A Traveller of His Own Road
May 18, 2017
It takes a special sort of young man to move from Meridian, Mississippi to New York City with little to his name beyond the guitar and harmonica that he knows will knock 'em dead.
But that's the sort of young man Steve Forbert was in 1976.
"I was very driven," he said in a phone interview, "and I had the self-confidence it took to try anything."
The attitude of Forbert's Mississippi family toward his ambitions might be described as nonresistant.
"I didn't get a lot of discouragement," he said. "Naturally, they would have wanted me to go to college. But I think they saw I was going to have to try this, come hell or high water."
Forbert performs May 20 at the B-Side at One Lucky Guitar.
After moving to Manhattan, Forbert lived in a series of hole-in-the-wall apartments in dangerous neighborhoods and worked as a courier by day. At night, he busked and performed in clubs, including the late, lamented CBGB.
This was a period when punk was ascending in New York City and there was no better place to watch its rise than CBGB.
Because Forbert never played punk, contemporary writers tend to assume that he must have been bucking the trend back then.
In truth, all sorts of music was being played in all sorts of places in New York City in the late 1970s.
"Absolutely," he said. "That's why it was so much fun."
Forbert's first album, Alive on Arrival, was not a commercial success, but it was an enormous critical one.
He said he had some pangs just before the record was released because it sounded like nothing on the radio at that time.
"It wasn't a chart album, but it got me off to such a good start," he said. "But I listened to what else was out there, and I thought, 'Wait a second. The record's coming out in a month and we don't have anything disco and we don't have anything straight, English rock.' I kind of thought it was entirely possible that it wouldn't find any type of audience."
Forbert was called "the new Dylan." Of course, every serious songwriter was called "the new Dylan" in those days.
Critics stopped using "the new Dylan" when most young listeners stopped being able to identity the old Dylan.
Forbert's second album, Jackrabbit Slim, yielded his only hit, "Romeo's Tune."
It reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and ranked 60th overall at the end of 1980.
Forbert said he had no idea that Jackrabbit Slim would be his breakthrough release.
"I don't think I have ever had a moment where I said, 'This is it. This is going to work,'" Forbert said. "I still haven't had such a moment."
One of the things that considerably slowed down Forbert's career in the 1980s was a long dispute with his record company, a dispute that he said he will address in depth in his forthcoming memoir, Big City Cat.
Whatever the reason, Forbert missed a window of opportunity (or a window of serendipity) that might have given him a career like Tom Petty's.
Instead, he has cranked out consistently excellent (if commercially underwhelming) albums, he has toured incessantly and he has built up a passionate fan base.
He provides that fan base with rare tracks and recordings of live shows via his website.
Forbert said he still enjoys touring as much as he ever has.
"I am doing four dates in a row in the Midwest, and if you look at the schedule, it's as zigzaggy as it could possibly could be," he said. "I am not sure why that happens. I really look forward to it. I look forward to getting out there in the great American heartland. I love it out there."
Each show requires a rendition of "Romeo's Tune," of course, and Forbert admits that performing it has gotten a little "automatic."
"That's just the way it goes," he said. "I am sure that when Paul McCartney tears into "I Saw Her Standing There,' the crowd loves it, but it's a little automatic for him too."
But "Romeo's Tune" has aged well, Forbert said. The lyrics ("Oh, gods and years will rise and fall / There's always something more / It's lost in talk; I waste my time / It's all been said before") certainly don't sound at all strange coming out of the mouth of the sexagenarian.
"I still relate to it," he said. "I like it. I don't know what 'Year of the Cat' means to Al Stewart. It's a great record. I always love to hear it. But the girl and the patchouli? What does that mean to him now?"
Young musicians who are still working on their own songs about girls, patchouli and related topics sometimes approach Forbert after shows seeking advice.
"I never would discourage people much," he said. "Because I feel like if you've got to do it, then you've got to do it. So it's a moot point.
"And if you don't really have to do it and you're just putting on a kooky hat and pretending to be a banjo player," Forbert said, "Then you'll drop it in ten months and you'll move on to the rest of your life."
Asked what advice he'd give his younger self if he could go back in time, Forbert said the proposition presents him with a quandary.
"The thing is," he said, "innocence and naivet? are wonderful things. You can't have your cake and eat it too. I had to make some mistakes and all. But that's where the songs came from and that's been my life's work: writing songs. If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have written a song like 'What Kinda Guy?'"