In his new memoir, Big City Cat: My Life in Folk Rock, the groundbreaking singer-songwriter Steve Forbert recounts his early days as part of the downtown NYC scene, where he was equally comfortable playing at Folk City and CBGB. He also talks about his managers, Danny Fields and Linda Stein, and his clashes with the Ramones.
In 1976, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter named Steve Forbert boarded an Amtrak train from his native Meridian, Mississippi. His destination was New York City, and his goal was to begin his career in music. His vibrant performance style, clever lyrics and well-received 1978 debut album, Alive on Arrival, had critics positioning him as “The New Dylan” and possibly even rock’s next big superstar. “Romeo’s Tune,” the first single on his second album, reached number 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and became the song for which he is best known.
Steve Forbert performing with a full rock band, “Romeo’s Tune” live in 1979:
When two subsequent albums did not fare as well commercially, Forbert burned through several major labels and managers before trading potential stardom for a devoted cult following and a solid living by consistently and tirelessly playing smaller clubs. Through it all, Forbert has never lost his ability to write uniquely poetic and tuneful songs that exceed the limits of genre and offer something genuinely thoughtful and personal.
Eighteen studio albums and more than 40 years later, Steve Forbert is looking back. His memoir, Big City Cat: My Life In Folk Rock (PFP), which was released last month, focuses on Forbert’s earliest days in New York City, when he busked for spare change and played in the fabled venues of the downtown music scene. Forbert spoke to PKM as he prepared for several book signings and tour dates in support of his new album release, The Magic Tree (Blue Rose Music). This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
PKM: You’re often categorized with folk musicians and singer-songwriter artists. It may surprise readers of your book to learn that you spent as many nights playing in the punk and new wave scene at CBGB as you did at Folk City in the West Village. What was it like breaking into that scene, a man with his acoustic guitar and harmonica rack?
Steve Forbert: It wasn’t a problem because the truth of it was that [CBGB owner] Hilly Kristal wanted to start what would today be called an Americana club. I walked in with an acoustic guitar and I met the sound person, Charlie Martin, and he wasn’t a guy with a real punked up attitude. I came back the next day and [Martin and Kristal] were both totally receptive. Nobody was planning punk when Hilly started thinking he’d have music. Patti Smith came in with Lenny Kaye to present some of her poetry, then Television came in and the rest is rock-n-roll history. But Hilly wouldn’t have known what to call that at first. He just thought she was a Village poet, and maybe he would call Television a rock-n-roll band. Then the rest of it, and soon it had a name, punk. Since Talking Heads certainly weren’t punk, it became New Wave.
David Byrne played acoustic guitar for a lot of the early shows. They were doing weird covers like “1, 2, 3 Red Light” [by the 1910 Fruitgum Co.] or “Love Is All Around” by The Troggs.
Well, I knew those records – those were bubblegum or romantic records. And Television used to cover “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan, and so it wasn’t all that clear cut, everything going on there wasn’t sounding like The Dead Boys or The Damned. It’s not as odd as it looks on the surface for me to be able to sing in there.
PKM: CBGBs is where you first encountered Danny Fields and Linda Stein, who became your managers and who also managed The Ramones. What was it like working with them and what made them special in music at the time?
Steve Forbert: Obviously mainly because they managed The Ramones. Danny Fields was already a tastemaker, and somewhat of a celebrity in New York rock-n-roll and art circles. He is a bona fide Warholian from the height of The Factory. I didn’t know The Ramones would have problems with me being on the roster. They probably never would have tolerated another rock band or punk band. Danny and Linda might have thought, well this will be fine and this won’t ruffle any feathers but I think it did.
PKM: Your book goes into that a little bit, that one scene in which you visited The Ramones in their trailer at a show and there’s a little bit of a confrontational attitude.
Steve Forbert: I had no idea they’d ever been angry because I had a hit record and they didn’t. Joey was always friendly and I always liked Tommy when he was in the group. Johnny, as everyone knows, was kind of an aggressive guy. I thought they were just mad about Bruce Springsteen’s new level of success at the time. Bruce Springsteen had offered them the song “Hungry Heart” and then retracted it. That’s pretty common knowledge in rock circles. So, they were mad about that because they might have thought that was their entrée into a hit record. And it might have been. It’s hard for me to picture Joey Ramone singing, “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack.” But I guess he could blow by it, sure.
