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Like his songs, Steve Forbert has plenty of surprises beneath the surface. Sure, the diffident 25-year-old Mississippian has his modest ways: "I'll have a go at talking," he says, wrapping up a thuddingly difficult New York interview on the eve of his first Japan tour and third album, "but what I do is write songs and sing them." Nonetheless, inside that denim-jacketed heart, behind those covertly smiling eyes and that radical pug nose, one senses big ambition. Alive on Arrival, his heel-kicking 1978 debut, moved zealous writers to compare Forbert with classic heartland American music-makers the likes of Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. Then came Jackrabbit Slim, the 1979 follow-up, a helping of string and chorus-sweetened love songs, and the critics scooped their superlatives back again.
Though the public embraced Jackrabbit and its hit single, "Romeo's Tune," 600,000 copies worth, Forbert remains glaringly suspicious of the media. Many reporters, early on, stereotyped him as "the new Dylan." The comparison was inevitable, given Forbert's harmonica and guitar-driven, folk-flavored style, but the singer resented being written into a corner. Moreover, with an eye on the kind of tragedy that came to Presley, Parsons, Williams and others in his line of work, Forbert seems terrified of the psychological fallout of fame.
"I'm obsessed with the idea of the loss of innocence," Forbert told a Newsweek reporter a year ago. An innocent quality certainly suffuses the country boy-meets-New York City material of Alive on Arrival., As I watch Forbert rehearse his road band, that innocence sparks again. Every time they run through Arrival's "Goin' Down to Laurel," the singer breaks into an exuberant, cowboy-booted shuffle. Music, including his own, is Forbert's obvious delight. A Meridian, Mississippi guitar teacher recalled him as "... an average player, but all fired up." In 1976, Forbert left home and a truck driving job to play Greenwich village coffeehouses.
"I tried for months to get him as a client," says Danny Fields, Forbert's manager. "He was always wary. But then one day he called up and said he was 'behind schedule.'" Soon Nemperor Records executive Nat Weiss saw the singer open a show at Trax. Then New York Times critic John Rockwell predicted "huge success, and soon." Both Nemperor contract and public acclaim came shortly thereafter. Forbert made his schedule.
Ampersand's interview, which followed the rehearsal session, culminated a two-year pursuit. In it, Forbert flashed between a pained, quasi-articulate attempt at honesty and abrupt stonewalling.
"Are you still on schedule?"
Forbert faces sullenly forward on the naugahyde couch, a kid called once more into the principal's office and sick of it.
"On schedule ... Yeah, I'm on schedule."
"Well, I was wondering what other milestones you see ahead for your career?"
"Milestones ... Well, I plan to keep doing what I'm doing."
"You were on the road a long while with the first two albums. Now you've had a chance to stick in New York for a while. How has your life been going?"
"About the same as it's been going the last few years."
Minutes pass. The phrase "folk music" appears in one of my sentences. Forbert launches a gravelly monologue on the theme "What is folk music, really?" Then we find safe, pleasant ground in a mutual admiration for Mississippi novelist William Faulkner. Somehow, that subject takes an uncanny turn toward Forbert soliloquizing about how people need direction and motivation, how--if they haven't found it yet--they should continue to search. For the first time, eloquence of a sort enters the room. Out of the mud, the lotus flower blooms. I extend a handshake, happy to have what few notes I have, catch an L.A.-bound plane and spend the next three days and nights pondering how to frame this gaunt communication into a story.
Monday afternoon brings a call from a New York publicist. "Steve sat up in bed the night after he talked to you and realized there was more he had to say."
One and a half hours past midnight, the phone rings again. (ring) "This is Steve ... I wondered if you realized that what I said last Friday was all nonsense."
"Didn't realize it. I'm sorry to hear it was nonsense."
"How do you know it was nonsense?"
"You just said so."
Ten or fifteen minutes more of this verbal frolic and I essay a politely inane closing riff. "Well, good luck on your Japan tour. I'm sure it'll be a good shot for you."
"A good shot for me ... I mean, what am I after? It doesn't matter. I mean, that's why I'm calling. I don't want to be nominated for ... youth leader or anything."
"I understand that. But you want to be heard, don't you?"
"Well, I wanna be heard, yeah. But what is being heard, really? What does it mean 'to be heard?'"
"If we could turn things around, what kinds of questions would you want to be asked?"
"I'm not trying to create any new questions. I'm trying to destroy older ones."
Finally, come Thursday afternoon, an important artifact arrives; an advance cassette copy of Little Stevie Orbit, Forbert's third album to feature a coyly self-referential title. "Can't tell what something's like/'Til you've been there yourself," says "Laughter Lou," a blast at critics that's sandwiched between two disarmingly open-hearted love songs to two different women. "Sailed around the world alone," says a song to an emotionally isolated rich girl, "Too bad it took ya nowhere."
Throughout the album, as on the two before, several basic styles merge--a sea-chanty-like instrumental called "Lucky" precedes "Rain," which kicks off with a vintage Nashville feel. Then "I'm an Automobile" features a hard rock thump and a lighthearted come-on called "Schoolgirl" arrives with a skipping, folksy tempo. True to the ways established on the first two LPs, Forbert's melodies are catchy and his lyrics hang around to provoke rethinking. The songs not so much demand attention as engage it, sidling up to a listener's imagination with payloads of humor, observation and, sometimes, frustration. Whatever other items may be on the singer's imaginary schedule, whatever psychological armor he thinks he needs to wear, it's still a privilege to hear the fresh blends Forbert has to offer. His unspoken ambition--to be really worthy of the flattering comparisons he's inspired--just might come true
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