Listen Magazine Feature

Music in Words

Bill Murray discusses American Letters, Mark Twain, James Thurber, absurdity vs. ridiculousness, failure, getting to work, writing vs. acting, rhythm and flow, and improvisation. 

By Ben Finane

Photos by Chris Lee

“‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ was an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out,” Roger Waters states at the opening of the “Classic Albums” documentary on Pink Floyd’s magnum opus. The same could be said to characterize the body of work of Everyman goofball cum American Treasure Bill Murray. The actor has been having a good run of late. He was recently awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, thanks to a lifetime spent making Americans laugh (and cry). As a native Chicagoan and unofficial mascot for the Chicago Cubs’ long-overdue World Series–winning season, his highly visible duties included a very Murray “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” timely quips, apt reactions and a locker-room champagne spray with Cubs president Theo Epstein. He kept the celebration going in New York the following weekend with members of the baseball team on Saturday Night Live to perform “Go Cubs Go” — a ditty blessed with more musicality than “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

Like myself, Murray enjoys mixing high culture with low. The day after his SNL appearance, he was to be found at the New York Yacht Club alongside a classical trio (Mira Wang, violin; Jan Vogler, cello; Vanessa Perez, piano) for a recital in the Model Room Musicales series which paired music of Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein, Gershwin, Mancini and Piazzolla (performed by the trio) with readings from Capote, Cooper, Hemingway, Thurber, Twain and Whitman (performed by Murray). The musicians and actor arrived a half-hour late, with the latter apologizing and reminding everyone that we had moved our clocks forward the previous evening. (I will let the reader decide if the humor in that statement is absurd or simply ridiculous, but we can all agree that it’s pretty damn funny.)

Murray is a lousy singer, and his “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” was regrettable, but his performance of a West Side Story medley (“Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” “America,”) was utterly committed, reaching back aesthetically through the decades to his inspired SNL lounge act with Paul Schaeffer, and his interpretation is one that will forever contaminate my experience of the Bernstein masterwork. His readings, too, were affecting: most notably those from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which were followed by the actor’s triumphant reenactment of James Thurber’s masterful “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”

Murray inexplicably found time on Saturday afternoon, following rehearsal with the trio and en route to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, to drop by Steinway Hall and speak with Listen Magazine.

What music inspires you?

I love the music that the gang has collected here: Bach, Gershwin, Henry Mancini, Bernstein. I like gospel music, too. When I gotta get a lot of work done at the house, I put on the gospel channel. It makes me push things around a little faster.

Who do you like to read?

I do like John Steinbeck very much. I like Mark Twain a whole lot. I like Camus. I like this South African fellow who wrote A Story Like the Wind [Laurens van der Post].

Talk to me about what you like from Twain, since you were recently awarded the Mark Twain Prize.

What I like about Twain is that he didn’t like a lot of smoke blown at him. I’ve been reading some letters to him, and his replies to the letters are really quite… it sounds like myself talking, under my breath, but he’s saying it out loud and he would write it in letters back to people, when he did write them back.

I love the sequence in Huck Finn where Tom Sawyer makes up an imaginary world inside of a cabin that has absolutely no bearing on the story at all, but it’s so damn funny he left it in. And I’m reading this going: ‘This is not taking us anywhere!’ But he was having so much fun writing it, and he just put it in ’cause he liked it and it was fun. People don’t do that so much anymore.

You like that sort of absurdity — absurdity being something that shows up in your work?

Well Twain doesn’t usually do that! It was just an extraordinary thing in one of the Great American Novels — if not the best — and to do that and say, ‘And by the way, it’s not beyond me to have a little fun.’ He really did have fun when he wrote!

And I don’t know if I’m absurd or not. I’m probably more ridiculous than absurd, but when you’re having fun, it appears at all points of the compass and you can go any way you want to go.

How would you make a distinction between ridiculousness and absurdity?

Well, a long time ago people would say: ‘Bill, you’re absurd.’ But now they say: ‘Bill, you’re ridiculous.’ I guess it’s just the time we live in.

Ben Finane & Bill Murray

Vanessa Perez, Jan Vogler, ​Mira Wang & Bill Murray

 

You’ve specialized, over the course of your career, in characters who are on the mend, characters who are fighting themselves, fighting pain of loss, depression, cynicism, trying to become more involved in their lives, more involved in their world. I see it in your comedy and in your drama. How did that develop? Or would you agree that it’s even a theme?

