CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?
I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together. Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today
There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.
The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.
Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.
But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!
An incredible bit of synchronicity or something else has come about recently between the troupe of TAC Teatro and me. We are working on our first full-blown play, and in recent weeks there has been a sudden incorporation of a couple of bits of music that I had nothing to do with but that lie at the heart of my life-long musical loves.
As it turns out, both of the pieces were introduced by the same member of the company. But the skills and talents that we have in the company mean that the music can be performed to a degree that I never imagined likely. I mean, I knew we have great musicians in the company, but here I am talking about Irish music! And the company is made mostly of Italian and French actors and musicians.
So how amazing it was when over recent rehearsal days the troupe began playing and incorporating into the play the famous Irish piece of music dating back to the 1930s – and one of the most popular pieces of the last century – called “Cooley’s Reel.”
Anyway, I made a video of the musicians rehearsing the piece (and I added into the video some of the first exploratory acrobatic workout we did with the ladder that is also part of the show – check it out, above). It was only one of a handful of the first efforts to play the reel, so there are a few minor moments off the rails, but it sure sounds great to me already! Bizarrely, for me, I have found myself playing the bongo a little bit like a Bodhran, rather than me doing my usual musical instrument, the guitar. My Seagull guitar is here played by Pacôme Puech – I didn’t have the confidence to get the rhythm right on the guitar – and on flute is Marine Lefèvre, and on fiddle is Marina Meinero.
The other bit of music that I was stunned to find one of the actors – Marine – wanted to incorporate somehow in the show was “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” which I also first heard through Christy Moore’s version in Planxty. It is one of the few traditional Irish songs that I occasionally have the guts to try to do myself on stage, as to me if feels like a great Bob Dylan protest song, and I try to ignore that I’m not Irish and I can attack it like a Dylan cover.
It was written in 1965 by Mickey McConnell, who was only 18 years old at the time. He went on to have a career as a journalist at the Irish Times, before decided in his 40s to return to a career in music. Extraordinary. The poetry of the song is astounding, and even more so when you realize it was written by an 18-year-old. I love that line, “are you gone like the snows of last winter?”
So that’s the update from my adventures at TAC Teatro. In the meantime, I hope the snows of winter go fast and I’ll be able to post some great thing about the completed show in April! In the meantime, we will be inviting the public to check out our progress in our “second stage” open-door event on 29 February, as the poster at the top of this post explains….
Why have I done so few posts on this blog in recent months? Let’s call it a TACtic. I have mentioned TAC Teatro a few times on this blog in the past three years, and especially my activities with TAC. But as of this summer, I have been devoting a lot more time to TAC, and am now a full member of the troupe. This is part of a decision to transform all my open mic experiences into something different, and, hopefully, bigger.
When I say bigger, I mean above all in terms of range of use of the body, voice, performance. I continue to play guitar and write every day – in fact, I am working on a very big writing project that I will finish at the end of the year – but I got to the point with the open mics that it felt as if I was repeating myself. Since stopping my travel to the Formula One races at the end of 2016, I had pretty much only Paris as my stage. And as big and beautiful and great is that stage, playing the same open mics with the same songs for the same spectators began to wear on me.
But my love of performing and my need to create are as strong as ever and always. Now, invited by Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro, to involve myself even more than before – that is to say, with at least three meetings with the newly formed Paris troupe per week — I have found what feels like the answer to the stagnation at the open mics.
Of course, I am also continuing several other projects, such as the completing of my open mic documentary and the completing of my open mic memoir. But as far as performing goes, the idea is to build as much as possible on the physical theater of TAC Teatro. This is a kind of theater that appeals to me as it involves voice, music, physical action, acrobatics, puppetry, juggling, unicycling, text and just about every other thing you can imagine all wrapped into one.
Among its great proponents are groups like Odin Teatret of Denmark – I am also finishing the editing of a video interview with the founder of that theater, Eugenio Barba, that I conducted along with Ornella – and even the Théâtre du Soleil of Paris, and many others. TAC Teatro has existed for many years in Italy, and Ornella started up the Paris part two years ago. This year is the biggest step so far, with the recent gathering of several new performers – and you could say I am part of that wave.
