When extraordinary beings exit this mortal realm, extraordinary signs and synchronicities often mark their passage. Seven days ago, just such a sign appeared only hours before the consciousness of my friend and musical collaborator John Murphy separated from its most recent physical envelope.
On October 10th, John’s wife Annie and a small circle of intimates, including Zeena and myself, held an all-night vigil at John’s bedside to support him in his departure. Unbeknownst to us then as we witnessed this nocturnal transition, John’s long-time comrade and frequent musical partner Andrew King, not yet fully aware of the extreme gravity of John’s condition and the imminence of his end, was performing at a music festival in Leipzig.
In honor of John – as you can see and hear in the video below filmed by Thorium Heavy Industries – King played a cover version of the cover version of the Kirlian Camera song “Schmerz”, a memorably eerie rendition of which John’s Shining Vril solo project had recorded in 2001. So while John’s spirit was in the process of dissolving itself from its pain-wracked body in Berlin, Andrew King in Leipzig played a recording of John’s own distinctive and immediately recognizable voice reciting these all too timely and appropriate lyrics:
“Oh father, I appeal my spirit in your hand. And while he was saying this, his spirit left the body. He stayed with his head bent on his chest. Oh, how was his mother feeling in that moment when there’s so much pain?She was seeing her son fainting, screaming and crying and dying … Saint John, who he loved more than anyone else, what he was doing? … Contemplating her beloved son, weeping and crying in vain … she could not relieve the sorrow …“
Here is Andrew King’s cover of “Schmerz” from October 10th, and below that is John’s original version, in which his voice can be more clearly heard:
In effect, this meant that John’s final public performance, even if only by proxy, found him intoning his own last rites at the very hour of his impending death. Considering the significant role the use of music as ritual played in John’s long career, there really couldn’t have been a more fitting finale.
Making a living by beating on things was in John Murphy’s blood. And yet even many of his most ardent admirers didn’t know that this world-wandering drummer was the scion of an equally peripatetic percussionist father. Russ Murphy, who introduced his son to the sticks at an early age, also made a name for himself bringing unfamiliar sounds from Australia to farflung locales far from his Melbourne home.
The elder Murphy played drums in the 1940s and 1950s for the pioneering Antipodean Dixieland band led by Graeme Bell, a local legend recognized as the father of Australian jazz. Decades before his son John’s nomadic musical career brought him to play Eastern Europe in similar fashion, Russ Murphy kept the beat for Bell’s Australian Jazz Band during their historic Cold War tour of Czechoslovakia in 1947 as ambassadors of Western music behind the Iron Curtain. During their visit to Prague in ’47, Russ Murphy sat behind the drum kit on one of Bell‘s best known recordings, an album which includes this lively rendition of “The Saints Go Marching In”. Bridging two generations of drumming Murphys, it’s an appropriately thanatic selection for this memorial, since that syncopated hymn has a long tradition as the favored upbeat dirge in New Orleans jazz funerals. Not only is that John’s father you’ll hear here “when the drums begin to bang”, several rare photographs of him also illustrate the accompanying video.
To fully understand John’s musical legacy, this little-recognized familial jazz connection is more important than has been realized. For one thing, the music John recorded and performed with his own bands or as solo compositions – a very different beast than the music he played as a session man for others – shared certain key features with the jazz tradition: a grounding in free-form improvisation, a spontaneous expression of the present moment in sonic terms, and a tendency to transcend the merely representational in favor of exploring the aesthetics of pure sound untethered to any explicit pre-programmed meaning or “message.” As John put it in his last interview: “I’m just more free flowing, like in a free flowing jazz band, you know, where a third voice speaks through you.”
John’s astoundingly eclectic musical output was often, and much to his chagrin, categorized with the lazy genre labels of “industrial”, “dark ambient” “noise” “post-punk” and “experimental” among many others. This annoyed him for various reasons, one of the most significant being his keen awareness that unlike many (if not most) of the practitioners of those subcultural styles, John was a trained and seasoned musician who actually knew what he was doing but who chose to deliberately break the standard rules when it suited the material.
In shunning those convenient pre-fab tags which all too many music journalists and fans throw around, John himself, with more precision, almost always referred to his own music as “abstract.”
