Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Bob Neuwirth: Here and Then And Now

Bob_NeuwirthBob Neuwirth is one of those characters from the secret history of rock ‘n’ roll; if you know, you know. In 2011, on the occasion of a retrospective of his paintings showing in LA, I seized a rare opportunity to interview him for Crawdaddy! and got a few words on the state of 21st Century music and art.

Update: Neuwirth died on May 18, 2022. With deepest condolences to his partner, his family and many friends, I’m reposting this brief in his memory.

“I think it was Matisse who said artists should have their tongues cut out,”  says Bob Neuwirth. As a visual artist and songwriter, his large abstract canvases are rarely shown, but enjoyed by collectors privately, while his solo singer-songwriter albums Back to the Front and 99 Monkeys are appreciated by connoisseurs of the form.

A great teller of tales, as opposed to a tale-teller, Neuwirth has remained largely in the shadows since his ’60s and ’70s associations at the epicenter of music and culture, but through the years, he’s played a unique role in the lives of his fellows: He’s served as an ear and inspirer to friends in the arts for five decades. Often the a catalyst to epic songs, he lived the moments we read about in history books.

“Art is everywhere,” explains Neuwirth. “Though it takes a different set of eyes to recognize it. If it’s music, it’s a different set of ears…Just because something is reproduced in multiples doesn’t make it good,” he says. “Turn on the radio.  What you hear on the radio is for people who aren’t really listening.”

Sometimes what Neuwirth is rapping sounds as cryptic as a zen koan, though he’s earned a right to wax on as one who actually pulled-off the great American hat trick of living a rich artist’s life while remaining under the radar of mass success. An original hipster—back when it was still cool to be cool—his tales of beatnik glory took him from Boston’s Back Bay, hanging out with folk guitarist Sandy Bull, to checking into art school (“but not for long,” as he sings in his semi-autobiographical song, “Akron,” the rubber city from which he ran). From Boston it was on to busking in Paris with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; from there, to Berkeley where he developed his abstract-expressionist painting and tried winging it as a folksinger who “couldn’t sing and couldn’t play,” he says.

In his time, he was insulted by Lenny Bruce, kissed on the mouth by Miles Davis, and invited to meet the Beatles while on tour with Bob Dylan in England, a trip he took in exchange for art supplies.

“He said I’ll give you a leather jacket and all the canvas you can paint on,” remembers Neuwirth of the deal with Dylan.  The resulting tour was documented in D.A. Pennebaker’s milestone rock documentaries, Don’t Look Back and the follow-up, Eat the Document, which Neuwirth also had a hand in technically assisting. He remained a confidante of Dylan’s (he was there when they switched on the electricity at Newport, and was also invited on board the Rolling Thunder Revue).  He’s been a compadre to Kris Kristofferson, a friend to Janis Joplin (he co-wrote “Mercedes Benz”), a companion to Jim Morrison and a filmmaker for the Doors.

In the ’70s  Neuwirth moved on to pre-punk New York and the Max’s Kansas City scene, a legendary hanging place for visual artists. He brought in songwriters like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings (who weren’t as well-appreciated in that period as they are now), and contributed to the club’s culture while making music and gathering more fuel for his great untold stories of rock’n’roll.

“Then the New York Dolls showed up, and that was pretty much it,” he says of the temporary displacement of folk-inspired, singer-songwriters from Manhattan. And yet, Neuwirth had a direct hand in the changing of the guard when he advised one of the club’s regulars, Patti Smith, to turn her poems into songs: “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,” is how Smith remembered his encouragement in her autobiography, Just Kids.

Going on to collaborate with John Cale on The Last Day on Earth, a prescient musical theater piece concerning the apocalypse, and working on projects that took him from Cuba (Havana Midnight) to Appalachia (Down From the Mountain), Neuwirth remained in the orbit of collaboration with musicians and artists of all stripes. There are plenty more stories where these came from, though between his brushes with greatness, Neuwirth stayed devoted to his own art, attempting to collage and paint his masterpiece. Bumping around from studio to 20110409115304-2studio, he lived in a loft (“rat-infested,” by his description) formerly occupied by jazzman Eric Dolphy. By then, New York and the art scene had changed. The roads for struggling artists to take had gradually began to close down and the art and music inspired by the ideas that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s were subsumed into a new age of mass consumerism. Could Neuwirth imagine the culture returning to a time when artists and musicians held as much influence as 15 minutes of Internet fame do today?

“In the 21st Century, everyone thinks they’re an artist,” he says, “But trying to do anything good is harder than it looks. There’s lots of good around but that doesn’t make it excellent and it doesn’t make it art. Someone actually just said to me that they thought banking was an art,” he says.

So where does one find art in the culture today?

“If people want art, they have to look for art,” he says. “There are plenty of musicians with things to say. There’s plenty of jazz…classical….there are really good paintings around—maybe not for sale. ”

“There’s something to be said for beauty being in the eye of the beholder,” he says, staking his claim. “Bad art is better than good bombs.”

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, California, film, Folk, Interview, video, , , , ,

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