In the first week of September five of us, under Ornella’s direction, put together a performance on the theme of borders, or “Frontières” that we performed on an outdoor stage at the city hall of Asnières-sur-Seine, where the French TAC is legally based in France. I am putting up on this blog page two videos connected to that event, one of which is a short video of the performance that Luca Papini, an Italian filmmaker in Paris, made.
The other video is of my own specific contribution to the writing of the performance, that did not make it into Luca’s film. All the performers created the first seeds of their own scenes, which we all then worked on together under Ornella’s directing, and so I was pleased to learn that Ornella had found in the filmed bits of our rehearsals and moments of creation, that there was a good, complete filming of my scene. (The exercise of filming the rehearsals was in order for the performers to have a more objective view of their work.) Ornella just finished preparing that segment as a video, which I post above.
TAC Rehearsal with music
We all used our personal preoccupations of the moment to create these seeds of our scenes, which were all also somehow connected to the theme of borders. My own section, called “Le Passeport,” as you will see, has to do with my personal battle with the concept of Brexit, which is affecting me to the point of madness as I wonder at how long I will be considered a legal citizen in France, as opposed to an illegal alien…. And I emphasize that word ALIEN.
So to sum up, again, my lack of presence on the blog in recent months has had nothing to do with an end to my creative projects, but rather, a reduction in the approach of the past – focusing almost entirely on open mics – and the beginning of a new approach, combining all of my interests, including playing music. I hope now I can shake myself out of the lack of contributions to the blog and back into a cycle of regular updates, but on a bigger theme!
PARIS – Performing in front of the Pompidou Center last Sunday afternoon, I had my first taste of dancing in a choreography. I feel often like the world’s worst dancer, and although music is at the center of my life, I hate dancing. I love to watch fine dancers, I just feel that I cannot do it. But the choreography on Sunday was in the form mostly of a kind of boxing movement, and we were in a big enough group that I felt I could fade into the mass and not be seen! So why did I do such a thing in front of the famous Pompidou Center – and in front of several cameras filming it?
Simple: I, like the other 14 or 15 people who took part in the performance – called “La 27ème heure” – was invited by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, with which I have performed occasionally over the last couple of years. Most importantly: The event was designed to fight violence against women. Another detail for why I participated was that in addition to the dance, I was told I could sing a song and play my guitar. So that gave me the inspiration to try the rest….
And so commenced several weeks of artistic creation for the Pompidou performance. Very early on the street action transformed from the kind of spectator participation event that TAC usually does into a performance in which the spectators were just that – invited to enter mentally into the performance, if not physically or vocally – and based on a choreography directed by Philippe Ducou, of ARTA. Ornella and the other artists proposed texts related to women’s rights.
In addition to her experience in performing street actions for women’s rights at TAC Teatro, Ornella also has frequently staged the “Vagina Monologues” of the author Eve Ensler, in Italy, in Italian. So several of the spoken texts came from excerpts of the “Vagina Monologues,” and were performed in several languages – French, English, Romanian, Vietnamese.
Ornella gave the event the name “La 27ème heure,” or “The 27th hour,” after an Italian study that showed that women have days that consisted of 26 hours – to take care of their jobs, their homes, their children, their husbands, etc. – where men need only 24 hours. The 27th hour is the hour that the women should have to be free and do as they please, to escape from their burden however they wish.
PARIS – Eric Dufaure is something of a maverick: He was the boss of EMI music publishing in France at the turn of the current century; he was a top director of the Sacem music rights organisation in France; he founded a record label (Cachalot Records); he has produced albums by some of France’s top recording artists, including Lio and Bernard Lavilliers, among many others. He was raised in a bicultural family, with an Irish-American mother, and his education was about the same eclectic mix: Science Po and a history degree in France, along with an MBA from Harvard Business School. If that isn’t enough, he is also a musician himself, playing primarily keyboards, guitar and singing, and directing a band called Private Pepper.
Until last November, I had only vaguely heard about Dufaure thanks to his Private Pepper band’s musical bashes at the Paris food, music and dance hall called, Le Reservoir. Then I attended one as a spectator, then last Tuesday, I ended up performing onstage at one – and having the time of my life playing Bob Dylan’s “Lay lady lay,” as each event marks the 50th anniversary of a year’s pop and rock music, and now, of course, we are 50 years on from 1969, when the Dylan song came out on his “Nashville Skyline” album.
