Talking With Music Stars: Steve Forbert Coming To Asbury Park’s House of Independents To Support The Light of Day Foundation

“It used to be all I had to worry about was music, beer and girls, probably in that order,” laughs Steve Forbert. However, only three years ago, Forbert’s life changed drastically when he was diagnosed with cancer. But these days, he’s back on the road in top form, much to the delight of a legion of fans, many of whom have been followers since his 1979 breakout hit, “Romeo’s Tune” and the Jackrabbit Slim album.

Born December 13, 1954 in Meridian, Mississippi, Forbert, who has adopted the Jersey Shore as his home, has been a critics favorite ever since he arrived on the music scene in the mid-’70s. His songs have been covered by the likes of Keith Urban, Roseanne Cash and Marty Stuart. He recently released his nineteenth studio album, The Magic Tree, and a long-awaited autobiography, Big City Cat: My Life In Folk Rock.

His House of Independents show will be happening on January 25, with a special 2 PM start time. Says Forbert, “It’s always nice to be invited to help a very worthy organization.”

Has your recent health scare had any noticeable effect on your songwriting, the way you view things when you get up in the morning, or your relationships with people you know?

Honestly, I try to sweep it all under the rug and just ignore it. My main memory of the time when I was recuperating was raising a small kitten I named Binky, not the grave nature of my health issues.

Warren Zevon, after his cancer diagnosis, said, “We all have to make sure to enjoy every sandwich.”

That’s very true.

When you were growing up, who were the first artists that really made an impression on you? Many of your contemporaries whom I’ve interviewed, cite The Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan TV appearance in March of ’64 as a life-changing event. Was it that way for you as well?

Well, of course I remember it, but I wasn’t really completely enchanted with music until I heard “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds. The sound of that record for me was completely enchanting, plus the there was also something I was picking up in the poetry between the lines. There was something special about this new “Folk Rock.”

So I’m sure Dylan must have been a major early influence.

Yeah, but at the time, I didn’t know Bob Dylan from Bobby Vinton or Bobby Vee, but pretty soon he had the big hit with “Like A Rolling Stone,” and that was fine, but to me, that was just another Top 40 hit. It wasn’t until later when I could actually research Dylan and go back to listen to his early records, to see where he was coming from. The more I did that, I soon realized that certain people were also mentioning Jimmie Rodgers who, ironically, was from my home town. So I started listening to Rodgers with a little more mature attitude about music and started saying, “Wow! This guy’s for real,” and then, when you find out that on his last recordings he was dying from tuberculosis and yodeling and singing that well, it was really incredible.

When you started playing in rock bands, while you were in high school, what were some of the records you were covering?

Oh, the records that were popular on our Top 40 stations. Things like “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love),” “Keep On Dancing” by The Gentrys but then, later on, we started doing things like “Colour My World” by Chicago. We’d do it all, man, from Bloodrock to Procol Harum.

When did you first move to New York and start performing in clubs and on the streets?

Back in ’76. I was doing a lot of “hoots” and open mics, which took a lot of dedication. I wasn’t seeing anyone getting record deals right on the spot. I played a lot in a club called Folk City, and then Kenny’s Castaway’s opened up on Bleeker Street, which was a good thing because he was letting people do their own original songs, which was great for me. So, I just keep chipping away. I also started playing The Bitter End which became The Other End, and got to open for people like Dave Van Ronk.

What was the club scene like when you started doing the rock clubs? Did you ever play Max’s Kansas City?

I didn’t want to play there. Too much heroin up there and too much attitude. CBGB’s was more light-hearted and a lot more friendly than people assumed. It’s not that a lot of those cats that played CB’s weren’t using heroin. They were, but that wasn’t the main vibe there.

What memories do you have of Johnny Ramone?

Well we all know that Johnny was very dictatorial but, as a musician, if you think of a Ramones track like, shall we say, “California Sun” or “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” and you could take out Johnny’s guitar, it would just sound pretty poppy. The cat was really angry, and it showed in his playing. His work on his Mosrite was so brutal and aggressive, it really helped to create what they called “Punk Rock.”

How did you get signed with Epic Records?

It was through Nat Weiss. Walter Yetnikoff, who was the president of CBS Records, let Nat have his own custom label, Nemperor, and basically let him do whatever he wanted with it.

After you had your first success with “Romeo’s Tune” and the Jackrabbit Slim album, some critics were comparing your work with Bob Dylan’s. As a new artist, did you feel it worked for or against you?

You know, it was already becoming a cliché. People has said that about Bruce Springsteen, and then John Prine, and Elliot Murphy, and then Loudon Wainwright, so you could detect a pattern there. I know if I read an article and it says, “These guys sound a lot like The Byrds,” or someone else I like, I might go out and buy the record, back when you could buy records, so there was a good part to it. When some critics writing about me mentioned Dylan, to me it just meant they were saying my music had some accent on lyrics, that kind of communication.

Was Romeo’s Tune” based on a real person?

Oh, it is what it is… about a really cute girl in Meridian, Mississippi.

What immediate changes did the success of that record and Jackrabbit Slim bring to your life?

Well, of course, I suddenly became more in demand, just a lot of activity and the typical confusion, an insane amount of instant celebrity. I had come up on my own from a small town in Mississippi, and I was just trying to assimilate everything, and tried to tone all of it down, but fame can get to you. People suddenly want to meet you, when you just want to be yourself. You don’t want to become full-time dealing with the feedback loop of fame. I didn’t let it completely drive me crazy, like a lot of cats who didn’t make it.

Any imminent plans for a new album?

Yeah, I’m working on it, but more slowly than I used to. I’m not the 23-year-old kid with no distractions. It’s a different kind of energy, but that’s OK.

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