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.
Though Forbert downplays the incident today -- he will say only that "there were certain people who made communication more difficult than it could have been" A the repercussions of the Geraldo fiasco were extensive. In addition to destroying Forbert's relationship with his record label and crippling him financially, the incident removed him from the public eye during the mid-Eighties, key years in the commercial growth and critical viability of folk-rock. While the careers of such home-spun artists as Dylan, Springsteen, and and John Cougar Mellencamp flourished in the Eighties, Forbert watched his own career recede into the past. He didn't have a new record on the racks. He didn't have a hit song on the radio. He didn't have his videos on that upstart cable channel (although he did break into heavy rotation as an ironic footnote, playing Cyndi Lauper's boyfriend in her wildly popular "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"). Though he continued to write songs, as a performer he was conspicuously silent. And in pop music, silence always equals death.
Well, almost always. During his forced hiatus, Forbert settled in Nashville, where he raised a family -- he and his wife are the parents of twin boys -- and slowly negotiated his return to the recording industry. When he finally returned to recording, it was with his strongest album to date, Streets of This Town. Produced by Springsteen associate Garry Tallent and released by Geffen in 1988, the album sets Forbert's richest collection of songs in a spare and vivid musical landscape. At its strongest -- the title track, "Mexico," and the astonishing "I Blinked Once" -- the album is as affecting as Nebraska, Infidels, or Scarecrow, its bleakest songs admitting moments of optimism and the most optimistic compositions laced with sorrow. Forbert's vocals -- the same oddly appealing combination of Neil Young and Rod Stewart that marked his work from the first -- carried the complexities with a newfound confidence and wisdom.
Critics interpreted the album -- with its themes of loss and resignation -- as Forbert's attempt to come to terms with his own career, and while he doesn't agree completely, he does concede that the experience changed his outlook. "I don't think the downtime was a bad thing," he says. "Before the break, my albums were getting to be collections of songs. When I had the time off, I was able to think about the albums as wholes, how they hung together." Streets of This Town returned Forbert to critical prominence, and another excellent Geffen LP, The American in Me, kept his stock high. For a while, it looked as though Forbert might start the Nineties with firm commercial footing. But the Nineties had apparently been conferring with the Eighties; frustrated with Geffen's poor promotion, Forbert left the label shortly after The American in Me.
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Despite appearances, Forbert insists that his tetchy behavior is not self-destructive. Rather, he says, he is protecting his equilibrium. "I work real hard to get records made, to make them the way I think they should be, and to get people to try to know about them, and as long as the songs are happening I just keep going," he says. "But there's just no way I would want to be in the position of someone like Kurt Cobain. That crazy anger, confusion, and madness. Success is more than ever not what it's cracked up to be. I was famous for about fourteen minutes once, and there were things about it I just didn't like. As time goes by I can see that that's really the truth."
In his own quiet way, Forbert is once again becoming a presence on the rock scene. Last year, Columbia re-released selections from his first four albums as What Kinda Guy? The Best of Steve Forbert. At his concerts -- including the solo set he'll play Sunday -- he is selling a live album entitled Be Here Now. And he's also been in the studio, putting the final touches on a new LP. Then he just needs to find a label to issue the material. And how hard could that be? "Well," Forbert says, "I hope to have it out by October." Some dreams never die.
Steve Forbert and others perform at 7:00 p.m. Sunday at Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd,
W Palm Beach, 800-572-8471. Tickets cost $15, $20, and $25.
Only 21 when he arrived in New York, Forbert found his place in the songwriter subculture.