Having now had experience on both sides of the proscenium arch at Eric’s musical evenings, I can write this post with a perfect knowledge of the fun and extraordinary organization that constitutes Eric’s series of concerts at Le Reservoir, all called “Back in…” and then whatever the year happens to be (i.e., Tuesday it was “Back in 1969.”). It is clear that his business background sets the tone for a perfect package of organisation for both the audience and the musicians: Each show presents a two-part string of the hits of the chosen year, played mostly with the backing of the Private Pepper band – which included on Tuesday a bassist, Nicolas Chelly, lead guitar player, Laurent Pradeau, drummer, Seb de Laleu and Eric on keyboards – with each special guest singing one of the hits from the period.
Here is a small compilation of some of the acts from Tuesday that I filmed with my new Huawei telephone, and which I think I will never use again unless I can improve the sound and image!:
But it is not ONLY the “house band” that puts on the show, as the band is often joined by special guest musicians, and sometimes the entire stage is full of all of the performers of the evening at once, or occasionally someone will take over keyboards or guitar or go solo. In any case, I felt incredibly honoured to be part of this, and saw that for the musicians, everything is also done behind the scenes to prepare the best possible outcome: A day of rehearsals precedes the event, and then a soundcheck the night of the event is followed by a meal at Le Reservoir before the show starts.
An impeccable organization, and a huge opportunity for so many of us who do not often perform on this kind of stage in what seems to be invariably a packed house of diners and drinkers and dancers for each show. To say nothing of the mix between Eric’s musician friends and major stars of the French pop music world. The whole is a deliciously slick production for the paying spectators – dinner is optional, but great – as well as for the performers.
Last Tuesday they included Lio, who has had several hits in her long career going back to 1979; and Laura Mayne, whose duet “Native,” also had hits, among her other many successes, including doing the singing voice of Pocahontas in the Walt Disney film. On Tuesday, Lio showed why she rose to the top of her show business profession when she fractured her ankle after the rehearsal on Monday, but showed up on crutches Tuesday night to perform in the show anyway. A real trooper, as they say.
For myself, finding there were none of the songs available that I sometimes do from 1969 – “Something” (done by Dom Hutton) and “Space Oddity,” (done by Emmanuel Tellier) – I decided to learn “Lay lady lady,” as I have always fooled around with what I imagined the chords of the song to be, without ever learning it. In the end, I was up as the third act of the night, and did it solo, with my Gibson J-200, the same model that Dylan holds on his album cover.
It was a fabulous feeling to play in front of this packed house of what felt like between 200 and 400 people, and I was thankful to be so early on the bill so that I could enjoy the rest of the night without pressure listening to all the other artists. Incidentally, I was not the only journalist-cum-musician playing there, as there was also the American journalist Mark Lee Hunter, and the aforementioned Emmanuel Tellier.
PARIS – I had some more really bad news for Paris open mics and jam sessions the other day when I learned that the fabulous Cave Café jam is no longer happening due, it seems, to another move by Paris police to enforce certain regulations. I don’t know exactly which regulations these are, but there have been several articles in the French press talking all about the endless closing down of live music joints in Paris due to the police enforcing sound regulations, safety regulations, and other regulations that are designed to destroy the musical culture and nightlife of an increasingly gentrifying city. It was so depressing to hear that one of my latest favourite places for a jam was no longer in action. I hope it starts up again soon. But immediately follow that news came an invitation for me to do an opening set for a young Paris rock band at a place that I know very well, but have not been to in years. And going last night to play, I was not just relieved, but absolutely ecstatic to find that this bar/venue, Le Truskel, is not just alive and kicking, but it is almost exactly the same as it was when I first played there 10 years ago!
Le Truskel is the place where Earle Holmes’s open mic moved to after it started at the Shebeen and then went briefly to the Lizard Lounge. So it was that in exactly this same period of time a decade ago I began playing every Monday night at the fabulous open mic Earle ran at the Truskel, until he basically quit the open mic business (except for a brief period when he got me to host a Sunday afternoon open mic at the Mecano Bar in Oberkampf, where he was working at the time).
