“IN THOSE DAYS I WOULD DELIBERATELY GO EAST AND THEN SOUTH AND THEN NORTH, TO TRY AND COMPLETELY CONFUSE MYSELF, BECAUSE I HAD NO REAL DESTINATION.”
A scion of the Wurlitzer family (of jukebox/organ fame), Rudy Wurlitzer first attracted notice with the publication of the two short novels Nog (1969) and Flats (1970). Blurbed by Thomas Pynchon (“The novel of bullshit is dead”), Nog follows the peregrinations of a narrator who changes not only location but identity on a daily basis, hauling an octopus along for the ride.Flats concerns a number of equally mutable characters, named for different U.S. cities, huddled around a campfire in a hollowed-out landscape.
Wurlitzer fell into screenwriting around the same time, first helping Jim McBride [David Holzman’s Diary, Breathless remake] complete the post-apocalyptic (and originally X-rated) Glen and Randa (1970), and then being tapped by director Monte Hellman, a fan of Nog, to drastically re-write a script called Two Lane Blacktop. An existential road movie that, as brilliantly realized by Hellman, is the logical extension of the laconic and cinematic aspects of Wurlitzer’s novels, Two Lane features singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson alongside frequent Sam Peckinpah star Warren Oates. Heavily hyped before its release (Esquire dubbed it “The Movie of the Year” and published the screenplay in its entirety) but then dumped in theaters unceremoniously in the summer of 1971, Two Lane’s reputation has grown over the years and has arguably transcended cult status to become a canonical 70s film. Wurlitzer went on to script Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) for Peckinpah and Walker (1987) for Alex Cox; he also worked on Volker Schlöndorff’s Voyager (1991) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993).
There has been something of a Wurlitzer revival in the last couple of years. A new novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder, based on a Western screenplay of his that made the rounds with a number of directors but was never filmed, was published in 2008 by Two Dollar Radio, who subsequently reissued Nog, Flats, and 1972’s Quake. This year Drag City brought Wurlitzer’s 1984 novel Slow Fade back into print and released a 5CD audio book version, read by musician and actor Will Oldham. A true veteran of the post-Beat 60s and 70s, Wurlitzer and friend Philip Glass were early members of an informal artistic community of downtown New York transplants in Nova Scotia, alongside Robert Frank, Richard Serra, and Sam Shepard. Wurlitzer and his wife, photographer Lynn Davis, now divide their time between Cape Breton and Hudson, NY.
—Interview by Alan Licht
A- In an early interview you said “Everything I write, there’s always one complete draft and I write it just for the sound. And it’s like writing music and that’s when I dig it the most…you know, the sensual feel of language and the sound of it and the rhythm of it…” Can you expand on how writing relates to music for you?
R-At first I try to get underneath the language and hear a subject, sort of in a musical way, in terms of how large a sound it is, what the rhythms of a subject are. And then in the actual composition of a piece, I always try to arrive at a place where I’ve left the conceptual mind behind and am going towards the unknown. In that way, I’m rescued by the sound of language, which a lot of times will deliver me to the subject in an intuitive way. So, the actual rhythm of language is really important to me, because a lot of times it’ll dictate something more objective.
Especially in prose and books, one of the things that I’ve tried to evolve in writing—not always successfully—is to break through a conceptual paradigm, or being programmed in a traditional way, with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s always the frontier of my mind that I’m reaching for. Sometimes that takes place in a more concrete way, in terms of the actual Western frontier, but it isn’t really the West that I’m so obsessed by. It’s really about leaving my own set of descriptions, and leaving the traditions that I was raised in. I was initially raised in a very formal music tradition, to be a violinist. My family was generations of music people. But I needed to push past that grid, and become more open-ended and spontaneous. I’ve been around music all my life, but it’s been transferred into the actual sound and rhythm of language as a deliverance.
A- You’ve described the language in Two Lane as being “one-note,” and I’ve noticed that the film not only has this kind of drone of language but some literal drone elements too. There’s the pervasive motor drone of the car engine, and at one point The Driver is talking about listening to the cicadas, which is also a drone.
