Bob Neuwirth: A Life of Dovetails
by Jan Vanderhorst
By all appearances, Bob Neuwirth's life has been a life of dovetails. Involvement in one endeavour has lead to opportunities to explore another endeavour, which in turn has lead to yet another exploration.
Born near Akron, Ohio, Bob moved to Boston to study art. To help pay for his schooling Bob began playing folk-blues music in the coffeehouses of Cambridge. It was through this musical activity that Bob met and learned from blues legends Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend Gary Davis.
He also met a young up and coming singer named Bob Dylan. Their friendship led to touring together in the mid-60's, which was captured in the movies "Don't Look Back" and "Eat the Document." The filming of "Don't Look Back" was done by a young director named D.A. Pennebaker. Bob then filmed the Monterey Pop Festival where Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who captured the attention of a generation.
It was during the 70's that Bob Neuwirth put together the band which Dylan fronted for the Rolling Thunder Revue. Included in the group of musicians which travelled North America to great acclaim were T Bone Burnett and J.S. Soles.
In the ensuing years his restless spirit and creative drive has seen Bob travel throughout the world as a singer, songwriter, painter, poet and "instigator", looking for the most creative ways to express himself.
So how does one man do all of this?
"First of all, I'm old", he laughs, "it sounds serendipitous, but it's the result of several decades of just being around and being involved in other things. I did go to art school to become a painter. It's not like I ran away from medicine to play in the sandbox of the culturati. Between putting myself through art school playing the guitar on the so-called folk
stages of the great folk threat of the 60's and whatever transpired in the years since, they all kind of dovetail.
"I don't really distinguish between the arts, in the sense of what goes into them and what the point of them is. They just seem like different medium to me. Oil painting is a different medium to watercolour which is a different medium to film.
"I'm not really a musician", he says, "the kind of songs I come up with are more like little watercolour paintings or snapshots, but I don't think of them as musical compositions in the classical sense."
To further highlight Bob Neuwirth's life of dovetails and coincidences, in 1998 he heard the Cuban band Bamboleo and happened to remark to a writer from the New York Times how much he enjoyed their music.
"(The writer) said some music was coming to the U.S. for a cultural exchange and by coincidence I ran into the lady who was bringing the music here. She said I should be introduced to Jose Maria Vitier, 'he's more of your generation', she kindly put it. She was on her way to Havana and offered to take a couple of my albums down there.
"Jose Maria's son is a professor at the university and he translated the songs. What I didn't know was Jose Maria's parents were famous Spanish-language poets. So, he related to the songs from a literary point of view. Jose Maria e-mailed me that perhaps we should do something together and then he visited the U.S. and we had a chance to meet and we had a chance to laugh."
Jose Maria took one of Bob's previously-recorded songs 'The First Time' back with him to Havana to rearrange and then begin the process of recording Bob with some Cuban musicians.
"When I went down there I thought I was going on some field trip." Bob laughs, "I'd take my little DAT machine and set it up on the kitchen table, get a couple of bongo players in and maybe go to the beach afterwards!" What Bob faced was a group of classically-trained musicians.
"They all read and write music and Jose Maria arranged all the songs," says Bob, "even the ones I was writing in his kitchen. He insisted on arranging them all. When it was time to record them, I started to set up the pocket DAT tape recorder and he said 'No no no, I have some friends that are going to play these parts'.
"We ended up on this sound stage where they score movies and these wonderful musicians showed up and we recorded it all in 2 days! It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life! It wasn't money-driven, it was an actual cultural exchange to see if we could do it.
"The musicians had a hard time playing with the simplicity of my songs. They're not used to 3-4 chord songs played in straight time. It's just not the way they do things."
Besides having difficulty with Bob's simple songs, the musicians and especially Jose Maria, had to contend with his never playing a song the same way each time he performs it.
"When I got to Jose Maria's house," Bob says, "he said 'play The First Time I've been working on it '. So I played it for him and he said 'that's not the same song'. I said 'yes it is' and he said 'no it's not, play it again'. So I played it again and he goes 'it's not the same song'. I said 'Jose Maria, it's the same song, man'. He said 'no no it isn't, play it one more time'. So I played it again and he goes 'once again it is not the same song Bob! You don't play the song the same way twice'. And I said 'yeah!' and he goes 'Oh we have so much work to do!'.
"I come from the country/hillbilly/blues/folk tradition of improvisation. If you were in the room when we made up the song, then you got to hear it. If the tape machine was on, then somebody else might get to hear it later. But the next time it'll be a different song. That's been a sort of an aesthetic of mine. I don't make two paintings the same way either.
"When we were finished Jose Maria said 'I know two things. We have created something that hasn't been done before and I am very, very tired' . It was at that point I realized the strain he had put himself under, trying to make poetry out of my simple songs."
The finished CD, produced by Bob and J.S. Soles, was first released in Europe only, but now is available on Appleseed Recordings.
Besides "Havana Midnight", Bob's diverse interests are also apparent in the release of the soundtrack of "Down From The Mountain". Just before the theatrical release of the Coen Brothers movie "O Brother Where Art Thou", produced by T. Bone Burnett, the artists featured on its soundtrack gathered at Nashville's hallowed Ryman Auditorium for a special concert. The concert was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker with the resulting documentary
produced by Bob Neuwirth. At a follow up concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Bob acted as the musical director.
Future projects in the works for Bob include producing a recording for Ralph Stanley with T. Bone Burnett.
"I am sitting here with a mountainous stack of CD's of vintage songs to submit that Ralph has not recorded", Bob laughs, "He's recorded nearly every bluegrass/old-timey song known to man, so we're looking for some underexposed material for him."
Also in the works is producing a CD by R.B. Morris from Knoxville, Tennessee. There was supposed to be a film project for a German TV network which would take Bob across North America visiting various musical friends who are involved in roots music, but the financing fell through.
In spite of this little glitch in plans, Bob Neuwirth seems to have enough on his plate to keep him busy for a little while.
"I've got enough dreams to keep me busy", he says, "I don't know about work! Work is not a good word for me. I think I'm born without the work gene, because," he says laughing, "you don't work music, you play it!"
To find out more about Bob Neuwirth, the website
for Appleseed Recordings is: appleseedrec.com.
Bob has his own website at bobneuwirth.com
And this site has a listening party where you can hear a streamed version of the entire Havana Midnight album: startupmusic.com/listeningparty/bob_neuwirth
To e-mail Bob, the address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at: email@example.com