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Arts & Culture

This Rocker Went From Whistleblower to Addict—to Fame

Written by Matt SmithVideo by Sophie BearmanPublished Nov. 28, 2022 • 5:00am
John Murry interviews in The Standard's studio. | Sophie Bearman/The Standard

English

John Murry, a student and musician from Tupelo, Mississippi, lay limp from a heroin overdose at the Eula Hotel near the corner of 16th and Mission streets in San Francisco, less than two blocks from the college he believed mishandled a rape allegation from a fellow student.

Twenty years later, Murry says that the political fallout he encountered after attempting to expose wrongdoing at the school contributed to his descent into hard drugs—and led him to write two of his best-known songs.

As he recovered from that experience two decades ago, Murry turned the ordeal with the now-defunct school into lyrics. His debut solo album, The Graceless Age, which he finished in 2009 and released in 2013, ended up championed by critics worldwide, making Murry a cult figure among fans of Southern Gothic rock. Murry has been the subject of profiles in publications ranging from the UK’s The Guardian to The Wall Street Journal.

But none of Murry’s chroniclers have reported on his description of his contribution to the downfall of a locally prominent university, giving him what may be a significant role in the history of San Francisco.

Murry says he’s tried to describe this to interviewers. But they’ve been more interested in aspects of his past consistent with a Southern gothic archetype, such as his familial connection with William Faulkner, his violent Mississippi childhood, drug use and breakups.

During a recent return visit to San Francisco from Ireland, where he’s lived for the last seven years, Murry described for The Standard a journey 15 years ago that took him from outrage, to action, to oblivion and, finally, to cultural prominence. It’s a story that’s unknown even to his fans.

Murry performs “Little Colored Balloons” in The Standard’s studio. | Video by Sophie Bearman

Murry had come to San Francisco in 2000 in his early 20s to get a masters degree in psychology from New College of California. The school was a once-unavoidable presence in the Inner Mission. It conferred degrees in law, social work and other fields. But the school was best known for its left-wing branding and offerings like a masters degree in social protest.

Murry believed that a rape allegation against a New College administration official had been mishandled, something the school’s former president denied in a recent interview with The Standard.

At the time, Murry went about digging up evidence of other problems with the school—separate from his view of the rape allegation—that ended up jeopardizing New College’s accreditation.

“If my daughter walks into a fucking administrator’s office and says, ‘I was raped,’ if that shit happens, I’ll fucking go crazy,” Murry said. “I just decided, well, I’m not helpless. I can do something about it.”

When asked whether he had called the police, or whether he had advised the victim to report the incident, Martin Hamilton, the school’s president during this period, said he followed the school’s protocols for such incidents. This meant forwarding the allegations to the school’s sexual harrassment committee, and to a member of the psychology faculty with training in helping victims of sexual misconduct, he said. It was ultimately determined that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to take action against the school official, Hamilton added.

“Did I feel sympathetic to her? Yes, I did. Did I believe her? I don’t know. I wasn’t there,” Hamilton said. “I had to also protect the person as a worker who had rights under the staff union provisions.”

Murry, for his part, set about gathering allies in a hunt for documents.

“I tolerated and befriended the registrar and the associate registrar and people within the administration and got access to the computers that had student records on them,” Murry said. “The janitor was a friend of mine who would give me things that were fetched out of the waste basket.”

It would be decades before Murry realized his impassioned response to the campus rape allegation may also have been connected to his own repressed memories of being sexually assaulted as a child.

Courtesy John Murry

Murry said during 2007 he uncovered additional wrongdoing by the school and delivered damning documents he obtained to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an accreditation agency whose seal of approval was necessary for the federal aid keeping the school afloat.

In February 2008, the agency produced a scathing report alleging “unbridled presidential authority” in place of real standards for governance. It described an inability to verify the legitimacy of students’ class credits, an absence of coherent policies for admissions, enrollment, records, grades or financial aid. But it did not address the rape claim.

Hamilton said he barely remembers Murry and did not recall if the musician had any role in the school’s downfall. Rather, Hamilton said, he had always suspected it was his enemies on the teaching faculty that provided information to the accreditation agency.

Murry said that prior to investigating the school, he had imagined going on to earn a Ph.D and becoming a scholar. But disillusionment with New College, combined with estrangement from his then-wife, threw him into a steep downward spiral.

He took up heroin, using it for two years until a paramedic found him at 16th and Mission and rescued him with a dose of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, also known as Narcan.

On his visit to San Francisco in September, he explained that the two songs that caught the attention of critics worldwide, “California” and “Little Colored Balloons,” came out of his New College of California experience. The latter is an impassioned ballad about principles betrayed, which he sang in The Standard studio.

It describes the heroin overdose in his room at the Eula Hotel, and the disenchantment that got him there.

“I remember telling a doctor there, ‘This isn’t me,’” Murry says. “She just goes, ‘Ah, that’s what every junkie says.’”

Not long after Murry began investigating wrongdoing at New College, he says he was put on probation. Rather than the graduate psychology degree he had hoped for, he was given a masters degree in humanities—a consolation prize, he says, for not being permitted to finish his studies. As concern about the school’s continued accreditation became well-known, enrollment plummeted. Disaccreditation followed in 2008. The flow of federal funds halted. And New College soon collapsed. 

Murry describes how he helped take down New College. | Video by Sophie Bearman

Today, the three-block section of Valencia Street near where Murry overdosed—once dominated by a university campus—is nothing but shops with no hint of the neighborhood’s past.

For Hamilton, however, the school’s downfall meant the end of his life’s work: providing a progressive education to students who might not have been able to study elsewhere.

“I did nothing wrong. I was an honorable person. I always did the right thing. I built a beautiful place that may have had many problems,” Hamilton said. “I did not cover up a rape at New College.”

Murry eventually got off heroin and dedicated himself completely to what had been his sideline —playing music. He put together a collection of doomsaying rock ballads. And he released them on his own label, San Francisco-based Evangeline Records. Not long afterward, he started getting phone calls—from all over the world.

What followed was a 2013 blizzard of global acclaim in major news outlets following the album The Graceless Age. The Guardian ran three stories in succession about the album. American Songwriter, the profession’s trade magazine, gave him the ultimate seal of approval: stating in a review that “he is the real deal as a songwriter.”

Murry was in San Francisco in September collaborating with some old musician friends, on the heels of 2021’s album Stars Are Gods Bullet Holes. He’s a working musician now, known for fervent live performances of “Little Colored Balloons.”

Whenever he plays that and “California,” two of his most heralded songs, he remembers New College of California.

“People sometimes ask what songs are about. And I don’t think that it’s ever really possible to answer that question. But when it comes to those two songs, there’s definitely things about those two songs that—well, really the entire record—that relate to that experience in that place,” Murry said, before reciting his song “California”: “‘I’ve heard the Mission bells ring through the salty breeze. I’ve seen politicians warn on a thousand TVs. There’s a knife in every back and one in every hand. And I swear it ain’t you, it’s California I can’t stand.’ That’s about that place.”

Murry discusses the meaning of his songs inspired by San Francisco. | Video by Sophie Bearman

Before stepping into a taxi after the interview at The Standard’s offices, Murry scanned the neighborhood, pausing in the direction of the Mission to the southeast, before saying: “You know, I kind of miss it here.”

English

Matt Smith can be reached at [email protected]


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