The flip side of Anne Murray
Everyone knew it was there, but who would have guessed it would get full play?
On a musty evening in Kansas City, Missouri, the many faces of America filed into a small auditorium, not quite filling it. Midwest freaks rubbed their denim shoulders against the white shirts of sunburned men wearing neckties for the occasion and sporting crew-cuts still growing out. Fashionably hip office workers sat elbow to elbow with members of the Masonic Lodge. Funky high-school kids watched condescendingly as older members of the audience fitted flash attachments into their Instamatic cameras. It was a gathering that might properly be titled Middle America In Concert.
They had come to hear Anne Murray. And as they settled in, she sat quietly backstage in a windowless room. Flanging from the door was a hand-painted sign intended as a gesture of recognition for a star, but the fact that her first name was spelled incorrectly took most of the punch out of the attempted welcome. Anne sat alone, strumming her guitar and softly singing Elton John’s Daniel. Then she left the room to prowl the narrow cement block corridor behind the stage. She was friendly but unsmiling to those who came up to her, remaining aloof and somewhat stern.
“Before 1 go on stage,” she had told me, “I’m completely preoccupied. I yawn a lot. I have my usual nervous pees. When I talk to people I don’t give them the attention they deserve. The only thing I think about is what I’m going to do out there. I just go inside myself.”
She pulled herself out for the show, however, and once she had clipped the wings from the butterflies she was able to stride to centre stage, take the microphone from the claw hook and step confidently into the first song. Her band, Richard, fell in behind with quiet and tasteful backing, turning the hall into a friendly electric dialogue between the Kansas City audience and a sexy Anne Murray. She sang for more than an hour, did some self-teasing about the size of her breasts (not large) and even had the crowd laughing at her feeble
one-liners. The sureness she displayed on stage was in stark contrast to the nervous pees backstage, but it by no means meant that the spotlights had a full moon effect upon her. It’s a star’s duty to appear poised, whether or not that poise is really there. And with Anne it is not: “I still feel very conscious. No matter how confident I may seem to be I’d still rather be in a living room.”
But no one could tell that during the show. Halfway through, a handsome youth in a styled denim suit slipped out of the audience, walked up and presented Anne with a dozen long-stemmed roses. He was rather good-looking — short-cropped hair, of course, but nicelooking still — and when he made the motion to present Anne with the gift, she stooped as if to kiss him on the lips. He said something, though, and Anne turned away awkwardly, abruptly, and her lips barely touched his cheek.
After the encores she swept into the windowless dressing room, edgy looking, uptight. She started firing questions at anyone in sight, and a feeling of embarrassment coated the musty air. Skip Beckwith, the band’s leader, rolled his eyes in recognition of this show of hostility. “Andy,” he called over to drummer Andy Cree, “she wants to see you.” Beckwith jerked his thumb in the direction of the dressing room and Cree followed it. Anne blasted him harshly for the loudness of his drumming. He listened but said nothing.
“Hell,” Cree said later to Beckwith, “I thought it sounded great out there.”
“It was okay. She just needed something to bitch about.”
Skip and Anne talked about the noise. “We always play at that level,” argued Skip.
“Well,” she shot back, “during Robbie’s Song if Miles [the group’s sound technician] had been on stage I would have punched him in the head.”
Actually, the show had gone right, but the evening was definitely in the wrong key. When we got back to the darkened lobby of the nearby Holiday Inn, Anne walked smack into a bevy of buxom
yahoos. She signed a few autographs, and the young girls giggled and clustered into the fold, pressing a little and Anne got uneasy. One girl, a trifle tough-looking but still attractive, pushed forward and talked quietly and intently with her. Anne shook her head and stepped back. The girl kept pressing. Anne backed off even farther. The elevator door opened and she was able to leap sideways into it. She caught her reflection in the smoked glass, then looked away.
“She wanted me to come down to the bar for a drink,” she said. “I wasn’t sure at first, but then she kept insisting. Then I could tell about her . . . sometimes you can’t tell . . .”
