Donít look back: An interview with Bob Neuwirth


By Paolo Vites

I know Bob Neuwirth from quite a few years, he have toured Italy a lot in the early 90s. Always a pleasure to meet the man (and see him performing, of course) but you couldnít ever have a word about Bob Dylan from him. I remember a night when I drove him and Eric Andersen to a show, in Switzerland (quite a 60s flashback...): even Eric was treated to his usual "Are you a KGB agent?" when is about Bob Dylan.

You cant find any Neuwirth quotes about Dylan in any Bob Dylan biographies, and considering that they are out of touch from a lot of years, you cant help but understand what a Ďgentlemaní Neuwirth is really. Apart form Bob Dylan (and you can see a lot of Neuwirth acting in the Dont Look Back legendary movie, recently republished in dvd with Neuwirth and Pennebaker new comments), Bob Neuwirth is been around a lot of great moments in rock history: from Janis Joplin (her and Neuwirthy co wrote with Michael McClure Mercedes Benz) to Patti Smith.

This interview was done a few weeks before a December 2002 italian tour. Bob was in a great shape when I met him before his show and did a great performance as usual, jokiní with somebody in his unique way: "They keep asking me about Bob Dylan, but my professional relationship with him ended 25 years ago, man!".

When will you be here in Italy?

Iím coming I think there the first of December.

Great, I canít wait to see you again, on stage. So, as I told you I want to do a portrait of you because they never write about you. That would be questions about your career and about the Rolling Thunder Revue, since a new live album from that Dylan tour is cominí out these days, ok?

Yes

Iíd like to start about your very first album that came out in Ď74, which unfortunately Iíve never had a chance to listen to. It was never released on cd?

No it was never released on cd.

That is too bad.

Well actually you can receive it this from Japan.

Oh yes?

Yes, it was issued in Japan.

That is great.

I donít even know the label, but you can order it on the Internet.

Iíll try, ok. Can you tell me a little bit about this particoular album? I know there were a lot of musicians involved and it was your very first recording for an album.

Yeah. There were so many people on the album that itís impossible to remember but they were fantastic. Incredible people. Dusty Springfield and...

Dusty Springfield?

Yeah, itís unbelievable the people on the album. When you read the album you canít believe the people that are on it.

Wow, that is great. Dusty Springfield is one of my favorite female singers.

She is incredible. She just sang backup. Many other people are on it too. Kris Kristofferson, Don Everly from the Everly Brothers. The people from Three Dog Night were on it.

A very expensive cast, I think.

Yes, it was the most expensive album ever made when I made it because I made it for David Geffen, you know? And he said "You donít worry about the budget. You just do what you want to do". And so I gave everyone a job. Haha!

Unfortunately the singing is not too good, you know.

Until the late 80ís there was no album from you.

No, no.

What happened? I mean, I know you are a painter. Maybe you were busy with other stuff, but why no other album?

Because I donít think... Are you making a tape of this?

Of course.

Ok... Because Iím not really in the music business. I mean the only time I make albums is as an art project. I donít make albums as a music project, you know? Because Iím not originally a musician. Iím originally a painter and I began to make music only for fun... and to put myself through art school, you know? To pay for art school. So I donít consider myself a musician like friends of mine who spend all of their life making music.

Yes, I understand, but for sure you are an absolutely great songwriter.

I donít know about that. I never think of that really.

This makes me think about what T-Bone Burnett wrote on one of your albums, in the liner notes. He wrote such a beautiful thing, like "Bob Neuwirth donít write songs, he improvise. And ten minutes after, Bob doesnít remember what he wrote".

Yeah, haha. I used to do that all the time, you know. You know, thatís a part of my art.

But in the late 80s yu did a great album like 99 Monkeys and other great collection of songs. Why did you decide to go back to recording?

