ON THE DRIFT: Rudy Wurlitzer and the Road to Nowhere
by Joe O’Brien
Originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 29 (May 2008)
“The horizon,” Rudy Wurlitzer says on the commentary track of the new Two-Lane Blacktop dvd, “is everything that the rear-view mirror isn’t. It’s the unknown.”
Wurlitzer has been an itinerant traveler all of his life, between Los Angeles, New York, India, Greenland, Burma, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Nova Scotia. On and on. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a film crew, often with his wife, photographer Lynn Davis. His books and films are mythic reflections of that journey.
Most novelists work in Hollywood as hired guns. They do it for the money and there’s not much connection between their fiction and the scripts they produce, unless they’re adapting their own books. Wurlitzer is one of the few exceptions. He came on the scene during a very short-lived and now almost magical-seeming time—the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls days—when mainstream publishers like Random House and Dutton would put out defiant, challenging fictions like Nog or Quake, when Universal would not only release a glacial, plotless tone poem like Two-Lane Blacktop but Esquire would see fit to publish the script in its entirety and feature the hippie-looking cast on the cover of the magazine. In those days, ensconced in the Tropicana and various other LA motels, Rudy’s contemporaries and cohorts in the film world were people like Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman, Hal Ashby, Robert Downey, Jim McBride, Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates. The books written during that time—Nog, Flats and Quake—were heralded by pioneers such as Donald Bartheleme who described Flats as “an excellent book, full of unhealthy mental excitement” and Thomas Pynchon, who famously heralded Nog as evidence that “the Novel of Bullshit is dead.” Today, his literary influence is apparent in writers as diverse as Sam Shepard, Dennis Cooper, Patti Smith and Gary Indiana.
Rudy is a renegade descendant of the Wurlitzer jukebox dynasty, founded in the 1800s when they originally made pianos and theatre organs. Coincidentally, musicians have been a fixture in nearly all of his films. In Two-Lane Blacktop, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson plays The Mechanic and James Taylor (before he was bald and marked for death by Lester Bangs) is The Driver. The most famous case is of course Bob Dylan’s involvement in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, featuring his monumental score and his enigmatic acting debut as Alias, a member of The Kid’s gang. Candy Mountain, which Wurlitzer co-directed in 1984 with Robert Frank, features a rogue’s gallery of left-field musical figures—David Johansen, Dr. John, Tom Waits, Arto Lindsay, Joe Strummer, Leon Redbone—all of whom add oddball color to the road movie about a man trying to scheme his way into the music business by tracking down a reclusive guitar maker.
Frank, the Swiss-born photographer best-known for his book The Americans, the Kerouac-narrated short film Pull My Daisy and the banned-by-Mick-and-Keith Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues, was a longtime collaborator with Wurlitzer and a great figure in the music world. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where they both lived, Wurlitzer and Frank collaborated on bizarre, little-seen short films like Keep Busy and Energy and How to Get It. Candy Mountain is their only feature-length collaboration and the only film Wurlitzer has directed. Ten years later, Wurlitzer took the music connection a step further, writing the libretto for Philip Glass’s version of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony.
For most of the ’80s and ’90s, Rudy’s film work was mostly outside of the United States, working with European directors. He wrote Voyager for Volker Schlondorff, Little Buddha for Bernardo Bertolucci and the anarchic, anti-imperialist gem Walker for Alex Cox. He also collaborated with Michelangelo Antonioni on Two Telegrams, a project which unfortunately never materialized. On the literary front, he released Slow Fade in 1984, a dark, masterful novel written in a more straightforward style than his earlier work. It is set in the divergent worlds of Hollywood and India, and finally Nova Scotia, and exudes a spiritual exhaustion tied in with frustrations with the shuck and jive of the film business. This theme is carried further in 1991’s Hard Travel to Sacred Places, a heartbreaking Buddhist road memoir recounting Rudy and wife Lynn’s travels through Thailand, Burma and Cambodia on a photography assignment after the death of her young son.