Next day at the airport she put the capper on the whole Kansas City trip. “You know that guy who came on stage last night with the flowers?” she said to the band. “It was a girl. I went to kiss him full on the lips but just then he said something and instead I kissed him on the cheek. Then I noticed he had a smooth face like mine.”
Everyone took it good-heartedly. (“Did you enjoy it?” asked drummer Cree.) Nothing else they could do about it. Audiences pick their stars, not the other way around, and even though Anne remains decidedly heterosexual she has. the flinty good looks, the athletic figure, broad shoulders and boyish hairstyle that naturally make her a darling of the butch set. It may even be as the Chicago Tribune wrote: “There’s always going to be this lingering whiff of phys-ed classes about the woman.” Peggy Lee had a lesbian following. So did Janis Joplin. Why not Anne?
It comes with the new territory. Anne Murray is no longer in the same space she was in the days when Snowbird was her big song. Gone is the air of innocence. There’s been a subtle but visible drift away, a departure brought on by five years propped up on pillows against carbon-copied Holiday Inn headboards, watching one crummy television show after another. It’s made her grow up (as she proved after the Kansas City con-
Anne avoids the “real dirt”
cert) and she’s mature enough now, at 29, to make her own decisions. She’s a bit of a phenomenon in that she’s now come around twice; after close to two years in show business limbo she’s a star again, proving that Snowbird was no fluke.
Anne has made some big changes this past year, some of which have hurt old fans. Practically every entertainment publication on the continent has run a story on the Remaking of Anne Murray’s Image; and the accolades — in some cases the blame — have been laid mostly with her new American managers, Shep Gordon and Allan Strale, hardly ever with Anne herself, which is where they should have gone. Snuffling Canada couldn’t bring itself to believe that the real push to make it big in the United States came from Anne herself and her Canadian advisers, not from the two New Yorkers.
Of course, Gordon and Strale do some backstage manipulation; that’s what they’re paid for. But the basic career decisions are made by Anne in close consultation with her Toronto business partners (Bill Langstroth, who discovered her; Brian Ahern, her producer; and Leonard Rambeau, her business manager). If Gordon and Strale can help her along, then so much the better — and quicker.
Anne also relies on her Toronto partners (particularly Rambeau) to shield her from what she calls the “nitty-gritty facts” of the business — “you know, the real dirt. I’m a little bit too sensitive about some things. Like I don’t want to know that there’s money being paid to people to play a performer’s records, if that indeed is true” (her staff insists that in her case it’s not). “I don’t want to know what promoters have to do to paper a house, so that when a performer comes out on stage the house is threequarters full, rather than having 200 people there. I’m aware of all these things. But I just don’t always want to be told.” The cold facts about the entertainment business coming from Anne’s lips sound too ... too, well, unwholesome for the image we have built up of her.
The whole notion grates simply because we’ve always seen her as she was when she burst onto the scene some five years ago, with a don’t-care attitude and a fawnlike shyness. She was a mail-order package from the Maritimes and she arrived just when Canada was turning on to its own worth. She became our permanent high-school sweetheart. This image was groomed by her staff, who were largely inexperienced themselves,
In 1972, ‘T was almost to the point of quitting,” Anne recalls. “AU I could think about was that I was a one-hit wonder”
and she soon found it impossible to shake. People loved her for the goodness she projected on Singalong Jubilee, Let’s Go and her specials. In some ways, she became part of the Canadian nationalism movement. Just as many Canadians are against foreign investment on principle, without any clear idea of what resources are being taken over by
whom, many Canadians love Anne Murray on principle, without knowing or even caring much about her music.
Consequently, by 1972 Anne had little to smile about. The Snowbird magic of 1970 had vanished; her career was dribbling away; and she was being dismissed by the press as a one-hit wonder. Her U.S. manager, Nick Sevano (who
also handles Glen Campbell), and her booking agent, the William Morris Agency, were holding her to the choking confines of the country music charts and molding her into the Liza Minelli-Roberta Flack Las Vegas nightclub style. They told her it was impossible for her to perform on the college circuits (where the good concert money is) or even in the smaller, big-city halls. They claimed she just wasn’t wanted. Her singles were flopping outside Canada, and her producer, Brian Ahern, and Anne herself were reluctant to change from the familiar Anne Murray sound, even though it was shimmering dangerously close to schmaltz. Her options soon became clear: either settle in to being a minor Canadian star, perhaps with a comfortable network television series, or else roll back the stone from the tomb and step out.
