October 2, 2022
Bob Neuwirth Dead: Folk Figure Wrote 'Mercedes Benz,' Influenced Dylan

Bob Neuwirth, a recording artist and mainstay of the New York City folk scene in the 1960s, and a collaborator with Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, John Cale and Peter Case, among others, died in Santa Monica Wednesday night at age 82. The cause of death was heart failure.

“On Wednesday evening in Santa Monica, Bob Neuwirth’s big heart gave out,” said his longtime partner, entertainment executive Paula Batson, in a statement. “He was 82 years old and would have been 83 in June. Bob was an artist throughout every cell of his body and he loved to encourage 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 was at the epicenter of cultural moments from Woodstock, to Paris, ‘Don’t Look Back’ to Monterey Pop, ‘Rolling Thunder’ to Nashville and Havana. He was a generous instigator who often produced and made things happen anonymously. The art is what mattered to him, not the credit. He was an artist, a mentor and a supporter to many. He will be missed by all who love him.”

Neuwirth is seen above in a photo taken just two weeks ago by Larry Bercow.

Neuwirth was not prolific in the albums he released over a 60-year career, often preferring work as a painter or supporting other artists’ visions as a producer, writer or bandleader, although he had resumed concert performances in recent years. In 1994, he and John Cale collaborated on the experimental album “Last Day on Earth,” on MCA. His series of solo albums began with a self-titled 1974 effort on Asylum. In the late ’90s, he went to Havana and worked with famed Cuban musician Jose Maria Vitier on their album “Havana Midnight.”

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Bob Neuwirth
John Byrne Cooke

Being part of Bob Dylan’s circle led to a certain kind of fame among that artist’s vast army of fans. Neuwirth is seen in the film “Don’t Look Back,” standing alongside Allen Ginsberg in the background of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” proto-music-video, and he helped assembled the band for — and performed on — the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the mid-’70s. In between, he had toured with his close friend Kris Kristofferson.

Neuwirth was interviewed for both of Martin “Back then it wasn’t money-driven,” Neuwirth says in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 film “No Direction Home.” “It was about if an artist had something to say. Whether it was Bob Dylan or Ornette Coleman, what people would ask was, ‘Does he have anything to say?”

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Bob Neuwirth (right) performs with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue at a benefit concert for boxer Rubin Hurricane Carter, January 1976.
AP

Among the things that help make up Neuwirth’s legend is that he co-wrote one of Janis Joplin’s most iconic songs, “Mercedes Benz,” for the singer shortly before her 1970 death. It became a posthumous hit and one of the songs she is most identified with – as well as a shower song for millions in her wake. “It’s a campfire song, isn’t it?” Neuwirth told this writer in a 2013 interview. “You don’t need any particular musical skill to sing it, and because it’s a cappella, everybody can tackle it in their own way. But I’m sure Janis would be shocked at the attention that that song has gotten over the years. She’d just be shaking her head in disbelief at it.”

As the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” took off and generated a wave of enthusiasm for early 20th century roots music, Neuwirth rejoined D.A. Pennebaker, the director of “Don’t Look Back,” to co-produce the documentary  “Down From the Mountain.” filmed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville with the artists who made the music for the “O Brother” soundtrack. Neuwirth was the musical director on the concert tour that followed.

As his work continuing the impact of the “O Brother” music on the road and on film would indicate, Neuwirth was a close associate of T Bone Burnett from the Rolling Thunder Revue period onward. He co-wrote songs on the early albums of Peter Case, which Burnett produced.

In the late ’90s Neuwirth worked with the late Hal Wilner on the Harry Smith Anthology all-star concerts that were documented as they took place at the Royal Festival Hall in London, St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn and UCLA’s Royce Hall. He also contributed a song to Wilner’s all-star 2006 compilation “Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys.”

Bob produced a documentary movie with D.A. Pennebaker entitled “Down from The Mountain.” filmed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville with the artists who made the music for the Coen Brothers film, “Oh Brother Where Art Thou.” Bob served as the musical director for the resulting concert tour.

In more recent years Neuwirth had developed a “Stories and Songs” show that he took to  New York, Los Angeles and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

Neuwirth is survived by his Batson and his niece, Cassie Dubicki, and her family.

More to come…

 

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