Steve Forbert: The Return of Romeo

Steve Forbert has been delivering intimate, intricate, soul-satisfying songs and performances for four decades. But six months ago, the folk rocker from New Jersey (by way of Meridian, Mississippi) delivered his first book and an album that Forbert loyalists consider his most impressive and cohesive work of the last decade. We caught up with Steve to discuss life at 64.

A new book, an extremely well-received album, a tour and sold out shows—this has been a pretty good year for you.

If you want to say that the year started in September, that would be correct. The record and the book came out in October and it was all good. I did a month overseas behind it and it’s picked up. 

When I recently took my 12-year-old to see you, he became a big fan. Now he not only follows your music but also your numbers on Spotify. How do you measure if you’re picking up a new audience?

I don’t often see kids at my shows. That’s why I was thinking that some of it is just the fact that I’m 64, I’ve been around for 41 years, and it’s kind of like…You know, Cliff, Tom Petty just passed away out of the blue. The kind of thing that I do is becoming, for the people who like it, even more important because we’re bombarded with so much heavily promoted pop music. And my tickets aren’t super expensive—they’re like $25. I don’t think that we’ve necessarily sold a lot of copies in any medium of “The Magic Tree” but everybody seems to like it. It’s a really good record.

I’ve been with you since the first album [“Alive on Arrival”] and as time went by, your “Moon River” became my favorite, until “The American In Me” was released. But today, if I was going to share only one Steve Forbert song with someone who didn’t know your work, I’d play them “The Magic Tree.” Your ‘old fans’ genuinely adore this album.

Well that’s really good and when I go as far as Holland and barely into Germany, I’m selling that record. It’s well received.

And the book?

It’s nice to be able to put what I went through and why I got into this into a book. When I hand people that book, it feels good—this is what’s been going on. I don’t think I’ll write another book, but it’s a fun thing to bring around on tour, and it’s also fun to have “The Magic Tree” there at the same time. 

You will be 65 in December and you’ve sang about aging more than once: “Middle Age,” “Thirty More Years”—Other than disease, which is inevitable, are you more comfortable with aging now?

If you’re trying to keep tabs on things, and I stress trying… We’ve been hit with this digital revolution and it’s inestimable—the biggest thing to happen to the human race since the Guttenberg Press, and they still had to print out copy after copy of what they could afford to print. But for us, well, Thom Yorke has a million people on Twitter that he can send a message to at the push of a button. Trump has 59 million people he can reach through Twitter. So the aging thing makes me think of how all your life people say, “I remember when.” I’ve heard people talk about when they got their first television, but I feel like we’re being required to adjust to much more radical changes, and a lot of trickery.

Alvin Tofler wrote about this in Future Shock. A generation once meant 20 years, but generations have had a half-life to the point where they are now 6 months. Certainly that’s the case with technology. But people remain basically the same; their wiring, their chemistry and ability to process information. Our minds aren’t necessarily capable of adjusting to fast changes, which become more rapid over time. It creates a psychic vertigo. 

Yes, I agree. Of course, kids have an advantage because it’s a way of life for them. But aging, for me, is partly adjusting to this huge change. And honestly, what’s happened to pop music and the way it’s become much more of a commodity… I remember when Madonna brought so-called choreography into pop music, but now that’s a major factor for new recording artists. I happen to really like Camilla Cabello, but she has to sing and dance. I guess that’s nothing really new—Shirley Temple bloody did it, too. But what has happened to good old rock and roll and that thing in the air that used to inspire me so much? I’m just trying to go on and keep playing music and keep writing songs in an environment that’s changed so much. There used to be inspiration all around me—everybody from Michael Stipe to The Dream Academy. It’s not part of the radio fabric anymore. The world has changed so much. The rhythm of the world… People want to go see The Rolling Stones so they can see what was, see this legendary thing while it’s still around. Of course, Woody Herman wasn’t on the radio when he was 76 either.

When you and I were young, we took pride in buying an album. Many albums were actually events; you waited for the store to open to get them on the day they came out. Today, people don’t really own music. It’s on your phone and computer, but there’s no sense of ownership and the intimacy that came with that. Of course, the flip side is there’s so much more that’s accessible. As a kid, I would never have had the opportunity to listen to the entire works of Rev. Gary Davis, but with Spotify and the like, it’s right there for the asking, free except for a moderate monthly subscription… But let’s get back to your new album. Your song “Let’s Get High” is worth discussing. You and I both gave up alcohol and marijuana long ago, but now I’m concerned with the legalization of marijuana—not because I think it should be criminal but rather because I think it’s going to make a new generation even stupider, to say nothing of the fact that it’s carcinogenic and will lead to other health issues.