Well, I didnít decide, reallyI was only making some of what they call demo, demonstration to make a copyright, you know? To register the songs and Danny Goldberg, who had the Gold Mountain label at that time, he said "If it doesnít cost me any money, Iíll put them out". So I said ok, go ahead and put them out. So like every album I ever made, no one ever told me what to do. I had complete freedom.

Great.

Then I thought the work was very interesting so it was ok to release it. I thought the songs were good and the music was pretty good... for me, you know. So then it came out, but of course you know, like with all of my albums, no one buys it. So thatís ok.

Well maybe a few buy it, you can say a few people...

Yeah well, some people buy it. And each album was the same conditions. Complete freedom to make the album and of course the result was no one buys the album! Haha

Yeah, thatís because maybe in the music business the artist needs promotion, press coverage and all the stuff...

Yeah yeah, all that.

But at least we are so lucky to have some... who want to search for your music can find such good stuff.

Yeah, you can have a souvenir.

But Iím sure musicians, all the musicians have appreciated your songs, as well.

Some do, some no. haha

Biggest Border Town on 99 Monkeys is one of my favorite songs that you wrote.

Good song, huh?

What is that particular song about? I mean is it a kind of tribute to New York City...

Yeah, itís about New York City exactly... Which is, you know, at the time thatís where Tom Russell was living and we co wrote that song together. You know he was living in Brooklyn then. I just always say that New York is the biggest border town, like Beirut or something, you know. It used to be and so.

And also you co wrote songs with other people, I think about Peter Case like Beyond the Blue.

Yes!

Thatís a fantastic song. I remember that Bruce Springsteen said once that Beyond the Blue was one of his favorite songs of the 80s. Have you heard?

Haha. No, thatís nice.

Are you still in touch with Peter Case?

Yeah, sure! Weíre going to play in Paris together.

And then you did another great album, Look Up, with all the duets and special guests.

Yeah, well not guests. You know the story is very beatnik. You know thereís a German man in Austin, Texas, Heinz Geissler, you know? You know this name?

No, I donít know him.

Watermelon records.

Oh yeah, of course. Sure.

So he said, "Well, it would sure be nice to have a new Bob Neuwirth record". So I said, "Well, if you give me some money, Iíll make you one." So he gave me some money and I bought a machine, a DAT recorder and some airplane tickets and the project was to go and visit my friends.

Great.

Haha! And each place I went to visit my friends, weíd record a song.

Actually Elliott Murphy is on one of the songs recorded in Paris.

Well, yeah, in the kitchen of his house while he was waiting to get his son from school. We only had about maybe ten minutes. Hahaha

That is cool.

Yeah and you can hear the telephone, you know? In the song the phone is ringing in the background.

And also other great people like Patti Smith.

Yeah, you know this was her very first recording in fifteen years. This was before she made an album... to make a comeback album. She was in Detroit... very sad, depressed. From her husband being dead and I went to visit her and I made her get out of bed. So, you know this was her very first recording in fifteen years. And after this she decided to come to New York and begin to make music again.

I know how hard it was for her to return in the music business after the loss of her husband. So I mean you must be very important, for her to record with you at that particoular time.

Yeah, of course. Thatís my job. My job is to make people writing and singing songs.

What do you think of her recent work now that sheís come back?

Well you know sheís an artist. You know there are not many people in the music business that I think are real artists. You know this word "artist" is a bad word because now everybody thinks that they are an artist, you know, but theyíre Ďartisteí.

Hmm?

Yeah maybe theyíre artiste, musical artiste but artist is a separate idea. Artist you must be more than an artiste.

Yeah, I know what you mean. There are few, especially in these days.

Yeah. Because most people only do it for the money, you know?

Yeah, of course. I remember that I went to see Patti Smith a couple of years ago, here in Milano. It was a particoular moment for me that I was so depressed about music and when I saw her on stage, she was so fantastic that I decided to come back to listen to music.

Hahahaha

She inspired me to come back to music. Sheís so good.

