Steve Forbert - No Compromises
Steve Forbert’s new album, Compromised, opens with a cascading guitar riff that leads off a tune that resembles musically The Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare.” The tune soars with the jangly guitar that lies beneath Forbert’s gruff vocals and his harmonica solo on the bridge. And when we hear the song’s lyrics, we know we’re in Forbert territory—he’s a master at capturing in words a photo of a life in transition, a moment where the tawdry and grainy realities of a relationship reaching for balance and grounding and perhaps wholeness, recognizing that reconciliation can always only be partial and formed in halting steps. The song compares life to a dance in which each partner must be willing to give and take, listen and talk, lead and follow: “Compromise, compromise/I’ll back off if you’ll step up some;/Otherwise, otherwise, otherwise, oh,/We won’t get that much done, no, I know.”
It’s a perfect song to kick off an album filled with tales of brokenness, the search for resolution (“Rollin’ Home to Someone You Love”), the promise of music to usher us into a new moment and the seeds of the failure of hope buried in that music (“Welcome the Rolling Stones”), the freedom and limitlessness that time promises, and often fails to deliver, (“Time Seemed So Free”), and the yearning sparked by the sight of fleeting beauty (“Devil (Here She Comes Now)”).
On “You’d See the Things That I See (The Day John Met Paul),” Forbert imagines that first meeting between Lennon and McCartney. “Several years ago, I visited John’s home,” says Forbert, “and we went to lunch with the caretaker. At the end of that day, I got back to the hotel room, and I started thinking about wat John might have been thinking after that first meeting. He would have to compromise his ego, and maybe he was thinking that he’d have to acquiesce to Paul—even though he might not have liked it. I’m playing with some of their own lyrics in my song (“that boy,” “in my mind there’s a place,” “as any fool”), but I wanted to capture a picture of what I imagine to be John’s struggle both to acknowledge Paul’s great musical ability and to be willing to put aside his own ego so they could work together.”
The album closes with “Whatever, Man,” a playful song that pokes fun at our deep desire to be in control of our lives, no matter what, and our frustrations when events in our daily lives are beyond our control. Forbert picks up a contemporary expletive—“whatever!”—that in his inimitable way he turns on itself to parody the ways we pretend to shrug our shoulders at what we can’t control when that shrug signals frustration and the desire that life would be otherwise: “whatever, man, don’t let it drive you crazy…/that’s the way it’s been and prob’ly always will be/Ever what the cause of creed.”
I caught up with Steve Forbert by phone recently for a chat about his music and his new album.
HC: Tell me the story behind this album. Why did you decide to make it now?
Steve Forbert: I’m always thinking in terms of writing songs. Whenever I have a dozen or more, it adds up to a new chapter in my observations/chronicles, and I start organizing what it takes to get a new album out. I was having fun getting ready for a Jackrabbit Slim 35th anniversary tour with some musicians based on Cape Cod---Joey Spampinato, Kami Lyle, Tad Price, and Lou Cataldo. I asked them to also record with me. We were geared up for the live shows. It just made sense to take it further. My next call was to John Simon, who co-produced Jackrabbit Slim. He and I re-connected after 35 years and went through the new material carefully, getting ready for sessions in Woodstock. We got the bulk of our basic tracks recorded “live on the floor” in three or four sessions. After John went to Florida for the winter I put a lot more time into the project with musician and co-producer Jon Evans on Cape Cod. He proved to be an excellent partner for all the things that still needed to be done.
HC: How did you select the songs for the album? Were there other songs that didn’t make it onto the album?
Forbert: Yes, one called “Rain and Sleet and Snow” was left off (its title pretty much explains it). I added “Devil (Here She Comes Now),” which I’d done with multi-instrumentalist Marc Muller on the Jersey Shore. After the album was completed, so to speak, I went to Mobile, Alabama, and did some remixes with my old friend, Anthony Crawford. He added fiddle or banjo or lap steel to three songs. So I included these as more acoustic, “Americana”-sounding bonus tracks.
HC: Tell me a little bit about your approach to songwriting.
Forbert: It takes me longer these days to write a song. Once I feel strongly about a song idea, I make sort of a mental contract with myself that I am going to commit whatever work is required to bring that idea up to a “finished song” level.
HC: What are the elements of a great song?
Forbert: That’s hard to define. It has to be complete within itself in some way, however lengthy or minimal. There are no rules. I delved into this fun topic in a memoir I’ve been working on for the last year. “Tired of Waiting for You” by The Kinks is just three brief parts repeated. Who cares? It’s a classic. What a lot of people think of as a great song is often based on the singer or on the production of a recording. It’s the recording they relate to—hardly the actual “bare bones” of a song itself. Is “Da Doo Ron Ron” a great song? Would “Good Vibrations” have been a hit if The Troggs had recorded it? Maybe. Chips Moman simply cloned the last minute of The Gentrys’ “Keep on Dancin’” from the existing master tape, which was only about 90 seconds long. Check out where it fades back in. He fooled us into thinking it was a completed song.
I noticed the unique rhyme scheme in the verses of “Homeward Bound “ the other day—two lines that rhyme, then four that rhyme together—rather unusual. But some great songs don’t even pretend to rhyme.
HC: Who are your three greatest musical influences?
Forbert: Bob Dylan’s a big influence, to me mainly because he was such a maverick. Lots of people used to say he couldn’t even sing! Being as quirky as he’s been has given a lot of outsiders like me the inspiration to go for it. Jimmie Rodgers defined country music’s parameters and sold millions of records . . . all while dying of tuberculosis. He’s an inspiration to anyone. The Rolling Stones—I’ve always loved their music.
HC: Has the South influenced your music?
Forbert: Yes, of course, I grew up there, but I left the South as soon as I could. I was more shaped by The Byrds than by Nathan Bedford Forrest. I always do a few Jimmie Rodgers songs in my sets (I’m from his hometown, Meridian, Mississippi), and there is a little bit of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (written by a Canadian) in my personality, but I’m also formed by music such as John Cale’s Paris 1919 or “Crown of Creation” by Jefferson Airplane. When I first heard The Byrds on the radio, I knew I wanted to do this. It was something about the monolith of folk music lurking behind their song selections, along with the emotion of their sound, that grabbed me.
HC: What’s your favorite mistake?
Forbert: Not blowing up into a superstar might have been the best thing that happened to me, as strange as that might sound. I’ve stayed focused on songwriting and music and made an album every few years, and I’m still enjoying it. Some of the folks—look at Janis or Jimi—who became household names got trapped in the complexities of stardom and it killed them. “Not everyone can carry the weight of the world,” Michael Stipe once sang.
HC: How have you evolved as an artist over your career?
Forbert: You can hear the way I’ve evolved by listening to the lyrics. I’m going through my changes—-as everyone does. I couldn’t have written “Responsibility” from 1992’s The American in Me in 1977, and I couldn’t have written “When I Get to California” or certainly “Time Seemed So Free” from the new album, Compromised, in 1992.
HC: What’s next for you?
Forbert: Lots of clubs and theaters hopefully. I’ll be getting to know these new songs better and just letting the live shows create themselves with the way the atmosphere and audiences tend to vary from night to night.