An Interview with Rudy Wurlitzer

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, a Breathless remake) complete the post-apocalyptic (and originally X-rated) Glen and Randa (1971), and was then tapped by director Monte Hellman, a fan of Nog, to drastically rewrite 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, which subsequently reissued Nog, Flats, and 1972’s Quake. In 2011 Drag City brought Wurlitzer’s 1984 novel, Slow Fade, back into print and released a five-CD audiobook version, read by musician and actor Will Oldham. True veterans 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, New York.

—Alan Licht


THE BELIEVER: 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?

RUDY WURLITZER: 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 toward 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.

BLVR: You worked on an oil tanker as a teenager, an experience that informed your early stories.

RW: “The Boiler Room” was about that. 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 seventeen, 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, which I learned in very primal experiences of a male-female variety. 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. 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.” I’ve come to cherish that. It did touch a few sore spots with the critical establishment.

BLVR: 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?

RW: 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 play 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 and see what it’s about. I went with a friend of mine, a producer, and we were both very naive 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 forty 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.

BLVR: You’ve commented that in Two-Lane Blacktop, no one wins and no one loses; it’s a competition that never ends, and even along the way the players become confused as to whether they’re still in competition.

RW: 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 together [Keep Busy (1975) and Energy and How To Get It (1981)] and a feature [Candy Mountain (1988)], 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, L.A. films. I was always naive; 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.

BLVR: 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.” A lot of your work is about the road, and the end of the road, and then questioning whether there is—

RW: Whether there is a road—

BLVR: —or whether there is an end to the road.

RW: 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, 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 its own rhythm, its 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.

BLVR: 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.

RW: 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]

BLVR: There’s a similar progression in your work: in TwoLane 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.

RW: 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 toward a destination.

BLVR: Was it also trying to reconcile the two experiences of writing novels and screenplays?

RW: Oh yeah, that’s really what it was about.

BLVR: 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?

RW: 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.

BLVR: 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.

RW: 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.

BLVR: Was it true that you had met Shepard in relation to Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour?

RW: 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.

BLVR: 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 Monte Hellman’s pre-Two-Lane films].

RW: 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.

BLVR: 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—

RW: But nothing has changed as fast as the last three to five years now, don’t you think?

BLVR: In terms of?

RW: In terms of the whole internet phenomenon, the whole sense of what art is, and literature, and streaming, music and films, the whole media, and the whole corporate takeover.

BLVR: The speed at which information travels now—

RW: It’s just amazing. And the addiction to it.

BLVR: What’s your perspective on the changes in New York bohemia over the years?

RW: It’s completely different now. The conversation between all the different venues, music, art, film… In the early days I was involved with Claes Oldenburg; 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 the 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. 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. 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 Tenth Street for forty bucks a month, it was fine, you know. You could get jobs as a bartender or something. There’s a certain nostalgia for that time, which is 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.




Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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