Willie Murphy, Film Aesthete

Bob Cowgill     August 16, 2021

Like anyone else who heard him perform over the years, I always found that Willie Murphy’s soul passion, his rocking energy, blew away my mental cobwebs. The flame of his charismatic talent drew me to the Caboose, to the Viking, to the Cedar Cultural Center. But I got to know him personally not as the local star of the West Bank music scene, but as a somewhat shy movie-lover who was a regular at screenings at the Oak Street Cinema and Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Like me, and many other inveterate cinema lovers, he was an acolyte of the dark.

He often attended on Sunday or Monday night. He and Elka would slice into the Oak Street lobby just before the last show began. Tarkovsky, Renoir, Bunuel – Willie and Elka were drawn to the great cinema of the past, but they also immersed themselves in the three week bacchanalia of contemporary cinema that is the International Film Festival. After a screening, under the Oak Street marquee as the straggling crowd cleared, we’d talk, often joined by Augsburg Professor and Oak Street Board Member John Mitchell. Willie’s cinema love was discriminating and daring. Like many artists, he was drawn to arresting visions, to deep narrative quests, to challenging explorations of form. The vibrant powerhouse performer whose stage presence could seize a crowd’s attention and whip them into joyous dance, in private conversation was introspective and contemplative – a paradox which one realizes after a moment’s thought makes absolute sense.

As a supporter of the Oak Street, Willie agreed to play piano at a few of our special receptions, and for years I hoped to get him to agree to accompany a silent film. I remember dropping off a screener video of a particular film at his house; he was riffing with Spider John Koerner at the time, and he stopped everything not to talk about film, but to tell me about a Russian novel he was reading – I think it was Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows. This began a series of serendipitous encounters at which we would talk about books and film – sometimes in the lobby of the Oak Street Cinema, or when he took a break during one of his regular gigs I attended at the Viking, or when I’d encounter him in a dog park playing acoustic guitar as he watched over his beloved pooch.

We never talked about music – something I knew little about – but I did tell him on several occasions his piano playing always impressed me. He insisted he was, in his words, a “primitive” – always his excuse for begging off accompanying a full-length feature at the Oak Street Cinema. I had several suggestions – Willie Murphy’s musical genius encountering Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler would have been a must-see event. But it never came to fruition – one of my regrets.

However, when my close friend John Mitchell died, Willie immediately agreed to play at his memorial service in the Augsburg chapel. The reason: “I always liked John.” This quality of being motivated by genuine feeling is perhaps what I admired most about the man. Willie Murphy was a purist, as authentic as the blues. During the service, he sat amongst the congregation anonymously, and waited until folks filed out before he came forth to play – beautifully, passionately, gracefully. The fuss was over John, not over him.

The last time I talked with Willie was in my car. Why had he gotten in? Had we attended a film, and was I giving him a ride? Had I seen him on the street, and pulled over to talk? I can’t remember. But we talked for over an hour. If I had known then that we wouldn’t talk again I would have told him this: You are the real deal, and there aren’t many of you. Of course, he wouldn’t have needed me to say it. And I’m pretty sure he would have hated me to have said it. The authentic ones always do. But I still wish I had told him.

Bob Cowgill