There is a magic at the Truskel, with its fabulous stage space, DJ area, dance floor/audience space, horseshoe-shaped bar and now also for many years, the incredible labyrinthine basement room. That room, smokers will delight in, has now been fitted with the necessary apparatus to make it a smoking room. Last night I just loved that while the gig was going on upstairs, downstairs there was a group of 25 or so soccer fans watching a local match and going crazy with chants and whatever else they go crazy with, and nothing upstairs was being affected by this mayhem.
The bar has a big following of regulars, mostly people in their twenties, but it also has plenty of older regular clients, and a long, long tradition of nurturing young bands. The band that invited me to open for them last night was called Britches, and it is an international mix of performers, the lead singer of which – Nadeem Hakemi – is a Canadian from British Columbia, with Afghan heritage.
I felt very much at home onstage doing just an acoustic set with my Gibson an no accompaniment. It really, truly, felt as if time had stopped from the 10 intervening years and that I was there again on stage at another open mic run by Earle. Well, ok, it was not utterly bursting at the seams with all the regulars that had shown up week after week for those insane open mics, but the Truskel had not changed one single bit. And that is hugely great news for the Paris live music scene. Especially for the young up-and-coming groups like Britches.
In fact, Le Truskel is not just great for young up-and-coming bands: It has hosted such established acts as Pete Doherty, Baxter Dury, Metronomy and incarnations of bands of Johnny Borrell of Razorlight fame…. In fact, it was also a funny, fitting thing that Borrell and Razorlight are performing at the Bataclan tonight.
Back in 1969
By the way, it was also a great opportunity for me to have a chance to try out my “Lay, Lady Lay,” cover of the Dylan song for the first time in public in preparation for the fabulous gig I will take part in on 19 February at that other famous music venue in Paris, Le Reservoir. That is a show called “Back in 1969,” which will, as its name indicates, celebrate the music of 1969 – ie, 50 years ago – with a diverse collection of very interesting musicians, including the French/Portuguese star, Lio, and Laura Mayne, who was part of the duo called “Native.” There will also be my faithful sax player friend and sometime accompanist, Stephen Cat Saxo – so I’m hoping to feel as at home at Le Reservoir as I did last night at Le Truskel!
P.S. Oh, yes, of course, I had to do my Mad World cover! Thanks to Ornella for filming – and also starring in one of these videos…I wonder which one….
Our last two nights in Canada were spent checking out a couple of open mics I have never played in before. In fact, as far as playing in open mics in Ottawa, I had never done that at all. Both nights had their amazingly cool aspects, as ultimately, I finally found myself in a familiar environment after a week and a half of discoveries of the past, present, and maybe the future, in a country that I used to call home.
I guess I can still call it home thanks to my friends and family still living there, but just about everything else felt a little foreign to me after not visiting much of it for a decade. Yes, I had been going to Montreal yearly for the previous nearly 10 years, to cover the Formula One, but that excluded Toronto, and made Ottawa a big step away. Moreover, this visit was only my second in a Canadian winter since 1983, and that was something else again!
The Laff – or Château Lafayette – calls itself Canada’s oldest tavern, as it was founded in 1849. (It also calls itself Canada’s original Dive bar – which generally means a scummy kind of place, but now means it can also be slightly trendy.) Ornella happened to see that there was an open mic on Tuesday night, and that was our last night in Ottawa, and we were staying within walking distance of the place in the Byward Market, so there was no way possible to miss this one.
The open mic has been running for more than 12 years, and has a large cross-section of performers, a good sound system, and I am sure that if it had not been New Year’s Day, there would have been a lot more musicians and a bigger “musician” vibe. (In fact, I was told this was the case by the longtime organizer of the evening,
John Carroll.) I was just thankful that it even took place on New Year’s Day, since so much of the city was closed down. And, yes, it was around 20 below zero outside with lots of snow and ice on the roads. I was astounded there were as many musicians attending as there were, but then again, such weather is just natural for Ottawa.
And then on to Oakville and the Moonshine Café
commandments of the jam at the moonshine
Our final night in Canada we went to visit my old friend, Mark Parr, who had been telling me about this great open mic he has been attending for as long as the Laff open mic has existed in Ottawa. Located in his current hometown of Oakville, which is about 40 minutes’ drive from Toronto, the Moonshine Café is the region’s biggest attraction as a music bar. Toronto itself may be full of bars and music venues, but certainly in the suburban areas, and the region immediately surrounding Oakville – and, as the denizens of the Moonshine say – there is no bar that devotes itself to music the way this one does.
