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

September 11, 2018

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!

Steve Forbert Revisited – From Gerde’s in Greenwich Village to Swindon, England

June 29, 2013

Steve Forbert today

Steve Forbert today
photograph by Alan MESSER []

OXFORD – It was September or October of 1976, and I was attending an open mic at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, about to take to the stage to sing something – I’m not sure what – when the MC woman announced the next number. A scruffy, thin, threadbare guy two or three years older than me took to the stage and greeted us in a raspy voice. He started strumming his guitar – I think it was a worn out Martin – and broke into a howling, haunting, high-pitched, emotional rendition of the Hank Williams classic, “I’m So Lonesome I could Cry.”

The room filled with his presence, and I felt a bolt of something overcome my senses and turn what was until then your average dreary open mic night – even if it was at the legendary open mic where Bob Dylan and all the other 60s icons got their start – into an electrifying experience that left me, for one, not just entertained but also mystified. What’s going? Who is this guy? What’s he doing to the room? Where did he get this voice? Can I find one of those somewhere? How does he do this? And why? What does it represent?

Those were the thoughts going through my teenage mind at this period in my life when although I would have loved to have “been a singer songwriter” I felt far, far from any such ambition. (I would later that night at Gerde’s give a terrible, shaky, non-rhythmic version of Raggle Taggle Gypsies or some other traditional Celtic song, and I don’t know what else – maybe a Bob Dylan, maybe one of my own songs.) So I had all these questions going through my head about who this guy was and what I was feeling in the room. He was clearly known to the MC, so he had been there a few times before – and perhaps even a lot.

I would see the guy, whose full name I learned was Steve Forbert, two or three more times, and on one of those occasions I found myself standing just ahead or just behind him in the line up outside Gerde’s where the musicians waited to sign the list before the open mic. It was cold, and I recall clearly the inner lining and stuffing of his jacket was bursting out at the seams.

I decided it was time to try to find some answers to those questions and I asked him how old he was and how long he had been playing in bars and open mics. He said he was 21 and had been doing it for a couple of years.

Of course, he was not from New York City. He was from Meridian, Mississippi, and his strong southern accent is apparent not only in his speech but in his singing. But I did not learn all that much more about him, and I left New York City myself with many questions about just what it was I had witnessed.

I would go through many travels and trials and spend a four-month period down and out in London busking in Marble Arch (where I would discover the beginnings of a voice), then rent a room with a well known American DJ in London, and spend a period in Iran during the revolution and then finally on my way back from the revolution in Iran, while taking a black cab from the airport to the home of my American DJ friend, I suddenly heard the voice in a song on the radio. It was now 1978 and I recognized the voice instantly and just waited for the DJ on that station to announce the guy’s name: Steve Forbert.

Forbert's Alive on Arrival cover

Forbert’s Alive on Arrival cover

He had just released his album “Alive on Arrival,” and this was a song from the album – although I cannot remember which one. Suddenly, however, I now had the answer to my questions of that night two years earlier: What I had witnessed in Gerde’s Folk City was quite simply a future giant of American pop music, who was about to go on a roll of about three years of success.

He was, in fact, greeted with the doubtful and unfortunate acclaim of being “the next Bob Dylan.” Like so many others. His song, “Romeo’s Tune,” hit No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1980.

Sometime in the early 1980s when I was living in Toronto, Forbert came to do a concert and I may or may not have attended the concert – no clear memories – but I do recall being thoroughly surprised to discover that the liner notes of his latest album were written by that DJ friend of mine – Paul Gambaccini – from London, who, it turned out, was a huge fan of Forbert’s. How strange the way people’s paths cross, I thought.

Over the years I have thought back many times to that period in New York City at the open mics, and my meeting with Forbert. I moved to France and for many years ceased to perform in public until I started again nearly five years ago, once again at the open mics, but now feeling much better about my reception as a performer. One of the songs I would try to perform would be that Hank Williams song as I tried to reach the same emotional and melodic heights not of Hank, but of Steve Forbert. Another song I would occasionally try was “Romeo’s Tune.”

In neither case would I ever feel satisfied to have achieved that level of what I recalled from Forbert’s performance, or his recordings on his records, which I later bought.

Living in France I never had a chance to see Forbert again, but I always vowed to go to one of his concerts in England, should I be here when he did a concert. So it was that this weekend I noticed that Forbert was doing a small tour of England that involved not only the famous Glastonbury Festival today, but yesterday, an appearance in Swindon.

