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Bob Neuwirth, singer-songwriter who influenced Bob Dylan, dies at 82

One day in 1970, a young Patti Smith was sitting in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, working on her poetry, when a familiar-looking figure approached her. “He came up to me and asked me if I was a poet,” she says. rolling stone from the figure in the trademark dark glasses she immediately recognized in a Bob Dylan documentary. “I knew exactly who he was. He looked like he came out of Do not look back, which I had seen about 100 times. He said, ‘Let me see what you write.’ He started reading and he was one of the first to look at my work and take it seriously. He said, ‘You should write songs.’ »

The character was Bob Neuwirth, the folk singer-songwriter and painter who influenced or influenced a wide range of artists, including Smith, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Neuwirth died Wednesday at age 82 in Santa Monica, Calif., according to his partner, Paula Batson, who confirmed the death to rolling stone.

“Wednesday night in Santa Monica, Bob Neuwirth’s big heart gave out,” Neuwirth’s family said. in a report. “Bob was an artist in every cell of his body and he loved encouraging others to make art themselves. He was a painter, songwriter, producer and recording artist whose body of work is loved and respected.For over 60 years, Bob has been at the epicenter of cultural moments from Woodstock to Paris, Do not look back in Monterey Pop, rolling thunder in Nashville and Havana. He was a generous instigator who produced and often made things happen anonymously. The art is what mattered to him, not the credit. He was an artist, mentor and supporter to many. He will be missed by all who love him. »

Throughout his decades-long career, Neuwirth has moved back and forth between the worlds of music and art, largely and thankfully under the radar, though his ties to classic rock have made him a legend. . Dylan fans remember him for his caustic cameos in Do not look back, director DA Pennebaker’s film about Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, as well as Neuwirth’s appearances on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Joplin fans recognize him from his classic a cappella “Mercedes Benz”, which the two co-wrote with poet Michael McClure. In the art world of private collectors, Neuwirth was renowned for his exhibitions of paintings, and Velvet Underground stalwarts remember his 90s work with John Cale. Neuwirth also introduced Joplin to “Me and Bobby McGee,” written by his friend Kris Kristofferson; Joplin recorded the song days before his death in 1970.

“When you’re surrounded by people like that, you’re not motivated to be a musician,” Neuwirth said in 1989 of his collaborations. “I had other outlets. I was a painter, so it never occurred to me to do any of those other things.

“He was good at everything,” Smith says. “He was a great songwriter. A soulful singer. A really good painter. He had so much magnetism; you couldn’t not be drawn to him. But it wasn’t because he was aggressive. He just wasn’t the kind of person who pushed his own agenda on a situation.

Born in Akron, Ohio on June 20, 1939, Neuwirth first attended Ohio University before moving to Boston in 1959 to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Art on an arts scholarship. After a detour to Paris, he returned to Boston, working in an art supply store and learning to play the banjo and guitar, which led him to become part of the folk scene of the early 60s. in Cambridge. “Painting is how I got into folk music, in a way,” he said in 1989. “I kind of got into art school as a singer people. It has always been my secondary art and my part-time job.

Neuwirth began visiting the similar scene developing in New York’s Greenwich Village (partly, he once joked, because weed was more readily available). At one point at a club there, he met Dylan, with whom he shared a caustic, cutting sense of humor and a hipster personality. “From the start, you could tell Neuwirth had a taste for provocation and nothing was going to restrict his freedom,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles Volume 1. “He was in a mad revolt against something. You had to prepare yourself when you talked to him. Dylan also called Neuwirth a “bulldog”.

Eventually, Neuwirth became part of Dylan’s inner circle, hanging out at bars like the Kettle of Fish in the Village and trading barbs with anyone in sight. As a singer who played with Dylan said rolling stone in 1972, “Neuwirth was a scene-maker, a very strong cat. When he arrived in New York in 1964, he started hanging out with Dylan. And Dylan started to change at that point. Part of that was Neuwirth, he was a very strong influence on Dylan. Neuwirth had a negative attitude, emphasizing pride and ego, sort of saying, “Hold your head up man, don’t take shit, just take control of the stage.” He was the kind of cat who could influence others, work on their ego and support that ego. His whole negative attitude matched Dylan’s feelings perfectly.

