Where to begin in assessing the multi-faceted life and career of Bob Neuwirth, the singer, songwriter, visual artist, mentor, creative catalyst, restless collaborator and provocateur who died May 18 in Santa Monica at 82?
As good a starting point as any comes from three longtime friends and collaborators who agreed to share their reflections on Neuwirth’s legacy with Variety: multiple Grammy-winning producer-songwriter-guitarist-singer T Bone Burnett, producer, songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Steven Soles and multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer David Mansfield.
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Typical of so many artists whose paths intersected with Neuwirth’s, the threesome entered his circle independently, but once there found common ground with one another. With significant credit going to his frequent role as instigator, they came together as the critically acclaimed Alpha Band in the late 1970s, and subsequently moved on to prolific solo careers.
The Alpha Band emerged out of their parts in the musical ensemble that backed Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and numerous others who shared the spotlight during Dylan’s wild and wooly Rolling Thunder Revues of 1975 and ’76 — a venture, Mansfield suggests, that was as much a product of Neuwirth’s influence behind the scenes as Dylan’s out front.
Neuwirth released a handful of solo albums over the span of a quarter-century, and contributed to countless other musicians’ recordings for more than half a century. His final solo album, released in 1999, was “Havana Midnight,” for which he and producer Soles teamed with Cuban composer and pianist Jose Maria Vitier in assembling a disparate group of musicians for a characteristically inspired collaboration that yielded exquisite musical results.
He also was a respected abstract painter, having studied art at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts and who considered Jackson Pollock a chief inspiration along with Rembrandt and the masters. His work was the subject of a career retrospective in 2011, “Overs & Unders: Paintings by Bob Neuwirth 1964-2009,” at L.A.’s Track 16 Gallery.
Throughout his life he danced on the edge of fame, but consciously sidestepped its trappings — despite important associations with Dylan, Janis Joplin (he co-wrote her hit “Mercedes Benz,” and introduced her to Kris Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee”), Patti Smith, John Cale, Kris Kristofferson and too many others to itemize.
As Dylan himself wrote of Neuwirth in his 2004 book “Chronicles: Volume One,” “Like Kerouac had immortalized Neal Cassady in ‘On the Road,’ somebody should have immortalized Neuwirth. He was that kind of character.”
Yet so many who knew and worked with him knew that fame and fortune never ranked high on his priority list, pointing to his selfless spirit of camaraderie, generosity and underlying positivity. “In the early days, he and the famous Bob were considered word assassins,” Soles remembers, “but Neuwirth traded that angle of inclination to healing humanity through words and deeds.”
The word “mentor” comes up regularly in conversations about his legacy. Neuwirth had, Burnett says, “an eye for latent talent [and] an ability to draw it out.”
More often than not, he worked to put the spotlight on others rather than himself. As Mansfield puts it below, “He gave, he never took.”
T BONE BURNETT
AN ATTEMPT AT A RECOUNTING OF BOBBY NEUWIRTH
Bob Neuwirth was a mad Zen monk
He knew what was good
And what wasn’t
He saw what was coming
He had an acute eye and an open ear
And a deep soul
an eye for latent talent
an ability to draw it out
He was prototype angel headed hipster
He was a beat generation hillbilly singer
A songwriter of astonishing skill
And an abstract artist
His songs were amazing improvisations that he would never remember
Occasionally someone else would remember one
Bobby Neuwirth’s positive influence on the world will be arcane but felt for decades, for centuries, for the indefinite future.
He was discerning
Bob Neuwirth arrived with the birth of the cool, at the end of the Bebop/Beat/Abstract Expressionist transformation of American culture.
He was a beneficiary of that transformation. And he carried it into the future, into the now. He was hipper than Jack Kerouac. He was hipper than Jackson Pollack.
He was an artist of the highest caliber.
In one of our last conversations, he said, “The dystopia we are living in is so much worse than the worst dystopian nightmares of our youth…”
He said it, of course, with deep sadness, but his blood was ice water.
He was not resigned.
And he was happy.