Abstract music, like abstract art, often confounds conventional expectations by not being “about something”. When we consider that one of the definitions of “abstract” is “existing only in the mind; separate from embodiment” and that the word derives from a Latin root meaning “pulled away from, detached” we have a key not only to John’s creative work but also to his singular being. Like any true artist, John, while keenly observant of the world around him, was in essence an outsider, “pulled away from” and “detached”, viewing humanity’s foibles with wry amusement from a distance. He was, as the Sufis aspire to be, “of the world, but not of it.”
Even in the varied subcultural musical style “communities” of self-proclaimed transgressives which he helped to pioneer, from the earliest days of punk, the so-called Industrial “occulture” of the early 80s, to the later Neo-Folk niche which they spawned, John remained present but somehow apart, a misfit among misfits. To his credit, and as a testament to his character, despite being on the front line of the endless series of feuds, bitch fights, internal purges, and back-biting internecine civil warfare which characterizes a “scene” which paradoxically boasts loudly of Honor, Loyalty and Comradeship, John never lowered himself to such Kindergarten spats. Instead, he quietly and professionally attended to his musical duties without engaging in the many Prima Donna dramas raging around him.
Informing this quality of amused detachment from worldly shenanigans was John’s spiritual perspective, often misunderstood by those who mistakenly assumed that he shared the Satanic, Odinic, or atheist materialist ideologies of some of the musicians he worked with. I have seen several well-intentioned farewells from fans and friends wishing John a speedy rune-adorned ascent to Walhalla, among other paganistic sentiments. Yes, as a student of all forms of spirituality and mythology, he was certainly conversant with the runes and the Northern tradition and sympathetic to their celebration. But John was always quite adamant in defining himself as a Gnostic.
Even before he had a name for it, he often explained to me, John felt a sense of profound alienation from this world, which he sensed was somehow cosmically “wrong”. A necessary starting point of any Gnostic process of initiation which has much in common with the initial “revulsion for Samsara” needed to cultivate the higher stages of Buddhist renunciation.
Even as a child, he sensed that there were other dimensions and realities interlapping and interconnecting with this one. A very early turning point in this understanding of his came during his youth when he read a comic book which concerned a girl who insisted to her parents that she was the separated twin of a creature from another world. Judged to be crazy by her parents, the girl is sent to a psychologist and priest for counseling. Meanwhile, in another dimension, an octopus like creature tells her parents that it is the separated twin of a human girl in another world, who her parents naturally consider a monstrosity. The creature, like her lost counterpart on Earth, is sent to her world’s equivalent of a psychologist and priest. Somehow, this tale of separation struck a deep chord in him and he attributed to it the genesis for his spiritual search.
He often mentioned a visionary dream which deepened his interest in Gnosticism and his awareness of multiple alternate realities in which he was a citizen of Alexandria, Egypt in a technologically advanced future. In this Alexandria of tomorrow, the original Gnostic mystery schools had prevailed over mainstream Christianity. John awakened from that dream feeling that that other reality was where he really belonged. In his study of Gnostic history, he later discovered that Alexandria had actually been a main center of the Gnostic teachings.
When he traveled to Egypt, John said he was overwhelmed by a strong sense of familiarity and homecoming in its ancient ruins. His fascination with all things ancient Egyptian was most pronounced in his devotion to the God Thoth, the Neter of wisdom. Even his initial attraction to his later wife Annie was sparked by the fact that at the time he first met her she sported a Cleopatra hairdo and Egyptoid makeup which made her the living hieroglyph of the pharaohnic girl of his dreams.
John’s Egyptophilia made his participation in the Sethian sonic rite held by Zeena at the Egyptian Museum of Leipzig during the Wave Gotik Treffen earlier this year much more than an aesthetic exercise. For Seth, according to the lore of Khem, is the father of the unnaturally born Thoth, and the Sethian Liberation Movement Zeena founded is ultimately a Gnostic religion. John had also intended on having an image of Abraxas, the Gnostic god synonymous with Seth, tattooed on his flesh as a sign of his Gnostic affinity when we were planning a concert honoring that particular form of the deity.
John had several vivid past life experiences, and was always a firm believer in reincarnation, long before his looming discarnation made it an urgent matter of more than philosophical interest. Upon his first visit to Paris, he was certain that he had been there before as a starving Bohemian artist in the 19th century. John attributed his lack of talent for drawing, an art he admired, to a karmic payback for squandering his talent as an artist in that former existence. He also recalled impressions of at least one life as a crusader knight in the Holy Lands, an experience he was sure molded some of his ways of thinking.
