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Rudy is a renegade descendant of the Wurlitzer jukebox dynasty, founded in the 1800s when they originally made pianos and theatre organs.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.