output. And one of them was ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’ The song factors into the story. ‘We’re going to let that Jake Lion sleep wherever he wants.’
When it came time to make the movie, there had just been a movie with that same name, so Emilio decided to call our movie “Broken Poet” and that was fine with me.
There’s a connection made with Phantom of the Opera.
I don’t really know it that well. That was Emilio. He was really into it and saw a connection between the two. There are elements that were brought into the film that weren’t in the original script. We needed to put a backstory to Jake.
You threw some subtle New York music references into the movie, like the Max’s Kansas City T-shirts, which I thought was a nice touch.
That is my original T-shirt by the way! A lot of New York artists had our musical homes and Max’s was definitely my club. I was a little before the CBGB’s scene. I liked the history of Max’s. The Velvet Underground played there. It was also home to a lot of singer/songwriters where CBGB’s wasn’t.
You also quoted Willy Deville in one scene.
I knew Willy. I once interviewed him for an Italian magazine. He had just come back from a shopping expedition for walking canes. He was quite a dandy.
What is the difference between song lyrics and memorizing movie lyrics?
That is a very good question. That was the biggest difficulty for me, memorizing the lines of the script. Once the camera is on and you go blank in the middle of a scene, you have to start again. It’s terrible. Luckily my wife Francoise, who I’ve been married to for thirty years, is an actress and she helped me. And Michael O’Keefe came here and helped me with the emotional input as well as the lines.
The biggest difference is, with songs, you have the music guiding the words. You know when you’re going to the chorus or the bridge. The music is the river that you flow down. The movie is free flowing. You really have to memorize it so well that you don’t think about it.
Plus, when you’re performing you have a guitar in your hand, which is almost like a security blanket.
Exactly! It’s the greatest prop. Who is the Peanuts character? Linus. That’s kind of the same deal. But yeah, once I learned the lines, it wasn’t so bad.
I think if it wasn’t for Francoise and Michael, I would have learned the lines. But to really own the character the line has to become second nature to you and just become part of the character as you’re playing them.
Do you keep up on new music and see new artists?
I do. Seeing them and hearing them are different things. My son Gaspard is a producer and mixer so he’s my source of what’s going on and new. He told me to listen to Lana Del Rey, so I did. But getting out to shows, not so much. When you tour as much as I do, it’s a holiday to not go out. The last show I did see, though, was John Prine.
Tell us about your relationship with John.
John, myself and Bruce were branded by the press as the new Dylan’s when we first came out in the early ‘70s. John may have been a little before. Bruce’s second album and my first were next to each other in a Rolling Stone review, as the ‘Best new Dylan’s since 1968.’ I was aware of John and met him in 1975 when I was recording my second album.
This time in Paris was the first time I really talked to him. It was like two veterans of the war getting together. We laughed about the new Dylan stuff because when that first happened Dylan was in his thirties and he we were both in our seventies.
John liked Europe. We talked about doing some shows together in Spain. My big regret was not taking a picture. But it was great to see him and chat for a while.
Speaking of your son, he scored the movie. Did you assist?
I pretty much let Gaspard go on his own. He studied production and all that at SUNY-Purchase. He knows how to do it. All that ambient music was composed, scored and arranged by him. Most of my songs in the film were chosen by Emilio. I had a few I put in and I wrote the theme song “Theme For A Broken Poet” with Gaspar.
Was it a challenge for you to place the sequence of songs in specific scenes in the movie?
I wanted Emilio to be free to put them where he wanted. We moved things around a little bit. As you know, a songwriter’s view of his songs is quite different than the way a listener interprets the lyrics. Where I sit it might be too subjective.
I was happy that we were able to get the rights from Polydor to put in the original recording of “Last of the Rockstars.” We re-recorded the song “Lost Generation” and most of the other songs were from the last ten years.
Do you own your own publishing?
Not for everything. I own a lot of it, everything except my two RCA albums. I own half the publishing on those.
I enjoyed the scene where you describe playing Madison Square Garden. You make a point of saying how different it is when you’re playing for record executives who are in the first two rows rather than fans. That’s a perspective most people don’t have.
Ironically, there’s another line I had after that where I said, ‘and the sound sucks.’ Two weeks after we filmed that scene, I was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame by none other than Billy Joel. Another fantastic, generous guy and one of the finest musicians I know. After that, he invited me to come join him onstage at his Madison Square Garden show to sing “Walk On The Wild Side.” So I got up and sang it. And the sound was fantastic! (laughs). So I told Emilio “you have to get rid of that line because it’s not true!”
It must have been a thrill to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the area where you grew up.
It was. Billy gave a really nice speech. I paraphrased a quote from Bing Crosby or Tony Bennett talking about Frank Sinatra. ‘A great singer like Sinatra only comes along once in a lifetime but why does it have to be my lifetime!’ Billy got a kick out of that.
You have quite an output of material with 35 albums. Are you always writing?
Not too much lately. That is a whole other discussion. I haven’t found the coronavirus or confinement to be too inspiring to write songs. There was a period when I was writing a lot. I tend to record it and then get out and play it. I had a good situation with a studio in France and my collaborator Olivier Durand, who I’ve played with for 25 years. Sometimes it was hard to know when one album was finishing, and another was starting. I’ve always thought that musicians have too much time on their hands. An album a year is a reasonable output.
The line in the movie “his songs knew more about him than he knew about the songs” is very on point. Where did that come from?
It’s the other side of what I like to say, ‘I wish I could be the man who writes my songs.’ Not that I am not that person. But I wish I could have the faith, the insight and the trust I have in the songs. I think your songs know more about you than you do.
Writing songs is a bit of therapy. Bruce and I once had a conversation about what went wrong with Elvis. And Bruce made this point ‘well, he didn’t write his songs.’ He never had to come face to face with himself, like songwriters do. That always struck me.
How important was press and getting record reviews back in the ‘70s?
There was this golden age back then where music journalists were leading the industry. When the music we love so much now started taking off in the ‘60s it took the record labels by surprise. They were just along for the ride and counting the money. It was really the journalists who were showing them the way, an amazing group of writers. Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Robert Hilburn and Paul Nelson. Paul had come from the folk scene and started a magazine called the Little Sandy Review. He went to college with Bob Dylan. Bob stole his Woody Guthrie albums from his dorm room, I think. So we have Paul to thank for Bob! Paul really discovered me and wrote a glowing review of Aquashow in Rolling Stone. That really opened the doors for me on radio and all over.
Rolling Stone changed a lot of the perspective for what you could write. You had Downbeat but that was jazz. The rest of the magazines would ask ‘what’s your favorite color’ or ‘who’s your girlfriend?’ ‘what do you do on a Saturday night?’
I think that was a golden age that does not exist anymore. And once MTV came along, the visual replaced the written word. That changed a lot.
Besides being a ‘new Dylan’ were there other artists you were compared to early on?
There was a lot of Lou Reed. In those early days, they mentioned either Lou Reed, Bob Dylan or F. Scott Fitzgerald. That’s kind of where I fit in! The interesting thing I always say about the ‘new Bob Dylan’ comparisons we all got was that none of us sounded like each other. I didn’t sound like John Prine or Loudon Wainwright or Bruce. I was just honored to be mentioned in the same breath as any of them.