R-That’s another thing about the sense of music—when I was researching the film, I’d hang out with these car guys in the Valley, outside of LA, and the whole language was car language. It was like a whole different note for me. So when I would introduce that into the script it was like a piece of music. And then it was the monosyllabic language of the principals, James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, and Laurie Bird, who were not actors, who had one tone to them. And then introducing really evolved, developed, theatrical actors like Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton on the other side of it brought a different chord—a kind of manic, over the top chord that made the non-actors seem even more innocent than they were. And also merge with the sound of the engine, you know…
I never quite thought about it like that, but that’s actually the way it happened. Because I inherited a script that Monte wanted totally rewritten, and the only thing I could keep was the idea of The Driver, The Mechanic and The Girl, and a drive across the country. Other than that, it was a completely new script for me. So that’s how I got into it, was musically—cause I didn’t know a car from a cow, so I had to learn this whole language. But I learned it in a musical way, cause I had no idea what any of it meant (laughs). So then to play that off the other rhythms became an intuitive way to go on this episodic, existential journey to nowhere.
A-Going back a bit, you worked on an oil tanker as a teenager—an experience tt informed your early stories.
R- “The Boiler Room” was about that. Again, I really wanted to break out of my formal upbringing, so I got a job on an oil tanker, as a wiper in the engine room, through a distant relative who worked for an oil shipping company. I was 17, you know, I could barely tie my shoelaces. This oil tanker went from Philadelphia to Venezuela to Spanish Morocco to Kuwait, so it was a long voyage. It was under the Liberian flag, I was the youngest, and the white guy—most of the crew was black. They introduced me to all kinds of exotic, terrifying adventures at these various ports of call (laughs), which I learned in very primal experiences of a male-female variety (laughs). That was a big journey, it was a frontier for me; it was difficult but it was life changing.
When I went to Columbia [University] after that it was a very different experience. I just felt trapped there, in the academic world. I went to Cuba with a friend on a spring vacation during my sophomore year. As soon as we arrived in Havana, it was the end of the whole uprising; Castro’s troops came into the city, completely took it over. A lot of the soldiers, and the girls, were all my age, and we had an amazing time. I became involved with an older woman over there and didn’t go back to school for a while. When I got back to Columbia, I was out. So I joined the army for a couple of years, and had the usual kind of terrible experiences. I finished up at Columbia and then went to Paris and Spain. Then back to New York, that’s when I started to write Nog.
Nog broke a lot of rules. The first review of anything I ever wrote was in The New York Times. The first sentence was, “’Wurlitzer’ means music to millions, but obviously literature to none.” (laughs) I’ve come to cherish that (laughs). It did touch a few sore spots with the critical establishment.
A-Was “The Octopus,” the story published in The Paris Review (1966) a precursor to Nog?
R-That was the first chapter of Nog, yeah.
A-You did some sports writing around this time also.
R- I went on road with the San Francisco Warriors [basketball team] for The Saturday Evening Post, which was great. I got to talk to all these great players, that was fun.
A-You also reviewed Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in The New Republic. Were you more interested in sports back then?
R- Yeah, if I could have, I would have been a professional ball player, but I wasn’t good enough (laughs). I was always a sports freak, I was a big fan. Who knows, I could have become a sports writer…but I was too strange and weird.
A-That’s interesting because you’ve commented that in Two Lane Blacktop no one wins and no one loses; it’s a competition that’s never ended and even along the way the players become confused as to whether they’re still in competition.
R-That’s true, that’s absolutely true. I would get involved in these competitive linear situations, and then, out of my innate perversity, try to pull the rug out from underneath, and be in the present. Not get trapped in results. I’ve always been aware of the tyranny of having to be attached to results, so that’s what Two Lane is about. When I did films with Robert Frank—we did several short films [Keep Busy (1975) and Energy and How To Get It (1981)] and a feature [Candy Mountain (1987)] together, where I wrote the script--it was all about being in the moment, being in the present, not having any idea of an ending. That’s why jazz is so great; because it’s in the process, in the moment, surrendering to the moment without any kind of conceptual program about where you’re gonna end up. And also feeling deeply trapped by what became corporate, LA films. I was always naïve, I thought it was still possible to be collaborative and have a situation that would not be so sublimated to a corporate grid. But it got worse and worse, and I drifted off to Europe.