Swindon is a 50 minute drive from Oxford, where I am staying during my reporting of the British Grand Prix in Siverstone. So I bought a ticket online for his show at the Swindon Arts Centre, and after my day of work yesterday, I drove off to encounter Forbert again – after 37 years!

It turned out to be a small theater, and as I entered the room to take my seat 10 minutes before the performance was to start, there was Steve already on the stage, tuning up and preparing his equipment. He was up there for the full 10 minutes, just waiting for the spectators to enter and preparing. Now 58 years old, wearing jeans, T-shirt and another open-collar shirt over that, in full possession of all his hair, I felt instantly as if no time had passed whatsoever. Later, during the show, he mentioned there were CDs for sale and asked people to kindly not hold the cover up to his face – in reference to the fact that his youthful face on the CDs would be a contrast to the one he has now. In fact, he looks in great condition, physically trim and fit, and as I said, I had the feeling from my seat in Row F, that I was seeing exactly the same “Little Stevie Orbit” as I saw at Gerde’s Folk City.

The concert was, again, for me in particular a very emotional one, and one in which I was constantly trying to figure out what had changed in his voice, his delivery, his persona, his music. Had anything changed? If not, why was Forbert a big star 30 years ago and today known mostly to aficionados and grey-haired people walking down memory lane?

My conclusion, after two 45-minute (or more) sets of Steve playing his guitar solo and with no electronic effects and entertaining us purely with his magic, rhythmic playing, his harmonic and his raspy voice, was that not much had changed at all, in fact. Unfortunately, before the concert, his assistant announced that Steve preferred that no one make a video or take photographs. So I had to set my Zoom Q3 HD aside and not grace my readers with material to make up their own minds about his performance today.

But what I did come away with was the thought that Steve had not changed that much, but that I now had a new and different interpretation of his voice and of my own encounter with him playing 37 years ago before he became a success. What I realized was that his extremely distinctive raspy and emotional voice is one that may sound different according to the circumstances – be it live or recorded, with a band or solo, in a large room or a small bar – but that behind it all is the same “center” of Steve Forbert’s poetic, musical world.

And that world is all about, guess what? Our passage through life. I bought his re-released first album last night to hear its 11 bonus tracks – and they are fabulous, some outtakes and some live stuff from the time, as well as demo stuff – and on one of the songs I noticed the lyric about time passing and him now being “23 year’s old,” as if he was much older and wiser now…. And there was a lot of talk of this kind of thing last night, too, and I realized that he had not changed – Steve Forbert the observer of life is still there, and still Alive well past Arrival. If he had not changed, then perhaps popular tastes change; but that means they’ll perhaps come around again….

Forbert’s patter with the audience was a blessing, a brilliant way to connect, and I admired how he warmed up both us and himself through the patter, the songs, and as he did, his voice warmed up, got stronger, warmer. He had a constant, excellent, drole rapport with the audience, asked for requests – I asked for the Hank Willams song, but did not get it – and he played many of the old hits, as well as more recent stuff, including stuff from his recent album from last year.

It was admirable to see how he carried these two sets without a band and without electronic looping or other cheating gadgets: Just his own musical world and the songs his fans love.

After the show he came out to sign CDs and speak to the spectators. This gave me the chance to present myself and tell him about meeting him at Gerde’s 37 years before.

“Those were great days, weren’t they?” he said.

They were, I said. And he said something upon my departure about how maybe he’d go through another 35 years and we’d meet again. During the show he had mentioned visiting his dad who was 90 years old. So I told him that his dad was 90, and my dad was 88, and so we’d both get there, wouldn’t we?

During the show, by the way, he said if you don’t have the recent re-editions of his albums then you don’t have the albums, because he has added so many bonus tracks. I can confirm that the Alive on Arrival is definitely worth buying. I’ve been listening to it in my rental car driving around England and I realized that while we were fed the slick, well-produced 10 tracks of the original, there was a treasure trove of more raw but perhaps more pure gold in the outtakes and live stuff….

A Steve Forbert Connection in Mid-Summer in the Highlander Open Mic in Paris

August 16, 2012

Way way back when, in a period I shy to talk about on this blog it was just so far and long away, I met a young performer named Steve Forbert, while we were both playing at Gerde’s Folk City open mic in New York City, in the Village. I could barely keep a beat, was little able to express emotion in the singing, and had not memorized my songs. But this guy Forbert was blowing everyone in the room away and filling it with his presence, just knocking us all out. I just couldn’t figure it out. Like, who is he? Why is he here? How does he do that?

