Objects in the Mirror Are Just as They Appear:
Around the Bend with Steve Forbert
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2007, Volume 14, #11
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue November 6, 2007, 06:40 AM CST
Itís a mystery why Steve Forbertís music continues to work the way it does. It shouldnít resonate with the understated power and emotional appeal that he has managed to sustain, song after song, for nearly 30 years. The critic in me rails against the obviousness of his rhymes, the predictability of his constructions, and the simple chord structures that he has recycled throughout his career. He is not Bob Dylan when it comes to writing lyrics. Heís not Joni Mitchell when he plays guitar. Yet, there is something truly appealing that is impossible to resist about his stance as well as his unflinching adherence to a musical vision. There is something indefinable in the honesty and dignity of Forbertís approach that continues to have an almost magical spell on his small but loyal coterie of fans. Undeniably, there is something immensely appealing in his laconic delivery and hesitant assertions that continues to draw listeners into a universe where common people make difficult choices and occasionally win. Against my will, album after album, I find myself repeatedly drawn into his vision and the world view he presents to anyone who cares to listen.
I recently caught up with Forbert on the phone in Nashville just after he had finished rehearsing with his band in anticipation of playing a few bigger than usual shows in the South. Initially hesitant and shy, Forbert ó over the course of half an hour ó opened up, as he discussed his creative process, the vagaries of the music business, and the state of the world in general, utilizing the same kind of warm and unhurried tone that characterizes so many of his best songs. Indeed, his deep, slow-as-molasses drawl is as seductive as his music, and it doesnít take long to realize that there is almost no differentiation between the man and the entertainer. Beneath Forbertís deceptively simple body of work resides a thoughtful and unhurried mind, and from his observations emanates a mature and quietly profound understanding of the world and its people.
From the beginning of our conversation, Forbert assured me that there is nothing special about his songs or his way of crafting them. Those looking for deeper meanings and mystical insinuations should look elsewhere. "Itís what it is. I just write about things as they come up," he explained. "I did The American in Me album after I suddenly found myself with twins, and songs like Responsibility and You Cannot Win íem All determined the kind of shadings that were on that record. My fans understand this. They know the old stuff. Theyíre willing to buy the new record and listen to it, and some of them are willing to be in on ó if you will ó the journey. Hereís what it is now. Does Responsibility make sense to you, or does I Married a Girl make sense to you? Does Thirty More Years do anything for you?"
From the beginning, the arc of Forbertís recorded work seems to have focused on an exploration of the different phases of a personís life. If his first album, Alive on Arrival was a celebration of the freedom of youth and the promise of early adulthood, and his 2004 album Just Like Thereís Nothin' to It was a dignified exploration of the world of work, his newest release Strange Names and New Sensations is an understated and unflinching look at the joys and problems of middle age.
Though Strange Names and New Sensations is a mixed bag ó not unlike many of Forbertís releases ó it does contain a few killer songs amidst its more pedestrian material, and it nevertheless forms a satisfying whole. It paints a portrait of an artist who gave up struggling for a place at the forefront of the industry long ago, one who instead has contented himself with producing a body of work that is personal and uncompromising. Forbert is a songwriter who not only appears comfortable with his place in life but also ó like the narrator of his early tune Steve Forbertís Midsummer Nightís Toast ó still rejects a nine-to-five existence in favor of hewing to his own road-less-traveled. Listening to Strange Names and New Sensations is a pleasurable and rewarding experience, and Forbertís irresistible melodies and simple yet insightful lyrics pave the way through the hour-long musical journey.
"Itís good to hear that I can say something that catches people," Forbert stated. "To me, itís still the same as it always has been. Itís the same as when I was trying to get established in New York City. Itís the same personal point of view, and if youíre a good songwriter, your personal point of view is something that people can make their own. Or, if youíre writing songs like Stevie Wonder ó open graspable songs like You Are the Sunshine of My Life ó you can catch something that people can relate to. There are only two ways to go ó something very approachable or something so very personal. If you can do it in a way so that people can attach themselves to it, youíll have done something worthwhile."
Forbert does not deny the thematic nature of his work or his recent fascination with the aging process. Tracks, like Thirty More Years and Strange Names and New Sensationsí horn-driven opener Middle Age round out a satisfying cycle of songs that examine the fulfillment that is possible to achieve, even after youth has faded. "I canít avoid looking at aging consciously," he explained. "There you go. A few songs materialized about that sort of thing, and I decided they should become bookends for the record."
With lyrics like "Middle Age is hectic/Much less time for fun/Clearly itís a good thing/Youth is wasted on the young," Forbert clearly is no James Joyce, but heís not trying to be. His right-on-the-mark assertions are completely free of artifice, and they allow him to reach his audience in a way that works on an individual level. His lack of affectation has a Haiku-like quality that allows listeners to insert their own meanings and associations into his songs. In todayís climate of spin and doublespeak, Forbertís plainspoken philosophies, though lacking a certain finesse, often come as a welcome relief. Nowhere is this truer than on the excellent Thirty More Years, which includes the following lines:
"Objects in the mirror may be just as they appear.
Thirty more years, and Iím out of here.
The male of this here species lives eighty years or so,
Starts to see the mess heís made and then itís time to go."
Though Forbert sees nothing magical about the songwriting process, he clearly is satisfied with how Thirty More Years turned out. "You know, one has oneís perspective of where one is, and this is it!" he said. "Well, that song ó each of the verses is unto itself, but theyíre all going to the same place. There were a few other verses that we left out. It was getting longer and longer and longer. In a case like that, I collect the incidents and the examples, and I try to find a way to make it all point to the same thing, so that the chorus follows each segment logically. Hopefully, it makes an overall statement."
