Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Singing the White Suburban Blues

Elliott Murphy is a singer-songwriter who wears white suits and keeps his long blond hair as sleek and soft as a debutante's. A lot of people think he is the greatest thing since Watergate. His first album, Aquashow, is uncommonly assured and eloquent rock and roll. Its breadth, its focus, and its canny compassion make all that sensitive flannel-shirt music sound provincial and quiescent rather than rooted and calm. Your average vegetarian does not come up with lines like: "Your veins fill up with butter, the blood won't run through them/Then your kid o.d.s on goof balls and gives the finger to you."

Murphy also says interesting things to interviewers over his lamb chops and spinach. I recalled reading one like: "I don't ever want to appear on television. As soon as someone can be seen on television it makes him safe." When I pointed out that a taping date for Midnight Special had been inserted into his spring tour with the Kinks and Jefferson Starship, he began testing retorts: "Well, Dylan did the Les Crane show, so maybe once is all right."

Or: "I figure as long as I wear sunglasses I'm OK."

Or: "I tried to compromise. I said I'd do it in black and white, but they wouldn't go for it."

Murphy is 24. He grew up in a mansion on Long Island, but after the death of his father (who owned an aquashow), he moved to a two-bedroom house in a less ritzy suburb. He has been playing in groups since he was 12. In the mid-Sixties, one of his groups won a statewide amateur contest with its rendition of the Shangri-Las' "Walking in the Sand." Murphy also dropped out of Nassau Community College and rescued his girlfriend from private school by rowing her across Lake Geneva in the dead of night. His hero is F. Scott Fitzgerald and he is interested in Hitler, although he doesn't like Hitler very much.

After 12 years of woodshedding. Murphy would rather read books than practice or listen to the stereo, a taste that will distress those who are so impressed by the lyrics of Aquashow that they believe it is short on music, which is silly. The album does not contain that telltale sign of twisted values, a lyric sheet; and its melodies and guitar are spare and imaginative. Murphy knows so much about music that when Polydor put him in a studio with Thomas Jefferson Kaye, a prestigious California supersession producer, he took a plane back to New York.

In about a year people will listen to that crude Planet Waves record again and realize that classy supersession producers are now titans of the new schlock. Murphy figured that out on his own. Of the six musicians on Aquashow, which was recorded in seven nights with live vocals and lots of unused tracks on the console, the best known are drummer Gene Parsons (perfect) and Frank Owens, who played keyboards on Bringing It All Back Home. The sound is clear and the voice is out front, and there is just enough Shangri-Las in Murphy for a hook harmony now and then. Rock and roll was meant to be rough around the edges and clean up the middle.

Unlike the laid-back exurbanites and pitiful rich immigrants who dominate rock in these dark times, Murphy is enough of an artist to draw on his own life without getting stuck in it. Hitler interests him because he knows music has to do with stardom and stardom with power. He can't understand why all these 25-grand-a-night guys just go back to the hotel and get wrecked when the gig is over. He finds his prospects fascinating and frightening.

"It's like 1933 now, the crash is coming, and then people are going to want a leader again. Don't you think Roosevelt was our Hitler?"

Or: "What worries me is, the more successful people become, the more the work suffers."

Or: "I just want a cushion where I don't have to think about things like getting the groceries. Those things scare me."

Oui, 1974?

Postscript Notes:

Don't have the publication date. Probable date is early 1974. Aquashow came out sometime in 1973. Bob Dylan's Planet Waves came out in Jan. 1974. Murphy, referred to as age 24 in the piece, turned 25 on Mar. 16, 1974. Murphy's second album, unmentioned above, came out in 1975.