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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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Borderline

September 10, 2014 | by

Though she’s known mainly for her poetry, H.D. was a cineaste, too, in both senses of the word—in the late twenties she formed the Pool Group with Kenneth Macpherson and Bryher (the pen name of Annie Winifred Ellerman). They published a film journal, Close Up, to which H.D. frequently contributed, and they made a number of films, only one of which survives in full. It’s 1930’s Borderline, starring Paul Robeson opposite H.D. herself, credited here as Helga Doorn. It’s about an interracial, bisexual love affair—not so much a love triangle as a love quadrilateral—and, yes, it’s available in toto on YouTube. As the Criterion Collection says, the film “boldly blends Eisensteinian montage and domestic melodrama.”

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Snow Day

August 27, 2014 | by

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Still from Snow White.

Disney’s Snow White is an animation classic, and a beautiful one. But if you’re looking for something altogether weirder (albeit shorter) go back four years, and check out the Fleischer Studios’s 1933 Snow White. Technically, this is a Betty Boop short, and it’s true that the iconic flapper does indeed play “the fairest in the land.” But the cartoon is really a showcase for all kinds of wholly unrelated tricks.

Although it’s technically a “Fleischer Brothers” production, in fact Max and Dave Fleischer didn’t have much to do with Snow White, which is considered the masterpiece of animator Roland Crandall. Apparently Crandall was given free rein on this short as a reward for all his work for the studio, and took full advantage. It’s incredibly innovative, and seriously trippy. This isn’t the only Fleischer Brothers cartoon to employ the voice talents of bandleader Cab Calloway, or even his rotoscoped moves (he also cameoed as the Old Man of the Mountain), but it’s the best: as Koko the Clown, and then a ghost, Calloway does a haunting rendition of the “St. James Infirmary Blues,” and then what might be the first recorded instance of the moonwalk. What does any of this have to do with the story of Snow White? Not all that much. But that’s what Disney was for.

(To see the full seven-minute version, click here.)

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Freak City

August 26, 2014 | by

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Film still from Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando.

Would it be frivolous to bring a class-action lawsuit against the Emmys? I can’t be the only one who slept poorly and, when she did drop off, slid into nightmare. One assumes productivity suffered. Wages and jobs may even have been lost.

It’s not just the contrast to the state of the world and the country that rankles. This is the nature of the beast. Opening monologues based on racial tensions and international crises have never been calculated to keep network viewers glued to the screen. It's not merely the crumminess of the writing, which was stale and dull, full of hoary, tone-deaf jokes and bits that would have felt démodé on The Benny Hill Show. Or even the monotony of the awards themselves, which overwhelmingly favored a couple of programs; a rout is never very entertaining.

People looked creepy. I know we all realize this, but it bears repeating. We are as physically grotesque right now as at any time and place in human history. The face-lifts, the fillers, the wasted, sinewy limbs are now the rule, not the exception. We all know why; the fetishization of youth—and its spiritual implications—are recognized by everyone. And yet, our cultural tolerance for true unnaturalness is unbelievably high. This is horrifying, but it is also fascinating. And this has got to be a unique moment: within five years, plastic surgery techniques will have evolved. Makeup artists and chemists will have better adapted to the harshness of HD. In a decade, we’ll look back with shock at what we accepted as normal and desirable. Never before, and never again, will things be as bad. Relish it. Read More »

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Supine Access to Your Favorite Tome, and Other News

May 28, 2014 | by

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An illustration from an advertisement for the Holloway Reading Stand and Dictionary Holder, c. 1892; image via Retronaut.

