A fighting spirit
Mississippi singer-songwriter Steve Forbert finds a home away from home at downtown club Marilyn’s
The “new Dylan” moniker was mentioned in these pages recently, in reference to Sacramento singer Jackie Greene. It’s interesting to note, then, that Greene’s home club in town, Marilyn’s, is hosting—for a third time in three years—Steve Forbert, a terrific artist who also was tagged a “new Dylan” back in 1978 when he capsized the new-wave movement with his brilliant folk-rock debut, Alive on Arrival. The man behind the connection is the club’s general manager, Danny Elze. And Dylan was the spark.
“I was in a record store in 1978 looking at Dylan records,” Elze explained, “and I see this rack of new albums with this young kid’s face staring at me. It was Steve Forbert. I bought it, unheard. I’ve been a lifelong fan ever since!”
Forbert feels warmly toward Elze, too. “Danny makes it special for me when I come to Sacramento,” he said. “It’s more than a gig.”
Music has taken Forbert down a long road. “Traveling started early for me,” Forbert mused. “It’s become a way of life. And luckily, I like it.”
It just might be Forbert’s hometown of Meridian, Miss. Riding the rails, missing your lover, and moonlight on the Mississippi are poignant ingredients that inform his excellent 2002 album, Any Old Time: Songs of Jimmie Rodgers.
Rodgers, the father of country music, hailed from Meridian, too. “I grew up with his music all around me,” Forbert recalled. “I played in early bands with great nephews of his. Being from Meridian, I needed to acknowledge the connection, keep him in the public eye. He fused these different elements of music—hillbilly and black blues, which not many white people were listening to seriously then. He would go to Beale Street in Memphis, and to Deep Ellum in Dallas, to New Orleans. He really listened. He made it a part of his own thing. He was an eloquent groundbreaker.”
In the late 1970s, Forbert was also a groundbreaker. A sweet-faced rogue with tousled hair, a jean jacket, an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, he burst into Greenwich Village with a notebook of emotional songs; a crackly, breathy voice; and no problem combining open-mic nights at Gerdes Folk City with opening slots at CBGB, where punk history was being made by Patti Smith and Talking Heads. Folk, punk, blues, R&B, rock, country—it all made sense to Forbert, just as it did, minus the punk, to Elvis.
Forbert’s “new Dylan” marketing rope pulled him to Columbia-distributed Nemperor Records for four acclaimed albums: 1978’s Alive on Arrival; 1979’s Jackrabbit Slim, which contained his radio hit “Romeo’s Tune”; 1980’s Little Stevie Orbit; and 1982’s Steve Forbert. Exuberant and intimate, they supplanted the need fans had for early Springsteen. Forbert brought in horns to funkify his trademark guitar-piano leads, a tip of the hat to his favorite American combo, the Band. The rope tightened, however, and label suits rejected his expansive fifth album. It took Forbert six years to extract himself from Columbia to release Streets of This Town on Geffen Records in 1988. It was noticeably more bitter, but he rocked harder than ever.
“Pop music has always excited me so much,” said Forbert, now 47 and a father of three. “But now, there is not a lot of glue with everybody on the same page getting excited about quality stuff. You have to resign yourself to some amount of reality, or else you will just be ranting in the street. Gotta be glass half-full.”
Forbert had one parting thought about his hero, Rodgers, that could apply to him, too. “He was really a fighting spirit who loved life,” Forbert said. “Along came the Depression, and he yodeled through that. He had true vision.” As the notes in the excellent Best of Steve Forbert: What Kinda Guy? say, “Forbert’s skill never faltered; it was our perspective of him that changed.” You can get in line behind Elze when Forbert’s new album arrives in 2004.