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Still Strumming: Steve Forbert
the Right Place at the Right Time
In 1980, the radio airwaves were filled with the sounds of the song “Romeo’s Tune,” by Steve Forbert. The catchy single became a huge hit for the Meridian, Mississippi native, and it made him a star after having spent several years crafting his songwriting and singing skills down South, as well as in the music clubs of New York City’s Greenwich Village. The success of that song has enabled Forbert to maintain a lengthy and productive music career; he has released 13 studio recordings, including his latest – “The Place and the Time” – which came out on March 31. Another recent release is "Meridian," a live CD/ DVD featuring his band The Soundbenders to go along with the many compilations and archival releases that are currently available on Steve’s website: steveforbert.com. For those not familiar with his music, you may recognize him for his part in one of the most memorable music videos ever produced, when Steve appeared as Cyndi Lauper’s tuxedo-dressed, flowercarrying boyfriend near the end of the video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
Steve is 54, has three children, and spends a good part of the year touring; however, when he is not on the road, he spends time with his girlfriend ofmore than 7 years, Diane, with whom he shares a house on the Jersey Shore. The two actually met for the first time in 1982 at Big Man’s West, a nightclub that was once located in Red Bank and owned by Clarence Clemons. After having gone their separate ways, and having families of their own, the two reunited in the early part of this decade.
A member of theMississippiMusicians Hall of Fame since 2006, Steve maintains his loyalty and dedication to crafting the great songs and music that have enabled him to keep his fans engaged for many years. Recently, he took time from his busy schedule to sit down and talk about his life and career with Living In–The Jersey Shore.
LIH: What was life like as a truck driver in Mississippi before you tried to make it big in New York City?
SF: I wasn’t driving from here to San Antonio. I was delivering lawn mowers and refrigerators and things like that, believe it or not. People would buy swing sets and we would have to deliver them. So when they went out of business it was like, “Okay. I don’t have a job, I’m 21, and it’s now or never.”
LIH: You moved from Mississippi to New York City in your early 20’s. What made you decide to move, and what was that experience like?
SF: I was already involved in songwriting. A friend and I had already made an album. We had shopped it in California but could not get any interest, so we sort of went back to square one. There really wasn’t anything you could do with original music in Mississippi…you couldn’t even play it in clubs. I had a couple of songs published in Memphis, but that did not mean anything. [Having] two songs accepted by a publishing company is not a career. They could sit there for 3 or 4 years without anyone recording them, which is exactly what happened. I didn’t want to go to California. I didn’t relate to the Eagles as much as I related to the music history of New York City and all that was going on there.You had the CBGB, the Ramones, Patti Smith. It was all new and exciting. You also had what was left of the Greenwich Village tradition, which was playing acoustic guitar, and that’s what I was doing. New York City seemed like a really promising place…and it was.
LIH: When you first got to New York City, how did you go about finding places to play to get established in the music scene?
SF: It was difficult.You don’t just arrive somewhere and they say come play Friday and Saturday night; it took months to get any kind of paying thing, so I just played anywhere. But this was New York City, and it was everything I was looking for. There was lots of original music. There were lots of kids writing songs. One well known opportunity was the Folk City hoot night on Tuesdays. You would have to get to a place at 6 and take a number (which was a playing card), and you might not get on until midnight. We would even wait 30 minutes just to get a number. We all sang Beatle songs while killing time. It was very positive. It took a while but it was all fun; it was like being a kid in a candy store…it was exactly where I wanted to be.
LIH: Did you have a regular job while you were trying to find places to play your music?
SF: I was a messenger (on foot). I got to know midtown [Manhattan] and getting around on the subway. Here was the greatest city in the world, and my job was going all over. I kind of liked it. It was like being a journalist in a way, wondering what’s next.
LIM: You eventually played at the CBGB, which became a legendary club for American punk and punk-influenced bands like the Ramones and Blondie. Did you enjoy playing there? How did they respond to you?
SF: What a lot of people forget is that the CBGB, when it originally opened, punk music had not happened yet. It was called CBGB & OMFOG for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers (gormandizers were voracious eaters – of music – in this case). So (founder) Hilly Kristal liked country music. When I came in there with an acoustic guitar, it was not like people said you are on the wrong side of the Bowery, go away. Hilly said, “Come in Tuesday afternoon, and we’ll listen to you.” In a few weeks they putme on stage before John Cale and Talking Heads. People were a lot more open minded than you would think; looking back, people were ready for anything. There was a lot more variety in the club then, so it was not that strange.
