Katherine Yeske Taylor Has a Real Good Giggle with the Godfather of Goth
Chinatown is, perhaps, not a part of Manhattan where you’d expect to find Peter Murphy. Yet here he is, staying at a stylish hotel in the heart of that bustling neighborhood, having just arrived the night before so he can do a 12-show residency at the venerable New York City venue (Le) Poisson Rouge.
The intention had been to coax him out into this colorful neighborhood as we chatted, but the sweltering summer day has instead resulted in our taking refuge on a shady 15th floor balcony overlooking the long, narrow Sara D. Roosevelt Park and, beyond, Midtown’s soaring skyline. A constant buzz of traffic and construction emanates from the bustling streets.
I ask for permission to record this interview.
“You’re welcome to, but you can take out the cheeky bits.” He reconsiders. “Unless they’re good cheeky bits. If they’re good cheeky bits, that’s okay.”
It turns out this this is a fair predictor of how things will go – he is in a merry mood, his lighthearted mischievous sense of humor the predominant trait on display today.
This is at odds with the dark image that Murphy has been associated with for the past 40 years. He first found fame as lead singer of the post-punk band Bauhaus, becoming legendary for his emotive baritone, menacing yet alluring stage presence, and aristocratic good looks. Bauhaus’ very first single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” became an instant underground classic upon its 1979 release; the sinister, atmospheric song is, arguably, one of the most renowned alternative anthems ever recorded.
The next year, Bauhaus released a full-length debut album, In the Flat Field, securing their status as darkwave visionaries. After three more studio albums, they disbanded in 1983; by then, they were being credited as innovative icons who helped create an entirely new musical genre, though their influence extends to an impressive array of artists: Nine Inch Nails, Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden, Interpol, and Flaming Lips, among many others, have cited Bauhaus as a key inspiration.
After Bauhaus, Murphy has enjoyed a successful solo career, employing a more lush ambience than the spindly, minimalist Bauhaus songs, though his affinity for dark romanticism remains. His memorable melodies and striking looks have granted him much TV and radio play, particularly for his biggest hit, “Cuts You Up” (from his third solo album, Deep). He has released several studio albums, many of which have garnered considerable modern rock and alternative chart success. However, some releases have been decidedly non-commercial, such as 2002’s Dust, which draws on musical traditions in Turkey, where he has lived since 1992 (his wife, Beyhan Murphy, is a celebrated Turkish dancer and choreographer).
Murphy’s residency will encompass his entire musical history, devoting shows to playing complete solo albums or Bauhaus songs. Murphy says he’ll remain faithful to his original studio versions, though he admits that’s risky because he hasn’t played some albums in their entirety in a live setting before. But it’s a challenge he enjoys: “I like the uncertainty: ‘This might not work!’ Great! Because you’ve got to be jumping, you’ve got to walk on un-assured.”
“But that means shows could turn out very badly,” I say.
“No. Because I’m there!” he exclaims with an exuberant laugh, managing to sound more jaunty than arrogant.
He says he has always felt entirely comfortable being a frontman, despite the responsibility it carries. “That’s what I do. It is in my nature. The minute I walked out onto the stage [with Bauhaus], definitely, I took over. Not, take over like, ‘I own this – mine!’; it’s for the band, it’s for the event. I’m only that element. But if you’re going to be this guy, there aren’t many in the world that have existed. And I felt that I was good, but then I realized, I’m one of those guys!”
Another one of those guys was David Bowie, whose songs Murphy will play during two tribute shows to finish out the residency. It makes sense, as Murphy has long been associated with Bowie. Bauhaus covered Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” for their eighth single in 1982 (later added as a CD bonus track for their third album The Sky’s Gone Out). The next year, the band performed “Bela” in the opening scene of The Hunger, a 1983 cult horror film in which Bowie plays a vampire (Murphy was so compelling that almost the entire scene is devoted to his performance).
“I thought after all of the bandwagon tributes [after Bowie’s death in 2016] were done by all and sundry, the only person that should’ve done one was me, frankly,” Murphy says, solemn. Though he and Bowie were not friends, they once spent a day together thanks to that Hunger appearance. Murphy later tried to arrange another meeting, saying of his intentions: “I didn’t want anything, there was no motive, I simply wanted to give him my great respect.” He was unsuccessful in this attempt to reestablish their connection, which he regrets “because I wanted to take him back a handful of stardust and say, ‘I’ve looked after this for you.’ And I actually did. Ziggy was buried and I said, ‘I’m sorry, David, you’re not doing that – I’ll be Ziggy.’”
