Mississippi Burner

You cannot win if you do not play, and few play tougher than Steve Forbert

Steve Forbert's career as a rock musician could easily be read as a series of cautionary tales about fish and ponds. Big fish in little ponds. Little fish in big ponds. Fish lunging dumbly at the bait. Fish out of water. The simple filament of the rock-star narrative -- boy meets guitar, boy plays guitar, boy finds fame -- has been knotted and snarled by market forces and financial intrigues, not to mention personality flaws and plain old bad luck. Like many other artists, Forbert has survived, but with hooks in his mouth.

Raised on radio, Forbert spent his teenage years forming bands and playing his way around his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. "Fraternity houses, parties, teen centers, county fairs," he says. "I even wound up playing my own high school prom."

Though the band names changed -- Cottonrock, the Epics, the Invaders -- the game remained the same, and while the demanding performance schedule honed the rhythm guitar and singing of the fledgling frontman, it did little for Forbert's emerging songwriting talent. When a locally produced single rose to number two on area charts -- it was kept from the top spot only by the Rolling Stones's "Angie" -- Forbert began feeling stifled. "There's only so much you can do in Mississippi with original material," he explains. "I knew I had to go to New York, but to ask anyone else to go with me and starve for a while to play my songs seemed outrageous. I decided to go solo."

Only 21 when he arrived in New York, Forbert quickly found his place in the songwriter subculture. While some performers segregated themselves by genre, Forbert ranged over New York's club map, playing rock clubs and pop clubs and dance clubs. He even laid down roots at the trendy punk hangout CBGB, home to such acts as Blondie, Suicide, and John Cale.

But Forbert insists that the stylistic differences between the artists were secondary to the common songwriting ethic. "To me CBGB's was just another venue," he says. "The thing was to play everything you can and move as fast as possible. That was all I was concerned with. And besides, when you're exposed to so many styles, you can see where it all hits a midpoint. For instance, Talking Heads as a trio was very folky to me."

Less than two years after the move, Forbert signed to the Nemperor label and released his solo debut, Alive on Arrival. A powerful collection that sounded wise beyond its years, the album combined a few holdovers from Mississippi -- "Goin' Down To Laurel," "Steve Forbert's Midnight Toast" -- with new material. Ranging from the whimsical ("What Kinda Guy?") to the plaintive ("It Isn't Gonna Be That Way"), Arrival had the immediacy of a small-club performance, with sparse instrumentation underpinning Forbert's soulful-folkie vocals. The album earned widespread critical acclaim, and within a year Forbert was back in the studio for a followup. With his newfound cachet, he was able to enlist producer John Simon -- best-known for his work with the Band -- and the resulting album, Jackrabbit Slim, was a creature far different from the debut. Full of brassy arrangements and Memphis-style backing vocals, it showcased new colors on Forbert's musical palette. The approach paid off commercially -- "Romeo's Tune," a slight love song with an indelible hook -- rocketed up the charts, becoming one of the year's biggest hits and pulling the LP into the Top 20.

The sudden fame proved a mixed blessing. After "Romeo's Tune," Forbert found himself trapped in a breakneck cycle of recording and touring. And his career took on an eerie Dorian Gray-like aspect; though he looked younger with each passing album cover, his music was aging subtly. If Little Stevie Orbit (1980) and Steve Forbert (1982) had all the exuberance and sincerity of the first two albums, they also betrayed a certain brittleness, even cynicism. And it didn't take a genius to see that Forbert was chafing under the tight hold of the recording industry. He developed a penchant for lying to journalists, playing his Mississippi rube image to extremes. And when an upstart cable channel called MTV asked him to deliver a video for an especially catchy song ("Ya Ya," from Steve Forbert), he thumbed his nose at the new medium by handing over a tour-bus movie. At the time, these might have seemed like minor errors, the misdemeanors of inexperience and rashness. But to attentive fans, there were more alarming signs. As a result of diminishing album sales, Forbert left Nemperor, signing to parent label Columbia and entering the studio with flavor-of-the-month producer Neil Geraldo. The theory was this: Geraldo would right Forbert's career, helping him to deliver a commercially invincible album that would shoot Forbert to the top and keep him there for the balance of the Eighties. The Eighties had other ideas.

In fact, the collaboration with Geraldo proved disastrous from the start. Though dozens of songs were recorded, the tapes were rejected by Columbia. After long and costly delays, the masters were returned to the production team for re-recording, and then rejected again. Over a period of months that became a period of years, expenses mounted and patience dissipated, with Forbert finally asking to be released from his contract.

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