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Amusing Myself: An Interview with Bob Neuwirth

October 6, 2014 | by

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Photo: Larry Bercow

In Just Kids, Patti Smith calls the painter and singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth “a catalyst for action,” and she should know—it was Neuwirth, “trusted confidant to many of the great minds of his generation,” who urged her to write her first song. In a recent interview with Smith, Neil Young said that Neuwirth is “almost a Biblical figure … It’s just amazing that this guy has been shadowing through all these artistic communities.”

Down the decades, Neuwirth, now seventy-five, has made the scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Berkeley, Paris, Nashville, Santa Monica, and Austin, stopping in at the fabled festivals of Newport, Monterey, and Woodstock and associating along the way with Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, the Coen Brothers, Brice Marden, T Bone Burnett, Joan Baez, Shel Silverstein, Elvis Costello, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Poons, The Band, and The Band’s former front man, Bob Dylan. In Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan recalled the decades when he and Neuwirth were especially close: “Like Kerouac had immortalized Neal Cassady in On the Road, somebody should have immortalized Neuwirth … If ever there was a renaissance man leaping in and out of things, he would have to be it.”

For someone on the receiving end of such high praise from the famous, though, Neuwirth has a rather low view of fame itself. “Being famous is a full-time job,” he told me over lunch recently in the West Village. “You can get more done being anonymous. I know how people can get famous, but they have to want to do that … It has to tickle the G-spot of their minds, because being anonymous is so much more powerful. You can get so much more done if you’re not worried about fame and fortune. You can get a lot done.”

Since he came out of Akron, Ohio, in the early sixties, Neuwirth has focused primarily on painting, but he’s equally as well known for his music. He cowrote Joplin’s song “Mercedes Benz”; put out five mostly excellent solo records (including Last Day on Earth, a collaboration with John Cale); appeared as Dylan’s running buddy in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, Don’t Look Back; had his songs recorded by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Roger McGuinn, and Peter Case; and worked with everyone from the Welsh filmmaker Sara Sugarman to rockabilly legend Rosie Flores.

Later this month, Neuwirth and his small band will join the journalist David Felton for “Stories and Songs” at Manhattan’s Dixon Place on October 15 and at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica on October 19. We spoke about these upcoming shows, among many other diversions.

What can the audience expect from “Stories and Songs”?

I’m interested in the living-room, intimate atmosphere of it. The whole point is, what happens when somebody shows up in a performance space without a preset agenda and has to bring something to the table, much in the way Keith Jarrett approaches a concert in which he doesn’t know what the first note is going to be? It’s almost unbelievable to hear his Koln Concert and think that Jarrett just cleared his mind before he walked onto that stage—it’s sublime. That’s our ideal. It’s 95 percent improv—aside from a couple of anchor songs, touchstones that I can rely on if things get too hideous.

Has that backfired? Do you ever get scorched by embarrassment?

Daily. On or off the stage. I’m scorched by embarrassment every time I look in the mirror. Especially when I’m trying on a bathing suit. Read More »

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That’s Material: An Interview with Daniel Menaker

January 21, 2014 | by

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Daniel Menaker doesn’t waste time in signaling his penchant for self-deprecation. The title of his wise, playful, deeply felt new memoir is My Mistake. And the memoirist, no mere tease, is happy to detail the errors he’s made during his life and his celebrated career as fiction editor of The New Yorker, publisher at Random House, and author of novels, stories, and essays.

Most of the blunders recounted by Menaker aren’t too dire, but he remains haunted by the inadvertent role he played in his only sibling’s untimely death. During a game of touch football in 1967, he challenged his older brother, Mike, to play backfield despite Mike’s bad knees, and from there everything went horribly amiss: Mike, then twenty-nine, sustained an injury that led to knee surgery, and this surgery led to a fatal blood infection called septicemia.

For all of Menaker’s mistakes, great and small, readers of My Mistake will likely feel that he got a lot more right than wrong. His memoir takes us from a red-diaper childhood in Greenwich Village through teenage summers on a colorful uncle’s Berkshires guest camp and an education at Swarthmore in the early sixties; it recounts his professional mentoring by the legendary William Maxwell and William Shawn, his office politics with Tina Brown and Harry Evans, and the editing of some of the great authors of our age. Menaker, who, at seventy-two, has written five other books, is an expert at turning those proverbial life-lemons into lemonades; his description of his protracted recent struggle with lung cancer, for example, winds up being one of the memoir’s most inspiring and invigorating sections.