A-You’ve cited Beckett as a big influence at the time of Nog, but was Buddhism an influence too? Had you gotten into that yet?
R-In a sense. I’ve always been aware of the idea of self-cherishing, which is a Dharmic expression about the self, and I’ve always been aware, in my half-assed way, about the fallibility and illusions of self, which plays a lot in my books, I think. So I was attracted to the basic tenets of Buddhism before I ever encountered it. Even before that I was meditating in various groups in New York, not in a very evolved way, something just drew me to that.
Around the time of Two Lane, I wrote a script that took place in India and so I thought, I better go over there (laughs) and see what it’s about. I went with a friend of mine, a producer, and we were both very naïve and didn’t know what was happening either in films or in India or anywhere else. I had various adventures there and got exposed to the Dharma, to Buddhism. I spent a lot of time in Nepal and met a Tibetan lama who became a teacher of mine. And then I became more seriously involved, and helped start a Dharma center in New York, went back and forth between Nepal, the States, and India. Then it became more internalized, the actual practice. I’ve been involved with Buddhism for maybe 40 years, and had the privilege of being around some very evolved people—just from their great compassion and grace I’ve been able to hang around, you know—and I’ve learned a little. But I consider myself an amateur. At best I’m a poor pilgrim (laughs).
To say it in an academic way, the first shock of being exposed by someone whose fearless and compassionate presence seemed to fill the room with a union of bliss and emptiness--it empowered the basic tenet of the non-duality of form and emptiness. That blew me away, you know. And I’ve been involved with figuring that out, living with that, ever since. Dissolving the separation that exists, that we all have, between one another…and that’s why music is so important, because it dissolves the separation for those moments. I’ve always had the need to try to at least point towards an integration of what I was involved with as a writer, a filmmaker, whatever, and study the basic tenets of spiritual views—not just Dharma, but Sufis or whatever. It didn’t matter to me where it came from, as long as it was authentic and played the same sounds, you know?
A- There’s a line in the published Two Lane screenplay (but not in the film itself) where GTO [Warren Oates’ character] says, “Everything is going too fast and not fast enough.” It shows how off-center he feels; maybe that goes back to Buddhism, in terms of needing an internal balance?
R-To have a center of stillness, the essence of the middle way.
A-Which The Driver and The Mechanic seem to have, with their car, until The Girl shows up and throws it off—at least for The Driver.
R-Well, you know, passions intrude (laughs). And once again you’re making a fool of yourself, getting into some big trouble. That’s inevitable. At least it is for me.
It was funny seeing those films again at Anthology Film Archives [in New York; Wurlitzer attended part of an April 2011 retrospective of his films there]. [At the Anthology screening of Glen and Randa] this friend of mine was sitting behind me, who was an old Zen student, and he said in this loud voice “I hate that film!” (laughs) It was shocking—he thought it was very…nihilistic, that’s what bothered him about it. I think aspects were, but it was mid to late 60s and there was more of a hippie, solipsistic thing. I found it so interesting to think about in those days. I was just trying to write that thing with this friend of mine, Lorenzo Mans, and to figure out how to write scripts. It was kinda fun. But I didn’t have any idealistic, nihilist point of view, you know? (laughs)
A-Nihilism has been talked about in relation to Two Lane Blacktop too; it shows one underside to the late 60s that then became more fully articulated in the 70s punk rock scene. To me, in some ways Two Lane is an incipient vision of a “blank generation.” Watching itagain I was struck by how the ‘55 Chevy that Taylor and Wilson drive is so stripped-down but so souped-up, at the same time: it’s really like the Ramones! Who were musically stripped down but revved up with big amps.
R-That’s interesting, that’s a good way to think about it. But I didn’t feel Two Lane was overtly nihilistic.
A-It’s a couple of steps removed from that. They’re not on the road because they think, “It doesn’t matter anyway…”
R—They’re on the road for its own sake.
A-A lot of your work is about the road, and the end of the road, and then questioning whether there is—
R-Whether there is a road—
A—or whether there is an end to the road.
