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I went to see Highway of Sight, Steve Forbert’s cell phone photo exhibit, this past Saturday at the ART629 Gallery in Asbury Park. I had been feeling a little anti-social all day, so it really was a good thing to hear from Nancey, my good friend and concert-going buddy, who convinced me to quit cocooning and come out and play. Thanks, Nancey—I appreciate that! The two of us have such fun hanging out and being Forbert groupies together- How could I miss this one?
As I came in the door, I was surprised by Steve, who said hello, remembered my name and that he had seen me the week before at his show at The Record Collector in Bordentown. I am not sure he remembered that I interviewed him for the 2008 Songwriter’s Market. He couldn’t have known that a few years ago I was contemplating using the title of this blog entry as the title of a book. The book would be based on a slice of autobiography – soul-searching in the years around my father’s passing and other lesser life complications – with the backdrop of my strange pursuit of this quietly enduring folksinger. For a long time I have also wanted to write about the power, mostly positive, I think, that exists in music hero worship, and the bonds and creativity borne out of fandom. When I heard about the recent publication of I Think I Love You I felt scooped, but whatever—I have different insights and stories to tell. There are quite a few books living in my head. One day, some of them will escape and find themselves written down, I promise.
The photos were simple, telling bits of Americana and curious things found along the trail of a touring musician. In this show, Forbert seemed to favor repeating items – like soda bottles or rows of eggs – that reminded me of early industrial innovation. I was checking out the images, wondering why an artist finds a particular fascination, or vice versa. The artist himself had been affable and talkative with attendees all evening. He managed to surprise me again and out of the blue walked up and asked, “So what’s the deal?” He wanted to know about the town I live in, and which photo was my favorite. My fave of the moment was “Glass Stems in Case.”
His question got me to confront something I had only idly mused over before:
Seriously, what is the deal?
Why this cyclical fixation (and the requisite goofy crush that goes with it) on the unassuming Steve Forbert and his live performances? I have the records and CDs, but it is mainly about the live show. I’ve seen him more in concert than quite a few of my other fangirl obsessions like Steely Dan, Gary Wilson (I know, he doesn’t play that much), and even Devo.
Though it is fun to revel in the mysterious nature of my adoration, I can say a little about what draws me:
Storytelling. Forbert is a solid craftsman of songs of struggle, love, work, and everyday greatness. He is afraid of neither politics (“The Baghdad Dream,” the ever-evolving “Oil Song”) nor humor (“Strange Names – New Jersey’s Got ‘Em)”. One of the surprising byproducts of the emergence of kirtan chant into my life was a lessening of the impetus to tell stories in song. When you are at OM, what more is there to say? I feel the stories reemerging now, and can look to the art of cutting to the core of basic human experience in Forbert’s best tunes for guidance.
He loves his career. I have heard him say more than once that he is grateful for the early success of “Romeo’s Tune” because it has enabled him to do what he likes for all these years. Another artist might be forever angry that meteoric success didn’t continue unabated. Steve seems to get that he has a good life and a really cool gig going on.
Perfect timing. Honestly, I believe this all started back in the day the first time I heard WMMR play “Goin’ Down to Laurel.” My heart melted and I was changed in some intangible way. Later, “Romeo’s Tune” was the summer love theme playing in my head as I would travel hours by bus and train to Connecticut to see a girl I was crazy about who I’d met at summer camp.
He is earnest. The language he uses is often matter-of-fact, sometimes cute, and may deal with pain, but is not meant to cause pain. He can write a personal or cultural critique without the cutting cynicism that I actually love from other artists. A Steve Forbert song is like an antidote to an overdose of bitterness. His body of work tells us that he really wants the best for the world and all of us in it, without even so much as a devolutionary twist.
Inspiration. Whenever I’m nervous about whatever it is my next move ought to be, I remember these immortal words: “You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play.”