He expects these New York shows will result in residencies around the world. “There’s [another] one that’s been offered already. But I don’t want to overload people with it too much. I want it to…to…” He stops mid-sentence, distracted, and suddenly changes the subject by complimenting my hair and then gently picking up my hand so he can examine my glittery silver nail polish. “That’s nice, isn’t it?” He looks closer before letting go. “You don’t bite your nails, do you?”
“No,” I say, amused. “They’re so short because I play guitar. Just for fun. I can’t write songs, like you do.”
“But darling, you can,” he says. “You’re thinking about it in a way that is entitled, ‘Writing A Song.’ That’s already a box you’re not sure about.
“I didn’t know how to make a record when I was doing [his 1986 debut solo album] Should the World Fail to Fall Apart, and it sounds all right. Honestly, as long as it’s good enough, I let go of this stressful idea that it has to be brilliant. If you listen to a couple of my songs – shall I name them? – ‘Canvas Beauty,’ it’s two chords,” he admits with a laugh. “I think you probably need a workshop with me.”
“A workshop,” I say. “Maybe that’s what you can do next – you can offer songwriting workshops with people!”
“With you,” he says, unswerving. “You write – lyrics, that’s writing, so you’re there. I sing impromptus all the way through with those words, and then you just have to backtrack: ‘That bit went on too long, but that was the chorus!’”
He stays quiet for a moment, and I think he’s done scrutinizing me. But then he asks, “What happens when you can’t write a song?”
“I can write music, and I can write lyrics, but I can’t make them fit together as a whole.”
“Well, that is tricky. Because if you’ve already got the melody for the lyrics worked out, you now have to weave behind it something that works. All you’ve got to do now is learn about key – what key is that in, what harmonic? – and play in that key, always, whatever it is.”
“Interesting,” I say.
“No, it’s not,” he scoffs.
“Well, maybe not to you, because it’s your job, but to non-musicians, it seems hard. Also, when you write lyrics, how do you know that you have something that’s worth sharing with the world?”
He brightens. “I mean, if I were frightened to reach out my hand because I’m shy…” He reaches over. “Come on, you’re shy – hold my hand,” he says, insistent. I do, and he grins and nods at the connection. “That wouldn’t happen. Just reach your hand out and do it. Put the record out, don’t take it on so much that you’re going to be judged, by God!” He lets go and settles back in his seat, serene. “That last question was so beautiful.”
He admits there was one time when he was very concerned about how a song would be received into the world, though. “When we released ‘Stigmata Martyr’ [a track on In the Flat Field], the band wanted to use a backwards recording of the Lord’s Prayer. And I went, ‘That’s where you stop!’ Really. I was like, ‘Get the fuck out of here. That’s so crass, willfully.’ And it’s absolutely disrespectful.”
Shocking for the sake of being shocking?
“Totally. And actually, that song was not anti-Christ, at all. It is anti-obsession with the eroticism of death, you know what I mean?”
Regardless of how concerned Murphy is (or not) about how his songs will be interpreted, his fans worldwide avidly analyze anything he releases, though it’s been a long wait since his last studio album, 2014’s Lion. But he plans to record a new solo album in October, which will be put out next year; he’s written 20 songs for potential inclusion. “It’s gonna be fantastic,” he says.
Legendary producer Youth (who is also the bassist for Killing Joke) will again work with Murphy this time – they first collaborated on Lion, where they established a simpatico working relationship: “Youth said, ‘Peter, you’re the voice of the age!’ I said, ‘You’re quite right, Youth.’” He grins, amused.
I mention that I found Youth to be charming when I once met him.
“You’ve made me jealous,” he deadpans. “You’re supposed to say that about me.”
“I might, still.”
He laughs. “No, you will say, ‘Peter Murphy’s just a real good giggle!’”
He’s not nearly as carefree when it comes to his performances, however. He undertakes elaborate preparations before shows, including privately doing ablutions to get his mind and body in the proper condition. Also, pre-show, “I walk the stage every day. I pace it. It’s almost like I’m sensing the house staff, and if they start to annoy me, if they’re corporate hard-assed people, I’ll send word, ‘I don’t want those people around.’ I’m not having [those] people getting in the audience’s space.”
But audiences beware: he can be equally unyielding, even with his own fans, when he feels they’re rude. He will call people out on the spot for talking through songs. “And bloody telephones,” he says with a sigh. “I’ve actually taken a couple of telephones off people. I said, ‘You’ll get it back when the show’s over.’”
When asked how he decompresses after shows, his mischievous streak reappears. “I go down to the low-fi whorehouses with the nylon carpets, it’s great! Really good. And shag for about five hours!”
“Come on, what do you really do?” I ask.