Now, after 40 years of writing books and scripts, there’s a bit of a Rudy renaissance happening. Two of his classic films—Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and Alex Cox’s Walker—have been given the deluxe Criterion Collection treatment, both with Wurlitzer commentaries and, on Two-Lane Blacktop, a book-size reprint of Wurlitzer’s script. He also has a new novel, his first since 1984, out on Two-Dollar Radio, a small Brooklyn publishing house. The Drop Edge of Yonder is an epic Western and a sort of summation of all that’s great about Wurlitzer’s novels and film scripts. All the hallmarks are there—the cryptic dialogue, the outlaw milieu, the love triangles, the Buddhist overtones, the cinematic drift. Patti Smith describes it as “a book you watch as you read, cast the film as you reread, and create a sequel as you sleep.”
The Drop Edge of Yonder actually started as a script back in the 70s and was nearly made several times before its original plot was ultimately pirated by Jim Jarmusch in his 1995 psychedelic Johnny Depp vehicle Dead Man. Rudy, typical of his gentle nature, speaks of this without much bitterness and even laughs about it. His old friend Alex Cox, however, is not so kind. “Jarmusch just stole the idea, which was really shocking,” Cox said when I called him at his Oregon home. “I haven’t been able to speak to Jarmusch since that happened. Rudy could’ve sued him. I would’ve sued the guy’s ass.” Rudy ultimately lets his work set the record straight with Drop Edge, an old hand laying down what may well be the best piece of writing he’s ever done.
These days, Rudy and wife Lynn Davis divide their time mostly between Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Hudson, New York, taking the train in to the city a couple times a month. Rudy and I were supposed to meet at New York’s legendary Cedar Tavern to conduct this interview. I remembered it being quiet in the afternoon and it had a long history of being a haunt of writers and artists — de Kooning and Frank O’Hara drank there, Jack Kerouac was reportedly given the 86 for whizzing into an ashtray. Unbeknownst to us, the Cedar had been recently razed to make way for more condos. We met in front of the rubble. After I introduced myself and apologized, he just laughed and said, “What do we do now, man?” We adjourned to a nearby sports bar and conducted the interview in a less historic setting.
Arthur: I can’t believe the Cedar Tavern’s gone.
RW: I was thinking when I was coming down here about how I used to go there in the 60’s in the last residue of the time when you would go to the Cedar to try to catch a glimpse of Jackson Pollack or Franz Kline or some other art warrior.
Arthur: I used to go to the Minetta Tavern a lot. They still display some of the drawings that Kline used to pay for his drinks with.
RW: Yeah, in the early days those guys were all broke and they dealt with it. Now the whole consumer culture has strangely suspended that. At least in this particular pocket of lower New York. It’s made everyone very anxious. It ruins conversation for one thing.
Arthur: It seems like the New York publishing world has changed a lot since Random House published Nog in 1969. The Drop Edge of Yonder, is being done by Two-Dollar Radio, an independent press out of Brooklyn.
RW: It’s a very interesting thing to have lived long enough to be at the end of one culture and not know what’s coming next. So working small becomes practical in a certain way. A small press keeps the book on the shelf longer, you’re more involved in the process. It’s outside the corporate grid. I just couldn’t go uptown anymore. I used to be very isolated with the publishing process. But now with Eric Obernauf and Two-Dollar Radio, I feel very relaxed. Eric has a genuine passion about books and is willing and even eager to risk going to bat for what he believes in. I don’t feel like anyone uptown has a passion about books anymore. Not my kind of books anyway. They’d all tell me, ‘You’re time is over, babe.’
Arthur: How did Nog do when it came out?
RW: It did really well in paperback, but I never got much money for it. And I didn’t really want to make my living teaching. I didn’t want to be in the academic world. I don’t think I would have survived that imprint. So I went to LA and tried to get myself really fucked up. And I did. [laughs] But it supported me, you know, enough to go up to Nova Scotia and build a cabin and occasionally write what was inside of me.
Arthur: You got the Two-Lane Blacktop gig because Monte Hellman liked Nog, right?
