The Graceless Age
“I detested virtuosity and its attendant features from the very beginning, I detested above all appearing before the populace, I absolutely detested the applause, I couldn’t stand it, for years I didn’t know, is it the bad air of concert halls or the applause I can’t stand, or both, until I realized that I couldn’t stand virtuosity per se and especially not piano virtuosity. For I absolutely detested the public and everything that had to do with this public…”
(—Thomas Bernhard, ‘The Loser’)
Words & Illustration: Craig Carry
“We’re all in this shit together”, John Murry tells his disciples at Whelans, asking us to move forward towards the stage. It is Sunday 27th January 2013. The setting is the upstairs venue at Whelans, on 25 Wexford Street, Dublin, Ireland.
This is John Murry’s first Irish show on his European tour promoting his debut solo album ‘The Graceless Age’, the heartbreaking masterpiece released last year on Bucketfull Of Brains. For the assembled fans, this was no ordinary gig though. We were gathered here to witness the mythical John Murry, the man behind this awe-inspiring record. In short, we were here to witness history.
Poignantly, on looking at the stage, the first thing to be noticed – on Murry’s fine array of guitars – was the name ‘Tim’ printed large, in black, on his electric guitar. Tim, of course, being the late great Tim Mooney (American Music Club), whose presence was clearly felt on this magical night. Mooney – John’s dear friend and compatriot – recorded and co-produced ‘The Graceless Age’, and was hugely influential in realizing the stunning arrangements and immaculate recording of the finished album.
To say, the evening in question was “highly anticipated” would be a gross understatement. This is the man who has previously “died”, only to survive, write an album about it, and create one of the most defining albums of recent times (and of all time) in the process. This is no false prophet. A wolf in sheep’s clothing Mr. John Murry certainly is not. The man – and the music – is as blood-red as the Mississippi clay itself. Amidst the (many) false prophets, John Murry is the true saviour.
Tonight, the stage was set for a piece of musical history. Onstage, Murry and band form a quartet, with keyboards, guitar and drums accompanying Murry’s haunting songs, each one dripping with emotion. From the opening ‘The Ballad Of The Pajama Kid’ we know we’re in for a magical night. The set, as well as drawing largely from ‘The Graceless Age’, would also feature two stunning new compositions (the latter performed on the encore with John solo on a twelve string acoustic), several of Murry and Bob Frank’s collaborative recordings, and incredible covers of both Sparklehorse and Townes Van Zandt.
“The air is filled with lead / lights are going down / they told me to forget you / they never told me how” Murry sings on ‘The Ballad Of The Pajama Kid’, drawing his audience into his incredible songbook. The songs on the night were performed as immaculately as one would expect. If one thing is absolutely certain about John Murry; it is the fact that he does not do things in half-measures; if things are going to be done, they’ll be done in all their glory – blood-spilled and all.
This was a performance highlighting the fine art of deconstruction. The intricate songs from ‘The Graceless Age’ would be taken apart (as if Murry was seeing what put them together in the first place) only before putting them back together with his own bare hands before our very eyes. ‘Southern Sky’ would be played in an almost funk or reggae fashion, the rhythm’s irresistible groove would never hide those fragile lyrics though: “I’ve got no past / there is no future / this sickness follows me around”. ‘California’ is played with even more charged feelings than on record; Both electric guitars form a field of reverb akin to Neil Young and Crazy Horse while Murry’s vocal delivery is reminiscent of Tom Waits at his most visceral as he snarls: “My soul has been bled / Don’t know for sure / if my heart is breaking / Is your’s breaking too?”
Later, Murry’s “Things We Lost In The Fire” – like on record – begins as a beautifully delicate lap-steel-accompanied country song (where Murry sings “I don’t need nobody / I’ll tear down this machine”) and later further electric guitars layer together to a stunning climax. The storming ‘Photograph’ concludes with an earth-shattering finale where crashing drums and feedback-heavy guitars recalls American Music Club at their brilliant best. To witness Murry and band perform Mark Linkous’s ‘Maria’s Little Elbows’ was a truly special and touching tribute to one of Murry’s musical heroes. Mark Linkous would indeed be a proud man. Who better to sing Linkous’s painful words of alienation than Murry:
Came kicking at my door”
(—’Maria’s Little Elbows’, taken from the Sparklehorse album, ‘Good Morning Spider’, 1998)
The closer to the set (prior to a three-song encore) was ‘Little Colored Balloons’, a song so personal it feels almost wrong to listen to on record, not to mind in person. As Murry realizes that the audience knows what is in store, he says – reassuringly – “We’ll get through it okay” before launching into one of the most life-affirming songs ever conceived, a song which reveals more and more pain with every single listen; a song written about Murry’s overdose when he was found clinically dead:
“Nightmares in daylight! I’m stealing the birthright! Off 16th and Mission! I took an ambulance ride: they said I should’ve died, right there on 16th and Mission.”
Tonight the man behind the legend stepped onto the stage to prove to us that he does, in fact, exist – that these songs were in fact penned by the hand of a mortal. On ‘Little Colored Balloons’ Murry sings: “I know you don’t believe in magic / Nobody does anymore.” Well, on the night of Sunday 27th January 2013, we can both safely say that magic indeed does exist. In the form of Mr. John Murry’s music.
This was also our first time meeting John Murry in person, having been in contact with him since the release of ‘The Graceless Age’ last July. Too shy to meet him beforehand, our simple wish was to hand him a gift (a framed portrait, the scanned version accompanies this piece). Our intention was to leave the parcel at the merchandise table afterwards. But as fate would have it, John Murry walks across both our paths, he is now standing a couple feet away. We shyly introduce ourselves. He has indeed remembered us, we hug and hand him our picture; he opens it right there and then and hugs us once more; and amidst the following conversation we do indeed get to say what we wished most of all to tell him:
“Thank you. Thank you for your music.”
“… Whatever condition we are in, we must always do what we want to do, and if we want to go on a journey, then we must do so and not worry about our condition, even if it’s the worst possible condition, because, if it is, we’re finished anyway, whether we go on the journey or not, and it’s better to die having made the journey we’re been longing for than to be stifled by our longing.”
(―Thomas Bernhard, ‘Concrete’)
‘The Graceless Age’ is out now on Bucketfull Of Brains (EU). In the U.S. Evangeline Recording Co. will release ‘The Graceless Age’ on March 5, 2013.
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