Music every night, basically, it has an open mic, jam sessions, band nights, stars, beginners, everything you can imagine. And the vibe you get from the decor and the piped in music when the stage is empty – mostly they play recordings of people who have played there – shows that the Moonshine really is a musicians’ paradise as far as bars go.
In fact, it is a community as well, and the artifacts and posters on the wall – of musicians (Bob Dylan), house rules, definitions of the jam, photos of past evenings – all attest to and set the vibe of a warm, cosy, home for musicians and spectators alike.
house rules at the moonshine
The jam this night was – as you will see and hear in my videos – pretty distinctively that of a bunch of local musicians who have played together frequently. (But I am told that they also regularly come from all around the region.) And much to my delight, they were able to fit in really easily with even my own songs that they had never heard before. My friend Mark – who plays the recorder and penny whistles – goaded me on to doing my own stuff when I started out playing a cover song everyone knew. So I tried, “It’s Easy,” and then “Borderline,” and later I jumped into doing some covers I don’t usually try – such as “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum – again due to Mark’s pushing me onwards. I’d like to have that kind of goading at every jam like open mic, as I usually tend to fall into what I see as the three-chord-safety zone of well-known covers.
mark parr and brad spurgeon in action at puck’s circus in 1976
By the way, the highest point for me of this jam was that it was the first time in my life that I had found myself playing music with Mark. Who could have imagined that 42 years after we shared the same circus ring – as you will be able to see in the photo of the two of us during my juggling act at Puck’s Circus in Toronto – I was now playing music with him on another kind of stage…. Thanks Mark!!!!
Ornella and Brad performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine
ASNIERES-SUR-SEINE, France – It is now a week ago, so no longer considered news, but I wanted to get down as a matter of record, the fabulous day I spent performing with Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro at the Forum des Associations of Asnères-sur-Seine. Founded in Milan, Italy, TAC Teatro now also has a base in France, in Asnières. And last weekend was the annual associations forum of this city just outside of Paris. That meant it was time for the local associations to show off what they do, and try to get new adherents. We had the whole stage to ourselves in front of the mayor’s building – the Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall – and had great fun performing a little show as Ornella introduced TAC to the people of Asnières.
I was pleased to find myself on stage for the first time with the newly face-lifted Peter McCabe, my ventriloquist’s – well…o.k., sorry, Peter, I’ll just say, happy to be on stage with Peter after his recent facelift. Only problem was the facelift seems to have gone to Peter’s ego, and he announced to the people of Asnières that he was going to be the next president of the United States of America – saying that he could do a lot better than the current office holder.
We put together a short video of some highlights of our time on the stage, which I paste in here; and we were very proud to find a few days later – and this makes some sense of having not written about this before now – to find that we were picked up in the official city video of the event, very much near the place of honor, in the last 10 or so seconds of the video, at approximately the 2 minute 20 second point of the video. I am pasting that one in here too.
In any case, it was a fabulous day, and thank goodness the weather was great – as it has been all summer, but after the worst winter in recent memory in Paris (and Asnières). I hope Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro are selected to do this again (as not all of the associations were selected to show off their expertise).
PARIS – I am so relieved to have just finished reading Steve Forbert’s memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock.” I am a very slow reader, and I had been glued to it during every off-moment of the past three or four days since I downloaded it into my Kindle – wreaking havoc on the rest of my life. I had been waiting patiently for the book’s release date and the moment that came, I downloaded it and dug in. Were it not for other commitments I would have finished it in a single reading, if possible. As it was, I was forced to put down the Elvis Costello autobiography to read Forbert’s, but I couldn’t kill all of my commitments – work, family and social. So it took a few days. Why all the excitement?
Let me use the Costello book, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” as a point of departure. Forbert and Costello were born only four months apart in 1954, with Costello being the older of the two. I was born almost exactly three years after Forbert. They were born on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, and both became famous at almost the same time – Costello’s first album, “My Aim is True” was released in July ’77, while Forbert’s first album, “Alive on Arrival” came out in June ’78. I was living off my busking in London’s Marble Arch subways at the time Costello’s album appeared, and I was renting a bed in a crappy hotel in Notting Hill Gate. I remember seeing the posters all over the place for Costello’s album, with the photos of the nerd with the horn-rimmed glasses, and I remember thinking, “Who is this clown?” In time (years, really), Costello would become one of my favorite singer songwriters, and remains so today.
