L J Murphy Biography
A modern-day beatnik, a vaudeville barker, a “New York noir” rocker, a blues growler, a barroom balladeer, a saloon philosopher, a subway cabaret monster, and an untraditional traditionalist? Singer-songwriter L J Murphy has been described as all of these.
Murphy shrugs off such labeling and says “Hey, that’s one hell of a resume, but I don’t think it would get me a steady job at the gas station”.
Apparently he did work at a gas station in high school: “Actually, I’d cover the occasional shift for an older friend of mine, in exchange for him telling me stories about his time in the Air Force and jail. It was the overnight shift, I’d sneak out of the house at 11:30 PM and head over there on the bus, use my student bus pass and everything, the driver never questioned me. Every high school kid should be required to work a few overnight shifts at a gas station. No education should be considered complete without that. One bitter cold night I was huddled with the space heater next to the hydraulic lift, starting to doze off, when suddenly a very large hillbilly-looking cat in overalls and no shirt (mind you it was February and cold as can be) is standing in front me saying his car broke down about a mile down the road and he really needed some water. I filled up one of those big Prestone anti-freeze bottles that I’d found out back with water and handed it to him. He thanked me and started to walk away down the road toward where he’d supposedly left his disabled car, suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks tilted his head way back and guzzled the entire content of the anti-freeze bottle. I thought that he needed the water for his radiator or something, not to quench his thirst! I still have nightmares about it occasionally."
I include that anecdote because the hillbilly gentleman with a taste for radiator fluid would not be out of place among the characters that populate Murphy’s songs. A Welfare hotel-dwelling WWII vet who’s puzzled at the mustachioed girls hanging out in front of his building, drunken failed beauticians, an old man walking down the aisle at a burlesque show hawking Eskimo Pies, a snake-handling stripper, a love-struck young man who’s treading the fine line between romance and stalking, a Wall Street tycoon who likes to unwind by being spanked after a hard day at the office – all are citizens of Murphy’s lyrical world, a world where sermons blare out all night from the roofs of radio cars.
In Mad Within Reason, the title track of Murphy’s self released debut cd, (available through cdbaby.com and I-tunes) he dices up our current socio-political and pop culture landscapes:
The sinews and cobwebs have clung to our lips
And crosses and pistols are slung at our hips
I cried for my supper, then spat on the plate
While everyone tried to become what they hate
The industry captain, a smile on his face
So proud of the changes he’s made to this place.
(copyright L J Murphy)
Murphy explains, “There are no hidden messages or deeply buried meanings in my songs; they are very plain-spoken. They are saying exactly what they mean. I call it as I see it. Sometimes I’m seeing the world at a three-quarter view, and that’s my prerogative, I don’t want to be limited that way. I’m always changing the lighting in my apartment for the same reason. It’s about different perspectives. Painters know all about this stuff”.
Growing up as an Irish Catholic boy in New York City, Murphy’s imagination was constantly being fueled with imagery both cultural and environmental.
“Anyone who attended Catholic School knows that there’s an abundance of colorful imagery, light and dark, that you are exposed to from a very young age. There was also a pocket of very eccentric characters that lived in my neighborhood," he recalls, “ we had everything from lawyers and teachers to traffic screamers to hardened criminals, even murderers. A traffic screamer is simply someone who stands by the curb and screams at the cars as they go by. In our neighborhood the traffic screamer was a man that the kids called Jerry Whoopie, I don’t know if that was his real name; probably not, but he was very reliable. Day in and day out he’d be there, screaming at the traffic, bundled up in his winter coat and hat all year around”.
Murphy cut his performer’s teeth at Greenwich Village open mic nights in the 1990’s, eventually scoring a residency at an East Village night-club called the C-Note that ran for over 80 consecutive weeks.
Murphy’s live shows are eclectic and rambunctious affairs highlighting the wide array of genres that his songwriting encompasses, from blues and ballads to funk to country to soul to rockabilly to folk and back again.
“We’ve often been called a blues band, and obviously I love playing the blues, but I’m extremely resistant to letting anyone box me into a particular genre. I often hear musicians say ‘oh I’m in a speed metal band or this type of band or that type of band’, and to me that seems so limiting. I suppose that type of pigeon-holing can be useful in a marketing sense – easier branding – but I'd have to give up a lot of freedom. Music is such a wide and beautiful frontier, why not explore as much of it as you possibly can?”
If you think Murphy’s back stiffens at any attempt to categorize his music, try asking him if he’s a traditionalist. “A traditionalist? Why the hell would anyone call me a traditionalist? My work is totally based in the here and now, the subject matter is now! Just because my music owes more of a debt to Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Dr. John than to The Who or Led Zeppelin or any of the other TRADITIONAL heroes of today’s guitar-oriented bands doesn’t make me a traditionalist.”
He continues, “It’s all about working the emotional center, you’ve got to dig around in the gravel pit and not be afraid of getting your hands dirty. Look, you must have seen old time rock and roll film clips. How much audacity did Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard or James Brown have? It was in every note and every gesture! Rock and Roll has lost its audacity. Most of the new bands I hear are well-intentioned but reverential and boring. There are exceptions, but they’re few and far between. It’s no wonder the audience has shrunk.”
Where does he see his place in today’s musical landscape? “Songwriting is a responsibility that shouldn’t be trivialized. Music is a very powerful medium and connects with people on a very deep level. I’m fully aware that a song that I think is a piece of trash might have saved someone’s life in the middle of their darkest night; likewise a song that I love could leave someone else completely indifferent. If someone comes to my show or listens to my record and comes away feeling differently, good or bad, as long as it hits a nerve, I’ve done my job.”
You can keep up with L J Murphy and his band by visiting www.ljmurphy.com.