The singer, songwriter and Rolling Thunder Revue alum gone at 82
The self-described singer, songwriter, producer, performer, painter, improviser, collaborator, and instigator Bob Neuwirth has died at 82 years old.
Neuwirth’s death was confirmed by his longtime partner, Paula Batson, and his family released a statement saying that “on Wednesday (May 18th) evening in Santa Monica, Bob Neuwirth’s big heart gave out.”
In a 1996 interview, the Nashville Scene’s Michael McCall wrote that “Neuwirth is American music’s Forrest Gump, but with brains and talent. He’s a guy who, through the course of recent music history, has always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, hanging with the right people, making things happen.”
Indeed, Neuwirth’s wandering muse often found the artist in the middle of several thriving creative scenes. Born in Akron, Ohio in 1939, Neuwirth attended the Boston School of Fine Arts, where he honed his songwriting and performing craft, learning from blues and folk legends like Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Neuwirth became an essential part of the early 1960s Cambridge folk scene.
Neuwirth moved to New York City in the mid-‘60s, where he quickly fell in with the bourgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene, playing with artists like Bob Dylan (who he met in 1961), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Phil Ochs. He spent much of the rest of the decade working and traveling with Dylan, including the 1967 tour of England documented by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker with his film Don’t Look Back. Neuwirth set out for the West Coast at the end of the decade, befriending a young singer named Janis Joplin, with whom he wrote Joplin’s famous “Mercedes Benz.” He later introduced Janis to struggling songwriter Kris Kristofferson, playing his “Me and Bobby McGhee” for her on acoustic guitar; Joplin would later record the song, resulting in a posthumous, chart-topping hit.
AUDIO: Janis Joplin “Mercedes Benz”
Neuwirth landed in New York City in the 1970s, living in the city’s notorious Chelsea Hotel at the same time as Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, who would become close friends. Although he’d been playing professionally for over a decade, Neuwirth didn’t release his debut record until 1974; the self-titled Asylum Records disc included guests like Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Cass Elliot, and long-time Neil Young collaborator Ben Keith, among many others. He later put together the band for Dylan’s 1975 acclaimed Rolling Thunder Revue, including then-unknown singer, songwriter, and guitarist T-Bone Burnett. Neuwirth would also appear in Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara film.
Never the most prolific of recording artists, Neuwirth released two solo albums during the 1980s – 1988’s Back To the Front and 1990’s 99 Monkeys – the latter of which included contributions from friends like Burnett, Peter Case, and Victoria Williams. Neuwirth also produced albums by Burnett, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, and Texas Americana pioneer Vince Bell, and saw his songs recorded by artists like Case, Kristofferson, k.d. Lang, Roger McGuinn, and Concrete Blonde. He toured Europe several times during the decade, sometimes as a solo acoustic performer and also with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, Warren Zevon, Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, and Sid Griffin of the Long Ryders.
Neuwirth never aspired to be a pop star, telling the Nashville Scene’s McCall that “I don’t fancy myself a musician. I don’t fancy myself a singer.” It was during the ‘90s that Neuwirth would record three of his most enduring and adventuresome albums, beginning with his 1994 collaboration with Cale, The Last Day On Earth. Co-written by Neuwirth and Cale, the concept album was originally commissioned by Art at St. Ann’s in New York City, and performed by the duo to great acclaim in that city’s Church of St. Ann as well as in Hamburg and Frankfurt, Germany. Part of the song cycle’s appeal is derived not only from the fascinating lyrical thread, one which takes many listens to absorb the entire story, but also from the extreme diversity of musical content, which can rapidly segue from spacey New Age-styled instrumentation to jazzy improvisation, or even a bluegrass hoedown.
In a 1994 interview with this writer for my R.A.D! music zine, Neuwirth described the songs on The Last Day On Earth as “I would say that they’re sort of a topographical travelogue, an interior/exterior travelogue through time and space, the thought processes of the denizens of an unspecified cafe. Maybe it’s a metaphor for something else, I don’t know, maybe it’s a metaphor for any gathering,” adding that the album is “a lot like a movie soundtrack without a film. You have to put the film in your own mind.” Collaborating with Cale made for an odd couple, Neuwirth stating that “I come from a hillbilly, country blues, improvisational, one time only, if you were there, great, if not, you missed it background, and John comes from a classically trained, structured background. So…we just made a dance of it.” Neuwirth called the experience a “very stimulating collaboration, very fulfilling…”
Look Up, Neuwirth’s 1996 album for the Texas-based Watermelon Records label, featured cover artwork by legendary underground comix artist Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) and a “who’s who” of alternative and Americana artists who were captured live on a digital recorder as Neuwirth traveled to their locations; Patti Smith was taped in her Detroit bedroom, Elliot Murphy in his living room in Paris, Bernie Leadon in his cabin in Tennessee. Visits to Texas, California, and New York resulted in performances by artists like Rose Flores, Peter Case, Victoria Williams, Gurf Morlix, and Chuck Prophet. Neuwirth’s final recording was the 1999 album Havana Midnight, for which he travelled to Cuba and worked with that country’s famed composer and arranger, Jose Maria Vitier.
Slowing down in later years, Neuwirth largely concentrated on his painting, but still found time for music. He performed as part of the critically-acclaimed Harry Smith Anthology concerts in London, Los Angeles, and New York City in 1999 and 2001 and appeared on the 2006 CD and DVD release. He contributed songs to tribute albums for old friends like Peter Case and Alejandro Escovedo, and Neuwirth produced Down From the Mountain, a documentary by director Pennebaker, which was filmed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and featured performances by artists like Alison Krauss and Union Station, John Hartford, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, among others. He later worked as the music director for a nationwide tour in support of the film, and subsequently for “The Great High Mountain” tour.
Neuwirth forged a lengthy career based entirely on his innate creative talents and immense artistic integrity, and he worked through the years with many like-minded people. In our 1994 interview, he said “I’ve been privileged to have worked with people who were absolutely original. There’s nobody that I’ve worked with that was mediocre; it was pure grace.”
Commenting on his own high creative standards he added, “nobody’s ever bought me. It’s a trade-off…all you have to do is want to be poor. I don’t want to be poor, but I come from that country thing where you try and make the art first and try to make the deal later. I’m willing to paint houses so that I can make art. Painting is painting and I was a painter when I started, and I’ll be a painter when I die.”
AUDIO: John Cale and Bob Neuwirth Last Day On Earth