"The beginning of the song with its image of the trusting eyes of my daughter at Halloween...," he continued. "When you start with something like that down on a piece of paper, itís just a visual thing that makes you feel emotional. It was years before the song was finished, and that image was how it started."
Perhaps the most unusual song on the album is Simply Spalding Gray, Forbertís tribute to the deceased writer and actor. While the two men may seem to have occupied different aesthetic universes, Forbert is quick to point out the approaches that they both shared in their attitude toward their work. "There are similarities," he stated. "Well, you know, he was a very diversified person. I have an article he did, interviewing the Dalai Lama. And then, he had an acting career, of course, and he even appeared in the Talking Headsí movie True Stories. The main thing heís known for is these unique monologues. He even called one Swimming to Cambodia. It was really popular, and itís not something that, on paper, would ever work. I didnít think he would have succeeded as far as acting in movies, but he did. There were places he always could have gone to do his talks, and you just donít have much of that. I play solo a lot, and I travel around with a guitar and a few harmonicas, so naturally I appreciate keeping things simple. I can relate to it."
What is perhaps most remarkable about Simply Spalding Gray is that Forbert eschews his usual guitar-driven melodic structures to emulate Laurie Andersonís minimalist soundtrack to Swimming to Cambodia. Clearly, Forbert is a man with a wider sphere of musical interests than one may initially give him credit for having. "It just kind of worked out," he said. "I turned over the song to Anthony Crawford who, in an evening of inspiration, just kind of put his own soundtrack to what was more of a normal sound for me. As the weeks went by, I started to like it better and better, and I decided to go with the moody arrangement. Itís more appropriate for [a song about] a guy who jumped off the Staten Island Ferry and disappeared."
Forbertís ruminations on the dark side of creativity and Spalding Grayís unfortunate suicide naturally segued into a discussion about his concern with the state of the world as he now sees it. He appeared particularly pessimistic about the legacy that his generation is leaving for its children. "I donít know what theyíre going to do with [the world] or what their values are," he said. "I try to live and operate on a feeling of what I call logic. By that I mean, if I do this, then that will happen or has a good chance of causing this. We all know that security and logic are just not very common these days. The America I knew as a kid has really changed. Now, there are things like every person can expect to have five different jobs in a lifetime. Iím in the music business, so that puts me through a strange lens anyway. I just see so many people who I feel are the kinds of individuals who shouldnít be put into a position where they can be heard, and theyíre being listened to the most. Itís baffling ó big, popular people and the things they say. I mean, just go to Rolling Stoneís web site, and listen to the song theyíre presenting as the new song of the week. Kid Rock? Itís just a joke. Is this someone we should say is an individual who has some exemplary nature? I donít think so! Itís all a matter of taste, but thereís definitely a moral dimension missing from music!"
Though he finds the appeal of hip-hop baffling, Forbert is quick to point out that he is not an old fogey and that he does his best to keep an open mind when it comes to new music. "Well, my tastes range. I really like The Strokes. I think theyíre a great rock ínĎ roll band," he said. "Theyíre not squeaky clean, and they would never aspire to be. But, I think thereís something to their work, how good they sound as a band, and the mood of their music that is, to me, constructive and a good thing."
As our half-hour on the telephone wound down, inevitably our discussion turned to the remake of Romeoís Tune, Forbertís hit from 1979, which closes Strange Names and New Sensations. I asked him whether it was intended to strengthen the theme of the album, and if its inclusion was meant to be a commentary on the arc of his career and the cycle of songs on the effort. He laughed and slowly replied, "Yeah, I can see that, but honestly, itís really simple. The record company felt that the CD should be longer, and in a very obvious suggestion, they said why donít you re-record Romeoís Tune? I rejected the idea because it seemed like such a clichť."
"Then, I thought weíd go in and try it," he continued. "I gave the idea a chance because itís a new record label. Actually, it did make a better ending to the record instead of using Around the Bend ó the albumís only instrumental track ó as Iíd intended to do. Oddly enough, it was not a bad idea."
Whatever practical reasons there may have been for the songís inclusion ó its appearance in an upcoming Nicole Kidman film, among them ó the updated rendition of Romeoís Tune works beautifully. Forbertís world-weary vocals resonate with the maturity of a person who is looking back at a simpler world and time.
As we said our goodbyes, Forbert left me with the impression of a man who is thankful for his place in the world and who remains resolutely optimistic in the face of difficult and changing times. Like the characters in many of his songs, he realizes that itís a thin line that separates an artist from those persons who have to make their living driving cabs or working in grocery stores. "What I do, itís not a definite plan," he said. "Itís whatís available to me. If youíre Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty you get in-store displays, and youíll get the visibility. You canít walk into Borders or Barnes and Noble without knowing about it. If youíre not in that position, you do what you can. Thereís not much middle ground. You have to play your cards right to sustain that. Thatís not what happened to me. There are quite a few people that fall into that category, but Iím still playing and writing new songs and doing a lot of traveling. I donít have a tremendously large audience ó we both know that ó but itís still going on."
As he tunes his guitar, Forbert ends our conversation by stating, "Iím lucky, you know. Playing live is great. I enjoy it. I always have. Thatís why I do it. After all, itís not a bad job!"
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Copyright © 2007 The Music Box