Since finishing My Mistake, Menaker has been working on a series of thematically linked stories, and during an early December break in his current “self-financed” book tour, he answered each question I catapulted at him by telephone.

In My Mistake you say that writing a memoir was a means for you to take stock of your life while facing possible death, pondering what you call “the Great Temporariness.”

The book came about through a really weird route. The proposal for it was vastly different from the finished product. Fourteen people rejected it. I posted the rejections on the Huffington Post, and got in terrible trouble for that with my agent. I didn’t care—I’m too old to care about that shit. I just thought it was funny. And then somebody made an offer, but he was let go from the publishing house, or left, shortly after he acquired my book. I like to think there was no causal connection!

I’m not a big fan of the present tense, but it functions well in My Mistake.

Memoir is such a vexed form and category, for any number of reasons. I can’t even count how many reasons there are for not writing a memoir. People are not in it, or they are in it, they’re pissed off, your memory is wrong—there are all sorts of land mines. With a book that doesn’t have anything truly remarkable in it—I wasn’t captured and sexually violated for ten years, I wasn’t a jihadist, I didn’t go into outer space—I had to figure out how I could make this more immediate. It’s a kind of gadget to use the present tense, but it felt right. And it helped me to put myself—or pretend to myself that I was putting myself—back in the moment. It was a sort of shoehorn back into the past. Read More »

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Pynchonicity

September 5, 2013 | by

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“Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much,” announces a character in the new novel Bleeding Edge—yet because its author is Thomas Pynchon, let’s not take that valorizing of paranoia too lightly; elsewhere the same character grouses about “when paranoia gets real-world.”

More than any other recurring Pynchonian concept, paranoia receives nuanced treatment in the novelist’s work. A tendency toward the “p” word would seem to color his personal life as well: although he reputedly lives in plain sight on New York’s Upper West Side, he keeps his private life more private than that of any other major American artist. And, after being a stone Pynchonophile for nearly thirty years, I’ve finally started feeling a bit paranoid myself. It’s not the dot-com “hashslingrz,” Pynchon’s latest fictional conspiracy, that’s freaking me out, but the author himself. Never before has he set one of his novels in a time and place which I myself inhabited, and as I whooshed back to the New York City of 2001—this time through Pynchon’s aesthetic filter—his world spookily coincided with mine, mapping over it at points both minor and major. Call it a case of “Pynchonicity.”

As it happens, I spent much of 2001 rereading the then-available Pynchon canon: the historical books (Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason And Dixon); the contemporaries set during Pynchon’s own adult years (The Crying Of Lot 49, Vineland); and his first novel, V., a hybrid of those two forms. I was thirty-eight then, Pynchon was sixty-four, and a goal of my project was to understand the man, to puzzle out what kind of mind could be equally open to profundity and vulgar puns, tenderness and cruelty, hard science and the occult, sweet lyricism and, well, Rainbow’s notorious shit-eating scene. Given Pynchon’s aversion to cameras, microphones, reporters’ notebooks, and public podiums, the texts were all I and his other readers had to work from. Read More »

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A Singular Southern Gentleman Goes Out “Biting”

April 25, 2012 | by

Whenever I rang the phone at a certain house in the kudzu-covered college town of Gainesville, Florida, I knew what I was likely to hear: not a polite “hello” or “good afternoon,” but a gruff-voiced, rural Georgia-accented statement of self: “Harry Crews.” And whenever I visited my friend Harry, the notorious American novelist and essayist who died (“bit the big bagel,” he’d say) in March at the age of seventy-six, I knew what I’d likely find: a great boulder of a man in a bathrobe sunk into a brown recliner chair in a living room filled with books, photographs, and, on one wall, the framed quilted image of a typewriter.

“Come on in, blood, grab a seat, how ya been?” Harry would call to me as I stepped inside. He took pride in rarely locking his home’s front door, just as he prided himself on keeping his number listed in the Gainesville white pages.

“All’s good,” I’d say, dropping into a chair that faced his. “New York’s fine, how you been?”

“Well, I’m hurting.”
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