I grew up on the Eastern end of Long Island where the famous meet the dollar. I was immersed in the art world and I watched my father create art every day. It was only natural I ended up in the Woodstock kitchen of Geoff and Maria Muldaur meeting Bob Neuwirth for the first time in 1968. I could see he was all about art.
Drinks were flowing where musicians John Herald, Artie Traum and members of the Band were cloistered. They were laughing and completely enthralled in the plain-speak of this unsung American master of the postwar era. After you spent time with Neuwirth, you felt smarter and inspired. He always challenged you.
Random selection had placed me there so I might enhance my taste for non-academic learning. This was followed by many nights of nonstop music and song, the smell of paint and turpentine as we added our names to the growing renaissance that was spreading across the globe. It was like an extension cord where the notes are revealed in rapid-fire and beautiful slow chords. Harmony and discourse all in one. Small-town talk not discounted.
Neuwirth was always there, playing his fractured version of the genius many of us would come to recognize. He was equally at home with kings and paupers. In the early days, he and the famous Bob were considered word assassins, but Neuwirth traded that angle of inclination to healing humanity through words and deeds.
Not everyone would make it out of the ‘60s or the ‘70s. We did. It was during those times Neuwirth would become a permanent fixture in my life and — over the next 50 years — a close friend and confidant. We loved watching and attending baseball games from the majors to the minors. Collaborating with other artists was a passion for Neuwirth, which led us to Cuba, where an unlikely collaboration with arranger Jose Maria Vitier and his hand-selected Cuban musicians produced a unique album he titled “Havana Midnight.” It was a cultural exchange in an altruistic tradition, which remains a hallmark of Bobby’s artistic integrity.
Art for art’s sake, thank you very much.
He was always searching for paintings, words and song all mixed together in a perfect gumbo. Black and white and colors not yet named. He was an older brother, not fearful or judgmental. Full of encouragement and truth-telling that could be hurtful yet honest, but in the end brought more inspiration and clarity than I thought possible, punctuated by the latest score of the baseball game we were watching.
To those who were lucky enough to be in his orbit, I say, “Be grateful for the precious time we had together.” I am.
Long Adios Bob…
Let me start with an anecdote about what it was like hanging out with Bob. On the second Rolling Thunder tour we had a few unexpected days off around a show in Baton Rouge, and Bob decides we should all go visit his pal Bobby Charles (“Walking to New Orleans”) at his bayou home in Abbeville (as if that madcap tour was not enough of an adventure in itself!).
Joe Cocker had just released an album featuring a fantastic song of Charles’, “You Came Along” (“God bless the gift of laugher, thank God for a world of song”), so it was doubly an excuse for celebration. That weekend, knowing I’d get addicted, Bob introduced me to Cajun music via D. L. Menard and the Louisiana Aces. That was a life-changer right there.
When we pulled up in the tour bus, Charles’ girlfriend, Judy Hill, was already hard at work in the kitchen, turning out a seemingly endless supply of crawfish étoufée and boudin blanc. Bobby’s aide-de-camp was a scary, snaggle-toothed character named “Bird.” By way of introduction, Bird would pull out his tactical hunting knife and explain in a thick accent how he could disembowel you and place your intestines in your hands before you would even feel it. Then he headed off into the swamp to catch us a gator for the grill. Sure enough, within a few hours we were at the table, washing down gator steaks with beer, and, as we dig in, Neuwirth says, “Have you ever had alligator? It tastes just like…dinosaur.”
Professionally, I’m an accompanist. When I write a film score, my job is to accompany the drama. Whenever Bob played a show of his own, he would call me in, and my job was to make him more accessible; to surround, sometimes even translate, his songwriting, so more people in the audience would “get it.” Because a Bob Neuwirth show wasn’t a passive experience, you weren’t going to be spoon-fed. But it was always brilliant. I did what I could to serve that.
Making music with Bob was always an adventure. He was a three-chord-song type of guy, and like many of the writers who cut their teeth on the old, weird America of the Harry Smith Anthology, he ended a phrase when he felt like it, or sometimes got spooked and doubled back, and you just had to hang on for the ride. But underneath this musical unpredictability was the same aesthetic in his abstract painting. It equally drove his music-making.
