When Steve Forbert first came to New York from Meridian Mississippi more than 40 years ago, he kept journals that survive to this day.
Forbert might blame himself for being a self-admitted pack rat, keeping them all these years but they provide a looking glass in real time into the past. They have come to life in his new autobiography Big City Cat: My Life In Folk-Rock.
“In some ways it was useful finally,” he reflected recently in a phone conversation from the Jersey Shore where he resides after a long stint in Nashville.. “I wrote those when there was something hen there was something of impact.When I first got to New York there were lots of days like that and there are still are days like that occasionally. If I can’t sit down and type it out like I used to, I must admit I’ll tape into trusty cellphone and transcribe it later.”
When Forbert, who titled his debut Alive on Arrival, first hit the streets of New York, he always thought he would get somewhere. Even while singing on the streets he always had a sense of purpose. It landed him opening gigs for John Cale and Talking Heads at the fledgling music bar CBGB. In the book, the singer describes one time when he was down to his last fifty cents and decided to play at Grand Central Station. He would write “Grand Central Station (March 18, 1977)” that would eventually be named one of the top fifty songs written about New York City. “How ironic that an account of a scruffy busker from Mississippi singing on the fringe of Midtown hustle and bustle would be included,” Forbert writes. “Sitting in my ‘Big City Cat’ apartment typing out an account of that March afternoon, I would have never imagine it could have become anything more than a struggling folksinger’s diary entry.”
“I documented some of those experiences and all these years later I was able to tell the story,” he told me with a sense of satisfaction. When people who come to his shows ask what it was all like, Forbert can now hand them a copy of his book. In hit he describes his odyssey from the racially divided deep South to become a new folk rock phenom that landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone. Forbert is remembered for his role as Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend in the video of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” The poster of Alive on Arrival was placed in a bedroom scene of Lauper’s Broadway show. But he stands in the pantheon of singer-songwriters, honored in a twenty track tribute album An American Troubadour: The Songs of Steve Forbert. Jim Lauderdale, who covers “What Kinda Guy,” was inspired to venture to New York after reading an article in which Forbert said he was a messenger. Lauderdale figured he had a way to support himself. Forbert’s first hit single “Romeo’s Tune” has since been made fresh again for another generation by Keith Urban.
The book comes out at the same time as his latest album The Magic Tree, which features Forbert’s wistful, still boyishly youthful and slightly gravelly voice against a rejuvenating set of late career songs. The album stands alongside a book which covers five decades of history through which we learn that Forbert had two marriages, three children, fifteen managers and made over twenty albums.
“People who come to my shows have their own stories to go along with through these years,” Forbert reflected. He admits it took a lot of work for him to feel it was acceptable and discussed the need to be honest.
“I thought from the beginning I would be critical of myself. That’s why we encouraged people to say in their interviews whatever they wanted. Of course that didn’t mean I needed to print it.”
The harshest assessment came from rock impresario and former manager Danny Fields who candidly said Forbert wanted to be a rock star a la Dylan or Elvis and when it didn’t happen, lashed out.
“I was just starting to realize I wasn’t riding the magic carpet anymore,” Forbert reflects when asked. “That was Danny’s assessment and I chose to print it in the book.”
The characterization caused Forbert to ponder what it takes to be successful.
“I pondered that a lot” he said in his soft spoken Mississippi accent, reflecting about the balance between confidence and cockiness. “There’s a certain personality that it takes to be Mark Knopfler or bigger if you will. If you’re going to get up and sing for people you should think you’re great. At the same time you don’t want to be detached from reality. Oddly enough the new movie from Queen is pretty good and goes there.”
Others write of alcohol-fueled events in which they worried about Forbert hurting himself. When asked if he agrees, Forbert pauses before saying yes and then giving a thoughtful response that begins with his feeling he could have made good rockabilly records had he gone in that direction.
“What I’m trying to say is that Sun Records mentality, I’ve been there. I’m talking about outrunning the police on back roads and that kind of unhinged exuberance I had in my younger days. And I had an automobile that could drive itself so that was a big plus.”
It was a 1963 White Rambler Classic that was made long before autonomous vehicles. It served him well. Forbert says he was a “pretty wild cat” and drank in Mississippi and brought that with him to New York. There are those who thought he was so out of control he was in trouble. Former describes those excesses in the book along with the realization that by the Nineties he needed to be sober. Forbert describes a month-long stay in rehab and something someone said that clicked saying his behavior was immature. “Aren’t you a little old to be doing that?” He bought it and hasn’t touched a drink since.
“I was just juggling too many balls and I had to put one down,” he says making the point he doesn’t take it for granted. “I don’t say I’m free and clear. You always have to be mindful. There’s so much alcohol around us.”
It seems somewhat in the rear view mirror. Today the singer who just turned 64 finds joy in doing solo shows. He likens it to the experience of “Moving Through America,” a new song from his album The Magic Tree.
The main difference today for Forbert are the crowded airports. “It’s just a crazier busier world not to mention security. It’s not like riding down the highway listening to Bad Company of the Allman Brothers. I can’t process all of these individuals it’s a little hard on my brain. Other than that I love it.”
Forbert discovered the joy of photography with his phone, capturing moments along the road. He admits he got so into and shot so many photos it was at the risk of getting hit by traffic. “Everything that caught my eye is subject matter.” When we spoke, he was talking about photographing a greasy spoon from a stop in Roanoke. He’s also developed an obsession to shoot fire plugs. Forbert is fascinated with how strange they are as subject matter when people accept them as strictly functional.
“They’re like something from Mars,” he says before describing the silver hydrants of Atlanta and the key lime green in Asbury Park. Forbert has a kindred spirit with renown rock photographer Henry Diltz who shares the same obsession and has shot thousands around the world. “I showed him some I shot and he said, ‘Okay you’re out of your mind too.’” Forbert mentions that he’d like to hold an exhibition one day, not to sell his work, but just to make a point.
There are far too many stories in the Big City Cat to mention here. But there was the night Forbert spotted Geraldine Chaplin and Lauren Hutton at CBGB. Or the time he was out with Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone who was so drunk he drank from a jar of formaldehyde. And then there’s a hilarious scene in which Forbert visits the Ramones backstage at a festival. Shared by the same manager Danny Fields and Coconut Management, Forbert had no idea they were jealous and mad at Forbert for the attention their ex-managers had lavished on him. The singer describes the intimidating presence of Johnny Ramone and the band in their leather jackets, lined up around him like action figures.
In summation Forbert is philosophical about sharing his journey. “You’ve documented it and you’re sharing it. It’s all about these times we live in and being a person on this mysterious planet and experiencing some things and then you’re gone.”
The diary entries of Forbert’s hitchhiking days are among the most interesting parts of the book. The sense of youthful adventure and scenes of Forbert waking up with his guitar case in wet weeds along the side of a road makes one wonder if it could still happen in this era. Forbert says that Jim Morrison squelched the allure of hitchhiking and quotes “Riders On The Storm” to back up his point. But as for his kids, he mentions that his twin son put together what they hoped would a thirty day tour for their thrash metal band. “They weren’t unpredictable like me I’m glad to say,” he adds, “but they went out there and stayed on people’s floors. Sometimes they came to a venue and it was closed. Sometimes they slept in a Walmart parking lot.”
When I asked him what his kids thought of his book, Forbert replies that he’s close to his three children but no one has had anything to say. His son Sam has twins of his own and is a talent agent at CAA.
“I don’t know why,” he muses. “They just haven’t brought it up. I don’t know if they were shocked, embarrassed or amused.”
As Forbert may have concluded, some things in life are still mysteries.