Monday, January 21, 2019

Listenin' With A Young Man's Ear

“Any career disappointment I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the ‘New Bob Dylan’” Steve Forbert writes in his new book, BIG CITY CAT. “…In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of “Romeo’s Tune.” I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”

To the extent there’s blame to go around, Forbert confesses his part. He badly wanted success but was uncomfortable having attained it, and the same hard-headedness that allowed him to cut a path as a folksinger in New York’s punk-driven downtown of the 1970s played out in some bad decisions in the studio and in his personal life that eventually had professional repercussions.

Just as ALIVE ON ARRIVAL captured the energy of a wide-eyed Mississippi kid’s happy ambition to make it, BIG CITY CAT provides honest and at times funny perspective on that magical ascent, and then on a career once its trajectory had changed for good. Along the way Forbert conveys an underlying appreciation for music itself that has kept him going 40 years later.

The popular story Forbert fans (like me) knew until now was that he blew into New York from Mississippi with a denim jacket and acoustic guitar, but Forbert reveals that came only after years of trying to make it as a rocker down South. And New York was actually the second city he’d tried to establish himself, recounting a brief but futile trek to Atlanta with a bandmate.

Forbert was always absorbing a scene, listening and learning. “I began to see that one member with a discerning approach to material and some sort of original overall vision is worth at least three hot-shot guitar players,” he notes. Widening tastes lead him away from British-Invasion influences to Americana, he starts writing and playing more acoustic guitar, and departs for New York alone when he realizes his bandmates aren’t feeling it quite the way he is.

Forbert would render his struggle to make it in the city musically in ALIVE ON ARRIVAL, while the book provides the details including excerpts from a diary he kept then that are every bit as charming. He played anywhere he could, for anything he could earn, while holding down a day job as a messenger. He cracked the punk scene at CBGB’s on his personal appeal to owner Hilly Kristal, who fancied himself a country singer. Forbert soon picked up the same managers as the Ramones, who never got over the young singer beating them to a hit. A rave review of one of his performances in the New York Times – “Mr. Forbert is the kind of performer who makes you realize his worth the minute he begins to sing,” John Rockwell wrote – starts a label bidding war.

Forbert’s idealism could be his enemy. As a rookie recording artist, he brazenly overrules top-notch session sax player David Sanborn by keeping what Sanborn considered a goofed solo, and nearly sentences ALIVE ON ARRIVAL to death on arrival on an insistence that it not include reverb—only the opinion of Bonnie Raitt can convince him otherwise. He followed it up with the rockier JACKRABBIT SLIM (1979), containing his signature hit, “Romeo’s Tune” recorded with the same musicians he’d been touring with.

Forbert flubbed on “Romeo’s” momentum. He stunned management by refusing an offer of a ROLLING STONE magazine cover feature, and instead of giving fans more of what they wanted—there was more than enough material leftover from ALIVE and JACKRABBIT for a third record—opted for an abrupt sonic reinvention on LITTLE STEVIE ORBIT (1980). That record, led by the hard-drinking English producer Pete Solley, was a critical and commercial flop. And by the time he returned to ALIVE producer Steve Burgh for 1982’s STEVE FORBERT, his moment seemed to have escaped but his issues with the big time were only beginning. As an aside I’m one of the few people in America to have acquired that one, and I never had a problem with it (especially side A) or really with any of Forbert’s efforts.

Forbert attempts to restart with Columbia and engages Neil Girardo as a producer but the label rejects submitted tracks, and subsequently refuses to release him from his contract. Steve speculates that the freeze-out was personal in nature—he’d slept with the secretary of CBS boss Walter Yentikoff—and he’s in recording limbo for years but still writing and touring with crack bands, the Flying Squirrels and the Rough Squirrels. An encounter with a Steve Forbert fan--Springsteen’s bassist Garry Tallent—finally leads to a new contract with Geffen and STREETS OF THIS TOWN comeback, positioning Forbert somewhere in the Springsteen/Mellencamp arena, and a 1992 followup THE AMERICAN IN ME (1992), which leaned more toward Americana.

Back on the road as a solo performer Forbert has continued to release albums independently ever since, describing writing a new “manifesto” every couple of years. He describes raising a family—including twin sons who interestingly enough toured for a time in a death-metal outfit—in Nashville, a divorce, rehab for a drinking problem, a subsequent marriage to a Jersey girl, a budding photography hobby, and passing time between gigs listening to CDs in his car. “When you’re on top, the job—although stressful—is made as comfortable as possible for you, and it pays incredibly well,” he observes. “On less successful levels you do a lot of work all over the place but can soon wind up wondering if it’s all worth it.”

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