RW: Yeah, Monte liked Nog. Monte is, I don’t know how to put it, like a Zen director in the sense that he’s into the art of non-directing. He lets people be who they are. I was left alone. I could really work with my unconscious and surprise myself. There was nobody else in the room. He shot what I wrote and it was fun and it was loose and it was interesting and nobody knew where it was going to go. The script got published in Esquire. It was probably as good a writing experience as I’ve had in film, because it was so free. Of course it helped that there was no such thing as a film school in those days and I didn’t know what I was doing or, more to the point, what I should be doing.
Arthur: Did you have to learn a lot about cars to write Two-Lane or were you kind of a gearhead?
RW: The only way I prepared for Two-Lane was holing up in a LA motel and reading car magazines, as well as hanging out in the San Fernando Valley with a bunch of obsessive mechanics and stoner car freaks. I didn’t know much about cars and still don’t. But I did know something about being lost on the road.
Arthur: After Two-Lane, weren’t you going to go to India to direct a film?
RW: In the early ’70s there was a very short-lived wave of small films that were made by people like Dennis Hopper, Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, and, of course, Terry Malick and others, and I was sort of washed along in that wave. After Universal gave me a small amount of development money based on a script I wrote that took place in India, I went off on a location scout with the producer and a production manager. While we were wandering around Benares, we stopped in a small shop to have something to drink and got unexpectedly whacked out on some kind of hash-opium concoction which left us barely able to crawl. We got totally lost and ended up on the river where dozens of bodies were being burned over huge woodpiles like some kind of surreal barbecue. When we got back to the hotel, the production manager, who had never been outside of California, was so freaked out that he refused to leave his room except to go to the airport. By the time the producer and I returned four weeks later, we were barely allowed in the parking lot at Universal.
Arthur: Then Dennis Hopper made The Last Movie.
RW: Right. That just about closed it up. The whole climate changed for those kinds of films.
Arthur: There’s a direct connection between the themes and mood and style of your books and the scripts you’ve written. How have you managed to pull that off? It’s rare.
RW: Well, I tried to maneuver myself into situations where that would be somewhat possible, without being fired out of hand. Over the last 20 years, that’s meant working mostly in Europe. In the early days when I was starting out I was fortunate to be around people like Sam Peckinpah. It took me a while to realize how rare it was to work with someone like Peckinpah. Aside from being a lot of fun, there was a certain amount of danger involved with Sam [laughs]. He was venal and rapacious and often an emotional killer, but he always had a passion and even an honorable desperation to make a good film. He attracted a lot of old rogues and character actors and he was defiantly anti-establishment. In his sort of outlaw style, he almost always managed to survive the politics of the game, even if he had one boot planted in opposition to all the bullshit and studio-speak.
Arthur: Dylan had a part in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and did that amazing score. How did that happen?
RW: When Dylan heard that a Billy the Kid film was in the works, he came to see me at my place on the Lower East Side wanting to know if there was any way he could be a part of it. He said he was Billy the Kid in a past life. After I wrote a part for him, we flew to Durango so that he could meet Sam. We walked up to his house after dinner where Sam was drinking alone in his bedroom and staring at himself in a full-length mirror. He turned to Dylan and said, “I’m a big Roger Miller fan myself. Not much use for your stuff.” Dylan seemed okay with that, in fact I think he was excited by it. Of course, Sam was holding a pistol in one hand and a bottle in the other. In the script I gave Dylan the name Alias, which seemed appropriate now that he was an alienated and mysterious part of the Peckinpah posse. To get through the usual long delays and boredom of a film shoot, we wrote half a script together, based on Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. I forget why we never finished it, maybe because Sam was going off the rails fighting with the studio, or I split for a while or we lost interest. Later on, after the film was shot, Dylan went to Mexico City where he scored the film, lyrics and all, in the space of a few days, mostly with street musicians in the park.
Arthur: You have a tendency to make an appearance in your films. I just watched Walker again the other night.
RW: [Laughs] Yeah, how’d you like my performance?
Arthur: I thought it was really funny.
RW: I never got any offers after that one.
Arthur: In Two-Lane you’re the hot rod guy in the drag race. Who were you in Pat Garrett?
