The Genius of Rudy Wurlitzer

by Lisa Janssen

Every once in a while my father would talk about his favorite movie Two-Lane Blacktop. As he spoke of it his gaze would drift to a place far off from the dinner table. He would describe the white line going up the middle of the highway, how it filled the screen of the drive-in theatre he had seen it in.

“These two guys just drive,” he said. “That’s all they do.”

Two Lane Blacktop Trailer

Well this was an utter mystery to me, as was my father as a rule. It was completely out of character for him. He is a hyper-conservative businessman man who does not appreciate fine art (which Two-Lane Blacktop is) of any kind. It was not an easy movie to see in the 1980s, but many years later I happened upon it by chance showing on one of those cable channels way up at the end of the dial. Finally, I thought, the mystery of my father would be revealed. What I saw only deepened it.

Still, the film resonated with me, on its own terms and on mine. The empty roads and empty minds; lives lived outside of real time, and the fetishes of the obsessed that are like addicts, not of drugs, but cars. I think for my father it had to do with freedom.

I read what I could about the screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer and director Monte Hellman. This was 2000 and there was not a lot to find online. I actually had to go to a library. There I read about how the screenplay was considered so revolutionary it was published in its entirety in Esquire. I read a Rolling Stone article written on the film set with James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. I became obsessed with the girl Laurie Bird. But that is another story.

Rudy Wurlitzer books

This story got more interesting by the minute. I wondered what else Wurlitzer had done. To my surprise, at that time he had written four novels, each strangely reflective of the era in which it was published. His first novel Nog, was a psycho-psychedelic head trip. Quake, a noir-esque ‘70s disaster trip. Slow Fade, a hazy sunset of 1980s exhaustion. Flats, well I’m not sure I ever figured that one out. Quake takes place in a real time apocalyptic Los Angeles. Described as “nihilistic” “deadpan” and having to do with “hippies,” well those were all sweet buzzwords to my unconscious. I ordered a used copy immediately.


It was brutal and ugly just like the hot Los Angeles sun. Opening at a locale that seems like it might be the old Tropicana Motel, it unfolds in one long take that goes from one depraved scenario to the next. This was my kind of book. It confirmed my bleak view of humanity like a good crime novel, but with a wicked, deep laugh. Rudy Wurlitzer was now officially my favorite author of all time.

Rudolph Wurlitzer_byLynnDavis
RudolphWurlitzer photo by Lynn Davis

Flash forward ten years and I am talking to Rudy Wurlitzer on the phone. Through a series of unlikely but dream-come-true machinations I am overseeing the reissue of his brilliant fourth novel, Slow Fade for Drag City. This is the one that became my favorite, the one I bought ten copies of and gave away to people at Christmas kind of like Peter Sellers did with Terry Southern’s  Magic Christian.

Quake, that was kind of a catharsis from having to deal with the studio system. The phenomena of being in Hollywood and surviving all those relationships. . . not just in the film business but various other things you do to survive. . . the drugs and all that. Laying around the Tropicana Motel waiting for a call from some girl.  .  .  I wrote it in this place in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia that I go to. I would go there after a siege in L.A. of doing films and write a book like Slow Fade.

Slow Fade is also a Hollywood novel and the Hollywood novel is just about my favorite genre. From Day of the Locust, to What Makes Sammy Run; from Inside Daisy Clover to A Couple of Comedians, I really can’t get enough cynical dark tales about our cultural puppet masters. But what struck me on the first reading of this book was the conflict between father and son. I thought for sure that the author must have had a fraught relationship with his own.

Rudy glides over any questions about such a theory and onto his problems with authority.

A lot of it has to do with my relationship with authority; my complicated relationship with authority and directors. It’s almost like a father/son thing. That relationship between writer and director where the writer has to sublimate himself to the director’s ego. So it wasn’t about my father, but it was about father figures.

Yet every once in a while in conversation a detail will slip and I know I was right. Rudy came from a prominent family – the “mighty” Wurlitzers, organs, jukeboxes, and in the case of his father, a dealer in rare stringed instruments. He tells me that his father used to put a violin in the crib with him when he was a baby.

