“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 recently won the Mark Twain Prize
for American Humor, thanks to a lifetime
spent making Americans laugh (and cry).
As native Chicagoan and unofficial mascot
for the Chicago Cubs’ long-overdue World
Series–winning season, his highly visible du-
ties 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 celebra-
tion going in New York the following weekend
by uniting 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, one which paired music
by Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein, Gershwin,
Mancini and Piazzolla with readings (from
Murray) of Capote, Cooper, Hemingway,
Thurber, Twain and Whitman. They arrived
a half-hour late, with Murray 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 Twain’s
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which
preceded the actor’s triumphant reenactment
of Thurber’s masterful “If Grant Had Been
Drinking at Appomattox.”
Murray inexplicably found the 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.
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].
Tell 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.