RW: I was killed very early on.
Arthur: Oh, in the house with Kristofferson at the beginning?
RW: Yeah. Sam fired the guy who was supposed to play that, and just said, “Oh, we’ll get that fucking writer to stand in. Kill the writer. That’ll be fun. I always like to kill writers.” [laughs]
Arthur: One theme that seems to run through all of your work is what you describe in Drop Edge of Yonder and other places as the road to nowhere. In Two-Lane, Warren Oates as G.T.O says he’s got no time for sidetracks, but so many characters in your books and films are on some sort of journey only to get completely sidetracked and almost forget about any sort of destination altogether.
RW: It took me a while to realize that most of the films I’ve written or worked on have to do with the road. Also, most of my novels are about some form or other of incessantly moving on for its own sake. One of my obsessions has always been the frontier. Not just the West, or India and the far East, but the whole idea of finding a state of mind that expands or even dissolves the cultural boundaries of who you are and what the self is supposed to be. I went to the West fueled by the belief, most likely mistaken, that I could re-invent myself. I was on the drift. So I’ve always been haunted by the West and the idea of the frontier. And also the end of the frontier and the echoes and illusions of the frontier and how the whole frontier was replaced by a kind of cultural grid which is beginning to eat itself. Now everyone wants to leave the two-lane blacktops and get to the interstate. Go from to A to B. In the early days, I would start to drive West and it didn’t matter if I went left or right. Sometimes it might take a month or two to get across. I didn’t know what was going to happen. And that whole state of mind about not knowing, or the action of non-action, empties into something else. You can start to get underneath the usual kind of information. You know, like the idea of literature as information or naturalism. You can really start to play with the dilemma of the first person and whether there even is a first person. I’ve always been sort of obsessed with pushing that as far as it would go and kind of breaking down or dissolving the traditional way of thinking about what a story is, what the narrative self is, or isn’t. I still struggle with breaking out of a linear way of thinking. Which is an irony for me because films are totally linear. Not to say that I don’t take a certain pleasure in being confined to the security of a time grid. A beginning and an end with hopefully enough juice in the middle not to fall asleep. But it’s interesting to go from that tradition into my own sort of self-induced anarchy in a way.
Arthur: You published three novels—Nog, Flats and Quake—in the late ’60s and early ’70s and didn’t publish another one until The Slow Fade in 1984. Were you mostly preoccupied with films in the meantime?
RW: In the early days I would do a film and then take a year or two off and do a book. But the problem was that films became more and more complicated. I had to spend more and more time in LA and the effort of writing endless drafts and going through the process became really difficult. I spent a lot of time in the Hollywood coal mines. [laughs].
Arthur: Slow Fade is obviously the product of someone who’s been in the Hollywood coal mines. It’s also the only book of yours that you’ve adapted into a script. Alex Cox says it’s the best script you’ve ever written.
RW: That’s because he wants to direct it. [laughs] And I hope he does. I’d love to work with him again.
Arthur: Do you agree with William Burroughs when he said that it’s mostly bad books that make good movies and vice versa?
RW: Well I always prefer, if I’m stuck with adapting a book into a film, to work with a bad book. Because making a book into a film is like cutting up a body. You have to be ruthless about it. So with a bad book you’re much freer. With a good book you want to protect it, do it justice in some way. I just went through that experience trying to adapt a J.G. Ballard book. I changed it a lot. And it’s sort of fortunate that the English producer was appalled by what I did. [laughs] So I’m off that case. And I feel relieved. But I’m not so much of a purist that I can’t do it to one of my own books.
Arthur: Your new book is sort of the opposite in that it started with Zebulon, a script that you wrote in the ’70s. Zebulon the mountain man is the main character in Drop Edge. How did the transformation go from film script to novel?
RW: It’s not the same story, but the script got me interested in the idea of the book. The mountain man represented another world that I was completely fascinated and haunted by. Just the restless, abandoned way they chose to live, outside of civilization and any cultural reference. They had a sort of enraged freedom, a quality of just being completely in the present. A state that happens, I suppose, when your mind is connected to your body and you’re hooked up with the rhythms of nature. But I think that Drop Edge is sort of the end of my romance with the frontier and what’s left of this country’s myths of origin. There are other frontiers to explore.
