Deckle edge

Steve Forbert
by Chris Flisher © 1995 /
(first published April 1995 Worcester Phoenix)

Steve Forbert
“I never get tired of trying to gauge change. It’s hard to do it ‘cause we’re all getting older and we’re all caught up in the same bargain,” says Steve Forbert, who talks much the way he sings—high and tight with a clutching rasp that unconsciously covers up a gentlemanly Mississippi drawl, yet indelibly marks the voice as his. “I never get tired of trying to see if it’s weirder now than it was last year, either,” he pauses, asking, “Are people being dehumanized if they don’t know it? Well, of course they are, but I can’t take that attitude. I still think it’s worthwhile to try and gauge that, somehow. So I like to stick my head out of the whirlpool every once in a while.”

Forbert talks slowly about his music, his artistic frustrations and his continual wonderment at the great swirling mass called life. He has just returned from viewing the rushes for his upcoming and aptly-titled video, “It Sure Was Better Back Then,” from his new album, The Mission Of The Crossroad Palms on Giant Records. Cutting loose with thick chords and a catchy riff reminiscent of the Stones or Creedance Clearwater Revival, the song tells the story of a retired man living on a fixed income in the projects out in Marietta, Georgia. It’s classic Forbert.

“A lot of what I do is about irony. It seems like a lot of the inspiration comes from that, you know, opposing lifestyles and contrast in this society,” he pauses in response, quoting a verse from another song on the album titled, “It Is What It Is (And That’s All),” “I mean that phrase . . . ‘Mexican boy on Doheny, selling maps to the stars’ . . . is about a kid in Beverly Hills selling maps to the star’s homes and maybe he’s an illegal alien and each day he’s in the middle of this enormous wealth. That, to me, is very ironic.”

Although Forbert remains cautiously cynical and vaguely nostalgic, Mission signals a departure. Having spent the last eight years and two albums (Streets Of this Town and The American In Me) with Geffen Records, singing songs about his tangible observations of life, Forbert has taken a slightly skewed view on his new material.

“I’m consciously trying to be more abstract with my new songs,” says Forbert. “On The American In Me, which was brilliantly ignored by the way, I was singing about freeways and a lots of American references and stuff. Of course,” he laughs, “I went foolishly to Europe and I would have gone on to Japan, but they all missed the point. But since I had done a straight ahead thing then I wanted to try and do something different this time.”

At times dark, at times refreshingly familiar, Mission finds Forbert spinning tales again through his inimitable filter. Perhaps the most impressionistic of the songs, “Oh, To Be Back With You” paints a wistful, dreamlike mood of remembrance and regret while “Thirteen Blood Red Roses” details a tale of crime and passion. Despite his brooding ramblings, Forbert has several moments of light. “So Good To Feel Good Again,” “Real Live Love,” and “Don’t Talk To Me” all reflect his more common, tongue-in-cheek, boylike nature. And aside from the full-throttle approach of the first single, the majority of the new songs are mid- to up-tempo ballads, featuring Benmont Tench (Tom Petty) on keyboards, Clay Barnes on guitar, Roger Clark on drums and Garry Tallent formerly of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band on bass and as producer.

In an effort to sustain his exposure and reputation, Forbert takes to the road, touring as a solo performer, much the way he did when he first began, 20 years ago on the streets of New York City. There, as a fresh-faced, squeaky voice from Mississippi, Forbert took the rock press by storm with critics hailing him as the “new Dylan” as his only hit, “Romeo’s Tune” soared to the Top 20 in 1979. Eventually the far-reaching accolades became a curse as his career bottomed out when he found himself locked in a contractual agreement with an unforgiving record label.

Re-evaluating his purpose and free of contracts, he moved to Nashville in 1986, and jump-started his career with the help of Garry Tallent. Forging a more accessible rock sound, Forbert took heart and slowly started to rebuild. Now, at 40, he tours, playing solo as much as 150 dates a year.

“I’d like to be able to play bigger halls, but the fact that I can do what I do by myself is great,” admits Forbert, citing the challenges of his contemporaries. “I look at people like Cyndi Lauper, Peter Wolf, or Pat Benetar who need to have a full band to even book a club.”

In a career marked by measurable highs and decided lows, Forbert appears sardonic at worst; philosophic at best. “It’s a strange life, but not hard. You go and you write these songs and a record company puts it out and then three or four years later you try again. You find yourself out in the wilderness again every time, but it’s not like selling clothes or toys or something where you can throw money at it and get a guaranteed return. No, music is different,” he pauses, “Still, change is change and any kind of forward motion is still forward motion. Right?”
Chris Flisher

Deckle edge