One of the aspirations of the Medicine Buddha practice John diligently performed during the many-month ordeal of his terminal illness is that even if the practitioner has reached the point where no cure is possible, the mantra’s blessings will allow the afflicted to survive long enough to die under the proper spiritual conditions favorable to liberation. This aspiration came to pass this past summer, when John almost miraculously awakened from a coma that he was not expected to survive. He underwent several mystical experiences while unconscious and hovering very near to death, including what he described as “seeing God” and “deep insights into the true nature of humanity.”
Determined to make music to the end, John was even inspired by the hallucinations he saw in that extended altered state to plan a musical recording to capture the sounds and voices he heard. Although he was weakened and frail after his release from the hospital, John had the tenacity to attend the August 22 Berlin premiere of a concert film made of our “In Her Thrall” performance and even took to the stage after the film to speak about our work together. That memorable evening at NK turned out to be his last public appearance.
On October 10 2015, John’s final interview, conducted only weeks earlier during his unlikely recovery from the coma, was posted online by Germany’s African Paper blog. Speaking rather wistfully of the many musical projects he still hoped to complete, John told his interviewer “Nikolas Schreck and I might, as well, do some more works together in the future.”
And as soon as I read that line I knew without a doubt that that future would never come. Only a few hours later, I received the dreaded call informing me that I should rush to the hospital immediately as John’s condition had worsened drastically.
After the enthusiastic reception our first collaborative concert garnered, John and I had planned many ambitious and challenging recordings and concerts to come. As recently as April of this year, John, though ailing, still had just enough strength to rehearse with me with some of those performances in mind.
I’m absolutely sure I’m not the only musician among John’s many colleagues who feels that the loss of the inimitable and one of a kind Murphy magic punches an irreparable hole in our life and work. One of the tragedies of his all too early exit from this illusory state we call life is that even after decades of sterling sonic accomplishment John was still filled with enthusiasm and curiosity about forging into new and unknown musical land. There are a billion things that only he would understand that I know I’ll want to tell him. Alas, the only thing left to tell him now is…. goodbye.
P.S: John had been clean and sober for decades. Butthere’s no doubt that the damage he sustained through drink and drugs in the reckless 80s played a great part in hastening his early demise. If you admired John and his work, the best tribute you could pay him is to stop subscribing to the stupid and self-destructive rock and roll lifestyle that insists that alcohol and other drugs are necessary components of playing or enjoying music.
Om Amidewa Hri!
Zeena Schreck’s brilliantly curated tribute to John’s work on Network Awesome says it all:
For all ten of you not on Facebook, here was the original farewell message I had posted there on my official page on October 12:
“John Murphy not only marched to a different drummer, he WAS the different drummer others marched to. John’s passage from this world yesterday morning is not only a profound personal loss to his beloved wife Annie and his friends and family. It’s also a bleak moment for the many lovers of adventurous music around the world who were moved by his versatile artistry during his long and distinguished career as a bolduncompromising pioneer of the sonic avant-garde. As he said in his final interview, John’s life-long spiritual search had brought him to “Gnostic Buddhism”. In the past harrowing months of his brave struggle with many maladies he found the strength and wisdom needed to face the inevitable end in the Medicine Buddha practice. Although his consciousness has now separated from his physical body, please join me in praying that John now makes a swift transit from this samsaric illusion to the Pure Land and ultimate liberation. I will miss him greatly, as a true friend and as an irreplaceable musical collaborator. Those of you who experienced John’s acerbic and sarcastic Antipodean black humor know that he is even now no more sentimental or reverent about the final practical joke death plays on us all than he was about all the other absurdities of life. He made his transition from our realm in the company of Annie and other supportive and loving friends, including myself, and as per his request, ZEENA – Official Zeena Schreck performed the Tantric Buddhist rites of consciousness transference for him as the clear light of dawn shone over Berlin. I will post a more detailed appreciation of the man and the musician on my blog, but for now: OM AMI DEWA HRIH! NS”
NIKOLAS SCHRECK & JOHN MURPHY on August 22, 2015 at NK BERLIN after premiere screening of the World Operations concert film “In Her Thrall: Evokation des Ewig-Weiblichen”. A DVD of the film will be released shortly. Photo: Julian Davis Percy