Well I’m not choosing a theme, I think that’s probably just myself. [Laughs.] I think that’s probably just the way I am, you know: trying, really trying, and mostly failing… and I’ve got myself in a situation where a certain amount of success affords you a way of living where you can fail to examine, fail to question. So if you question it at all then you go ‘Oh God, I’m full of it. I gotta get to work here.’ And that’s kind of the way my life is.

It’s about getting past that failure and getting to work?

It’s not getting past the failure, it’s just seeing that most of the time, we fail. We have a false sense of who we are and what we’re doing and who we really are and that you have to just keep trying and be very tough on yourself — not that I am, but I aspire to be tough on myself and force myself to see the flaws. And then, if you can see the flaws, and see the false sense of yourself at the same time, then something opens up. There’s an opportunity for seeing, for a vision of something.

Is that a truth that you look for, something you’re pushing toward in acting?

Well, yes, I think I’m looking for it in life, you know. If you’re doing it in acting, in a way it can be easier because you’re trying to behave in a certain way that is a habit of your life and your personality and whatever being you might have and you’re using it to portray a person who doesn’t really exist — but you’re using yourself to draw that person.
 

‘I’ve got myself in a situation where a certain amount of success affords you a way of living where you can fail to examine, fail to question.’

Are there different challenges that you face when you’re writing than when you’re acting?

Well, yes. When you’re writing — you mean in print?

Yes.

Well, yes: you have to use more evocative words. When you speak, you can use your rhythm. Your rhythm is there, your accents are there, your pitch is there. And it’s difficult to get that pitch in print in two dimensions. The third dimension gives you a lot more possibility. I did write a book once and I sort of told the stories with my voice, and then when I saw it — the transcription of it written out — it was very soft, it was bland. And I thought ‘Why is that so weak?’ And I realized all of what I was just talking about is gone from it, so then you have to find words and phrasing that make up for the lack of your actual voice. You have to find your voice in letters.

I wonder, too, if in writing that improvisational element is harder to keep?

I think when you put your hands on a real keyboard and you connect into a real keyboard, something happens: it’s not so much improvising as it is letting something go and not trying to control it with your brain. I really sort of write with my body, I guess. I mean, if I don’t have my fingers involved with the actual typewriter, it’s not the same. Or a pencil. There’s gotta be something physically connecting you to this energy that’s moving around.

It’s back to getting in a rhythm, getting in a flow.

The rhythm is there. You have to catch it.

The reading selections that you’re performing are all from titans of American letters — and they all have very different rhythms. Do you approach each author differently when you’re looking to give voice to their words?

Well you have to. Obviously, if you’re reading from Huck Finn you have to speak in some sort of dialect. And if you’re reading James Fenimore Cooper, you have to sort of… look to the horizon [laughs] or something. And Capote is just a guy who is a wide-eyed observer, seeing the behavior of a faun in the city — a child, a girl. And Hemingway, he was on the make, on the smarts. He was trying to figure out things, observe things: make sense of the way things went, in that Continental way.

And James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking At Appomattox”?

Thurber’s funny. He’s definitely funny. He’s one of the really funny guys and could really write it. What we’re reading of his, though, was meant not to be read aloud. So we’re going to denude it of certain things that were meant for the reader as opposed to the listener.

Have you ever written fiction or poetry?

Well I wrote a lot of poetry when I was a little boy, but I haven’t since. And fiction [laughs]: I write fiction every day, ’cause I’m just a natural liar, a terrible person.

Did you memorize a lot of poetry growing up?

No, I didn’t, but I know someone who did — that fellah over there [indicating comedy writer Jim Downey]. He can read aloud to you. Jim, will you read? Jim Downey, he can read some poems. He’s good on a long car drive, ’cause he’s got the Greeks, and he can really go. And you think you’re fallin’ asleep at the wheel now, wait’ll he gets going.
 

‘It’s not getting past the failure, it’s just seeing that most of the time, we fail.’

Do you feel a similarity between musical improvisation and the improvisation you bring to acting?

Well, I’m working with these big shots now [indicating the musicians], and it’s funny the way they talk, because we all sort of feel the same thing. Their term for it is not the same as mine, but you feel it. You see it and you feel it, and when you got it, you got it. When you don’t, we all know. It’s some kind of math. And improvisation is a kind of slow addition. I give you a number and you give me one back and we’re just keeping track of where we’re going.

The ‘Yes, and....’

Yeah! So except for the different outfits they wear and the cases they carry on their backs, we’re speaking some kind of language that’s similar. There’s some sort of unspoken language that we understand and use to communicate.

Bill, thanks for talking to me. I appreciate it.

OK, cool. I appreciate it. I hope my answers were correct.

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway’s award-winning magazine. 

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