R-Again, it’s the myth of the frontier, the road leading to the end of the road, which leads to an open space you’ve never encountered before. I wrote a little essay on Louis L’Amour [“Riding Through,” published in For Now No. 10, 1970], and what fascinated me about Louis L’Amour—he’s a real old Western genre hack, you know, but the first two or three pages of a Louis L’Amour book are about just riding into open space. You don’t know where the rider is going, there’s no particular destination, it’s really about it’s own rhythm, it’s own process. That’s what I really loved about Louis L’Amour. And when the plot kicks in, that’s where I stopped. I was always trying to get back to that early sense of being in the moment.
A-You’ve talked about how in the old West, it didn’t matter if you went North, South, or West, it was all uncharted territory.
R-Yeah—that’s a good way to say it, what I was trying to find was uncharted territory. And so initially, being a primitive guy, it seemed like you could go out West, take the car and drive. In those days I would deliberately go east and then south and then north, to try and completely confuse myself, because I had no real destination. But then the destination leaked in, and as time went on I was always going for a reason, you know—for a gig, for a girl, for whatever (laughs).
A-There’s a similar progression in your work: in Two Lane nobody is sure of their next destination, even at the end, but in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Pat Garrett is actively looking for Billy, and in Slow Fade Walker is searching for his sister in India.
R-I was thinking about that, with Slow Fade, which I hadn’t read since it came out. So I picked it up, I didn’t remember a lot of it. I was so struck by how much of it is influenced by writing films, and how it’s trying to break that. Creating the different voices, to go back and forth from the prose to the screenplay in a circular way. I try to break that sense of inevitability towards a destination.
A-Was it also trying to reconcile the two experiences of writing novels and screenplays?
R-Oh yeah, that’s really what it was about.
A-Compared to Flats or Nog, Quake and Slow Fade had more in the way of specifics and a recognizable narrative structure. Do you think you would have gone in that direction as a novelist if you hadn’t been writing screenplays?
R-I don’t think so. Certainly Quake and Slow Fade were influenced by my experiences in L.A., in the film business. I remember writing Quake, completely damaged, in my hideout in Canada. It was a catharsis. I didn’t think of it as that, at the time, but since then I see why that came to be. And Slow Fade too, but further along, fifteen years later.
A-I was really taken aback at how different Slow Fade, particularly, is from Nog and Flats.
R-It comes from a different place. It really comes from films: that narrative, those interlocking stories, the sense of going towards some resolution. It’s an old-fashioned book, relatively (laughs).
A-Did the trip you took to India after Two Lane inspire some of the scenes in India in Slow Fade?
R-By that time there were several trips to India. We went to this place in Benares where you could get these drinks, and they were laced with all kinds of opiate drugs. We didn’t know that at the time; we drank these things down, and this poor guy flipped out. We had to take him back to the hotel and call a doctor because he was having heart palpitations and flew back to L.A. By the time we got there, three or four weeks later, we no longer had a parking space at Universal [Studios] (laughs).
A-That episode probably accounts for the section in Slow Fade where the American couple gets dosed on the train?
R-That was a different time (laughs). There are lots of those little stories embedded in the fabric of India.
A-In Walker, which is set in mid-19th century Nicaragua, there’s all these anachronisms—Time and Newsweek, Coca Cola and Marlboros, and the helicopters at the end. And in your introduction to the published Pat Garrett screenplay you wrote, “Billy became an anachronism that could not be tolerated.” Can you talk a little about the idea of anachronism?
R-In terms of Walker, Alex [Cox] ran with that idea. I was nervous about it, because it deliberately broke the whole period [setting]. I thought it would cause a lot of trouble, and it did. When we opened at Lincoln Center, people were really freaked by it. I was there with Joe Strummer and he said, “Oh man, we’re deeply fucked, we gotta get out of here.” (laughs) But since then, these days, I think it makes great sense (laughs), so I’m happy about it, you know.
A- I think the way that language is used in the movie gives permission to the visual anachronisms. Walker is speaking in a 19th century style, but everyone else is using late 20th century vernacular. One woman says, “Clearly, this is no ordinary asshole.”
R-(Laughs) We took a lot of liberties. It was really laying down the gauntlet, on that one. It upset liberals more than anyone else, because they were very attached to what they perceived to be the integrity of the poor, and to Nicaragua.
