Amusing Myself: An Interview with Bob Neuwirth


At Work


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.

How do you process that embarrassment when it happens onstage?

That’s the advantage of live music, live theater, live performance as opposed to scripted, canned stuff—you can manipulate the audience, you can make them go the way you want. Comedians talk about bombing all the time, but they have a different approach—they have a love-me-or-I’ll-kill-myself vibe going on. Me, I don’t give a shit. I’m just there to do what I do—for me. If anyone else gets enjoyment out of it, great, but I’m really trying to amuse myself.

I hear you’ve got an interviewer onstage with you.

David Felton got a Pulitzer for covering the Watts Riots back when the LA Times was a real newspaper and he was dumb enough to go down there and get the story. We first crossed paths years and years ago in San Francisco. Felton is allowed to ask whatever he wants onstage, without me knowing what he wants to ask. He’s allowed to throw curveballs, change-ups, fastballs—or the knuckler. He’s up there with a laptop—that’s his instrument. Felton surprised me at the last show with a question about San Francisco in the early sixties, a speech by Mario Savio of the Free Speech Movement, which was before the flower children and the acid revolution.

How did you start doing this type of concert?

It started as a talk event after a painting show, as part of LA Talks—“The Art of Being Interviewed”—and it graduated from there. I was trying to think of something to do onstage, and I was driving past Will Rogers Ranch and I thought, You know, you can have an act by having a non-act …

I know you’ve had periods when you stopped painting and songwriting. Even though you weren’t active, were you still thinking about making art?

Thinking or absorbing. If you’re a painter, you’re always looking at colors. When you’re walking home today, you’ll be writing. You don’t have to have a pencil in your hand to be writing. For the first time in my life, I’ve chosen pre-stretched canvases to paint on. In fact, the last hundred or so have been twelve-inch square—the size of a vinyl album cover. It was a completely momentary choice—I was going past an art store and it said “Semi-Annual Sale—70 Percent Off Canvases,” but you had to buy twenty of them … Everything is a matter of opportunity. What’s available is what happens. Whatever art supplies are available is what the project becomes. When paintings are drying or I’m taking a break in the studio, there’s always a guitar lying around. Sometimes a song pops up, sometimes it doesn’t.


Neuwirth’s eponymous debut album, 1974.

If one does appear, do you write it down or record it right away?

I just make up something—if there’s a tape machine nearby, lucky for us. If there isn’t, well, it’s hard to remember them most of the time. For every jewel that goes down the drain, there’s a lot of garbage that doesn’t see the light of day.

Someone’s said, There are enough songs out there already.

That’s right. Bob Thiele, Jr. says no one wants to hear more than six or seven songs from anybody. Except maybe from John Coltrane.

All the canvases of yours that I’ve seen are abstract. Did you ever do representational work?

Yeah, when I was a little kid. Then I started looking at modern painting. I think the real flip was when there was a Jackson Pollock story in Life Magazine, and as soon as I saw those paintings, they resonated. They just clicked—and not because they looked messy or easy. In fact, they looked impossible. They didn’t look like your kid could do it. If your kid could do that, man, go out and buy him as much paint as he can stand, because you’ve got a genius on your hands. Also, I had a high school teacher who was open-minded. Even though he was constipated with ideas, he had a specific design trick that he taught us, how to break things up into smaller design exercises.

So you were painting early on.

I was given paint and turpentine and brushes, a paint kit, when I was seven or eight years old. My mom and my aunt were both painters. So the idea of painting, the tactile sensation, the smell of the stuff, linseed oil—yeah. I was familiar with oil, too, but I was always impatient, because you can’t erase it, and you can’t paint over it until it dries. It made me crazy. I was impetuous—and happy when I discovered acrylic paint, which dries fast.

How about watercolor?

I always hated watercolor, because you couldn’t control it, unless you were Winslow Homer. But another thing I related to with Pollock was when I read that he was using house paint, because I was already helping my grandfather to paint the house. There was always some kind of painting going on around my house, even if it was painting the screens or doors or garage, and I related the painting of a door to the painting that I saw Pollock do. I realized that paint could be a plastic entity of its own—that paint and the surface it touched were a thing unto themselves, a kind of holistic, talismanic-shamanistic kind of thing. I remember painting two-by-fours as a kid and sticking them in the ground and looking at them. Nailing weird parts of wood together and coloring them. As far as I was concerned, that was making a painting.

Which brings us back to regard for oneself and one’s work—

It’s like if a kid draws a blue cow and some lunkheaded teacher comes along and says, What’s that? And the kid says, It’s a cow. And the teacher says, That can’t be a cow, Johnny, there are no blue cows. Then fuck—bang-clink-twist-snap!—there goes the kid’s mind for the rest of his life. Whereas, yes, there is such a thing as a blue cow—there it right fucking is, in front of your eyes! Who’s stupid here, the kid or the teacher?

Or it’s like when a kid draws on a piece of paper and he thinks he’s made a mistake, it doesn’t go the right way—some spasm of his physicality made his hand jerk at the wrong time and he crumples up the paper and throws it away. But here comes the teacher who says, No, no, no, don’t throw the paper away, turn it over and use the other side. Well, the kid’s not going to use the other side—that piece of paper has been scarred by his misstep. It’s ruined. He crumpled it up because he wanted to get it out of his life, out of his consciousness. He needs a clean sheet of paper to get started again. You’ve got a lot of nerve to put the brakes on a kid who’s on a roll like that! Give him more art supplies! The fact that they’re taking art out of the schools is shockingly stupid. The fact that they would have their heads so far up their asses …


Neuwirth’s Collage #4.

Let’s talk about a third form you’ve worked in—film.

Don’t Look Back was my first opportunity to be near filmmaking. And what a great outfit to be in proximity to, D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. Wow! Most people would pay a small fortune to be tutored by those people. Pennebaker used to let me borrow a camera to shoot footage.

Did you ever write scripts?

No, I hate writing. But I used to imagine films a lot, just before I would pass out. I’d always see a film in my mind then—great films, too. And I’d come to the next morning and not have the faintest idea what the film was about. It was brilliant the night before.

I came across a quote from Maimonides in which he says something like, If you ever hear a disembodied voice in one of your dreams—if you hear someone but can’t see them—then that’s a divine voice addressing you, and you’d better pay attention to what it’s saying.

That’s scary, man. I hear those voices all the time.

Gary Lippman is a lapsed lawyer and former Fodors travel writer whose play Paradox Lust appeared off-Broadway, whose fiction has appeared in Open City, and whose heart is in the Highlands.