Donal Dineen’s Sunken Treasure: Bob Neuwirth’s ‘99 Monkeys’ (1991)
Neuwirth made five records in his career, and all have their moments, but 99 Monkeys is where it all comes together in perfect harmony
Bob Neuwirth: a musician whose artistic restlessness has never diminished
Few artists have navigated a creative path as close to the spotlight yet so resolutely in the shadows as Bob Neuwirth. He has spent most of his life less than 50ft from stardom yet never seemed to care too much about edging any closer. His artistic restlessness has never diminished. These days he would call himself a painter more that a musician.
He has taken the road less travelled, where the art is the destination, and money and fame are incidental pitstops along the way. In her book Just Kids, Patti Smith calls Neuwirth “a catalyst for action”. She credits him with the inspiration to write her first song. With Janis Joplin, he wrote Mercedez-Benz. Other close collaborators have included Kris Kristofferson, Jerry-Lee Lewis, T-Bone Burnett and Roger McGuinn. His influence on Bob Dylan is the stuff of legend and conjecture, but his co-starring role in DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back is indicative of his proximity to the man himself at a most critical time. He went on to assemble and star in Dylan’s band on the Rolling Thunder Revue.
His own muiscal output started with an eponymous LP in 1974, but didn’t resume again untill 1988. He made five records throughout the following decade including an ambitious treatise on the end of time called Last Day on Earth with John Cale in 1994.
All of the records have their moments but 99 Monkeys from 1991 is where it all comes together. There’s a world-weariness in his voice, but the lightness of his phrasing gives it license to soar. His duet with Katy Moffat, Life is for the Living, is sky-bound from the first chorus and never touches the ground thereafter.
There’s deep pathos and resonance in his words. He has lived through moments we read about in history books and survived to tell the tale but there’s a price: “You pay to play the game.”