(originally published in Star News, additional Q&A follows article)
By Brian Tucker
Folk-rock singer-songwriter Steve Forbert said something poignant during our conversation about writing. Asking about the thrust into the spotlight at a young age, how did he (or anyone) get accustomed to sudden, abnormal fame, even in the late 70s?
“How can you observe life if you’re the center of attention?” he said from New Jersey. “You can’t, not with any objectivity. That’s been important to me and I was simply not comfortable with a lot of it.”
Forbert will perform as a duo at TheatreNOW, touring behind his latest album The Magic Tree.
Four decades into a career Forbert maintains he’s been lucky to straddle the line and make a living while not being as “well known as Huey Lewis and the News.” Plus, it’s the stuff of madness, sometimes ending the lives of performers.
“It’s too weird. I always think of that little kid in Blind Melon (Shannon Hoon), they had a hit with the guy singing “all I can say is that my life is pretty plain.” That was really humble,” Forbert said. “It was always surreal and kind of odd to me. I tried to avoid that limousine kind of fame. As a songwriter, even yet not being a household name, creatively for me its good.”
The Meridian, Mississippi native moved to New York City in the 70s where he auditioned, played gigs, and worked as a photographic agency messenger which allowed him to get to know midtown. Fame came quick, recording two albums at decade’s end and a big hit in 1980 with the catchy, heartfelt “Romeo’s Tune” that landed him on tour with Kenny Loggins. That song has lived a long time, even finding its way into Richard Linklater’s 1980-set film Everybody Wants Some.
The song was from 1979’s Jackrabbit Slim, preceded by 1978’s Alive on Arrival, albums whose style flying in the face of young performers at the time (think David Cassidy) and the punk and disco movements. Forbert wrote from the heart (alongside colleagues Springsteen and a then-struggling John Mellencamp) and about life around him.
Accompanied by acoustic guitar, the picturesque material was culled from lyrics pulled from Forbert’s journals. Sung with a youthful, raspy voice sometimes accompanied by harmonica or piano, Forbert landed in the spotlight shortly before MTV would push performers into the American consciousness using glowing visuals on a million TV sets throughout the heartland.
His mid-70s move to a less gentrified, much rougher, New York City shaped him. He learned about living there (“I remember just making eye contact with people on the street was ill advised”), sang in Grand Central Station, got started in Greenwich Village, and played CBGB’s, a country and bluegrass venue later known for punk and avant-garde acts (Ramones, Television, Blondie).
“I was playing anywhere and everywhere, (CBGB’s owner) Hilly Kristal’s sensibilities were country and bluegrass and he hired me. I said yes to opening shows for Talking Heads or John Cale. It was honing the skills because it was a challenge to get up there with an acoustic guitar. A lot of people in that audience would take one look at you walking onstage and think you were possibly crazy. So you had to prove something, hold your own for thirty minutes.”
He says being an outsider there was the norm and has been working to turn those experiences into a memoir due later this year.
“It was a good time, and sure, it was seedier. There were places beyond Second Avenue you just didn’t go. Now those places are rented to young professionals. We would go down to Houston Street late at night to Katz’s Deli and it was cold and lonesome down there. Some of that’s in the book, trying to capture some of those wide-eyed old times.”
Additional Q and A with Steve Forbert
This tour, this show in ILM, what are doing for it – acoustic, full band?
I’m coming with one person playing some acoustic guitar and mandolin, a duo.
Was the Compromised album a full-circle experience for you, reconnecting with John Simon?
We tried to get together on the previous record. It was just too short notice for him. But it was good, a lot of fun to get together with him to go over the songs. Yeah it was a re-connection. It went well. He was brought into an existing situation because I was planning to make the record with the band I was doing shows with at that time.
Moving to New York City from the Midwest, does that experience make you feel like an explorer and outsider? What about it allows you to “fit in” – that you’re solely an artist?
I wish I could mail you a copy of this book I’ve just about finished – Big City Cat that’s coming out in a couple of months. I came up there from Meridian, Mississippi and I felt like an outsider of course in that sense. There was a lot I had to learn about the big city. I had to get down some of those mores if you will.
As far as working and doing a lot of auditioning and getting started in Greenwich Village, being an outsider was kind of the norm. There was a lot of kids there from other parts of the country, but even the kids that came in, dare I say, from New Jersey, non-city slickers, yeah, of course you know how things go. It’s more gentrified now too, not as charming but it was rougher.
I’m not a kid out on the street anymore scuffling and doing hoot nights and stuff and carrying my guitar around, but I think it was more exciting back then, it was just more organic. We’ve reached a point of time in New York City, punk rock and all that has morphed into rock history now. They’ve even made a movie about CBGB’s. I’ve heard it’s pretty bad.
It was a good time, and sure, it was seedier, there were places there beyond Second Avenue and you just didn’t even go. Now those places are rented to young professionals. We would go down to Houston Street late at night to a place called Katz’s Deli and it was cold and lonesome down there at night. Now it’s thriving and full of young people walking about. Some of that’s in the book, trying to capture some of those wide-eyed old times.
It’s taken three years to finish, some of the time has been eaten up getting clearances for lyrics form other songwriters songs I quote. But I felt a lot of these quotes were necessary to make the book different. So it’s taken a while, I hope that’s a good thing.
Was most of the first record written while living in the city?
About half and half when you look at that first record. I guess there were there of four things from Mississippi and then there were the things that were obviously about the experience of that year and a half, living the album, things like singing about singing in Grand Central Station, one called “Tonight I Feel so Far Away from Home” obviously taking place there. So it came together, and was what you’d say is autobiographical of a record.
For that one song about Grand Central I was just inspired and I wrote an account of the experience when I got back to my apartment. Then it rhymed for some reason and became a song. There’s a lot of journal entries in the (memoir) that didn’t become songs. Some of them pretty funny I hope. But yeah, that’s what happened, it just turned into an actual song.
I worked with Ben, yeah. My manager at that time suggested it going into maker this record, at the time it was 2012. (He suggested) that a cello would be good and at the time Ben was up and coming, he had just left a band. I met him in the studio in Silver Lake, California. The funny thing was we had an excellent drummer, Michael Jerome, we had Ben and we had a keyboard player and that was it. David Lindley was going to play on the record but he got really ill at that time. Ben was excellent, I did some touring with him and his friend Jordan and they made an excellent rhythm section.
We didn’t have a bass player and the engineer of the studio played some bass. But he was busy recording the record. We got really lucky because Ben Sollee happens to be a very good bass player. So we made that record in three days. It was a bit of pressure, limited time in the studio. But we would have been in trouble if Ben wasn’t such a good bass player too.