Yeah see well she did the same thing for you as I did for her.

Yeah, thatís great. And then there is your Havana Midnight album, your last studio album, which is a kind of mystery because itís so hard to find again.

Yeah? Hard to find? Maybe I should bring some when I come.

Oh you must. But I listened to some songs on your website from Havana Midnight. There are some songs on the website and I listened to some. How did this project come out? You went to Cuba to record.

Well, yeah, I was invited to come there and so, as a cultural exchange, you know, from the Institute of Culture.

It was your first time in Cuba?

Yeah.

What did you think of that place? I mean, for an American, it must be very...

Well, you know, I mean, itís the Caribbean, you know, but itís a very strange place.

I saw the Buena Vista Social Club movie and it was so interesting to see those old musicians who had never had any collaboration outside of Cuba for so long a time.

Yeah.

This person which you worked with in Cuba, Jos» Maria Vitier, is a poet or am I wrong?

Heís a composer and you know he is... did you see the movie, the film Fresa y Chocolate?

No, I know the movie but I never saw it.

He made the music for this movie.

Oh, cool.

He doesnít collaborate with anybody, he mostly makes classical and jazz music and he doesnít make pop music. He only collaborates with very few people... Silvio RodrŐguez, Amore, a man named Amore. Very seldom making pop music and he was interested to collaborate with me because of his son. His son translates the songs and his mother and father, Jos» Mariaís mother and father are famous poets and so he was interested in the words, much more than the music. It is very difficult for him to make, to play the music. Itís too simple.

Too simple?

Yeah, very difficult. It was more difficult for him to make the music than for me to try to understand his music, because itís much too simple. At one time I was at his house and it was raining, you know, and we were playing the guitar out on the... like a little thing out there outdoors, you know?

Like a porch

Yeah, on a porch and weíre playing and Iím recording on my DAT, the rainstorm, you know, that you hear on the album. Thereís a rainstorm, you know, with thunder and lightening and you hear also the goats "aaaaack aaaaack" and the chickens, you know "bok bok bok bok"... This is all like outside the house, and his son comes out and weíre playing the guitar outside and his son says, almost crying and he says, "Oh my God I canít believe it. Folk music right in my own house".

Thatís the way the son, the young son, you know heís a poet as well, and he could not believe that he was like... because they donít do that kind of music there. They donít have the kind of music that I play there and he was very moved by folk music in his own house.

Great story. Do you think you will work with him in the future again?

Oh! Iíd like to but itís very difficult for Americans. Because you canít do it for commercial reasons. Itís not permitted

What do you think about that Buena Vista Social Club and all the big success?

Oh itís fine. Itís fine, itís very historical. Itíís music from another time. ItŪís not music from... the music from now that is being made there is very, very different. Iím happy for them.

Yeah, theyíre enjoying some success at the least.

Yes, I like that and I like them.

And now you are involved with Down From the Mountain project.

Yeah.

How can you explain the big success behind the O Brother soundtrack? Everybody was so amazed about the big success with old time music...

Well, I canít... no I canít explain. Hahaha... But I think itís important to realize this is not old time music. In the film version, it was music from that period of time... approximately, but it was recorded in modern times. Very beautifully recorded technically. And so basically what you are hearing is a very modern album recorded with material, some material, not all, but some material from long ago... and one or two songs from long ago but not mostly, you know? Alison Krauss is not from long ago. Sheís a young woman and so... itís the combination of like very true material, the material, the songs themselves are very true, very honest and direct. They deal with the great themes of life... of love, death and God.

The real things.

Yeah, the things that all great opera are concerned with, you know? So in the same sense, it have the same subject matter as opera. Haha

But do you think young people in America, thanks to the big success of this soundtrack, are approaching now bluegrass music or old country music or...

No. I mean some people, yes, but mainly no, itís hip hop because mainly people donít have any time... or people think they have no time. Of course they have much time but they donít know this yet, because theyíre young.