“I was almost to the point of quitting . .. and yet I wasn’t,” she recalls. “There were just enough people around to encourage me. All I could think about was that I was a one-hit wonder; I figured that must be it because it had happened so many times before. I also knew I had the talent. The challenge was out there because I had had a taste of it and I felt deep down it could be done. But I needed help.”
First help would have to come from Capitol Records in giving Anne enough time and money to create a proper album. Danny’s Song — both the album and the single — was the long-awaited follow-up to Snowbird.
Still, when the record took off, no concert dates in the U.S. followed, and she wanted that more than anything else, even though she claims to despise traveling. (Anne still lives in Toronto and insists she will never move to the United States.) But touring was the missing piston in the Anne Murray Machine; it’s the closest a performer ever gets to immediate feedback. The charts can tell you about exposure; sales tell you about penetration; but only touring can give the cut-and-dried positive and negative responses (people might have bought the album but hated most of the songs). Touring is the entertainer’s litmus test, and Anne Murray still had no idea which color she was turning.
So she fired Nick Sevano and the William Morris Agency. And late last year, the decision was made by Anne and her Toronto business partners to see how Shep Gordon and Allan Strale would fit into the machine. The two had already taken a shy Phoenix kid named Vincent Fournier and remade him into the
Anne popped out of a huge turkey
reigning king of shock rock, Alice Cooper, even though in real life Fournier is a traditional Middle American whose entertainment tastes run to playing golf, drinking Budweiser and watching TV sitcoms.
At Gordon’s suggestion, Anne also hired a veteran public relations man, Ren Grevatt, who has also worked with Alice, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Steve Miller and Murray McLauchlan. Grevatt and Gordon blitzed Anne in the States to the print media and exposed her to the television people; and she soon turned up in Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Creem, Zoo World (a rock magazine), Performance, National Observer, Seventeen, The Christian Science Monitor and After Dark. She made appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, the Midnight Special, Engelbert Humperdinck Special, the Tonight Show and on a special with the rock group Chicago.
Anne herself picked out a new $50,000 wardrobe and threw a $35,000 coming-out party (her company paid for $ 10,000 of it, Capitol Records picked up the rest) before opening at the prestigious Troubadour club in Hollywood. It was a Thanksgiving party (interestingly, she celebrated it on the American date) and while guests settled into the 200 gallons of wine and 300 pounds of turkey, Anne herself emerged from a great wooden turkey to entertain. Somehow, Gordon managed to gather Anne together after for a photograph with exBeatle John Lennon, Alice Cooper, Harry Nilsson (her idol, incidentally) and ex-Monkee Mickey Dolenz. The picture was hardly candid, but it still managed to turn up in a remarkable number of North American publications and it helped give Anne what she so desperately needed: Rock Respectability.
But probably the most significant development of what became known as the new Anne Murray came from a nowfamous review of Danny’s Song by the respected American critic, Lester Bangs.
“Anne Murray is God’s gift to the male race,” Bangs wrote. “You may think she’s a middling milquetoast marianne schoolteacher Parcheesi player with oldmaid nodes on her nips, but you gotta nother think coming Bud ... I know what I want: I wanna hold hands. I wanna bill and coo sweet nuttins in her well-formed Canadian ear. Then, while I’m reducing her to a quivering mass of erogenized helplessness, I’ll check out the rest of her to see if this soiree is worth pursuing further ... I know she’s gonna be great because all Canadian
When Anne yelled “You bet your ass” at a concert in Hamilton, the press leaped on it as a revelation of a new, earthy image
babes are tops, it’s in their bloodlines and the way they raise em up thar.” This was our Annie he was talking about! As far as we knew back home she wasn’t even supposed to have the equipment Bangs was writing about. (If you close your eyes and think of a naked Anne Murray, parts of her always come up airbrushed.)