PKM: Who are some of the other acts or personalities from the CBs scene from whom you drew energy or inspiration?
Steve Forbert: It was a super validation of the club when John Cale played there. I liked Paris 1919, as I explain in the book. John Cale, foundational member of the Velvet Underground, a godfather of the main concept at CBGBs. He was, along with Lou Reed, a kind of royalty. He could tour the world. He could have played Paris or Hamburg or anywhere. He was in fine functioning form. Those performances were extremely intense.
John Calelive at CBGB New Year’s Eve, 1979:
PKM: You seem to have always prided yourself on insisting on your artistic autonomy and not allowing others to doctor your music or your professional image in ways you didn’t like just to garner airplay or sell records. For example, you resisted overdubs on Alive on Arrival and you rejected being on the cover of Rolling Stone. Looking back on it now, is there anything that you would have done differently?
Steve Forbert: I don’t look back and say, “I should have been on the cover.” That’s the way I felt at the time. I was dealing with a real skyrocket rise to popularity, a lot was going on, and that’s why they offered me the cover. I just didn’t want any more of it because it was premature, I thought, and I didn’t want any more people recognizing me. I was trying to adjust to it all. A lot of people go for the whole ball of wax and they get lost in the confusion of it all and they can even become self-destructive behind it all. Very common story. So, I’m still around to answer your question. I don’t regret that.
Otherwise I’ve got tons of regrets, things about music and stuff like that. I think I should have picked different songs for my fourth record. We had quite a bag of songs to pick from and it came off a little light. The kaleidoscope could have been shifted a turn and it would have been a better record. I have regrets like that. But if you’re talking about that decision which seems so strange, I don’t regret that. I knew how I felt at the time and that was that.
PKM: One of the things that comes through so strongly in your book is just how eclectic your own taste in music is. And likewise you have admirers and collaborators from all over the musical spectrum. Can you speak to the limits of being defined as any one genre as a musician and how you feel you may have transcended that over the course of your career?
Steve Forbert: Well, they now call it Americana, but to me, I was never going to be a virtuoso guitarist, I knew that early on. And I wasn’t about a lot of histrionics like prog rock or anything, but I liked everything else. I don’t care about those distinctions at all, and it really wasn’t that odd, honestly, nothing I was into presenting to the public was any broader and more strange than the parameters Gram Parsons had already defined with his records.
PKM: Your book arrives at a time when there seems to be a lot of collective nostalgia for 1970s New York City and its downtown music and art scenes at the time, and really the analog world in general. Indeed, your book does include some laments about the state of pop music and the effects of social media. What are the bright spots in music and culture today and what keeps you inspired to keep making music?
Steve Forbert: You can’t expect things to stay the same and as music has progressed, it’s kind of strange. You still have a lot of groups with bass, drums and guitar, and a lot of things that have come along that have been renditions of the rock-n-roll formula. But how long can you expect something to be done and still look at it and expect something original to pop out of it for you?
It’s just doing something that I love, really. And that’s it, that’s just the bright spot for me as it would be for anyone to just do something they love as an occupation. I really just have to work off my own energy. Music has changed so much and it’s all so easily accessible now that’s kind of a disappointment to me because you don’t have to work as hard as we did to find things and make them your own. I couldn’t believe the singles that were offered for sale in the West Village record stores when I got there, that was just fantastic to me. Maybe I might buy “Devil In His Heart” by The Donays or I might buy some records, 45s, one or two at a time. So, you know I’m nostalgic for all that and maybe that’s what people are nostalgic for now, and maybe young people are nostalgic for, that authenticity or that personal nature of the analog world.
PKM: What does it feel like to look out into the audience and see people mouthing back lyrics you wrote?
Steve Forbert: I don’t mean to negate it, but it’s normal to me, it’s been happening for 40 years. But let’s be reasonable, it’s not 18,000 people in Madison Square Garden. I’m playing for a select group now that’s been with me for a long time and they bring their kids and their friends along. That’s what it’s been like. It’s very personal and that feels very organic, if you will, to me.