You are also the musical director of the live shows.

I produced a documentary film, Down From the Mountain. So that album, Down From the Mountain album, I have something to do with. And then I was the musical director of the tour.

You have performed sometime?

Not musically, you know. For twenty shows I was the presenter. But then for the summer, in the summertime, we got Rodney Crowell to be the presenter.

Ok, I have just a few questions about the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Well... you can ask, but I donít remember it.

Haha

Iím telling you, seriously, I do not remember that time.

This album thatís coming out, there is no When I Paint My Masterpiece inside. You remember the duet you were doing every night with Bob Dylan?

Yeah.

I wonder why they have not included it...

I donít know. I have no idea. Maybe there wasnít a good version.

I donít think so because...

I donít know, maybe because me and Bob we were both too drunk. Hahaha

I think this tour was one of the greatest moments in American music in the 70s...

Yes, absolutely. There were two great tours that I was involved with. One is the Rolling Thunder. One is Down From the Mountain. Both varied tours with very much love and both tours where all of the artists were fans and watched. They watched the performance of all the other artists every night.

Itís possible to say that it was also a celebration of your generation, your people from the 60ís?

No, a celebration of music.

Musically speaking, in your opinion, was there a moment that was the peak of the particular tour?

Nah, I canít remember. You mean of... Rolling Thunder?

Yeah.

I remember nothing. Every night was great.

Have you seen the Hurricane movie with Denzel Washington that was out?

No.

What about the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Review in 1976?

Oh, it was the same thing, just different people, some slightly different people.

Have you ever met Larry Sloman after the tour?

Larry Sloman?

Larry Sloman, the Rolling Stone journalist, who wrote the book about the Rolling Thunder Review.

Yeah, I see him every once in a while in New York.

Yeah, because they are reprinting the book in these days.

Wow, good.

He quit writing about music after that experience.

Good.

What do you think of the Never Ending Tour that Bob Dylan keeps doing?

You know I donít go to see him. I donít know. I saw thim last year. I saw two shows. They were fantastic. I just... itís hard for me to go to big shows. I donít go to see anyone. You know I like acoustic music. So itís very difficult for me to go to loud music now, because my ears are old, you know? I still want to stay up at night but my ears are very tired. So I donít enjoy it too much... but I love Bob Dylan... everything. Heís great. Heís an artist, you know. Heís one of the artists.

Heís touring every night of the year, every year. Heís amazing.

I donít know why he does that.

I saw him last summer here in Europe and I should say it was not such a good show, Iíll tell you the truth, honestly.

Oh? Maybe he was bored.

Yes, I donít know.

But when you make many shows like that it can be different from day to day. See when you were like in the Rolling Thunder Review or Down from the Mountain, if someone doesnít feel very energetic that day, someone else is always there to be great, but if youíre Bob Dylan thereís no one else to take the place. And so if youíre tired from one day from traveling or something everybody just thinks itís a bad show. So I mean I donít know anything about it. Heís pretty good normally.

Have you heard his last album "Love and Theft"?

Yeah!

I think itís great. What do you think?

Yeah, great! Ah, itís a very secret album if you listen to it, you know. If you listen to it carefully itís very, just very sharp, you know. You know thereís a song, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, whatever... If you listen carefully to this song and you donít listen for the music, you listen for the Bob Dylan, itís a very vicious song.

Oh yeah?

Ah, you listen to it. Yeah, it talks about how stupid people are, you know. It talks about how stupid people are. You know, itís an indictment, you know, the song. It just caustic, sharp, poignant... as anything ever from Bob Dylan.

Ok, just a last question, would you like to share a short memory of your good friend, Janis Joplin?

Ah, I donít know what to share about her except... you know... I miss her. You know, she was a special chick because she was not just a blues singer, she was a Texas singer. She sang many different kinds of music.

thanx to Chris Marcum for putting all this together

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