Thursday, September 18, 2008

Steve Forbert's Ode To A Shakespearian Legend

One of those songs from my childhood that echoed faintly in my memory during my mid 20s was an agreeable folk-rock ballad called ‘Romeo’s Tune’. Actually it didn’t echo sufficiently loud for me to even remember the name of the song, let alone the artist behind it. I recall seeing an episode of the Australian satirical comedy ‘Frontline’ (brilliant show) and the central character Mike Moore was driving along in his car and the song playing on his car radio suddenly increased the volume on that faint echo in my memory banks. It prompted me to think “I remember that song, now if only I could remember who did it”. My memory circa age 40 is now so decrepit that I can’t recall the process that led me to eventually discover that the song was indeed ‘Romeo’s Tune’, and from there I could determine from an old chart records book (well it was new back then) that the artist was Steve Forbert. I tracked down a good quality vinyl 45 copy of the track soon after, and back around 2002 I finally scored a copy of the song on CD via an import copy of the CD ‘The Best Of Steve Forbert. What Kinda Guy?’. The liner notes gave a bit of an insight into the song and the man behind it, and the story (with appropriate embellishments) goes a little something like this:

Steve Forbert was born and raised in Mississippi, learning the guitar from age eleven and going on to play in a number of semi-professional bands during his college years. He grew up on an eclectic diet of music, including Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed/Velvet Underground. At the age of 21 Forbert quit his job as a truck driver and hit the road to New York City in search of a dream (the only dream seeking road more frequently travelled is the one to L.A.). The dedicated singer/songwriter wasn’t afraid to do the hard yards, starting out singing for change at Grand Central Station, before slowly working his way up the pecking order at various Manhattan clubs, also playing legendary venues such as Folk City and the famed CBGB’s, displaying early on his diversity as an artist with an act that cohesively fused elements as potentially disparate as folk, rock, blues and country.

He eventually landed a recording contract with the CBS affiliate label Nemporer during 1978. His debut album ‘Alive On Arrival’ arrived on the charts during mid 1979 and proved to have sufficient life in it to climb to a very respectable #82 on the U.S. album chart, gaining an even better reception in Britain (#56). It featured finely crafted tracks such as ‘Goin’ Down To Laurel’ that captured a purity of story telling very much in the mould of a Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen. In fact many music critics were so impressed with his work, particularly his talents as a wordsmith, that Forbert was being hailed as a new age Dylan of sorts. Replete with wailing harmonica and occasional off-key vocals, Forbert’s sound also echoed more than a hint of America’s great folk troubadour. The track ‘What Kinda Guy?’ was later re-recorded by the daughter of another story telling singer Johnny Cash, with Roseanne Cash scoring a country hit with her gender switching version. In amongst the disco circus and punk mayhem of the late 70s, it was good to see finely crafted and heartfelt music still registering with record buyers - the age of the story telling singer/songwriter wasn’t completely passed.

The promise shown on his debut album was realised on Forbert’s sophomore effort ‘Jack Rabbit Slim’ (US#20/UK#54/OZ#22), released in late ‘79. It yielded Forbert’s best known song, the aforementioned up tempo folk-rock ballad ‘Romeo’s Tune’, which is rumoured to have been a dedication to the late Supremes’ singer Florence Ballard, though the subject of the song was a girl from Forbert’s home town of Meridian. It fell agonisingly short of the U.S. top 10 (#11) in early 1980, and followed suit here in Australia (#13), but strangely missed the British singles charts. The follow up single ‘Say Goodbye To Little Jo’ (US#85) didn’t fare so well in commercial terms. In some circles the album was criticised as being too much of a departure from the formula that worked so well on ‘Alive On Arrival’. Stylistic elements such as big brass sections and R&B rhythms, though unsettling to the folk-rock purists, reflected an artist willing to take a chance on what felt right, rather than sticking to safe ground. It’s worth noting that Forbert often took the same approach in his dealing with the media, not afraid to spin wise cracking tongue in cheek answers, in place of the bland, media savvy sound bites offered up by some of his contemporaries.