The demons to be exorcised in Slow Fade seem to have taken root on the set of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.  Rudy has a classic Dylan story that is also a classic Sam Peckinpah story:

Bob Dylan came to see me before we were going to begin to shoot, and said, you know I think I was the reincarnation of Billy the Kid. And I said, really? That’s interesting. And he said, yeah. Is there any way I can be in that film? So I called the producer and I said, listen, Bob Dylan wants to be in the film and I wrote him a part really off the cuff.

Then I took Dylan down to Durango to meet Peckinpah.  It was night when Dylan and I got off the plane and we caught a cab to the house Sam had outside of town. When we got there, there was a shot, and this maid ran out of the house screaming. Dylan was freaked! So I thought, oh man, we’re going to blow the whole thing. We went up to the house, opened the door and it was all dark, just a light upstairs. So I called, Sam, are you up there? Anyone up there? What’s going on? No answer. We crept up the stairs and Dylan was behind me — we go down the hall where Sam’s bedroom was, I slowly opened the door and Peckinpah is standing in front of a full length mirror completely naked. He has a pistol in his hand and he had shot his own image in the full length mirror. I turned to Sam, and I said, Sam, I don’t know if you know it, but this is Bob Dylan, he’s going to be in the film, I wrote him a part. Sam paused and turned to Dylan and said, I’m a big Roger Miller fan myself.

The story of Slow Fade revolves around the Peckinpah-like character of Wesely Hardin, on the set of his last Western. His son Walker and daughter Clementine are both estranged from his life, and have set out seeking meaning in life to various ends in India. Much like Wurlitzer’s other novels, there are journeys, both spiritual and literal, landscapes, both real and imagined.

When you come from a family that’s really about self-cherishing and celebrating the self, and believing in all the illusions that go with the self in that kind of L.A. world, and you take a journey to a place like India and you enter into a spiritual quest, it’s not without danger. Because as you start to lose a sense of who you are and your identity that you inherited, you encounter impermanence. You encounter the fact that we’re all in an impermanent situation, and that we’re all going to die. There isn’t anyone who’s beaten that one yet, right? That’s one of the dangers of being lost. The spiritual path has its dangers. And in those days, late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were a certain number of casualties.

Rudy swam in the water of Hollywood for decades, but he will no longer go there, ever. Asked recently to speak at UCLA about his film collaboration with Alex Cox on Walker, he cancelled at the last minute. But it wasn’t Peckinpah that ruined it for him, it was the machine. The ‘80s corporate takeover of Hollywood. Slow Fade seems to take place in that haze, the end of ‘70s. Wurlitzer confirmed this when we spoke.

[Peckinpah was] the last of the independent mavericks,  before the corporate envelope came down over the whole thing. It’s a whole different world out there now because it’s so corporatized. It’s not as much these one-to-one crazy encounters, like with Peckinpah or Antonioni. They couldn’t survive today. Compared to what it is now, I realized that it was the best time. As hard as it was. It was so much more interesting and fun and crazy to live than it would be now. So, it is the end of the ‘70s, the end of that whole time, the beginning of the ‘80s when it takes place.

Occasionally a director will get in touch with Rudy and want to work on one of his old scripts. There are many that were never made. But he won’t take any meetings in Los Angeles, and this poses a problem. These days he talks a lot—always in the Western idiomam—about sitting around the Trail’s End Saloon—riding off into the sunset. He is threatening to fade out.  He says he might write another novel, or not. I hope he does. I need it like a cowboy needs his horse.


One of his oldest friends is Philip Glass, with whom he collaborated on the opera In the Penal Colony.

He worked as an assistant to Robert Graves while living in Majorca.

He made three films with Robert Frank: Keep Busy, Energy and How to Get It, and Candy Mountain. Someone should get these out on DVD post haste!

He was called in to re-write the sex scene in Coming Home by his friend Hal Ashby.

The script for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is, um, somewhat similar to a script Wurlitzer wrote in the 1970s. I own a copy called “Beyond the Mountain.” It was  circulated under the name “Zebulon.” In 2008 Wurlitzer finally published the novel Drop Edge of Yonder based on his script. It is an amazing book. Read it.

Hard Travel to Sacred Places is a truly astonishing and moving memoir he wrote while in East Asia. You should also read that.

He is married to the brilliant photographer Lynn Davis.

Lisa Janssen is a writer and archivist. Most recently, she edited film director Curtis Harrington’s memoir, Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood, which will be published by Drag City on June 18th, 2013.

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