A-The United States hasn’t quite learned its lesson.
R-No. Exactly (laughs). We’re doing the same things. Which is the whole point of using the idea of an anachronism in a historical way—that things repeat themselves. If you don’t much understand what you’re doing, you’re doomed to repeat yourself. It’s an ancient truth, all the way back to Aristotle.
A-Had you seen Cox’s Repo Man?
R-Yeah. I had met him in L.A. We became friends, we shared a lot of stuff together. He was interested in doing a Western of mine that got passed around to various directors. So in terms of my experiences with directors, he was enormous fun to work with, because he has a great sense of equality. He’s not into the hierarchies of the situation. He’s really unusual that way, because on most films, people have different layers, and levels, of sublimation, but he’s wide open. The people working with him are really part of the process. It was a real collaboration, whereas usually it’s a terrifying meeting with three or four people that you’ve never seen before giving you their votes (laughs).
A-Having Joe Strummer do the music for Walker reinforced the feeling that Walker was a tribute of sorts to Pat Garrett [which had a soundtrack by Bob Dylan; Dylan also acted in Pat Garrett, and Strummer can be glimpsed in a couple of scenes in Walker].
R-That’s really interesting that you would say that, because Alex is a big fan of that film; when we first met each other—at a film festival in Rotterdam, I don’t remember why I was there (laughs)—that was the big common ground that we had, Peckinpah stories, you know. So he thought I would be a good person to write Walker because of that. Also the sense of period, and the sense of outrageousness that Peckinpah brought to bear…
A-Walker is almost a Peckinpah-esque figure.
R-He is, and as we went on he became even more of a Peckinpah figure—as happened with Peckinpah (laughs).
A-Because of your formative experiences with the violin, I was wondering about the scene in Walker of the out-of-tune violin recital in the sitting room.
R-That was an old memory-echo of being in these rooms, as a kid, and having to play for various luminaries that would come over and hang out with my father, like Fritz Chrysler or Jascha Heifetz. They’d say “Oh, break out the fiddle, play…” I was always terrified to do that (laughs) and seized with awkwardness. I had to survive those moments; usually I’d run away (laughs).
A-Actually, when you were describing your experience of running off to the oil tanker, it made me think of Five Easy Pieces, where Jack Nicholson’s character, who was a classically-trained pianist from a family of musicians, goes to work in an oil field. And that film was written by Carole Eastman [under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce], who wrote The Shooting [one of Hellman’s pre-Two Lane films].
R- I knew Carole Eastman; she was a good friend. Five Easy Pieces resonated with me because of the whole music thing in it; I used to talk to her about that. We all knew each other—Nicholson and [Bob] Rafelson [director of Five Easy Pieces], the BBS company [the film’s producer]. In those days everything was personal and open-ended and independent. It was Roger Corman country. We all felt a little bit like privileged outlaws.
A-You had other connections to what are now considered classic 70s films. I’ve heard that you suggested Sam Shepard to Terrence Malick for the role he played in Days of Heaven.
R-Yeah, I did. I was a friend of Terry’s and I knew Sam, and I thought he would be really good, even though he never really acted, you know. Terry was wide open.
A-Was it true that you had met Shepard in relation to Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour?
R-I knew him then, but I think I knew him before. He had a place with his then-wife in Nova Scotia; I’d seen him up there, and in New York. He’s been a friend for a long time. He’s an old warrior, he’s got a lot of arrows in his quiver.
A-Dylan had Shepard on that tour because he wanted Shepard to write scenes for a film he was going to make during and around the tour, which became Renaldo and Clara (1978)—
R—And that’s something that Lynn [Davis] worked on. She knew Dylan quite well in those days, and she was around in L.A. when they were editing Renaldo and Clara.
A-In his journal of the tour [Rolling Thunder Logbook, which is partially dedicated to Wurlitzer], Shepard wrote that Dylan told him he wanted the film to be like Shoot the Piano Player, or Children of Paradise. And I know that you and Dylan started writing a script on the set of Pat Garrett that was also supposed to be like Shoot the Piano Player.