When we made records, we usually did them reasonably conventionally, but live he was capable of going off the musical grid as easily and profoundly as any jazz musician. Take a listen to the music and poetry record he produced a few years ago for Vince Bell, “Ojo.” Much has been written about Bob’s innate talent at scene-making, which was certainly true — the scene that became Rolling Thunder was essentially Neuwirth’s — and he was in fine fettle for Vince’s sessions.
Jazz bassist Ratzo Harris, pianist and theremin virtuoso Rob Schwimmer, avant-garde classical flutist Robert Dick, French composer and clarinetist Renaud-Gabriel Pion, flamenco genius Pedro Cortez, country singer Laura Cantrell, downtown legend Dave Soldier — he stirred that pointillistic musical soup in a way nobody else could have, to startling effect.
From the day I walked into a toilet-of-a-dressing-room at the Other End, an 18-year-old with a fiddle case under my arm, until his death, Bob was the single person who made the most impact on my life. I expect that to continue to be true.
I had had a fair amount of experience in dealing with celebrity before then — my band had opened for Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris at Max’s Kansas City in 1973, and when I met Neuwirth I was playing in Eric Andersen’s band.
Within a few months Bob dumped me in the deep end of the celeb pool by inviting me to join the Rolling Thunder Revue, where one was required to keep a poker face while accompanying Dylan, Baez and McGuinn. Somehow, without ever saying a word, he taught me how to be unfazed, maybe just by treating me as an equal, right off the bat, and by that same kind of bottomless encouragement he doled out to Janis, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams and countless others when they were starting out.
That year, he mentored me in learning how not to be impressed, or lust after, celebrity. I did, at least a little, in my younger years, but Bob didn’t give up on me. He was the artistic and spiritual godfather of the band T Bone, Steven and I formed in 1976, the Alpha Band, and, by example, without ever pontificating, taught me that we were making art, not commerce. No capital A, no big deal, just simply what we do. And whenever any of the three of us would veer off the path, he would be there to gently bust us. And laugh. And make us laugh. A lot.
I’m pretty sure I accompanied Bob at his first sober club gig, in Greenwich Village, sometime in the early ‘80s. He was panicked, having to face a crowd for the first time with no buffer, worried, above all, that he had lost his sense of humor.
The opposite, of course, turned out to be true. What followed was over 40 years of recording, performing and painting. We may all be grieving his loss, but, thanks to sobriety, we got much more than anyone would have expected from the man I once watched drink Kris Kristofferson literally under the table at the late Fritz Richmond’s house in Laurel Canyon in the mid-’70s. And there begins another side to the Neuwirth story.
One thing for sure: Bob always had boundless energy and creativity. When he got sober, he channeled both not only into his art, but also into tirelessly serving others. He became a first responder, albeit the hippest one you’d ever seen. Which is, maybe, part of how he literally saved so many lives.
That guy who had been panicked that no one would go to his shows anymore somehow made sobriety incredibly cool. And the man who had started out as my creative mentor became my spiritual inspiration. I know I speak for hundreds (no, probably thousands) who would say the same. When a man like that passes, it leaves an immense hole, but also immense inspiration. As my friend Geoff Muldaur said, “Well, I guess we’ll all have to step up our game.”
I simply wouldn’t be me without Bob Neuwirth. What’s really crazy is how many other people feel the same way — some of them famous, some of them obscure; some of them living, some of them dead.
Einstein taught us that when mass is sufficiently dense, space-time curves around it. We call that gravity. Maybe that’s the easiest explanation for the way Bob was at the center of so much. He was able to hang with both the rich and famous and the poor and obscure with equal grace.
When I was young, I was rather agog at how he could be in the middle of scene after scene, but I finally realized his secret. He didn’t want anything. He gave, he never took. He was the always the biggest presence in the room without it ever being about him. He had no false humility, either; he just knew how to quietly deflect attention.
C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” I wonder if Jack Lewis secretly plays the banjo?
Randy Lewis covered pop music for the Los Angeles Times from 1981-2020.
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