It Doesn’t Get Much Better than Springsteen in ’76, Says Elliott Murphy
It’s not easy for Elliott Murphy to pick the best concert he has ever seen.
“I was born in 1949 and started playing guitar and getting into music when I was 12, so that makes over 50 years of historic shows to choose from,” says the New York-raised rock poet who now lives in Paris.
“They range from The Ronettes performing at my dad’s restaurant on Long Island in the early ’60s — very impressive for a young teenage guy because their skirts were very short — to Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream, Janis Joplin, and Led Zeppelin. They were all in their heyday at legendary venues like the Fillmore East. I saw Dylan with The Band in 1974 and Bowie, the Stones and Lou Reed numerous times. But if I have to pick a single concert in its entirety that I enjoyed the most as a spectator and an artist, it would be a Bruce Springsteen show in 1976 that had a profound effect on me.”
The concert was on Springsteen’s home turf at the Monmouth Arts Center in Red Bank, New Jersey. Springsteen played several shows there in early August 1976, and Murphy believes he attended the Aug. 2 show.
That night Springsteen fired out a dozen songs, including a cover of The Animals’ “It’s My Life” and several of his best songs, including “Spirit in the Night,” Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Born to Run,” “She’s the One” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).”
He then performed a unique three-song encore: a cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand,” his own “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and a cover of the Phil Upchurch Combo’s 1961 hit “You Can’t Sit Down.”
“There was a dramaturgy to Bruce’s performance from the moment he came on stage—a story was being told as if he was the main character in a musical play. It was part West Side Story and part Huckleberry Finn, and still pure rock ’n’ roll. The lighting was very precise and theatrical, and the E-Street Band was as tight as it gets.”
Murphy says there was “a kind of unsaid competition” between Bruce and him when they both arrived on the scene in 1973 and were crowned the “new Dylan.” That’s “ironic,” Murphy says, “because neither of us sounds much like each other, so how could we sound like Bob Dylan?”
Murphy caused quite a stir with Aquashow, his 1973 debut album named after his father’s water shows at the Flushing, New York, site that hosted the 1964 World’s Fair. Rolling Stone called the album — which was filled with songs about Long Island, New York City, and Europe — “the best Dylan since 1968.” The magazine reviewed Aquashow and Springsteen’s first record Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. in the same issue and devoted more space to Aquashow.
“I think it was more a question of my music being perceived as a continuation of Bob’s Blonde on Blonde period and Bruce’s music perceived as if Highway 61 Revisited had kept going down the road straight to New Jersey!” Murphy says. “Anyway, it was a lot of nonsense, and the two of us have remained friends for over 40 years. But this concert proved hands down that Bruce was the best rock performer at that moment in this world. No doubt about it.”
Murphy says The Rolling Stones’ concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris on July 11, 2003, influenced him more than any other live show.
“My brother who is a tour manager managed to get my family tickets at the very last minute, and we stood among the happy few at this intimate 1,500-seat venue. At such close proximity, you could really hear how Keith and Charlie create their own indelible and unstoppable rhythm base, and Mick Jagger’s vocal performance on “That’s How Strong My Love Is” was hands down the best live vocal I ever heard in my life. And these guys were nearing 60 years old — if not already there. So I knew after that show that I could keep going on as a performer, too. It gave me hope, and here I am at 66 still on the road!”
And still in the studio, too. Murphy’s new album, Aquashow Deconstructed, brings Aquashow back to life with new versions of the album’s songs.
“For years, fans and record companies have been asking me to re-record my first album either as a live album with my current band or unplugged,” Murphy explains. “I even had a U.S. investor who wanted to contact the original musicians and recreate those sessions in New York.
“In 2006, the prestigious U.K. magazine Uncut called it an ‘album classic’ in a full-page review, and that reinforced my belief that Aquashow and its 10 songs deserved another chance, a second act, while being kept together as a musical family.
“The truth is that Aquashow probably deserved to be a hit when it was originally released, but — because of distribution problems — it was denied that opportunity. Critics loved it, U.S. radio played it constantly and I toured to support it, but you could not find the album in the stores until months later. I always wanted those songs to live again. When Gaspard Murphy, my son and producer, suggested reducing the songs to their most essential elements and then rebuilding them — not only a process of deconstruction but also reconstruction — it was kind of a eureka moment for me, and the direction became clear.”
On Aquashow Deconstructed, Murphy says he sings the 10 Aquashow songs “again, but this time with wisdom, authority and perhaps even a touch of regret. Like Jay Gatsby, perhaps this is my way of trying to repeat the past, or at least come to terms with it, give it another chance and have a second fling with my Daisy.”
Aquashow Deconstructed follows Murphy’s 2013 release, It Takes A Worried Man.
“I was trying to express the dichotomy of being an older rock songwriter and performer in what is essentially a young man’s game,” Murphy says about It Takes A Worried Man. “When you’re writing songs at 60, they almost inadvertently take on a blue tinge in lyrical content and musicality, and, perhaps, songs such as “I am Empty” and “Even Steven” convey that bittersweet mood. But still I can’t help but let the exuberance and totally irrational optimism of rock and roll infiltrate any of the 35 or so records I’ve made so far. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that a superior mind can hold two opposite ideas in the mind at the same time, and that’s the job of any rock artist: expressing joy and redemption in a world full of doom and gloom.”
Some recording artists have expressed dismay about being dubbed the “new Dylan,” but not Murphy.
“Some might say it’s a curse, but I can tell you that everyone who ever held that dubious title — and that includes myself, Bruce Springsteen, Loudon Wainwright, John Prine and, lately, Jake Bugg — are still out there working, so maybe it’s a guarantee of lifetime employment.”
Murphy says he said hello to Dylan once backstage in Paris, “but it was impossible to tell if he acknowledged me.”
“But here’s the story of how Bob Dylan changed my career and life. In 1972, Polydor sent me to Los Angeles to record my first album, and, after one day in the studio with producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, I knew we were of two different minds when it came to the direction of the album. He wanted something country rock with a touch of New Orleans funk. I was looking for pure rock—Stones, Velvet Underground, with the unbridled wordiness of a folk album.
“The night after that first dismal day in the studio, my brother Matthew and I were in the Rainbow Bar and Grill on LA’s Sunset Strip not knowing what to do. Should I return to New York and start over? But if I did, maybe the record company would drop me then and there. I put my arm up on the banquet I was sitting on and bumped into somebody sitting behind me. I turned around to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and there was none other than Bob Dylan. I kid you not! He was sitting with Jack Nicholson and Joni Mitchell and a few others. He just stared at me and soon left the place. We tried to follow him, but he lost us. Regardless, just seeing him at that moment was an epiphany for me, and gave me the courage to call off the sessions, return to New York and record Aquashow, as it should be done. Even today, it’s referred to as a ‘classic,’ and, if I hadn’t had the guts to start again, it would have been something else entirely. Thanks Bob!”