Forbert, for me, was a completely different story. He was one of my early musical influences. But not from his album, it was from having attended open mic nights at Folk City in New York City in 1976 when he was starting out, and I met him there, and talked to him about himself a little as we stood in line outside in the cold, waiting to sign our names to the list for the night’s open mic. He uses the older term “hootenanny,” and writes extensively about this period in his life. It fills in a background for me not only of his life, but of the life I took part in at the time but only briefly, and only barely, and especially of all that I missed by not staying in NYC long enough before returning to Toronto.
Alive on Arrival
At the time, I was very interested in talking to him because, for me at 18, seeing this 21-year-old take to the stage and spread some kind of magic around the room, filling the place with a presence and a sound that I could not identify, I wondered what the hell was going on here? What was happening that the room changed when “Little Stevie Orbit” took to the stage? What orbit did he come in from? I was confused, particularly since I knew that my own efforts on stage as a musician at the time were so poor, and so many of the other musicians taking part in the “hoot” sounded simply human – not from another galaxy or time warp.
“I … loved the intensity of performance — I would say that most of all,” Fields is quoted saying. “I don’t remember words, just remembered he played, he sang and he played and he stomped with his boots, so he was like a one-man band and I liked that.”
That’s a bit of a crude and simple description of the thing Forbert gave off – in addition to the rich, unique rasp of his young voice – but it does indicate it was this “thing” that was being communicated and reaching everyone that listened and saw him perform. There was a genuineness that came through it all, too. And in reading this autobiography, I realize where the genuineness came from: Forbert, who reached international fame in the pop charts in 1979 with “Romeo’s Tune,” is about as genuine as they come. This book is genuine. Unlike so many efforts at propaganda that show business personalities release as memoirs or autobiography, “Big City Cat,” gives several sides of the story.
There is the beautifully told, laid back, easy voice of Forbert – his Mississippi voice comes through – telling the main narrative (in which he frequently talks about his own failings as well as his strong points and successes). But the book also gives space for several of the other people involved in his career, including the aforementioned Fields, who are given what appears to be freedom to talk about the bad side of Forbert as well as the good. (At one point Forbert just fired his whole entourage, without much explanation, including Fields – and it was for good. Oh, and he goes on doing the same with his managers for decades.)
Forbert as “the new Bob Dylan”?
And so, yes, it turns out, the “bad side” is mostly, possibly, bad for Forbert himself, who does not hide that he probably made some mistakes in his career choices that led to his career peaking in the late-70s, early ’80s before he completely disappeared from the pop firmament and never had another hit like Romeo’s Tune. He was one of a long line of singer songwriters who were cursed with the epithet, “the new Bob Dylan.”
“I say to this day that, deep down, Steve Forbert wanted to be the new Bob Dylan and/or the new Elvis Presley,” writes Fields. “And, the cataclysm, you know, was when he woke up and he was not either the new Bob Dylan or the new Elvis Presley. It became apparent after the third album—he was not the new Bob Dylan—and he lashed out.”
But here’s the beauty of the book, in Forbert’s immediate response in the main narrative:
“Any career disappointments I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the “new Bob Dylan.” I never put any credence in that,” Forbert writes. “I knew enough to know that that tag put me in some pretty good company, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, and Loudon Wainwright being three. I’m sure they would agree that what it basically conjured was a talent for poetic storytelling. As far as whatever literal expectations it might set up, it was nothing to be taken seriously. No one new was ever going to be able to bring about the radical changes the real Bob Dylan had brought to songwriting.”
“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.”
This reminds me exactly – paradoxically – of the quote in Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” where after the producer Daniel Lanois beseeches Dylan to write some new songs like the epic greats he wrote in the 1960s, Dylan responds that he would love to, but that he can no longer do that – that that was another time, place and Dylan. (I am paraphrasing without returning to read the original quote.)