R-Yeah, in Mexico—just to pass the time. Bob was really bored out of his mind cause you have to wait such a long time before being called, especially because Bob didn’t have such a big part. So he’d come to wherever my little scribbly shack was and it was like, “Alright, let’s do something.” “What about Shoot the Piano Player?” It never got finished, we just started. I think if we had continued to work on it it would have turned into Shoot the Director (laughs).
A-I’ve also heard that Shepard was offered the role of the Driver in Two Lane Blacktop.
R- That’s right, I forgot about that.
A-Was that through you, or through Monte Hellman?
R-I think it was Monte—maybe it was through me, I can’t remember. Wow. That would have been a different film.
A- I also wanted to ask you about the late writer George W.S. Trow, who mentions Two Lane Blacktop, as well as you as being a friend, in his last book, My Pilgrim’s Progress.
R- He was a big fan of Two Lane. I was involved in his last days, before he went to Naples and lost it completely. That was a very intense time for George. We ran into him in Texas, we were driving cross-country, and we could see that he became really, truly lost. He came from Alaska, and drove to Texas, trying to find his myths of origins, so to speak.
A- In My Pilgrim's Progress he articulates, to almost a painful degree, the way in which the world that he was brought up to prepare for had disappeared by the time he was of age to inherit it, the mid-to-late 60s and after.
R-He was totally attached to those descriptions, and those hierarchies and social venues and all the rest of it, in New York and at The New Yorker, certain types of imagined privileges and all that. And when that fell apart for him—you know he wrote Within The Context of No Context, that’s his story as well—he could never re-group after that. He went on the road, to rescue himself, but in turn he had to be rescued from that journey. This friend of his, Rory Nugent, a really good writer, is writing a book that George will be part of, about the profound implications and meaning of what it is to rescue and be rescued.
A-When we think about the 60s and how rapidly things changed in the culture, even in a period of five years, say 1964 to 1969—
R- —But nothing has changed as fast as the last three to five years now, don’t you think?
A-In terms of?
R-In terms of the whole internet phenomena, the whole sense of what art is, and literature, and streaming, music and films, the whole media, and the whole corporate takeover.
A-The speed at which information travels now—
R—it’s just amazing. And the addiction to it.
A-What’s your perspective on the changes in New York bohemia over the years?
R-It’s completely different now. The conversation between all the different venues, music, art, film… In the early days I was involved with Claes Oldenberg; there was a filmed Happening that I did with him that was up at my family’s place in upstate New York. It was called “Birth of A Flag.” It was kind of like Two Lane, now that I think about it--it was just the process itself without any result, just filming whatever happens, with this relatively spontaneous collection of whacked-out characters from New York.
A-Like Keep Busy.
R-Yeah. And I was in a few other Happenings with him. So I was very aware of that, of Rauschenberg as well, and was influenced a lot by Phil Glass’s music. Phil is probably my oldest friend, and in the 60s when he was writing Music With Changing Parts and his early work I was very much involved with what he was going through musically, which resonated with what I was going through in terms of Nog.
The whole literary thing was much more wide open, Burroughs, all different kinds of poetry going on, and it was all mixed. Pull My Daisy, that kind of conversation between Ginsberg and Robert Frank, that just doesn’t happen any more—that I’m aware of, anyway. It’s much more isolated, and very defended. In those days, the whole thing about not having any money was not so terrifying. You knew you could somehow survive. I had an apartment on East 10th St. for 40 bucks a month, it was fine, you know (laughs). You could get jobs as a bartender or something. But also the one-to-one personal encounters that really form someone in their 20s doesn’t happen as much. That kind of spontaneity and intercourse of floating relations.
A-Some of that could be because people are spread amongst the outer boroughs and not so concentrated downtown.
R-That’s true too. Brooklyn was not an “it” place in those days…
A-It was someplace that people escaped from (laughs), not escaped to.
R-It’s a very different city now.
A-And yet people are still very interested in things—books, movies, music—that happened back then.
R-There’s a certain nostalgia for that time, which why my first three books are being reissued. There’s a kind of counter-nostalgia thing; the communication was a bit different. Communication was so present, that you could do things like mine, which would sort of pull the rug out from under communication. That was another way to go, but there was a communication about that. But now, all that is lost.