I arrived one day in the long sign-up line up outside the door on East Third Street and stood right behind him. It was fall, and his coat was full of holes with the cotton insides hanging out. This was not a cultivated look, it was poverty. Anyway, I asked him how long he had been playing the open mics, etc., and he said a couple of years – he was 21 – and he said he was also busking in Grand Central Station….

I made no sense of him until a couple of years later when I was in a taxi in London, England I heard on the radio his distinctive voice again, and then heard the announcer say his name. He was the next Bob Dylan, it seemed, and he had this album out that was making everyone go crazy. Anyway, today Forbert is comparatively forgotten, but really alive and kicking and playing small venues all over the States and occasionally England.

Well last night at the Highlander, when a performer named Jake Weinsoff broke a string on the house guitar, I offered Thomas Brun, the MC, for Jake – and others – to use my guitar while Thomas put a new string on his guitar. Thomas accepted, Jake took my guitar, and then he announced he was going to play a song by Steve Forbert! First time I have heard anyone – aside from me – do a Forbert song at an open mic! And it was with my guitar. I spoke to Jake afterwards, and he told me that he too had met Forbert…. Cool!

More generally, what to report? It was smack in the middle of the month of August last night, and the only joint offering an open mic in Paris as far as I could see – on the public holiday of the 15 August – was the brave Highlander. On the other hand, you almost had to have been brave to go there. It was so packed with spectators and musicians! I arrived one hour earlier than last week, and like last week I signed up as the 17th musician on the list. And as the Highlander offers three songs per night come rain, shine or sickness, that means going one well past midnight.

Still, unlike the week before, I did manage to do my three songs by 1 AM this time. That, too, gave me the great possibility of watching all the other acts of the evening. And there were a lot, and some original – even off-the-wall – performances. Well, all right maybe just one off-the-wall performance. But lots of great stuff beside that.

Still, as I continue this long, long stretch in the Paris open mics while I have my holiday and take a break from my world travels, I maybe don’t have a hell of a lot of different stuff to say about this – for me – local hangout.

Romeo’s Tune and the Forbert Tale

December 24, 2010

I will probably regret this bit of Christmas Eve excess, but I will blame the Single Malt whisky of the Maison du Whisky that fortified me for present wrapping. Before I went off to wrap presents, I sat down to try to sing and record a song that goes way back to the late 1970s by a guy I first discovered in 1976 at Gerde’s Folk City in New York City.

It was September 1976, and I was in Greenwich Village after having conquered Toronto. [IE, I had moved from Ottawa back to Toronto and spent two weeks there and said, “Okay, New York is ready for me….] In Greenwich Village, naturally, it was necessary to go and play in the open mic of Gerde’s Folk City, where Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and so many others had played in the previous decade.

So I went week after week, playing my crap, and taking in the crap of others. Met this weird guy named David Peel, at the bar, and didn’t believe a word he said about him being good friends with John Lennon and recording a cool record called “The Pope Smokes Dope” – although I should have. But another thing I could not quite believe or understand that I was seeing was a guy just three years older than me named Steve Forbert going up on the stage in his torn coat with the cotton stuffing hanging out and his jeans and messed up hair. And hearing him sing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and other songs, and filling the whole room with this amazing spirit of something.

“What’s going on?” I wondered. There’s something weird here that I don’t understand, I thought.

It was only two years later when I was sitting in a London taxi cab driving from Heathrow back to the center of the city after returning from Iran and the revolution, when I suddenly heard the same voice singing a song from Forbert’s first album, “Alive on Arrival.” I instantly recognized the voice and said to myself, “Now I understand what that was all about.”

He was hailed – as were many at the time – as the next Bob Dylan. He never took that seriously. We had spoken briefly at the time at Gerde’s, I remember one night when we were standing in line outside and I told him I liked what he did and asked how long he had been doing it, and he said “about two years.” Now, I suppose it has been about 36 years, and Forbert is still at it. And today I decided to sit down and try to sing his most successful song, called, “Romeo’s Tune.” It was from an album in 1979, and while it was fairly commercial, it still speaks truthful shit.

My recording is take No. 23 for me today, just as I lose my voice. I had a real hard time deciding between take No. 12 and take No. 23, which was the last take. But I’ve decided on the latter. Certainly pure crap compared to the original. But the blog is synonymous with self-indulgence. So I’m putting it up below (it has also been a way to string out the time before the wrapping of the presents for Christmas) and it is the first time I ever even thought of trying to cover one of his songs (although I was inspired to try the Hank Williams thanks to him):

Steve Forbert’s Romeo’s Tune covered by Brad

P.S. Dammit, all right. I guess I have to admit that Forbert’s is 100 times better than my version. Here it is:

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