He dodges the question, perhaps wary of tipping off his legion of black-clad fans to his post-show whereabouts. “You’ll have to compile a list for me, darling, of where to go!”
At this point, he abruptly decides it’s time for the photo shoot for this article, so he leads the way into the hotel room, where he tries on hats while chatting with his tour manager, publicist, assistant, and a stylist. He is relaxed and jovial with them, though he clearly keeps them on their toes. “We actually did want to go to a brothel to do the photo session,” he jokes. “Are there any that are nearby?” He zeroes in on his publicist: “Oh, you wouldn’t know,” he teases.
“No, I wouldn’t know,” says the publicist, momentarily taken aback, then bemused.
Murphy surveys himself in the mirror and cries, “See? I am gorgeous, still!” He laughs, though it’s true that he doesn’t look like he recently had his 62nd birthday.
He asks for tea, then turns to survey the room. “Does anybody else want anything?” He nudges me. “Want anything? Want to fight? Come on!” With a roguish grin, he lightly jabs at me until I fake-punch him back and he beams. “I knew you would!”
He continues this gleeful brotherly play-fighting as we have a few photos taken together. It’s all right, it’s endearing – but at this moment, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile the fact that this is the same man who is widely regarded as being one of the most notoriously intimidating performers of the last four decades.
As I prepare to leave, he hugs me goodbye. I say I’ll see him at his upcoming shows. “Yes, then you can come backstage and we can fight some more!” he says. Ah, cheeky to the last.
The next week, he stands onstage, singing to a packed house. This evening is devoted to his album Deep, and the audience joyfully sings along to every song. He seems intent on touching everyone who reaches out to him, holding their hands and taking a moment to look into their eyes in an apparent effort to really connect with each one. During the song “Roll Call,” he pulls a fan onstage and she seems almost overwhelmed with bliss as he embraces her. Between songs, he banters affably with the crowd; after doing a startlingly accurate impression of a Brooklyn native that makes everyone laugh, he quips, “I should keep my bloody mouth shut so you’ll keep thinking I’m a legend!” He does become serious for the album’s two gorgeous ballads, the shimmering “Marlene Dietrich’s Favourite Poem” and the yearning, haunting “A Strange Kind of Love,” but otherwise, this is a spirited, upbeat affair.
As the encore, he plays “His Circle and Hers Meet” (from his second solo album, 1988’s Love Hysteria). As he draws near to where I’m standing, there’s a flash of recognition in his eyes and he reaches through the throng to grasp my hand for a verse, then, straight-faced, playfully prods me in the side, as he had done at the hotel. Then he spins away, closing out the show to elated cheers. This same buoyant vibe prevails at the next show I attend, covering 1995’s Cascade album, with Murphy seeming genuinely happy and the audience ecstatically responding.
But the following week, on August 13, a harrowing health scare unfolds when Murphy suffers a heart attack that necessitates emergency surgery and, obviously, the cancellation of his remaining residency shows.
On September 20, Murphy, now back home in Turkey, sends the following exclusive email about the experience: “My heart, deciding to attack me, ever so imperceptibly at first had me feeling a little slower in the rehearsals from my NYC residency, yet as is usual, ailments seem to disappear once you walk the boards and sing…
“I had a deep tingling uncomfortable clamping in my right forearm the night before the Ninth album show… Once at the venue and after soundcheck, I called my tour manager to tell him discreetly that this sensation was now spread to both my full arms and covering my entire chest. [But] I opted to go on after the symptoms seemed to ease up. It turned out that I sang the entire Ninth show whilst having the heart attack.
“I slept overnight short of breath,” he continues, adding that his tour manager and personal assistant then insisted on taking him to the hospital, “and from there on in I remember nothing except opening my eyes to find my wife who was supposed to be in Istanbul gazing at me…[and] gently explained that I’d had a heart attack and had been in a coma.”
Happily, his recovery is swift: he announces that he is making a full recovery, and the residency shows are reset for January 2020. Though fans are clearly truly relieved at the good news, they are also quick to take to the Internet to post mirthful references to Murphy’s famous “Undead, undead, undead!” refrain from “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
Further proving his vitality, Murphy also announces that he and his Bauhaus bandmates will reunite, for the first time in 13 years, to play in Los Angeles on November 3 and 4, and December 1, 2019. The news sparks a media and fan frenzy, and all shows sell out in mere minutes.
On his hotel balcony, Murphy had said he relished uncertainty as he comes onstage because he knows he’ll be able to handle whatever circumstances arise. Clearly, this approach is also currently serving him well in general – and it will be interesting to see where his unpredictable, tumultuous, remarkable life goes next.
Photo by Jolene Siana.