Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Scott Walker: Mrs. Murphy

Listen to The Walker Brothers Mrs. Murphy from their 1966 album "Portrait".

This song is an entire melodrama in three minutes and twenty four seconds. Apartment complex neighbors Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Murphy flirt. Mr. Wilson complements her dress, she says this old thing. As they talk, Walker pulls his camera a flight up to a lone boy stretching on his bed in a languorous state.

Cut back to Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Murphy. Mr. Wilson asks if it is true that the Johnsons are expecting a child. Mrs. Murphy says yes, but word is out that Mr. Johnson is NOT the father. The true father lives in apartment 22.

Walker then returns to the lone boy (now placing him in apartment 22, letting us know that he might be a father soon) who is lost in a daydream of adventure on the high seas.

Mrs. Murphy describes the Johnson's marriage in scathing terms, criticizing Mrs. Johnson, implicitly sanctioning Mr. Johnson's infidelity.

The final line of the song is perfectly succinct.

"Upstairs he sits
He hears a knock, and nothing more
Come on in, you're late
Well, don't just stand there
Mrs. Johnson - close the door"

Now, what is interesting about this song, apart from the incredible string arrangement and cavernous melody, is that you would think the most dramatic subject would be the BOY, or Mrs. Johnson who is pregnant from an extramarital affair with a boy "less than half her age".

But, no. The song is about Mrs. Murphy, the gossip. She is talking with a man who is obviously NOT her husband, ostensibly Mr. Murphy. We don't know anything about Mrs. Murphy. She seems to be close enough with this Mr. Wilson that they openly and immediately jump to salacious stories of their fellow tenants.

This is a major component to Walker's appeal at the time. The repressed sexual drive of the English housewife who longed to be swept off her feet in some doomed romance but was trapped by propriety and societal pressure into remaining a dutiful wife. So while Walker clearly self-identifies with the "boy" upstairs, he removes the narrative from his own perspective and puts it into that of an observer.

This also may be the first modern musical appearance of the Cougar. Compare this song to the great "Maggie May". Imagine "Maggie May" somehow being told third hand, the focus of the song shifting from the young boy trained and burned by the older seductress to two completely uninvolved strangers discussing the affair.

This seemingly minor shift in perspective gives the song a much wider context, gives the personal a layer of society, forces us to watch what is unfolding as part of a larger collective. In "Maggie May" you are Rod Stewart and that's that. Here? Who are you? How do you get inside the story? You are forced to CHOOSE something.

Not many pop songs force that kind of rigor. Plus, good lord, listen to the damn song. Walker was very young, 23, and already he was pushing at the boundaries of pop music, chafing at what was expected of him. This discomfort would eventually catapult him about as far into the musical wilderness as anyone has ever gone.

Here? He's just stretching his legs.

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