Bob Neuwirth, colorful character in Dylan’s Circle, dies at the age of 82


Bob Neuwirth, colorful character in Dylan's Circle, dies at the age of 82

Bob Neuwirth, a painter, recording artist and songwriter who was also influential as a member of Bob Dylan’s inner circle and as the channel for two of Janis Joplin’s best-known songs, died Wednesday in Santa Monica, California. He was 82 years old.

His partner Paula Batson said the cause was heart failure.

Mr. Neuwirth has had an eclectic string of albums, including his debut simply titled Bob Neuwirth in 1974, as well as a 1994 collaboration with John Cale titled Last Day on Earth, and a collaboration with Cuban composer and Pianists from the year 2000 José María Vitier, “Havana Midnight”. But he was perhaps better known for the roles he played in the careers of others, starting with Mr. Dylan.

Mr. Neuwirth said he first met Mr. Dylan in 1961 at the Indian Neck Folk Festival in Connecticut. Mr. Dylan was still largely unknown at the time, but, as Mr. Neuwirth said years later, he caught his eye “because he was the only other guy with a harmonica holder around his neck.”

The two hit it off, and Mr. Neuwirth became a central figure in the circle that closed around Mr. Dylan as his fame grew. When Mr. Dylan held court at the Kettle of Fish Bar in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, Mr. Neuwirth was there. When Mr. Dylan toured England in 1965, Mr. Neuwirth joined in. A decade later, when Mr. Dylan began his Rolling Thunder revue tour, Mr. Neuwirth was instrumental in putting the band together.

Mr. Dylan’s contemporaries and biographers have described Mr. Neuwirth’s role in various ways.

“Neuwirth was the eye of the storm, the center, the catalyst, the instigator,” Eric von Schmidt, another folk singer active at the time, once said. “Whenever something important happened, he was there, or on his way there, or rumored to be close enough to have an impact on whatever was in the works.”

It has often been claimed that as Mr. Dylan assembled his distinctive persona as he rose to international fame, he borrowed some of it, including a certain attitude and a caustic streak, from Mr. Neuwirth.

“The whole hipster shuck and jive – that was pure Neuwirth,” wrote Bob Spitz in Dylan: A Biography (1989). “So were the deadly belittling, the smirking and the obliteration innuendos. Neuwirth had mastered these little twists long before Bob Dylan made them famous and bestowed them on his best friend with altruistic grace.”

Mr. Neuwirth, suggested Mr. Spitz, could have ridden those same qualities to Dylanesque fame.

“Bobby Neuwirth was the most likely Bob to succeed,” he wrote, “a source of tremendous potential. He had all the elements except one – nerve.”

Mr. Dylan had his own description of Mr. Neuwirth in his book Chronicles: Volume One (2004):

“Just as Kerouac immortalized Neal Cassady in ‘On the Road,’ someone should have immortalized Neuwirth. He was such a character. He could talk to anyone until he felt all his intelligence gone. He tore and slashed with his tongue and could upset anyone, he could talk his way out of anything. Nobody knew what to make of him.”

Ms. Joplin also benefited from Mr. Neuwirth’s influence. Holly George-Warren, whose books include Janis: Her Life and Music (2019), said Mr. Neuwirth and Ms. Joplin met in 1963 and became fast friends.

“In 1969, he taught her Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ after hearing Gordon Lightfoot play the then-unknown song in manager Albert Grossman’s office,” Ms. George-Warren said via email. “He learned it quickly and took it to Janis at the Chelsea Hotel.”

Her recording of the song reached #1 in 1971, but Ms. Joplin wasn’t there to enjoy the success; She died of a drug overdose last year.

Mr. Neuwirth was also involved in “Mercedes Benz,” another popular Joplin song that, like “Bobby McGee,” appeared on their 1971 album Pearl. He was with her at a bar before a show she was putting on at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY, in August 1970 when Mrs. Joplin began riffing on a ditty that poet Michael McClure was singing at gatherings with friends. Herr Neuwirth began to write the texts that the two of them had thought up on a serviette.

She sang the song at the show that night and later recorded it a cappella. She, Mr. McClure and Mr. Neuwirth are credited together as the authors of the song, which is under two minutes long on the album.

Ms George-Warren said this anecdote was revealing: Mr Neuwirth nudged in every way possible the careers of artists he admired, including Patti Smith.

“Although Bob was known for his snarky wit — from his days as an aide to Dylan and Janis — when I met him 25 years ago, he embodied kindness, mentorship and curiosity,” she said. “That’s the unsung story of Bob Neuwirth.”

Robert John Neuwirth was born on June 20, 1939 in Akron, Ohio. His father, also called Robert, was an engineer and his mother, Clara Irene (Fischer) Neuwirth, was a designer.

He studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and over the decades tried his hand at painting; In 2011, Track 16 Gallery presented Overs & Unders: Paintings by Bob Neuwirth, 1964-2009 in Santa Monica.

After two years at art school, he spent time in Paris before returning to the Boston area, where he began performing in coffeehouses, singing, and playing the banjo and guitar.

Mr. Neuwirth appeared in DA Pennebaker’s 1967 Dylan documentary Dont Look Back, as well as in Eat the Document, a 1972 documentary about a later tour that was filmed by Mr. Pennebaker and later edited by Mr. Dylan as director called. He was in Mr. Dylan’s film Renaldo & Clara (1978), most of which was filmed during the Rolling Thunder tour. And he appeared in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, the 2019 film directed by Martin Scorsese.

Mr. Neuwirth produced Down From the Mountain (2000), a documentary co-directed in part by Mr. Pennebaker about a concert featuring musicians featured in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? ”

“I don’t care,” he said, “whether it’s writing a song or taking a picture or making a movie. It’s all just storytelling.”

He lived in Santa Monica. Ms. Batson is his sole immediate survivor.

Herr Neuwirth might be self-deprecating about his own musical endeavors. He called his collaboration with Mr. Vitier, the Cuban pianist, “cubilly music”. But his music was often serious. The collaboration with Cale was a song cycle of sorts which, as Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, when the two performed selected pieces in concert in 1990, ‘added up to a shrug of the shoulders at imminent doom’.

“Rather than pounding on the chest or just joking,” Mr. Pareles wrote of the work, “it found an emotional terrain somewhere between fatalism and denial – still uneasy but not entirely resigned.”

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