Arthur: Did you write Zebulon for Peckinpah?
RW: Sam was going to direct the first Zebulon script that I had written, but he died. Then Hal Ashby was interested in it and he died. I was going to direct it up in Canada but I couldn’t get it on. I came close. After a while I just dropped it because the whole adventure was beginning to feel cursed.
Arthur: Jim Jarmusch was interested in it too, right?
RW: Right, Jarmusch was going to direct it but after talking about it for a few weeks it became clear that we each had a different point of view of what the script was going to be and we went our separate ways. I was surprised when he lifted some important themes from the script for his film Dead Man. Let’s just say that was an awkward situation. [laughs] At least for me.
Arthur: I’d seen Dead Man before I read Drop Edge but some of the similarities are striking.
RW: Yeah, he took a lot. But I think the book is sufficiently different. And in a way, the good part of it is after a while I felt compelled to write my own version to get away from what had essentially been contaminated. Not just by Jim, but by the whole long journey of the script. I’d done a lot of research in each variation, along with a script on the gold rush that I never got on. So I had all this stuff in me. And after years of reading and inhabiting that world, I became very much at ease with the vernacular. And that always seemed to me to be very important in a so-called historical novel. I didn’t want it to just be a novel about historical information. So all the film stuff provoked me to go underneath, to explore some other layers.
Arthur: I like the idea of a character being stuck between worlds.
RW: The first draft of Drop Edge was more directly about the experience of somebody who woke up dead, so to speak. So in a dharmic sense it was more about a direct experience of the bardo. You never really knew whether this guy was alive or dead. On another level, that’s what being alive is about. Like when you know you’re going to die, really know you’re going to die, you start to feel alive. So on one level I was exploring that. But I felt that the first few drafts were too much of a plunge into that in-between state of mind. I felt like I had to set the table in a more deliberate way. So that’s why I introduced the idea of the character being cursed to float between worlds, not knowing if he was dead or alive. Before it was just being caught between worlds without any explanation and I thought it was too confusing, too alienating. I was trying to seduce the reader into the journey itself, this 19th-century journey. Sometimes I think of Drop Edge as an 18th-century book about the 19th century with 21st century overtones. [laughs]
Arthur: In your books, it’s the dialogue that keeps the reader sustained through some of the plunges into the more abstract parts. I think it’s connected with why I like your scripts so much, your mastery of this almost non-sequitur type dialogue. In Flats, that’s what really kept me going. I don’t know if you intended it that way, but I think Flats is a really funny book. The way a lot of Beckett is funny.
RW: I meant it to be funny. Everyone described it as this post-apocalyptic nightmare, which surprised me. In those days I was reading a lot of Beckett and I actually had to give up reading him because I liked him too much. But during the final draft of Drop Edge, I was thinking a lot about what you’re saying. Because for me, writing a novel is a lot like writing music. There’s a point, after you’ve got the foundation of whatever world it is you’re trying to invent, that you can go back and listen to what you’ve done and the dialogue becomes like chords, not so much naturalistic exposition. More like little moments that present a different sound or energy that interrupts the narrative line. It’s about always trying to be in the present. I feel compelled to create a situation where you’re just in the moment and you forget about turning the page, when the whole linear progression is interrupted for a second. That’s what I wanted to do with Drop Edge, make it circular and end it where it began. Because I think in the circular rhythm there lies some other chords, some other sounds. So, in a way, it’s almost like a sonata form.
Arthur: Something that bothers me is the generalization of books like Nog or Quake as these stream-of-consciousness screeds. Like the writer just took a tab of acid and scribbled in his notebook all night.
