Steve Forbert tells great stories. In his new memoir, Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock (PFP Publishing), he ambles at a leisurely pace over the terrain of his life, from his childhood and youth and first musical adventures in Meridian, Mississippi, to his evolution as a songwriter and his days and nights on the folk club scene in New York City. Forbert’s memoir may be one of the best of the year, simply because it doesn’t get stuck in the quagmire of sex and drugs in which 90 percent of musicians’ memoirs flounder. Big City Cat focuses on the power of songwriting, the power of music to shape a life, and Forbert’s continuing passion for writing songs and the way that music inhabits him. Toward the end of the book, writing about the many ways music is delivered today: “I take a box or two of old-fashioned physical CDs. Sometimes I veer off toward a Best Buy or one of the Barnes & Nobles stores still left out there and buy a CD for five bucks, even if I already own it, because I’d like to hear something I don’t happen to have in the car with me.” Reading Forbert’s memoir is like sitting down with an old friend, listening to him spin out stories as you’d listen to some old familiar, favorite music.
According to Forbert, the book was about four years in the making. “A friend of mine, Joe Poletto, expressed interest in developing a play around several of my songs. He had a writer on retainer, and I started sending her some of these scenarios about what was happening at the time I wrote the songs to fill in scenes. Pretty soon I had so much material, I said to myself, ‘Okay, let’s enter another cliché and write an autobiography.’” “By God,” Forbert groaned a little, “it will take years to write a memoir, but it took just three years.”
Forbert says that Tommy James’ memoir — Me, the Mob, and Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells (Scribner) — “set a high bar for me; it was very readable and fast.”
“I wanted this [Forbert's memoir] to be the kind of book you could give a young person who was interested in following her or his passion in music.”
Over the years Forbert has kept journals, and he weaves selections from them into his memoir, taking him and us back to places in time in his life. “I started keeping journals when I got to New York City,” he says, “because it was all so new, fresh, and exciting to a boy from Mississippi. I took to writing down events and other reflections almost daily back then.” Forbert’s journal entries capture the day-to-day events in the life of a musician trying to survive in the city where he’s come to make music: “Since I was down to my last fifty cents I decided I’d play again in Grand Central Station after work today. I began to sing around six o’clock and managed to make a little over eleven bucks plus a subway token by the time the cops arrived and ran me off. I took a train downtown & spent four-sixty on chicken pies and a loaf of bread. Right now I’ve got a freezer full of chicken pies.”
Other journal entries capture, in stream-of-consciousness fashion, the energy of a certain music scene: “There’s a guy talking about a pig … Will Rambeaux is here & he told me about a party in Huntsville, Alabama, that was held for Truman Capote after he gave a lecture at a college there. According to Will, Truman read the first two chapters from his book Answered Prayers at the lecture. Clifton Chenier played at the party … Mary, the waitress, is smoking a cigarette and listening to the show … Maggie Roche is standing alone & sorta swaying to the music. It’s acoustic stuff.”
Forbert of course provides the outline of his life in Big City Cat, his early days of playing music in Meridian with his friends, his girlfriends and marriages, his great success with “Romeo’s Tune,” and his descent for a time into drugs and drink. “One of things readers might be surprised to learn from the book,” he says, “is that I don’t think it’s general knowledge that I had to go into rehab.” He’s also candid regarding his disappointment about not being able to follow up on the success of “Romeo’s Tune”: “Any career disappointments I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the ‘new Bob Dylan.’ I never put any credence in that. I knew enough to know the tag put me in some pretty good company, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, and Loudon Wainwright being three. I’m sure they would agree that what it basically conjured was a talent for poetic storytelling. As far as whatever literal expectations it might set up, it was nothing to be taken seriously. … In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of ‘Romeo’s Tune.’ I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”
The best part of his memoir, though, are Forbert’s reflections on music and songwriting. Forbert says he was always attracted to this “form called songs.”
“The thing about songs is that they’re magical. They can contain so much power packed into three minutes. It’s such an interesting puzzle to put one together consciously or unconsciously. You’re working with such strong strains — weaving together lyrics, be they inane or profound. What’s the difference, really, as long as they fit well? You have the strength of the music, you have the strength of the harmonies, and of course you have the strength of rhythm. In rock ‘n’ roll, the beat has always been insistent. In modern pop music, the beat has taken over. All of this sort of tells you what songs mean to me. I’ve never really been interested in being a musician’s musician, nor could I have been. … I wound up in what is loosely called folk music because it has a strong strain of tradition to it and very often a true story — what’s going on on the ground, in the culture, the news, the community, the world … There’s something in that that resonates with me. It’s part of why I enjoy doing what I am doing.”
Forbert’s joy in writing songs infects his new album, The Magic Tree, that releases the same day as his memoir. The album offers a series of songs gathered from previously recorded acoustic demos to which he’s added new backing tracks. The ethereal title track kicks off the album energetically with an upbeat tempo as it sifts through the powerful markers of memory. A second version of the same song appears toward the end of the album. On this take, Forbert mirrors the forlorn wistfulness of the song in his slowed-down, spare arrangement of guitar and harmonica and lightly played percussion. The shuffling rhythm of “Lookin’ at the River in the Rain,” floating on a cascade of aching pedal steel, mirrors the drops of rain falling in the lyrics, and the musical structure does recall the Cascades’ pop hit, “Rhythm of the Rain.” “Diamond Sky” scampers along, almost merrily, with a sonic structure that recalls Dire Straits; the lead guitar riffs on the song’s bridge sound as if Mark Knopfler might be playing. “Only You (And Nobody Else)” skips along on a blues-folk path, driven by bright guitars; Forbert cleverly adds lyrics from “Come on in My Kitchen” toward the end of the song. The Magic Tree showcases Forbert’s restless creativity and his ability to weave all styles of music into his songs, and his memoir, Big City Cat, offers a glimpse into the ways that Forbert continues to develop this gift of creativity that has sustained him all these years.