All I can tell you is nobody should go to jail for something that everybody’s brother is doing. The courts should not be filled up with the process of all that prosecution. So I know what you’re saying but maintaining prohibition in the 1920’s and 30’s in America was just laughable. You and I might not be doing it, but my daughter is [laughs]. So she moved to Denver. 

As long as you’ve mentioned her, one of my favorite songs from the “Compromised” LP was “Kathryn”. How did she react to that song?

She’s aware of it but never said much about it. That was written around the time that she was 16. I found that 17 for Kathryn was about the same as 16 [laughs].

It was a sweet song.

It was intended that way, but it was a description of who I was trying to raise. Teenage girls go through these incredible mood swings.

You close every show with “Romeo’s Tune” for obvious reasons. Have you ever thought about why that song of all your songs is the one people associate you most with, at least the people who don’t really know your catalogue? 

That’s kind of a fun question. I think it was Paul Coby who once told me, “All folkies get one hit” and that’s when I was still auditioning and trying to get on stage at the Bitter End. And it’s kind of true. I think of myself as a folkie only in the sense that I don’t like the limousines, and I like to go out at the end of the night and sign things and see who is there. I like to get to the show early and, if I feel like it, go nearby and get a hot-fudge sundae. Generally, folkies are more like that. They don’t adjust well to the stardom and the scrutiny of the spotlight and that kind of pressure. So all folkies are allowed one hit. Al Stewart got two. I know Al, I like him a lot. But it’s kind of a rule. Unfortunately for Loudon Wainwright, his turned out to be “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road,” which he never wants to perform.

Steve, what I’m asking is why that song. Why “Romeo’s Tune” as opposed to, say, “Going Down to Laurel”?

There are  a lot of dimensions to that. We worked hard to get the good recording because we felt it was a, quote un-quote ‘hit’ and fortunately it paid off. It’s a lot of why I can still keep at it, playing all the way from Amsterdam to Portland, Oregon. For one thing, Cliff, it was catchy, and it was a love song, which is the most popular subject, and it was very positive. The lyrics have held up well and there was, of course, that piano hook. It’s hard to quantify the effect that music has on people, but they know something’s catchy when they think it’s catchy. Deep Purple didn’t think “Smoke On The Water” was anything but a throwaway album track and then it proved really, really catchy. It’s a little bit stupid in a way but it’s glorious! [laughs]

Also, because my first album did fairly well, the people at the record company were inclined to be thinking, ‘We’ve got to find a single on this kid’s next album and blow it up and get it as close as we can to #1 and put all our muscle behind it.’  It was very bright and punchy and not overly acoustic, which was already fading out of style but had one last gasp of breath left in it, which is how Tracy Chapman found a career. So the momentum was there from “Alive On Arrival.”

Pat DiNizzio passed recently. Were you two close?

Not close but I knew all of the Smithereens pretty well in the Kenny’s Castaway days. I drank beer with them, and we hung out and had fun, but to me, they were a band that was just obsessed with the Beau Brummells. I didn’t hear anything beyond some guys who really just loved rock and roll. But then one day they just popped up with this new material and it was an exponential improvement! It was like, ‘Wow!’ They just suddenly transformed into a hit rock and roll quartet.

How did you and Pat come to compose “Groovy Tuesday” together?

Pat and I and Mark Johnson were drinking at my place and there were three guitars and 12 or so beers, so we just thought we’d write a song about a hangover. It’s hard to remember the rest. It was somewhat of a psychedelic song spoof like “Incense and Peppermints.”

So what’s next Steve? Are you writing?

am writing more songs. They take a little longer to write now because of some of the reasons we discussed, the energy in the air, that organic energy that I thrive on, things like the Byrd’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and REM’s “Losing My Religion”. I mention a lot of songs in my book that inspired me through the decades. But anyway, yes, I’m writing more songs. 

Be sure to catch Steve Forbert and his band at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts & Sciences on June 20, and next month at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park on July 20.