But Anne loved it: “I thought it was great. I got a big charge out of that. Anybody can sit down and write down their fantasies. He seems to be a fan, and if that’s the way he feels about me, great. It certainly turned a few heads around.” The American blitz took Canada by surprise. What was happening to our Annie? No one had expected this glittering.
bust-out-of-hiding campaign, and in their shock very few people noticed that Anne herself had been calling the moves. “People come up and say, ‘We don’t like you since you’ve changed.’ I say I haven’t changed. They say they’ve changed me. What a pile of bullshit.”
As it turns out, the techniques Anne used were learned not from Shep Gordon but — of all people — from Juliette. “The only way you’re going to get people as competent as you is to make waves,” she says now. “Unless you demand certain things you’re not going to get things. When I first came to the CBC I heard that Juliette was difficult to work with. And she was difficult. Because she was a professional. She knew what she wanted and said so. She’s right because she got things the way she wanted, and she was satisfied. And people dug the show.”
Once the American blitz had got under way, it was all catch-up ball in Canada. She soon had full-page spreads in our major newspapers, wire stories, magazine covers (like this one, and at least one other) and there was also word-of-mouth. The extraordinary aspect of the Anne Murray story was the way the Canadian press handled it. Never before had they probed for flaws — the determined pragmatic side of her. Now, with rare exceptions, they hit upon her new “image” and when she yelled “You bet your ass!” to a stodgy crowd at Hamilton Place this spring, it was reported as a new revelation showing the earthy side of our old sweetheart. But anyone who has known Anne for long is aware that she sometimes does use strong language. She sometimes drinks beer from the bottle, too. And smokes cigarettes, though never on television, where the public might see. But she was unable to convince the Canadian press that she hadn’t changed overnight.
“The whole thing was a laugh because I was prepared for it,” she says. “1 knew exactly why they were coming [the reporters who showed up for a morninglong press conference at Toronto’s Hyatt Regency] and I said okay, I can go in there and tell them, ‘Oh, yes, my image has really changed and I’m not doing this or that anymore . . . ’ Mind you, I was honest with everyone. I said, ‘Look, I’m no different than I was two years ago. I have some new clothes, but other than that . . . ’ and they took it from there.
“It’s so ridiculous. You play games with the media. You tell them you haven’t changed but their article has to be about the image. That’s what they’ve
She won’t go anywhere in public anymore
been sent to find out. They end up writing something with an angle. They'll say. 'Oh. yes, definite differences in attitude. etc., etc. . . .’ They’ll rationalize it in their own minds. There are certain people I consider to be bright and I can carry on a fairly intelligent conversation with. If I can do that with the press then I'll do it. But if they're going to nigglypiggly their way into me and what I am then I’ll just shut them off. There are asses in the business that I will have nothing to do with. I never ask people about their private life. 1 don’t think it’s necessary to talk about that.”
After touring four dates with her -Rochester, Detroit, Columbus and Kansas City — I became very aware that privacy is the one priority she places almost as high as making it. But it’s a peculiar privacy: some things are okay to talk about, others not. You don’t, for instance, bring up her long personal association with Bill Langstroth. And you cannot determine what she’s worth, though she’s obviously wealthy on paper at least (with her best-selling records, an upcoming contract rumored to be worth a couple of million dollars or so, and impressive land holdings in the Maritimes which include a motel, a share of a trailer park and land around Peggy’s Cove). In return for her pressing ambition she has lost the freedom to live an ordinary life; she won’t go anywhere in public anymore, not to a restaurant, not even to a drugstore. She won’t trust sunglasses because someone once recognized her by her smile.
But that’s success, and she’ll do all she can to protect what privacy she has left. The most important consideration right now is to make it very, very big in the United States. And if that means giving up her image as queen of the highschool prom, that’s just part of the price she has to pay.rÿ