RW: Those books are the opposite of stream-of-consciousness. I wasn’t just turning on the faucet. It would take a long time just to write a sentence. But I worked hard to make the prose seem seamless and not connected to a conceptual design and to pull the rug out from traditional literary intentions. And that seemed to energize me. It gave me a sense of making the journey come alive. There was a play back and forth between the exterior journey and the interior journey. I take a lot of satisfaction, not to mention relief, in the ordinary practice of joining one word to another. And trying to find the emptiness and space between words. And the irony is that I tried to do that while I was moving. I wrote a lot in motels. Because when you have those breaks, sometimes you get a glimpse of that silence that can point the way to some sort of illumination, without being too romantic about that word. Sometimes when turning around and inviting that silence you can get to the other side of that and feel a certain open-ended phenomena or discovery. A kind of startled innocence.
Arthur: Quake was the first book of yours that I read and it’s set partly at the Tropicana Motel in Los Angeles. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of that place, reading about it in the liner notes of records. It seemed like sort of a West Coast version of the Chelsea Hotel.
RW: I spent time there off and on. Some of my butter is on those rolls. [laughs] It was cheap, for one thing. It was near the center of town. It was a place where people could get into all sorts of bad things and be glad they did. A step or two or three below the Chateau Marmont.
Arthur: Do you still find yourself that world from time to time?
RW: L.A. can be an informative place to be creatively alienated in, so to speak. Because if you’re not hooked up in the music world or the film world or the TV world, it has an interesting vaporized energy to it. It can put you through a lot of changes. Good, bad and ugly. I got a lot of work done there before I got hired to do anything. Then as soon as that happened I couldn’t wait to get out. It becomes kind of a curse after a while. It was a way to shake the money tree, to survive writing novels that never made a dime, but I’ve been at the end of that trail for a long time. I haven’t had a good experience in film in years, probably since Candy Mountain. I had no idea how lucky I was to work with directors like Peckinpah, Monte Hellman and Hal Ashby and, of course, Robert Frank. What I took for granted and sometimes even complained about is now forever gone. So I think I’ve come to the end of it. Even if I do it again. [laughs]
Arthur: Monte Hellman’s not gone. Would you work with him again?
RW: I’d do one with Monte anytime. You know that long bench in front of the Trail’s End Saloon? I’ve got a spot on that bench and it’s right next to Monte.
Arthur: Another interesting project you worked on was the libretto for Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony. You mentioned that writing novels was a lot like writing music. What was it like writing directly for a musical piece?
RW: I was always aware of the score when I was writing, but I saw my role as more of a mid-wife, or coordinator, which meant sublimating myself to Kafka’s language and Phil’s music.
Arthur: Is it a coincidence that there are a lot of musicians in your films?
RW: Kind of. I mean, I’ve been in that world a little bit. But for instance on Candy Mountain which I co-directed with Robert Frank, Robert was a great figure to a lot of those musicians, coming from Kerouac and Pull My Daisy.
Arthur: And the notorious Rolling Stones film Cocksucker Blues.
RW: He was definitely in that world. And Tom Waits we knew through Jarmusch. I knew Dr. John. In Pat Garrett, Kristofferson was cast as Billy the Kid and he brought in some other musicians to be in his gang. Two-Lane was just James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, who I didn’t know before the film. Often it’s fun to work with non-actors and try to capture what’s natural about them and not studied and be willing to go with whatever awkwardness they might have. But yeah, I don’t know, maybe because of my name they thought there would be a jukebox in the movie.
Arthur: What is the story there?
RW: A common American story, the first generation comes over and starts a small business, the second generation delivers the goods and builds it up to a huge company, the third generation enjoys the spoils and rides the wave only to lose it or give it all up. I was fourth generation so I never got any of the robber baron gold. I don’t even have a jukebox.
Arthur: Was the Wurlitzer company based in Cincinnati?
RW: There and Chicago, Buffalo and Germany. I was born in Cincinnati. But I grew up in New York. We moved here when I was one. My father left the company and became a rare stringed instrument dealer and never looked back.
Arthur: I read somewhere that you were from Texas.
RW: That’s just on the wanted poster.
JOE O’BRIEN edits Flop Sweat, a bottom-tier comedy publication, and is at work on his first novel. He lives in Los Angeles. Two-Lane Blacktop is his favorite film.