LIH: Who were your biggest influences in music?
SF: I did a tribute record to Jimmie Rodgers (considered the father of country music), so that’s certainly a big one.And for me it was all the people that were really popular in the mid-60’s on the radio. It was a lot of different things. I started singing in the church…a lot of those hymns I really like. We also had a teen center, where they had dances for teenagers, and that was very influential. The older bands in town were working there, and we looked up to them. They weremaybe 18 and in high school. I used to go to those things, watch those guys, and soak up everything. It was really a great, innocent time. If a guy could play “Whiter Shade of Pale” on the combo organ and do it right, we would just stand back in awe. Quite often there was a band there called The Endless Chain (with Paul Davis, who as a solo artist went on to make several hit records). We just went to go watch them play three sets on a Friday night.We graduated to playing those ourselves, and I ended up playing [at]my own senior prom.
LIH: What made you want to pick up a guitar for the first time?
SF: Really…the Byrds. The Beatles, of course, but to actually learn how to play it and sing with it…when the Byrds came out with “Mr. Tambourine Man” that sealed it.
LIH: How long did it take you to get confident in your guitar playing?
SF: We had these plastic guitars – you couldn’t tune them – and we began to do shows in the neighborhood. I sang at the top of my lungs and I meant every syllable. Then we graduated to getting real guitars and actually learning how to play them. I guess by the time I was 14 we were working.We got jobs playing regular dances at themental institution on Saturdaymornings for the patients. Our band was called The Epics.
LIH: What was that experience like?
SF: We probably had stage fright.You've got to start somewhere, and it was a pretty good place for that.
LIH: What is your favorite guitar to play?
SF: A1949 Gibson SJ. I have had it for 30 years.
LIH: How did you get it?
SF: It’s kind of like in a movie. I got the record deal, and for the first time I had a few dollars, so I decided to upgrade and I bought myself a vintage quality Gibson guitar at Matt Umanoff’s in the Village. It’s a little temperamental, but the older they get the better they are.
LIH: Who taught you to play guitar?
SF: She called herself Virginia Shine. She had written a song that had been published, and she was a cousin of Jimmie Rodgers. She taught guitar; she had a converted chicken shack, but she made it into a studio. It was full of junk. She called it a studio because she had a reel-to-reel and maybe an electrovoicemike. I had already taken guitar lessons where you learn scales and what fingers to use, and that didn’t work forme. She said to pick a song on the radio you want to learn and we’ll have it ready for next week. Her daughter would write out the lyrics, and she would put in the chords. You would take that and learn it that week and [then] tell her what song you wanted to learn next week. Virginia called everyone “Sugar.” She was a big, ol’, huge gal, and lessons were $1.50 per hour. At the end of the hour she would say, “Do you need any change, Sugar?”…meaning, “Okay, the hour is up.” Her daughter would signal from the house that the lesson was over by cutting the electricity on and off. The lights would blink, and you’d know your lesson was over. I loved it because it was just about the song, and you would sing it for her. She just listened and wasn’t very critical.
LIH: What do you play besides guitar?
SF: Piano. It’s funny. I took a lot of lessons and I didn’t think I got much out of them.We had a woman in the neighborhood. She had a grand piano and played by ear. I would go listen to her play. She told me I would never develop any speed playing chords with three fingers like I was doing. That 20 seconds right there seemed a lot better than any of the piano lessons I took.
LIH: What does it take to write a song? How do you go about actually crafting one so it meets your standards?
SF: It depends on how distracted and busy your mind gets [and] that has a lot to do with getting older. The younger you are the easier it is to write something on a piece of paper in 20 minutes and be done with it. The older you get, the more responsibilities and things you are involved in…the reality [that] you are not living the world of a 21-year-old, carefree, freewheeling kid…it’s not quite as automatic. The thing about it is you have to have a sixth sense about what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t have that, then you can’t write songs. There are no rules. I think learning to play a lot of songs through your teen years helps.
LIH: What made you want to be a singer/songwriter?When did you know you could make a career of it?