But true to his genuineness, Steve Forbert has continued writing songs, playing music, loving music, being obsessed by music, to this day. And making albums. And touring endlessly, including around Europe and elsewhere. (I saw Forbert solo in a small town in England in 2013.) Here is, finally, a man who – after semi-serious alcohol problems in addition to the career problems – appears to be ultimately at peace with himself and his career.
“By the time “Romeo’s Tune” was a hit I had already surpassed my personal level of comfort with, oddly enough, the very goals I’d set out to achieve,” he writes near the end of the book. “If it’s clear that I am not the type of personality that would ever be at ease with a household name–level of fame, then I should be pretty comfortable these days.”
Beyond Romeo’s Tune: Or the Forbert behind it all
For me, Forbert’s voice, his talent, his “thing” from Folk City suddenly made sense to me in the middle of October 1978 when I had just returned from one of the most painful episodes of my life, living in Iran during the Revolution, and I was taking a black London taxi from the airport back to the apartment where I had been living while in London for most of the previous year. All of a sudden, over the cab radio I heard a song, I think it was “Goin’ Down to Laurel,” and I instantly recognized the voice and the feeling. It was that guy from Folk City from two years earlier.
All of my questions and confusion suddenly got answered and straightened out. He had simply been so fabulous and gifted that he was destined to be heard on the radio. It hit me with all the greater power because I was returning from the hell of the revolution in Teheran to the comfort of the West, and felt life opening up with endless possibilities. Forbert’s voice and performance seemed to fit right in with that sense of an optimistic future.
And as life’s strange synchronicities would have it, the apartment where I was heading was that of Paul Gambaccini, the American BBC radio DJ and pop music writer, which was where I had lived before heading for Iran. Paul was unaware that I was returning – but I still had my key – and so he came home that afternoon to find me sleeping on the couch in the living room. It was a slightly awkward situation for a moment, as he had come home with a couple of people he was going to interview; a guy named Bob Geldof and his girlfriend Paula Yates.
I had no idea who Geldof was – other than Paul telling me he was a singer in a band called the Boomtown Rats -, but when Geldof discovered I had just returned from the revolution in Iran, he was more interested in talking about that than doing the interview with Paul. His probing questions about the life of the people of Iran I would look at in future years as highly significant of his character: The man who eventually became famous and knighted for his charity concerts and philanthropy nearly a decade later to help people in need, was already interested in the needy people of Iran in 1978.
All of that might appear like going off topic, but I don’t think it is: Whatever you do in life, it will be influenced by the character guiding the whole enterprise. The true “you,” that you are, the one that makes the decisions every waking moment. And reading Forbert’s book, I feel I have finally understood what made up this massively talented “one-hit wonder,” who has, in fact, had a lot more to contribute to the musical world than just “Romeo’s Tune.”
And this draws us back around to the Costello book, which as reflected in its title, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” is a completely different read from a completely different character. Where Forbert’s could be read in a single rollercoaster read (or ride) the Costello book, like his music, is a vast tapestry of stories, memories and impressions in a language that is much more involved than in the Forbert book. I saw an interview with Costello recently on YouTube where he says that the book is meant to be read very slowly (which made me feel immediately better about myself and my slow – but relishing – reading of his book). So I felt no problem dropping it for the Forbert rollercoaster, and I will now pick it up again. Suffice it to say, there could not be a bigger difference in philosophy between the two books – as I think there is in the two lives, and the two musicians’ music….
By the way, in another strange twist of fate, in 1980 when I was back in Toronto and preparing to go to see Forbert in concert after the release of his third album, “Little Stevie Orbit,” I glanced into the window of the record store on the way to the concert and saw suddenly jumping out at me the name of the man who had written the liner notes to the album: Paul Gambaccini! How the hell did that happen?!?! Come to think of it, Paul might well have been the DJ who put the Forbert tune on the radio in London as I was in the cab on the way back.
I highly recommend anyone who does not know Forbert’s music to get listening immediately, and go out and get this book. It’s a great read about the whole pop music world of the last 50 years. Forbert was one of the rare musicians who appeared to be equally at home at Folk City – and other Greenwich Village folk clubs – AND at the rock mecca of CBGB’s, where he opened for the budding band known as Talking Heads and others, including John Cale. (And don’t miss him as the boyfriend in Cyndi Lauper’s video of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun!”)