Forbert returned later in 1980 with his third album in the space of two years, though ‘Little Stevie Forbert’ (US#70/OZ#55) fell short of the sales its predecessor racked up, and didn’t produce any hit singles. One possible explanation may lie in the fact that some of those wise cracking tongue in cheek answers Forbert had served up previously to the media, came back to bite him when Time magazine ran a much publicised article exposing some of Forbert’s ‘tall tales’ - trust the media not to appreciate a good yarn. It was poor timing that took the focus off an album that reflected a maturing artist just hitting stride in his work.

Undeterred Steve Forbert released one more album through his Nemporer/CBS association, with 1982’s self titled set (US#159). But by the early 80s the age of the singer/songwriter was probably as far distant from its glory days of the mid 70s as possible, with the new MTV generation more attuned to an artist’s image than the substance of their music (thankfully that imbalance didn’t last). That whole MTV notion didn’t sit well with Forbert, the singer getting his label offside when he refused to participate in a big budget video for the song ‘Ya Ya’, which had been identified as potential hit single material. Instead a home movie of Steve and his band on a tour bus was offered up as the music video. It’s worth noting that, in a twist of irony, for many of that MTV generation Steve Forbert may be most familiar for his cameo appearance in the promotional video to, the then unknown, Cyndi Lauper’s song ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’. Forbert played the part of Lauper’s tuxedo wearing boyfriend.

Unhappy with the relationship with Nemporer, Forbert was granted a release and signed direct with Columbia (CBS), who previously had acted as distributor only. He began work on a new album with producer Neil Geraldo. Geraldo was guitarist/producer for Pat Benatar (not to mention her husband) and it was thought he might be able to offer the key to unlock Forbert’s commercial potential. It’s rumoured that Forbert recorded some of his best work during these sessions, but sadly Forbert and Geraldo couldn’t convince the suits at Columbia to accept what they were offering as an album package. The usual battle for control of the songs ensued, with Forbert eventually requesting, and being granted, a release from the ties that Columbia had over him.

Disillusioned with this string of events, Forbert promptly headed to Nashville during 1985 in an effort to reinvigorate his ailing career. He spent the next few years dedicated to his song writing muse and establishing a firm base of fans on the local live music scene. Forbert was then signed to the Geffen label and re-emerged with a new album ‘Streets Of This Town’ in 1988. The album was produced by Garry Tallent (famed for his role as bass player with Springsteen’s E-Street Band), and was well received by fans who had stuck with him since ‘Alive On Arrival’. He recorded one more album for Geffen with 1992’s ‘The American In Me’, produced by high profile country artist Pete Anderson, but again poor sales figures prompted another label to cut ties with Forbert. Soon after Columbia released a compilation of Forbert’s work from his old label Nemporer/CBS, titled ‘The Best Of Steve Forbert. What Kinda Guy?’ (the CD I bought).

In 1995 Steve Forbert released ‘Mission Of The Crossroad Palms’ on the Warner Bros. affiliated Giant/Cantador label, quickly followed by ‘Rocking Horse Head’ (1996). He then officially became an ‘indie’ artist with the release of the 1997 live set ‘Here’s Your Pizza’. His next two albums ‘Evergreen Boy’ (2000) and ‘Any Old Time’ (2002) reflected a more countrified side to Forbert’s work, in fact ‘Any Old Time’ was a tribute to country music legend Jimmie Rodgers. In between times Forbert kept his fan base satisfied with a number of live recordings and two compilations of rare and previously unreleased recorded material, ‘Young, Guitar Days’ (2001) and ‘More Young, Guitar Days’ (2002). 2004’s ‘Just Like There’s Nothin’ To It’ showed Forbert hadn’t forgotten how to write and record new material. His latest offerings are the live set ‘On Stage At World Café’ (2007) and the studio album ‘Strange Names And New Sensations’ (2007).

Forbert has maintained a strong and loyal fan base over the last thirty years, and has won the respect and admiration of many music critics and fans alike in appreciation of the dedication he has to the craft of singer/songwriter, of his ability to reflect and encapsulate our common dreams and experiences in his songs, and of his penchant for telling it how it is, or maybe how it should be.

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