SF: I was never going to be a musician, per se. There was a song by the Blues Magoos called “We Ain’t Got Nothin’Yet” and the solo was pretty involved. It was harder than “Wipeout” or “Pipeline.” I couldn’t play it, so I realized I wasn’t going to be a lead guitar player. I liked singing and playing rhythm guitar.When I got serious about writing songs, when I was 17, it was just easy. People like to do things they are good at and are good at things they like to do. I kept doing a lot of it. I threw awaymost of the early songs because I got to a point where I didn’t think they were good enough. There was so much potential. There was somebody good coming along all the time…so many good people appearing all the time. I figured, “Why couldn’t I be another one?” There seemed to be so much opportunity. [It] seemed like it wouldn’t be a problem.
LIH: You had a big hit with “Romeo’s Tune” in 1980. Did you have a good feeling about it in the studio?
SF: Yeah, I did. We recorded it two or three times until we got the version we wanted. We felt it was important. We tried in Nashville and didn’t get it. I'd done a demo of it in Chelsea with some of the players from the first album. We tried it in Nashville and didn't get it. We went to New York and thought we would get it with some people up there but we didn’t get it at all, so we went back to Nashville and tried it again. It was such a good combination of musicians that we recorded two or three other things on that trip back, and that improved the whole album. We knew it was a catchy thing and we knew that people liked it since I had been singing it solo at some shows, and I had a real good record producer – John Simon. He was right on top of it and did a good job.
LIH: Where did the idea of the song come from?
SF: It was a love song. It was so long ago. I wrote it so fast I don’t remember… and it didn’t have a last verse. So Linda Stein, who wasmymanager, said I needed one more verse at the end, so I added one while on tour in France. She was right.
LIH: What was your reaction to its success?
SF: I thought that I would keep on doing records and maintain the same momentum. So that’s what I did. There were a lot of other things that I should have seen and taken a look at more objectively, but I didn’t know that. I was very, very busy.Alot is expected of you and you expect a lot of yourself, too, but you are also real busy. Touring through Germany and Japan doesn’t happen to everyone, so if you are trying to be objective and make some real careful decisions, that’s quite a challenge. It’s a hard thing to sustain. You have to be really bright, really focused, and have some really good guidance.
LIH: How did it change your life?
SF: It made me enough of a success and name factor to still be able to do it. It changed my life in a really good way because what I thought I would be doing all my life…it really helped me do.You see guys who never have that much visibility who get burned out, because you can’t break through unless you have some success of some kind that you can sustain.
LIH: What makes you keep touring and performing?What do you get out of it?
SF: I like it. There’s a song T-Bone Burnett wrote called “Kill Switch.” It says, "There are those who play for money, babe, and there are those who play for fame, there are still those who only play for the love of the game." I don't know what it means to him, but I like it. Playing solo I can really have a lot of fun with it. It’s very unregimented.
LIH: How many shows do you play a year?
SF: Over 100.
LIH: Where do you like playing?
SF: This whole area is really good – Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York State. That’s the best.
LIH: How would you describe your career?
SF: I would describe it as lucky. I like what I do. You have to constantly readjust your reality of it.
LIH: What do you do when you are not performing?
SF: Well, I have three kids and one is 14; I am involved with getting her places and [doing] things. A big deal with me is walking the dog (Neezus, who is 13) and letting the dog run free. That gets me out of the house.
LIH: Some people may know you from being the “boyfriend” in Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls JustWanna Have Fun” video. How did that come about?
SF: Cyndi Lauper was in a group called the Blue Angels. I went to see several shows and I got to know the group. Then she left the group and started a solo career. She asked me if I would be in the video since I was doing pretty well at the time and it would help the video. So I said sure, and the thing turned into one of the most played videos of all time. Kids still like the song. It’s kind of timeless. It was a block away from where I lived. It was on a Sunday, but it was no problem getting there. I was done in 2 hours. It was done in 2 hours.
LIH: What do you enjoy about living in Monmouth County…on the Shore?
SF: I like it here. People like coming here. There's a lot of Rock 'n Roll in the air. The Stone Pony, for example, is an institution. Ocean Grove is such a remarkable place. It's like a set constructed on a movie lot, but it's real! The beaches are quite nice. The whole Jersey Shore is a very vital place.You can't think of another place up and down the coast that has that kind of vitality.
La Hacienda in Bradley Beach
The Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker Suite
long-winded "leave your message after the beep" or "press 5 to leave a call back number," etc.
Three PeopleYouWould Like to Have DinnerWith:
Tom Hanks, Loretta Lynn, and photographer Clarence John Laughlin
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