Bob Neuwirth

Houlon2BY JONATHAN HOULON I figured I’d shoot a few Wires from the Bunker out to you, my loyal and multitudinous Phawker readers. We’re hunkered down here in the Houlon house. Practicing pop and lock and any other dance moves we can get our feet on. We’ll be ready whenever the winds shift. 45’s been talking about coming back with a bang. Of course, Saint Strummer said: It’s not Christmas time. It’s Armageddon Time. And He was pretty astute. No matter. When the doors open, the Houlons’ll be ready to pop, lock, and ease on down the road.

But while you’ve got a minute or two, how about a couple of Wires? Whispers in the dark. Muffled shouts in the mayhem. Traces of something valuable hidden in the historical trash dump. Tho I’m not part of it, I think I understand: life lived through the prism of a phone, a newsfeed, or whatever. Information overload. Too much of nothing, as Bob put it when, in ’67, he was hunkered down in the basement.

Peter Case, in reference to a modestly sized audience, told me that it’s called the Quality Inn for a reason. It’s not the Quantity Inn, man. But, then, Richard Manuel — one of Bob’s co-conspirators in that Big Pink basement — later hung himself in a Quality Inn in Winter Park, Florida when the Band were trying to revive their act, years after J.R. Robertson supposedly laid it to rest with one final Last Waltz. So, I dunno. Tough call. You can die from quality too, it seems.

But these Wires, I say, will focus on Quality. It pains me to direct you to just a few YouTubes. Here’s Highway 61the way it used to happen (and still does for some of us): you’d read about someone, see their name in the liner notes, hear about ’em from a friend, and then you’d make your way to the record store and buy the whole fucking album. This enterprise — and make no mistake, it, like everything else, was not untainted by venality — gave you some real investment in your purchase: you’d give that platter enough attention and time so that if it warranted your permanent love, by damn, it got it. Even before this current ordeal, this sort of thing had receded almost to the point of extinction. Scott Timberg, a revered LA Times journo, wrote about this recession in his book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. Then, last December, he killed himself too.

In addition to possessing quality, I hope these Wires will be unfamiliar to most of you. I bet they will cuz, let’s face it, I’m cooler than you whether you can accept that or not. How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb? Don’t worry about it. It’s some obscure number you’ve probably never heard of.

So I won’t be writing about Townes, Guy, Joe, Jimmie or even Butch who told Jimmy Lafave (who I might actually write about) that they were only “famous” in certain very small circles of good taste. A paradox? You bet. This good taste, to be sure, is not derived from those self-appointed arbiters along the banks of Schuylkill. No, I surmise, their shining towers never have and never will broadcast those celebrated herein.

Dylan also said, “the hour is getting late.” Do I hear a drum roll in the distance?

Our first Wire concerns Bob Neuwirth. The other Bob. You Dylan freaks surely know him. Here he is circa 1964, Dylan’s aide de camp, clowning around, playing mind-tricks on the unsuspecting. Neuwirth was especially cruel to Joan Baez in Don’t Look Back, calling attention to the Queen of Folk’s less than ample bosom, goading the King along in his mission to scornfully dismiss and expose every square that attempted entry into their sacred circle of Cool. That’s also Neuwirth standing behind Dylan on the front cover of Highway 61 Revisited [pictured, above right], camera dangling down to Bob’s left. Neuwirth was more than some hanger-on.

Here he is again, circa 1975. This time as part of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Some credit Neuwirth as a major ringleader in this particular circus. Others — such as the actual bandleader Rob Stoner — dismiss his contribution and point to his out-of-tune and hoarse vocal stylings. Stoner claims they actually muted Neuwirth on the Rolling Thunder shows that eventually were released on Bob’s Bootleg Series. Perhaps Dylan’s sidekick studied at the Donna Godchaux School of Harmony. Or was Stoner simply jealous of Neuwirth’s access to Bob?

There was one self-titled Bob Neuwirth album on David Geffen’s Asylum label around this time but it was marred by, again, less than compelling vocals and sub-par songwriting as well. And then, at least as far as a public profile is concerned, Neuwirth disappeared. There were rumors, according to Dylan’s biographer Howard Sounes, that he took up with his old boss’s ex-wife, Sara, the real “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” But who knows? The important point is that Neuwirth re-emerged in the late 80s and all the way through the 90s as a tremendous artist in his own right, culminating in his masterwork, Havana Midnight, in 1999. Along the way, he found time to produce a pair of albums by secret heroes Steve Young (“Switchblades of Love”) and Vince Bell (“Phoenix”) that I’d urge you to check out in their entirety if I didn’t know better.

