It’s the end of the world as Willie Murphy knows it, and, well, he’s felt better

Jim Walsh  City Pages   January 1, 2019

[Note: We’re pretty sure this is the last interview Willie conducted.]

Willie Murphy is sick and he’s depressed.

The 75-year-old Minneapolis blues-rock legend has been laid up with a kidney problem, severe stomach flu, and a serious blood infection that landed him in a nursing home for much of last year, leaving him unable to sing until just recently. He’s been doing yoga and tai chi to fight off the depression that descended after finishing his new album, Dirtball: Every Man for Himself and God Against Us All.  He’s sung the blues and he’s endured depression, and he knows the difference between the two.

“My experience of clinical depression is that it’s a serious mental illness, and the blues, to me, is a source of joy, actually,” says Murphy, sitting in the living room of his Phillips neighborhood home with his dog Clyde at his feet and his guitar at his elbow. On the coffee table in front of him sits an ashtray of overflowing cigarette and cigar butts, a copy of the latest Southside Pride newspaper, and a library copy of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs.

“I didn’t play for months, and I couldn’t sing,” he says.  “Singing has been my number-one favorite thing to do, especially since I got old enough to not be a sex maniac anymore. So not being able to sing was really big. But it’s interesting that you should compare the two, because my father, who I didn’t know well because he left when I was five, but later in his life he came and got reacquainted with us, and I learned a little about him.

“In the ‘60s, when he was in his 50s, he was living in Dallas and engaged to a girl a third of his age and working three jobs. He went to the hospital one day and he said he felt like the whole world was on his chest. The doctor said, ‘You’re the worst case of manic depression I’ve ever encountered, and I’m going to give you this new drug.’ And it was lithium, and he took it for the rest of his life. He said it was a miracle.

“He said, ‘I always thought that when I felt like that, that’s what people were talking about when they said they have the blues.’ But it was a much more severe kind of blues than the songs are about, I think. I don’t think the blues as I know it, and I know it pretty well, has as much to do with depression. Singing the blues is often joyful, actually. When you’re depressed, you don’t want to do anything. Nothing interests you. I’m trying to fight it without drugs and stuff, by keeping on doing stuff.”

Produced and engineered by Murphy, mixed and mastered by Rob Genadek, and given funky ballast by Murphy’s band the Angel-Headed Hipsters, Dirtball is a blues-soul-rock referendum on climate change, fascism, classism, capitalism, and America the brutal, all sung with uplifting anger, cranky optimism, and crazy hope. The sound of a desperate man in a desperate world, Dirtball is a pointed and passionate reaction to the times we’re all slouching through.

“What I like about it is it’s me and it’s honest about the way I feel about the world, he says. “I still believe in love. I’m still a hippie, I suppose. Although it’s hard when you’re depressed, but that’s the kind of thing you have to keep remembering.  You might think you believe something, but you don’t act on it.  For instance, if I see somebody with a cardboard sign on the side of the road, I always give them money.  The thing is, I believe in compassion, so I gotta act on it – at least in that minimal way.  And other ways, too.”

One way, for Murphy, is to make music – after a career that has found him as a charter member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, co-creator of the 1969 folk/blues classic (with “Spider” John Koerner) Running, Jumping, Standing Still and leader of Minnesota big-band stalwarts Willie and the Bees. His latest album may be his greatest, with songs about “the rat race we’re all stuck in, and the necessity of dealing with all the bullshit we have to deal with,” and to-the-point tunes such as “Faith, Hope and Solidarity,” which reports on his neighborhood, where “people are strugglin’” and “begging on the street” while children go hungry.

“I live in the poorest neighborhood in five states, or that’s what they used to say. “Phillips,” said Murphy, whose house sits a few blocks away from where the Hiawatha Avenue tent community sprouted up in the spring. “The encampment brings a lot of stuff right in your face, man. A lot of people are scared about it. We find needles in my yard, and people come and sit and huff on my porch. This is what we used to call ‘the other world,’ or ‘the third world,’ but it’s been here for quite a while.

“I’ve always kind of been a political lefty, or in some people’s views a radical. I don’t use a cell phone, I don’t watch television. Those are sort of radical ideas, you know? You’re forced to drive a car, you’re forced to have a computer, but I don’t do social media or anything.”

At a time when too much media and music has the mute button on, it’s refreshing to hear a songwriter talk angrily and passionately about the state of the world. And as “preachy” (Murphy’s word) as he may sound about it all, Dirtball is a beautiful record of hope and love amid the madness.

“Some days the hope part is just wishful thinking,” says Murphy, coughing and laughing. “I mean, I think it’s all over for the whole world, for our world. I really do. I think it’s the end of the world. That’s on my most pessimistic days, which probably outnumber the other days, but we’ve got to keep trying to live. We’re all caught up in this system, even some of my musician friends. A musician has always been a marginal person in society, I think, which is why I don’t get any Social Security. I’ve never had a job.”

These days Murphy goes to work the first two Mondays of the month at the blues jam he hosts at the Richfield American Legion. The early reaction to Dirtball has raised his spirits and his itch to sing, and he’s looking forward to a healthier and more musical new year.

“Not being able to sing was really big, and I wasn’t making any money because I couldn’t play the gigs,” he says. “Now I’m playing the blues jam, and it’s much harder than I thought it would be in multiple ways. But friends help me with my gear, and I get up there and I feel depressed and weird and I get so tired.

“But I feel pretty good today.”