Bob Neuwirth has always been something of an enigma. I first caught a glimpse of him talking with Allen Ginsberg in a London alleyway as Bob Dylan flipped the lyric cards in time to his new electric jug band number “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for a promo video shot by D.A. Pennebaker.
Neuwirth soon returned as Dylan’s shadowy sidekick in Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. And yeah, that’s him, standing over Dylan’s shoulder on the cover of Highway 61 in the orange and white striped shirt and black jeans, with a camera dangling from his hand. But how would you know? You can only see him from the waist down.
After falling out with Dylan over their shared infatuation with Edie Sedgwick, Neuwirth returned to the fold again in 1976, joining the fray for Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. He’s featured in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 valentine to Dylan, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. But what most people never realized is that the man wrote fantastic songs of his own (which he never played the same way twice).
A friend of abstract artist Brice Marden, Neuwirth was a fine painter in his own right, but once more wound up standing in a legend’s shadow.
“It’s all about the same to me,” Neuwirth once said, “whether it’s writing a song or making a painting or doing a film. It’s all just storytelling.”
I spoke to Bob two years ago, shortly after poet/playwright Michael McClure lit out for the Elysian Fields on May 4, 2020. What follows is Neuwirth’s recollection of how his charming ditty about an expensive automobile wound up on Joplin’s last studio album, Pearl, released in January 1971:
JK: What’s the backstory of “Mercedes Benz?”
BN: Whoever you talk to has a different version of the story. As far as I know, the song was all Michael’s. But we’re talking forty years and many, many brain cells ago. I have no interest in lying, unlike our fearless leader. I knew [actor] Rip Torn through the documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker who was making a doc on country music at the time and I coached Rip, for whatever it was worth, to play guitar.
Janis loved and idolized [Rip’s wife, actor] Geraldine Page. So, it was Janis’ birthday, and she was in one of those ‘Nobody loves me’ brown moods, which could have lasted anywhere between two hours or two months, until she met somebody new. She and the band were scheduled to play the Capitol Theater in Port Chester that night, so I got a car and called Rip and Geraldine. They met us at El Quixote, the restaurant next to the Chelsea [Hotel] where Janis was staying. When she saw Geraldine, she perked up right away… goin’ from blues mama to giggly girl.
When we got to the theater, they were bogged down with the sound check, so we all went down to this little bar down the street and got snockered and I started to sing this song of Michael’s about a Mercedes Benz and made up some of the missing lines. It was a drunken campfire moment, clinking glasses and pounding on the table. A moment later, her road manager, John Cooke came running in, saying, ‘God damn it Janis, you’re on… Right now!’ So, she gets up on stage and started singing it.
The band was just standing there. They didn’t know what to do. A few weeks later, she was in the recording studio, making her final album [Pearl]. There was a malfunction with the equipment, but [producer] Paul Rothschild always kept a little two-track machine running, in case some genius moment happened between the takes, and Janis, trying to decompress the place, began singing that little song.
It was just a toss-off joke. They didn’t have enough stuff for the album and Paul was sharp enough to grab it off the two-track. He was also kind enough to put Michael’s and my name on the credits, as you can imagine what dealing with the lawyers over it would have been like. It was all spirit. There was no effort. The laugh at the end of the song was pure Janis.
Bob Neuwirth was always the hippest person in the room, even when that room included Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Kris Kristofferson, Edie Sedgwick and John Cale. And even though he gave up drinking years & years ago, he was always one of the five people in the world I most wanted to have a drink with (for the record, the others included Idi Amin, Buddy Holly and Julie Christie). When his gravity failed and he left the room on May 18th, 2022, he left it a sadder, quieter place.
Brian on Bob
Eyes On The Road ::: Bob Neuwirth
Beyond The Blues ::: Bob Neuwirth
When I Paint My Masterpiece ::: Bob Dylan & Bob Neuwirth
I Don’t Think of Her ::: Bob Neuwirth
Mercedes Benz ::: Janis Joplin
Annabelle Lee ::: Bob Neuwirth
Of Life & Death ::: Nicki Wells