Bob Neuwirth – A true melding of two separate styles
Bob Neuwirth is on a train, in a very funny scene in Bob Dylan’s obscure 1975 film Renaldo & Clara, doing his best to get the conductor’s goat, faking like he doesn’t know his destination. Neuwirth: “Any particular city we’re going to?” Conductor: “Yeah, the biggest one.” Neuwirth: “Not gonna tell me, huh?” Conductor: “No, you wouldn’t like it if you knew.”
Neuwirth doesn’t have to play those games anymore, but he’s somehow retained an ability to write songs and create music with casual serendipity, a diver’s delight in swimming over unmapped terrain. That’s him, Dylan’s laconic, mod-haired stage manager, in D.A. Pennebaker’s mid-’60s documentary Don’t Look Back; him again in the Greenwich coffeehouses a couple years later, rapping with a lovestruck Patti Smith about songwriting and poetry; and yet again in the mid-’70s, emceeing Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. His own recordings have been fitful and infrequent; in the past decade he’s also produced records by T Bone Burnett and Vince Bell, as well as collaborating with John Cale on the recording and performance piece Last Day On Earth.
In the summer of 1998, Neuwirth traveled to Cuba to collaborate with Jose Maria Vitier, a composer and pianist who scored Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s celebrated film Strawberry & Chocolate and composed La Misa Cubana, performed for the Pope’s historic visit to the island in 1998. What began as a musical lark resulted in an album on Diesel Motor Records titled Havana Midnight: nine elegant, elliptical, jazz-inflected performances which share little with the Buena Vista cottage industry, but frequently recall the classic nueva trova recordings of Pablo Milanes or Silvio Rodriguez (with whom Vitier also collaborated).
Vitier’s piano playing is all fantastic angles and countermelodies; Lazaro Gonzalez makes his charanga-like violin weep and sigh; Emilio del Monte’s percussion flows into the found music of rain, chickens and sheep. Rey Guerra’s guitar finesses and refracts Neuwirth’s bittersweet phrasing, as if translating his images of “velvet wind…along the Malecon” and candles burning in “midnight windows” into their truest native tongue.
I. OUR FIRST INTRODUCTION WAS FOLLOWED BY LAUGHTER
NO DEPRESSION: What led you to Cuba?
BOB NEUWIRTH: Well, it wasn’t really a recording project to begin with. About two years ago, I had heard these bands at the Festival for the Arts in New York. Bamboleo and NG La Banda. Man, they were rocking so hard. It was the hardest rockabilly, rocking thing I’d heard in years. From the minute they took the stage to the minute they left, they were dancing and singing. Even I was up dancing, the only thing wrong with that is (A) I don’t dance, and (B) I don’t dance in public. By coincidence, I was having dinner with the Latin music critic for The New York Times. I raved about these bands, and he said, “Those aren’t really the hot bands. I know this girl who’s putting on this cultural exchange up in Northampton, and she’s bringing all these groups together. You should check that out.”
And so by another coincidence, I ended up meeting this girl, and she said, “Why don’t you give me your albums? I’ll take them with me.” She was on her way to Havana. She said, “You really need to meet Jose Maria Vitier. He’s more of your generation.” I was kind of reluctant and thought, this is stupid, but I figured, whatever. I gave her a couple of albums.
She took them to Cuba and gave them to Jose Maria. Jose’s son, who was 25 at the time, translated them, and everyone down there liked the translations. He sent me an e-mail and asked if we could get together. Jose was part of a jazz quartet that was coming in this cultural exchange. What I didn’t know at the time was that Jose Maria’s mother and father are very famous poets. His whole family is poetry oriented. I didn’t know that at the time. I was hopelessly naive.
When they came to Massachusetts, I went to Jose Maria’s show. I went backstage and he was smoking a cigarette in the alley. We looked at each other. I said, “Are you Jose Maria?” He said, “Are you Bob?” He started laughing, which is always a good sign. Our first introduction was followed by laughter.
ND: What was the first collaboration like?
BN: I sat down and played Jose a few songs. He was kind of stonefaced about it all. You know, all the musicians on the album are conservatory trained. Jose Maria is classically trained, jazz trained. He’s done dozens of ballet pieces and film scores. So I just played him these songs, but it was still up in the air.
There wasn’t a plan. It began with that song “The First Time”, which I’d recorded on 99 Monkeys. I’d always wanted to re-record it, just to pacify myself. So we decided we’d work on that and he went back to the island.
Then an invitation came from the Music Institute, and I went through all that cultural exchange rigmarole. I thought, this is cool, this is great. I’d always wanted to go to Cuba. I thought I’d go down there, do some scuba diving, we’ll jam a little bit, I’ll take my DATman, hang out on the beach. It’ll all be legal and cool.
That’s what I did with my last album, Look Up: I just took my DATman and camcorder and recorded in people’s living rooms. I thought this would be a continuation of that “on the road” theme. I love live recording, field recordings.
So off I went.
II. “WE HAVE MUCH WORK TO DO.”
ND: How was this collaboration different from your earlier recordings?
BN: Well, when I got to Cuba I went to Jose Maria’s house, and he said, “Bob, play that song ‘First Time’ for me.” I played it. He said, “Bob, that’s not the same song.” So I played it again, and he said, “Bob, Bob that’s not the same song again. You don’t play the same song twice.” I said, “Well, yeah.” It’s like the blues tradition. You have a couple of beers, play the song and move on.