Bob Neuwirth was in and around the folk music explosion of the early 1960s, but while he did his share of singing and strumming then, he wasn’t fully a product of it.
Not in the sense, anyway, that such figures as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were products ofthe folk boom. They, and most of the others with whom Neuwirth swapped songs in the clubs of Boston and New York, had their hearts set on becoming star folkies. But in his own artistic dreams, Neuwirth wielded a paintbrush, not a guitar.
“I just never felt led in that direction,” Neuwirth (who plays tonight at Bogart’s Bohemian Cafe in a folk trio with Peter Case and Steve Young) said by phone from his home in Santa Monica. “When you’re around people like that, if you’re not driven to be a musician . . . I had other outlets. I was a painter, so it never occurred to me to do any of those things” calculated to build a high-profile musical career.
Consequently, most music fans probably know Neuwirth better for being a Dylan sidekick than as a performer in his own right. Neuwirth was with Dylan on the 1965 tour of England documented in the film “Don’t Look Back.” He also was one of the cast members in Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” caravan of 1975-76.
But “Back to the Front,” the all-acoustic album of folk and country songs Neuwirth released last year, showed he is a songwriter and a performer with a good deal of his own to offer. And Neuwirth made it clear that he wants to be taken as his own man, and not as a crony of a legendary and mysterious figure whose friends often get asked to provide opinions, yarns and informational tidbits.
“All of that Bob Dylan association has really been counterproductive recently,” Neuwirth said. “I don’t need to do his publicity for him. The one thing I’m pretty sensitive about is being put in the position of riding on Bob Dylan’s coattails in any way. I’m not embarrassed by it--it’s pretty flattering company. But it diminishes what we (Neuwirth, Case and Young) are trying to do.”
Neuwirth has more musical plans in the works, including another album that will be only the third of his career. He also has been collaborating with John Cale, co-founder of the Velvet Underground, on an avant-garde musical piece called “The Last Day on Earth.” Neuwirth said he and Cale, whom he has known since the 1960s, will perform the piece in March at the same Brooklyn church where Cale and Lou Reed debuted their Andy Warhol tribute, “Songs for ‘Drella.”
Despite this spate of musical activity following a long quiet period, Neuwirth said painting remains his livelihood and his primary art.
“I basically think of myself as a painter, but I paint in bursts--two or three months of concentrated effort, almost like making an album or writing a book, then I’ll be empty. Painting is how I got into folk music, in a way. I sort of put myself through art school as a folk singer. It was always my secondary art, and my part-time job.”
Neuwirth--a ready chatter despite a case of jet lag (he had just gotten back from two months in England and Paris)--says art was an influential presence in his home while he was growing up outside Akron, Ohio. Country music is something that rubbed off on him in school.
“There were a lot of transplanted Southerners who had come to work in the rubber shops. The kids I went to school with were hillbilly kids who played the banjo and the guitar.”
When Neuwirth landed in Boston on an art school scholarship in 1959, folk singing became a means for making some money on the side.
“I was painting. I didn’t get to sit around and write songs,” he said. “So when I went on stage, I just made songs up. I got the reputation for that--this guy who would take a kamikaze approach by going on stage with almost no material. I would get lucky a lot of the times--it would just fall into place. That’s what kept me being invited back. Rather than the quality of the (songs), it was the sheer recklessness of it.”
That on-the-spot, improvisational approach to songwriting has yielded Neuwirth one pop standard: “Mercedes Benz,” which he says he co-wrote with Janis Joplin and poet Michael McClure between sets during a Joplin performance in Portchester, N.Y.
‘It was a throwaway, a fluke,” Neuwirth said. “When Janis died, they didn’t have enough stuff for the album, so they threw it on there. I wouldn’t call it songwriting.”
Neuwirth said the 10 songs on “Back to the Front” stem from the same method he used on stage in his early days, but with some revision and afterthought.
The album was recorded in the living room of Steven Soles, an old buddy of Neuwirth’s and another veteran of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Neuwirth said that it started as a rough tape of songs he and Soles hoped to pitch to other performers.
Then Gold Castle Records, the folk-oriented independent label whose roster includes such other folk-boom graduates as Baez and Eric Andersen, became interested in releasing the songs. The album came out refined somewhat with instrumental and vocal embellishments by players including T-Bone Burnett and David Mansfield (another Rolling Thunder Revue alumni), former Eagle Bernie Leadon, and singers Victoria Williams and Sam Phillips.
Still, it is a spare, quiet affair in which Neuwirth’s singing and songwriting is always at the center of attention.
Neuwirth’s voice is a cross between Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the folkier side of Neil Young: a rough, grainy low range combines with a nasal, quavery higher register in a way that is ungainly, but sufficiently varied and melodious to hold a listener’s interest.
The themes and emotions are basic. In “Venice Beach,” Neuwirth mourns a lost love and feels guilt over not making the relationship work; in “Private Eye” he wryly examines the sexual hunt, and in songs like “Heartaches” and the Tex-Mex flavored “Turn It Around,” he offers advice about the need to keep on trying in the face of disappointment. “Akron” tells Neuwirth’s own story, with references to a dire struggle with alcoholism followed by a sense of renewal based on first-principles drawn from recollections of his early life in Akron.
The album is sprinkled with crisp, incisive lines. In a single stanza from “Eye on the Road,” for example, Neuwirth underlines the way in which homeless people in America have become a caste apart, like Hindu Untouchables, then states the moral imperative that we see them as human beings like ourselves.
Who are these people? These walking teardrops?
Beyond hunger beyond cold .
And who’ll help the rest of us, haves and have-nots,
When we have no-place to go?
Neuwirth said his show with Case, one of the leaders among Los Angeles’ younger wave of folk-rock musicians, and Young, a country songwriting veteran, will be a sort of tag-team event, with the three players trading off the lead role from song to song while the others join in support. Case, the former Plimsouls leader, has gotten acclaim for both of his roots- and folk-flavored solo albums. Neuwirth said he hunted up Young a few months ago after hearing a tape of his unrecorded songs. He said the tape had proved a source of background music and inspiration during one of his painting binges.
“It’s sort of a songwriters’ round robin,” Neuwirth said of the three-way show. “It puts the focus on the song, not the performance. We all play on the songs, with varying degrees of virtuosity. I just play pretty elemental guitar and some old-timey banjo.
“The most exciting thing since Rolling Thunder that I’ve been connected with is this trio thing.”
Peter Case, Bob Neuwirth and Steve Young play tonight at 9 and 11 in the Bohemian Cafe at Bogart’s, in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Tickets: $10. Information: (213) 594-8975.