In Scorcese’s Dylan doc, No Direction Home, Neuwirth comes across as perhaps the most sober and articulate interviewee. He remarks that back when Dylan made a name for himself, the question was not “what or who does he sound like?” but, rather, “what does he have to SAY?” Shall we, working in reverse chronological order, have a listen to what Neuwirth himself has to say?

You can keep your Gracelands and Buena Vista Social Clubs, folks. I’ll take 1999’s Havana Midnight, Neuwirth’s last album to date, in a second over Simon and Cooder’s cultural imperialism that seems to function via total immersion, resulting in love, for sure, but also rank theft. Neuwirth, working with Jose Maria Vitier, achieves a collage effect on Havana in which the structural integrity of his very simple folk songs is maintained but, at the same time, Vitier’s Cuban musicians bring something that gives a different — and, in my estimation, stronger — cast to Neuwirth’s material, making this his strongest album. I have found it especially comforting during these dark days, in the same way that Lester Bangs described the appeal of Astral Weeks to the broken-hearted. I could have chosen any track from Havana (they are all brilliant) but I chose “Look Up” for this lyric: “When things don’t work out the way they say they should // stop — look up — and know that it’s all good.” I know: this sounds trite as fuck. But as in the case with most popular song, you gotta hear the way Neuwirth sings this line. His once questionable vocals aged into a sandpaper burr that lies perfectly on top of Vitier’s orchestrations.

“Beyond the Blues” is from the album Look Up. Confusing? Indeed. The above tune is actually the name of the record that came before “Havana Midnight.” On “Look Up,” Neuwirth travelled the country and made bedroom tapes on what was then state of the art Digital Audio Tape. He called it audio verite. On “Beyond the Blues,” he is joined by co-writer Peter Case in what is my favorite recorded version of this song. Tom Russell also had a hand in the composition and included it on his Hurricane Season LP. Case did it on “Six Pack of Love” and it was, in the 90s, a frequent highlight of his live concert performances. Peter Case was the first person I ever saw unplug, jump off the stage, and play in the middle of the audience. And this was the song, he did. I noticed a lot of people trying this move more recently but, unfortunately, none of them have Peter Case’s charisma, vocal strength, and a song like “Beyond the Blues” at their disposal. Springsteen himself supposedly sound-checked this song sometime in 1992 but never actually played it at a show. Close but no cigar, said Russell. I figure the opening line was Russell’s: “Old man on the corner singing my life” That’s the sort of corn he sometimes lapses into it — although here it works. The “heart-attack towns” that come later in the tune surely have Peter Case’s fingerprints on ’em. But “love is the road that leads beyond the blues”, I suspect, is Neuwirth’s and surely is the truth.

“Biggest Bordertown” from 1990’s 99 Monkeys. Another co-write with Russell. Hank Williams, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, and Jackson Pollack get name-checked. And that’s just one verse! Russell probably wrote that part ’cause he, like me, is a major name dropper. Neuwirth’s too cool for that shit. Anyway, this is one of my favorite songs about NYC so I’ll send it out to all my friends struggling their way through up there in Gotham, the Biggest Bordertown in the world.

“Annabelle Lee,” from 1988’s Back to the Front, may be Neuwirth’s best song. Covered memorably by T-Bone Burnett on his self-titled MCA/DOT album from ’86 as well as by Freakwater. On the liners to “Back to the Front” which was, indeed, Neuwirth’s powerful return following his post-Rolling Thunder wilderness years, T-Bone wrote the following: “I’ve sat around the table many a late night passing guitars around, and when a guitar got to Neuwirth, he would start playing the best song any of us had ever heard. Someone would ask who wrote that one, and after a while, it would become clear that he had been making it up as he went along, and that he couldn’t remember a note he had sung, not that he had really sung any notes.” ‘Nuff said.

Steve Young (whom I’ve written about previously) owned this Utah Phillips song but Neuwirth does it justice here. Interesting for historical reasons as it was right around this time that Dylan started showing up at gigs like this in the Village and put together, with Neuwirth as the chief instigator, the lineup for the Rolling Thunder Revue. I’ve always puzzled over Utah’s line “If the women were squirrels with big bush tails // I’d fill up my shotgun with rock, salt, and nails.” I mean, the women aren’t squirrels and, even if they were and even if they had big bushy tails, I wouldn’t dust ’em off like that. #metoo

More wires to follow, friends.