  • Around 1892, the world of books greeted perhaps the most salient advance since the invention of the printing press: the Holloway Reading Stand and Dictionary Holder. “For invalids and those accustomed to read themselves asleep it is invaluable … The tired man or woman may read while resting.”
  • Working for J. D. Salinger’s agent: “One of Ms. Rakoff’s tasks was to respond to the steady stream of fan mail for the legendarily reclusive author … The letters, many of them handwritten, were personal and passionate. There were old men who had served with the author in the war and young people discovering the hypocrisy of the real world for the first time. Ms. Rakoff went off script and began to write back, giving the fans her own advice and opinions.”
  • What explains the spate of novels about famous novelists’ wives? “Vera Nabokov, as far as I know, has not yet been transformed into the heroine of a novel. But it's only a matter of time. The demand for fiction cast in the template of ‘the creative person’s wife’ shows little sign of abating.”
  • Remembering Bernard Natan, “a Romanian Jew who immigrated to Paris in 1905 and went on to become a titan of French film, a man whose brand name, for a time, rivaled that of Gaumont and Pathé, founding fathers of le cinéma français. At once media visionary and rapacious entrepreneur, he burned bright over the City of Lights until an arrest for fraud sent him crashing to earth.”
  • “An emergency gives reading a practical urgency, but practical urgency and literature have little business mixing. This is exactly why reading, at its best, is good for you: there’s almost never an immediate, practical reason to do it. It cuts against the grain of the everyday—of the jobs we have to work, the bills we have to pay, the conversations and fashions we’ve been convinced we need to keep up with, the stock language and thought that float in our cultural ether, clogging our vision.”

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Snapping, Humming, Buzzing, Banging: Remembering Alan Splet

May 13, 2014 | by

Lynch Crucifixion

Millions of Americans heard the name Alan Splet (1940–1994) for the first time as a punch line on television. The occasion was the 1980 Academy Awards, where his sound design the previous year, on Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion, had earned him a special Oscar. Citing prior commitments, Splet did not attend the ceremony. When the presenter held up the statuette and the honoree failed to appear to accept it, the evening’s host, Johnny Carson, turned this perceived snub of Hollywood taste back on the truant. “It always happens,” he deadpanned to the audience, “first George C. Scott doesn’t show, then Marlon Brando, and now Alan Splet.”

Splet deserves better. He was no joke. In fact, to an exclusive circle of independent filmmakers who know how much his collages of sound and musical refinement added to their movies from the late seventies to the early nineties, his name is still invoked with an affection verging on awe. Tributes can be found on YouTube from Ballard, Peter Weir, Caleb Deschanel, and Philip Kaufman, with whom Splet collaborated on three films. Splet’s sound design and editing on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) ranks among the most haunting and sophisticated of its day—or any day. Leoš Janáček’s string and piano music is as ravishing as Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, underlining not only the distinctly tart Czech melancholia of the novel, but also serving, notes Kaufman, to “supplant Kundera’s voice as the narrator and give the film its drive.”

No filmmaker in those years bonded more intensely or productively with Splet than David Lynch. The two met in 1970 when the writer-director needed a sound track for his short film The Grandmother. (Splet was then employed at a Philadelphia industrial film company, having bailed on a career in accounting.)

With no money to foster the visions Lynch had in his uncompromising young head, the pair spent twelve-hour days inventing effects on the cheap, recording human mewls and gurgles and hissing machine-made sounds. Not until their concoctions matched the images on the editing table and the pairing created an elusive “mood” (a key term for Lynch) were they satisfied. Thereafter, until Splet’s death in 1994, he partnered with Lynch on every major film project, those that were completed (Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) and those that weren’t (Ronnie Rocket).

In the opinion of some, however, their masterpiece of “audio surrealism” remains Eraserhead. Begun in Philadelphia and finished in Los Angeles, its atmosphere is as marked by the sooty poverty of the filmmakers as The Grandmother had been. It was during this time (around 1973) that Lynch, who could not afford paints, did two meticulous drawings in ballpoint pen: a crucifixion, in a style that combines Mattias Grünewald and Francis Bacon, and a resurrection, now lost. Hoping to raise money to finish the film, they had prints made, an enterprise that was rewarded with total failure.

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