THE PETER PRINCIPLE

The image that's long defined Peter Murphy simply does not exist anymore--if it ever did. The former frontman for England's Bauhaus (the standard-bearer for the early Eighties gothic movement), Murphy has a reputation as a pretentious vampire wannabe preying on legions of ever-younger enthusiasts, but his activities of late belie these characterizations. Instead of whiling away the daylight hours in a musty cave reading about the Marquis de Sade, the wholesome Murphy has spent the last few days snorkeling at the beach with his wife and two kids.

"I know it sounds ostentatious," he says from his summer retreat on the Aegean Sea in Turkey, "but it's quite common to have a summer house, because property is really cheap here. People move out to coastal areas when they can."

In the three and a half years since touring in support of his last album, the critically dismissed Holy Smoke, Murphy has taken refuge in this gorgeous locale, where his wife serves as artistic director for the Turkish National Modern Dance Company. He says that the disbanding of his back-up band, the Hundred Men, precipitated a return to the basics.

"I let go of a lot of my notions of what I am and who I am in terms of the music business," he claims. "Rehearsing recently, it felt very comfortable being just a singer. It was a simple thing in that there was no personal baggage along with playing."

That must have come as a relief to Murphy, whose work with Bauhaus has cast a long shadow over his solo efforts. From the late Seventies until the quartet's dissolution in 1983, Bauhaus maintained an exquisite balance between the raw and the polished, thanks to passionately delivered songs replete with art-world and horror-film references and the presence of Murphy, who promptly became a gloom-and-doom icon. The band's breakup posed an identity crisis for the vocalist: Although his former associates (Daniel Ash and brothers David J and Kevin Haskins) quickly turned heads as Love and Rockets, Murphy took a while to find his footing. His initial post-Bauhaus project was Dali's Car, an eminently forgettable duo; his second, an import-only CD entitled Should the World Fail to Fall Apart, made with guitarist/keyboardist Howard Hughes, did not make much more of an impression. To many a fan's dismay, Murphy's music seemed weaker and more synth-pop-oriented than his Bauhaus work. It wasn't until his first two domestic releases (Love Hysteria and Deep) that he finally found a middle ground between the darkness inherent in his glory days and his more romantic inclinations.

Fortunately, Murphy's talents shine brighter live. Through the blessings of genetics, he possesses a stunningly filmic presence and a feline grace that he expertly exploits on stage. At his best, he is capable of holding his audience rapt, like captured prey. Murphy says these skills have been honed by the challenges of touring.

"Tours are like a marathon," he explains. "You're forced to push yourself to the limit. There's a point where you either crumble or become very exhausted and psychologically dulled, or you overcome that. I find this sort of plateau, where you're moving in a very good rhythm--where you tap that reserve of energy that you find after pushing yourself so far.

"Audiences are also a major factor," he adds. "I don't see an audience as just being a dollar head count. It's more about an intimate conversation, something very powerful."

In performance, Murphy can transform even his lesser material into something much more. "That's always the proof of a song--when you play it live," he asserts. "When I play live I'm much stronger, because in the recording process, you lose some of that vital quality that you have. A recording is a bit like taking a snapshot in music, whereas live, you've got one chance, where it really depends on people and the moment."

With his new CD, Cascade, old followers may have to depend on live performances to confirm their loyalty. There are few remnants of the Bauhaus style here; instead, Murphy focuses on the more mellifluous directions his life has taken. The beautiful first single, "The Scarlet Thing in You," speaks to love and human attraction, and "Wild Birds Flock to Me" references twelfth-century Turkish poet Jelaladdin Rumi. More personal is "Huuvola," a piece written for Murphy's daughter and younger son. "It's about being apart and separated from a close relation," he notes. "The title is a mixture of vowels taken from my children's names, which is a device that you find in Turkey."

It's not clear if Murphy can convince his devotees that he's a viable artist sans gothic trappings, but he sees his current tour as an opportunity to begin trying to win them over. Tellingly, his repertoire will be drawn mainly from Cascade, with bits from Love Hysteria and Deep thrown in. "The thing is change, really," Murphy states. "A song like `The Line Between the Devil's Teeth' [a Bauhaus-esque throwback on Deep] probably would have excited me a couple of years ago, but now I think it would sound a bit forceful."

As that comment implies, Murphy plans to include no Bauhaus material in his set. So what will he offer as a substitute? He's not sure, but he's got some ideas. "I've always thought about doing an Elvis number," he reports. "I just have to find the right one."

American Music Festival, with Widespread Panic, Peter Murphy, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Sonia Dada, Ani DiFranco, Boxing Gandhis. 10:30 a.m. Sunday, July 16, Winter Park Ski Area, $25-$45, 830-TIXS or 1-800-722-4118.

 
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