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The Inspiring Steve Forbert Memoir, or Another Great Gift From Romeo: Big City Cat

September 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

Big City Cat Cover

Big City Cat Cover

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

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.

So his influence on me was something in his performance that I continued to search for a long while and eventually started to grasp one evening while busking in London in the fall of ’77, the following year, and feeling something about how to use the whole body and express through the body and voice the fire of the emotion burning inside the gut. (It would take me many, many more years, even so, to get to any point where I could be in any way satisfied with a feeling of how to reproduce that thing at will.) So it is that I know exactly what Forbert’s eventual manager, Danny Fields, was referring to when he describes in the book what got him interested in the young Forbert:

“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!”)

What a life!

A New Not-Book-Review: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, “Joueur d’échecs”

October 18, 2017
bradspurgeon

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

PARIS – Until I began playing chess as an adult nearly 20 years ago, there was no activity either sporting, musical or intellectual in my life that I would do unless I felt at least a tiny level of competence. Chess became almost an addiction – the part about playing on the Internet – but I could never fool myself into thinking I was anything other than a horrible, horrible chess player.

As it happens, my son, Paul, was a very, very good chess player from the age of 7 to 15, playing at the national level in France, both amongst children and adults. He suddenly quit chess completely not long after he turned 15, telling me that it would require more work than it was worth to stay at the top levels as he grew older. That made sense. In any case, he quit, while I continued to play as a hack. But I also continued to watch the players of his age group whom he had known or played against as they rose up the categories. One who I had first become aware of when he was about 8 years old, and who was only 6 months older than Paul, was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He was already one of the top young players at that time in France, and he continued to rise steadily up the ratings list and through the hierarchy of national, European and world championships.

Lately, this player has reached as high as No. 2 in the world, and currently sits third in the international ratings list. A couple of weeks ago, in France and in French, he published a book about his life in chess (Joueur d’echecs, Fayard) – at age 27 – and I now learn that while I never doubted that this young player would rise up to challenge for the world title, apparently there were a few times in his career when he had his doubts. His rise up the international standings was not quite as fast as some of his contemporaries – like the current world no. 1, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, or even Sergey Karjakin, of Russia – but if you watched his career as closely as I have, or even just look at his career ratings chart on the site of the FIDE, you see a trajectory that goes up, up, up, steadily.

But despite having seen Vachier-Lagrave play in many tournaments, having exchanged a few words with him and his parents, and having observed him at the chess club that he and my son were both members of a little more than a decade ago, I never felt I had any understanding at all about who this kid was, this boy who was so clearly made for chess in a way that my son Paul, despite his natural talent, was not. So when I learned that this new book about his life had come out, I immediately downloaded it into my Kindle. And I was NOT disappointed.

Part of the reason I am so bad at chess is my simple lack of attention span when it comes to reading any book about how to play chess. But Vachier-Lagrave’s book has NO writing about how to move the pieces or what an opening, middle game or endgame is. This book is all about what it means to be a professional chess player today, and how he got there. One of his main stated goals is to show that while the game of chess may be extremely complicated in the eyes of most people, and the top level players may be associated with the kind of madness we find in books like “The Defense,” by Vladimir Nabokov, or Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story,” or in famous players like Bobby Fischer, who went slightly off the rails mentally, Vachier-Lagrave sets out to show just how normal a young man he is.

“At the risk of deceiving some people, chess players are not robots, not computers with legs, and not mad scientists,” he writes (here in my translation from the French). “Worse, or rather, better: We are just normal people! With our qualities and our faults, our certainties and our quandaries, some strong points and many weak points. Normal people who are in possession of an abnormal talent – in the first sense of the word, that is, outside the norm – in a specific area, which is the practice of chess.”

He puts chess into a completely different perspective than that of the popular imagination, and for that this is a book that can be of interest to the general reader, although I feel it will mostly be read by an audience of chess players and fans who know who he is. As it turns out, he describes himself almost perfectly whenever he talks about how he may appear from the outside, to others; somewhat diffident appearing, not overly emotional on the outside, but enjoying to let himself go occasionally, including with friends at a bar.

What I realize most through the reading of this book is that like it or not, fair or not, there IS a difference between the extremely talented and those who are not so talented. While Vachier-Lagrave talks about all the hard work he has had to do in his life to achieve the success he has at the moment, he especially emphasises how impossible it is for him to sit eight hours a day, every day, to just study chess. When he does play, he is like a child having fun kicking a soccer ball. It is not work, it is passion. But he never takes it too far, because it is ultimately, also, his profession. In fact, he can go a few days without playing at all, between tournaments. To empty his mind and return with passion again.

But here, no doubt, lies the key to it all – and in contrast to my son’s relationship with chess: First, Vachier-Lagrave says he could never do without chess, that it keeps returning to hims; second, his natural talent is clearly of a massively high level, and his pleasure is rewarded with satisfaction if he works at it so he does not have to work more than he might want to.

