Bob Neuwirth is the real-life "Zelig."
That's what occurred to me last Saturday night when I had the good fortune to enjoy a rare performance by the singer-songwriter at McCabe's and to hear him tell these stories:
- when Bob Dylan called to ask Neuwirth to be his road manager on his first tour to England in 1965 (famously chronicled in D.A. Pennebaker's fantastic documentary, "Don't Look Back").
- when Miles Davis called Neuwirth a "motherfucker" and then later that evening kissed him on the mouth in gratitude for a painting Neuwirth had made for him.
- when Gordon Lightfoot told him about a song he heard in Nashville called "Me and Bobby McGee," which Neuwirth then taught to Janis Joplin. (They later co-wrote "Mercedes Benz.")
- when Patti Smith introduced Neuwirth to the folklorist and filmmaker Harry Smith (no relation), whose first question to Neuwirth was whether he had any weed or speed.
- when Neuwirth sat at a Toluca Lake kitchen table and listened to the Everly brothers sing along to instrumental tracks for their next album.
See what I mean?
And in between those stories, Neuwirth performed his sometimes witty, sometimes gritty songs, accompanied by two old friends, guitarist/mandolinist David Mansfield and guitarist Steven Soles, who had played in Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue — in a band put together by Neuwirth. Also accompanying Neuwirth was a newer friend, pianist and bassist/guitarist Bob Thiele, with whom he co-wrote a song for the TV series "Sons of Anarchy." (above, L-R, Neuwirth, Mansfield and Thiele.)
When Greil Marcus wrote about the premiere of Martin Scorsese's documentary about Dylan, "No Direction Home," at the 2005 Telluride Film Festival, he said people like Neuwirth, "who passed through Dylan's life and whose lives he passed through — don't seem to be trying to impress anyone, to come off well, to flatter themselves."
Instead, Neuwirth has steadfastly chosen to remain true to his art — both as a painter and musician. And that's the guy I've had the pleasure of spending some time around for the past decade or so. Here's a song from his 1996 album, "Look Up." (His albums are all available on iTunes.)
(photo credit: Doug Hyun)