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Bob Neuwirth Emerging From Pervasive Shadow of Bob Dylan : Folk-Rock: Musician-artist is painting a new picture of himself in a trio with Steve Young and Peter Case. They will appear this evening at Bogart's.

November 17, 1989|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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