Peter Murphy is back from the undead

CRAIG MATHIESON
Last updated 05:00 10/12/2013
Peter Murphy
MURPHY'S LAW: ‘‘It’s one of those things where we love each other but it’s a dysfunctional family that’s best left alone. I don’t have a problem with it: I’m Peter Murphy whether I’m in or out of Bauhaus.’’

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Peter Murphy does not like to be described as a rock star. ''It's such an American term,'' he says with charming English disdain. The 56-year-old performer and songwriter, who invented Gothic rock in 1978 with his post-punk band Bauhaus, tends to offset his sonorous voice with a flagrantly camp ''darling'' or two and a conspiratorial ''as you know''.

Murphy, who remains a striking figure more than three decades after he was competing with Japan's David Sylvian for the title of most beautiful man in the world, is alternately self-deprecating and earnest. Even when the subject is his arrest in Glendale, California, in March for driving under the influence, hit and run, and possession of methamphetamine, he's assured.

''Meth was planted on me - I've never taken meth in my life. It was a misdemeanour and I was charged too heavily,'' he says, speaking on the phone from his home in Istanbul. ''I bumped a lady's car, panicked, and went down the road to park and in America that's counted as hit and run and they arrested me. There's a renowned heavy, corrupt police precinct over there and I was charged with a felony.''

Murphy spent four days in custody.  ''I was locked up for a couple of days with a load of Compton types [the city is notorious for gang violence], but they were real sweeties,'' he says. In October he was sentenced to three years probation, 10 days of community service and 45 days of Narcotics Anonymous meetings after pleading guilty to the driving charges and no contest to the methamphetamine possession.

''I didn't realise how well-known I was,'' he notes with a wry laugh. ''My American lawyer was like, 'Peter Murphy, who is this guy?' There were all these media trucks outside and paparazzi everywhere. My band thought I did it as a pre-tour publicity stunt.''

Murphy may well be the prototypical cult artist. He's been famous - revered by a devoted minority, vaguely familiar to the majority - for most of his adult life. He has released more than a dozen albums, with numerous live recordings and extras, but the first thing about him that many still cite is the opening of Tony Scott's 1983 exercise in vampire style, The Hunger, where Murphy sauntered towards the camera, singing ''Bela Lugosi's dead'', while Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie hunted for prey.

His standing remains centred on Bauhaus, which disbanded in 1983. Without the four-piece from provincial Northampton, there might well be no Jane's Addiction, Marilyn Manson or Interpol, and the group's afterlife has sometimes been a soap opera, with tempestuous reformations in 1998 and 2005. Murphy has spent much of 2013 on the Mr Moonlight world tour, performing Bauhaus material with his own band. Whether he's giving diehard fans what they want or simply enjoying his legacy, he's at ease with the weight of the past.

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''It's one of those things where we love each other but it's a dysfunctional family that's best left alone. I don't have a problem with it: I'm Peter Murphy whether I'm in or out of Bauhaus,'' he says.

''This is not in spite of any band members, because it was decided by them that the band would never tour again. So that liberated me from that odd, misplaced guilt that I had to have the other members of the band to play what is often my music.''

Murphy's path outside music has also been unexpected. Instead of Los Angeles, a favourite destination for exiled British musicians, he ended up in Istanbul, where he's lived for 20 years with his Turkish wife, Beyhan, and their two children, converting from Catholicism to the Sufi branch of Islam.

''I was brought up in an esoteric environment with the sacred ritual of the high mass. I just have a very inherent, strong belief in God, but that has to be met with intelligence and understanding,'' he says. ''That's what led me to Turkey, which has the most amazing culture of Islamic mysticism, which is all-inclusive and very beautiful.''

Last month was marked by an extraordinary string of personal losses, with the deaths of Derek Tompkins, Bauhaus' initial studio mentor, the global beat musician Cheb i Sabbah, a friend and collaborator, and Ali Eskandarian, a member of the exiled Iranian band The Yellow Dogs, who along with two bandmates, was murdered in Brooklyn by a former band member who then killed himself.

''I felt Ali a lot this week,'' says Murphy. ''I have a garden here on my terrace where a rose came out, in the middle of winter, a beautiful yellow rose, and I did my prayer for the dead for him a couple of days ago and I really felt like he was waiting for me to do that because he was a Muslim.''

The gothic angst of Bauhaus is a long way from his current spiritual standing, but Murphy believes that once you get on a stage there's no past, solely the present. Murphy the performer will satisfy expectations, complete with the self-belief necessary to invoke his youth. ''I'm only a vampire for the nine minutes of Bela  ... the rest of the time I'm Elvis, I'm Frank Sinatra, I'm Muhammad Ali.

THE DETAILS

Peter Murphy plays Auckland's The Studio on Satudarday, December 14 and Wellington's Bodega on Sunday, December 15.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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