Neuwirth moved to LA soon after, where he remained for most of his life thereafter. In 1974, after years of playing in clubs, he finally released his own record, Bob Neuwirth, on David Geffen’s Asylum label. The album – which set Neuwirth’s gravelly vocals into freewheeling, sometimes boozy honky-tonk – was not a commercial success. But it was a cult favorite, and reissue plans were underway when Neuwirth died. (The project is currently slated for release next year.)

Bob Neuwirth

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In addition to Do not look backNeuwrith also starred in Dylan’s 1978 experimental film Renaldo and Clara. This film also featured many artists from Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, an ensemble that Neuwirth is credited with helping to assemble. (The 1975 Neuwirth shows at the other end of the village became a gathering point for many on this tour.)

For Joan Baez, who met Neuwirth on the Cambridge folk scene, Neuwirth could be a stabilizing figure when she found herself uneasy in Dylan’s world, starting with the tour immortalized in Do not look back. “When we were on that tour, I felt awful and Bob [Neuwirth] wanted me to come home,” he says. “He said, ‘It’s not going to get better.’ And it is not. But Neuwirth was right. A decade later, on the Dylan-led Rolling Thunder shows, Baez also felt uneasy. “I felt slighted again, which is how I spent a lot of my time with Dylan,” she says. “I had taken my bed to my hotel and Neuwirth came in and started acting silly and opened the window and shouted, ‘She’s going to live! He was just one of those people who could make you laugh.

The paint job he started in the early 1960s continues. Early in his career he produced what were called “quirky hybrids of Cubism and Surrealism”. Later he focused on mural works that incorporated painting and sculpture. A major exhibition of his work, Overs & Unders: Paintings by Bob Neuwirth: 1964 – 2009took place in Los Angeles in 2011.

Although his musical career was never his priority, Neuwirth relapsed into this part of his life on and off. From 1989 beautifully spared back to front, he returned to making occasional, ironic, and often austere country-folk records. With John Cale, whom he had met during their stay at Andy Warhol’s factory in the 60s, he made 1994 Last day on earthwhich Neuwirth described as “a summary Prairie House Companion.” In 1995, Mercedes Benz licensed Joplin’s song for high profile advertising. “I wonder what took them so long,” Neuwirth said at the time. (Of the song, which was quickly written between sets of a Joplin show, he said, “It was a throwaway, a fluke. I wouldn’t call it songwriting.”) Neuwirth also produced two albums for Texas singer-songwriter Vince Bell. .

In 2004, Neuwirth was emcee of Great High Mountain, a bluegrass and Americana tour inspired by the success of O brother, where are you? and starring Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley and others. In recent years, he has also performed in tribute concerts for Randy Newman and the late folklorist Harry Smith, as well as a New York concert in 2018 recreating Dylan’s 1963 show at City Hall. The latter was particularly notable since Neuwirth normally distanced himself from his Dylan associations, rarely giving interviews about this period of his life.

“As Keruoac had immortalized Neal Cassady in On the road, someone should have immortalized Neuwrith,” Dylan wrote. “He was that kind of character… With his tongue he would rip and carve and could make anyone uncomfortable, could also get himself out of anything. No one knew what to think of him. If there was ever a Renaissance man who jumped in and out of things, it would have to be him.

For Smith, the cover of Dylan’s Highway 61 revisited – which shows Neuwirth, but only as the pants carrier behind Dylan – spoke about his low-key but important role in the culture. “It’s him in a nutshell,” she said. “He stays behind. But he is there, and his presence is still strong.

Additional reporting by Daniel Kreps

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