Rudy Wurlitzer


“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.”
Voyages mentioned during this interview:
An oil-tanker voyage from Philadelphia to Venezuela to Spanish Morocco to Kuwait
Spring break in Cuba
A trip from Columbia University to Paris to Spain, then back to New York
Back and forth between New York, Nepal, and India
A drift-off to Europe
A stint in L.A.
A hideout in Canada

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.

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Since 1990, guitarist Alan Licht has spanned the worlds of indie rock, experimental music, and sound installation, appearing on close to one hundred recordings. He is the editor of Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Faber & Faber/W.W. Norton, 2012) and the author of Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories (Rizzoli, 2007).

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