But I also found, as I read this book – which, by the way, is extremely intelligently written, and shows a decent cultivation, which is not surprising for a chess player who also took a university degree in math – that the similarities between success in a chess career and success in, say, a racing car driver’s career, are many. I thought often of the memoir, “Aussie Grit,” of Mark Webber, the Formula One driver, as I read this book, because Webber emphasises over and over again the need to go to the absolute limit in order to reach the highest level. Many drivers have talent, but only those who make all the right moves and never give up, arrive at the pinnacle.

There are many talented chess players in the world, but despite Vachier-Lagrave trying to look “normal,” what sets him apart is his exceptional ability to roll with the punches, believe in himself, and to continue that steady rise up the ladder in pursuit of the dream of his childhood to be world champion. This is no doubt due to his exceptional lucidity about how to deal with life’s potential obstacles.

“The pages of the history books are full of these great young hopes who remained great young hopes and never managed to “make it,”” he writes. “Everything is a question of talent, work and desire, but not even those things are enough sometimes. Bad luck and the unpredictable circumstances of life can destroy progress forever, and put to an end a career that looked brilliant before it even started.”

A New Not-Book-Review: Mike Nesmith’s Autobiographical Riff, “Infinite Tuesday”

July 24, 2017
bradspurgeon

Infinite Tuesday

Infinite Tuesday

PARIS – You can’t run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, said Ernest Hemingway, referring to what he thought of book reviewers who were also fiction writers. That is why on this blog a few years ago I came up with my concept of the Not Review, which I have done periodically in the form of Not Reviews of music in my “Morning Exercise Music” listenings, in Not Reviews of films, and Not Reviews of books. The idea is I’m not criticizing, or placing myself in a high position of cultural authority, but simply reflecting on books, music or films that I have seen recently, and what they made me think, what they say, how I feel, and what you might want to know about them to see if you want to listen, read or see them. Today, I have put up my latest Not Book Review, this time of the autobiography of Mike Nesmith, the former Monkee, which is called, “Infinite Tuesday.” He also refers to it as an “autobiographical riff.” Check it out on the link above! His is a fascinating story that goes way beyond The Monkees – like, how about to creating one of the first music videos, helping to create MTV, and then there is his mother the inventor of Liquid Paper….

A Not-Book-Review: Wayne Standley’s Novella, “The Man Who Looked Like Me”

April 29, 2014
bradspurgeon

Wayne Standley

Wayne Standley

For my second “Not-Book-Review” I did not premeditate that I would write about the book that a friend gave me a few months ago and that I only got around to reading now. I did not imagine that it would be so much fun, so light, so captivating and so genuine. But when I discovered all that, I decided that I HAD to write about it on this blog – especially because I’ve mentioned its author so often here in the past as a musician: Wayne Standley. The book he wrote is called “The Man Who Looked Like Me.” So check out my “Not-Book-Review” of Wayne’s book. Then see if you can find a copy for yourself to read!!!!

As a reminder: This “Not-Book-Review” is a type of article specific to this blog that the first one of which was my talk about the book of another musician, Neil Young – and his “Waging Heavy Peace”. The idea behind the column is that because it is a blog, and because I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about writers not criticizing other writers in print as reviewers – “You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds,” he said – but because I love to read good books and talk about them, the idea is that I am not going to place myself on a critical pedestal and dictate what is righteous or not about a book I read. I am not going to recommend it as a piece of literature or a consumer product. I am not going to fulfill the role of the book reviewer whatsoever. This blog is my space, Brad’s world. So what I will do when I feel compelled, will be to write about books I am reading or have read or feel compelled to write about for any other reason – my “Not-Book-Review.” Something people can read, and should read, only as a reflection of how I felt about the book – not a recommendation that they should or should not read it.

So, again, here is my Not-Book-Review of “The Man Who Looked Like Me” by Wayne Standley.

A Not-Book-Review: Neil Young’s Memoir, “Waging Heavy Peace”

December 3, 2012
bradspurgeon

neil young book

neil young book

I have decided to create a new feature type of article on this blog. Because this is a blog, and because I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about writers not criticizing other writers in print as reviewers – “You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds,” he said – but because I love to read good books and talk about them, I have decided to start this occasional feature. The idea is that I am not going to place myself on a critical pedestal and dictate what is righteous or not about a book I read. I am not going to recommend it as a piece of literature or a consumer product. I am not going to fulfill the role of the book reviewer whatsoever. I’m not even certain I would have the talent, let alone the knowledge, training and authority. This is a blog. It is my space, Brad’s world. So what I will do when I feel compelled, will be to write about books I am reading or have read or feel compelled to write about for any other reason. This “Not-Book-Review,” as I will call the writing, will be something people can read, and should read, only as a reflection of how I felt about the book – not a recommendation that they should or should not read it.

The idea was inspired by the book I just finished, and that accompanied me from Austin, Texas to Sao Paulo to New York’s JFK airport and then back to Paris, all in the last week and a half. I rarely read any 500-page book that quickly. But I did it this time. And I can’t even say that I think this book is some kind of gripping masterpiece. But I really, thoroughly loved reading Neil Young’s autobiography, memoir, tale of his life past, present and maybe future.

Here is my Not-Book-Review of “Waging Heavy Peace” by Neil Young.

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