Steve Forbert

The Boston Globe: Steve Forbert: ‘I became a music junkie, and that’s the way it’s been ever since’

In his new memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock,” Steve Forbert shares an anecdote.

As a kid, on a family vacation in Biloxi, Miss., he came upon a jukebox at the hotel. “I fell so in love with the Byrds’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ that I would wait there all afternoon and as teenagers walked up I would suggest they play B-10. A guy would be standing there with his girlfriend discussing what to play and I would butt in, ‘So how about B-10?’ ”

He listened to the song “over and over — basking in it,” he writes. “The sound was almost visual, three-dimensional to me. I don’t know where my parents and my brother and sister were. I didn’t care.” At 63, the self-proclaimed “music junkie” still seems to be standing at the jukebox, content to bask in song. A recent phone interview was peppered with passionate digressions (“I could relate to the boredom or disgust of prog-rock movements,” he says, “although I’ll defend side one of ‘Thick as a Brick’ for 20 minutes.”)

The Meridian, Miss., native now lives in New Jersey with his longtime girlfriend and says he’s fully recovered after undergoing kidney surgery and chemotherapy last year. Co-written with Therese Boyd, his memoir was released this month, as was his new album, “The Magic Tree.” We caught up with him as he readies for two stops in Cambridge this weekend.

Q. I love that you once played the toy guitar in your pretend band, The Mosquitos. What were you like as a kid?

A. My idea of what to do usually involved being outside. We were always building treehouses, devising ways to catch chipmunks. . . . I was a fairly slight build, not cut out for football, and didn’t have much enthusiasm for basketball. Music came along as an alternative to the sports and fraternity club high school experience. As I got more interested in music in junior high and high school, that became my obsession.

I grew up with Top 40 radio, which had so much variety. There was never a dull moment — anything from Archie Bell & the Drells to “Hello, Dolly,” by Louis Armstrong to “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf. . . . Next thing, I was collecting LPs, like anyone else. I became a music junkie, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

Q. When did you start writing songs?

A. Around age 17. It came pretty easy; I was writing two or three a week. I got in the habit of it, and it became a real dream to just go ahead and spend my life doing that.

Q. What sparked your move to New York City?

A. The Ramones and Patti Smith were from New York City, and I’m a rock fan, dyed-in-the-wool. New York seemed to be a place to get noticed. The added bonus was you didn’t have to have a car — in fact, it was better if you didn’t. I didn’t have money, didn’t want to maintain a car. I was traveling light.

Q. What was it like landing in New York?

A. I was wide-eyed and nervous. These were the days when you could go to New York City and get a sublet with someone for $350 a month and you’d have the bathroom down the hall, and the hall wasn’t lit, old ancient bathtubs, no showers, all the windows were covered in with those crisscross window protectors — that was new to me. Even if you didn’t have anything, you had to protect it [laughs].

Q. What prompted the song “Big City Cat”?

A. [Quotes lyrics] “I’m s’posed t’ be happy, I’m here where it’s at/ I’m a face in the crowd, I’m a big city cat.” I was trying to just encourage myself, I guess. Because some of those winters were pretty damn cold. I supposed I could say “Big City Cat” was a pep talk.

Q. It’s interesting that you played CBGB.

A. Like I said, I was attracted by the Ramones and Patti Smith, although I was more likely to be listening to “Grievous Angel” by Gram Parsons, but I liked everything. After a while, I thought: I’m still singing in the street. What have I got to lose? Why shouldn’t I go to CBGB?

Q. You once insisted your managers keep you off the cover of Rolling Stone.

A. I want to stress: I was on my own. This all just happened particularly quickly. I was trying to make sense of it all and protect my psyche. [Rolling Stone] said, “We can put you on the cover.” They caught me at a time when I was really trying to process it all. I didn’t want to make a bigger leap into the machine. . . . I just declined.

Q. Do you regret that decision?

A. I don’t regret it, because I look at it philosophically: Let’s suppose I was right. Let’s suppose it increased expectations and made it harder for me to meet expectations, and put more pressure on me as an individual. I’m a person, and this is my life — it doesn’t have to be by some rock encyclopedia design. I don’t regret it because I’m talking to you right now.

Q. Looking back, what are some of your favorite memories?

A. Things like singing on MacDougal and Third on a busy crowded night, when I looked up and saw Ravi Shankar walking by and smiling. It felt like a real blessing.

Q. You write about your Baptist upbringing, and listening to mentions of God and Jesus from Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen — how pop song writers “began to take liberties with the Bible.”

A. I grew up Southern Baptist. I was often at church. I grew up with that doctrine. So I put all that in the book not so much because it’s about me, but [to show] what that time was like. It was an organic change in the culture. It was happening from all angles. Jesus wasn’t getting a free ride on the radio anymore.

Q. Were you influenced by gospel on the radio?

A. I didn’t explore that world. For me it was Sunday school, choir, Bible vacation school. We didn’t go to a lot of tent revivals.

Q. Are you a practicing Baptist now?

A. My main premise is you first have to be honest with how much we really don’t know. . . . I’m not a real churchgoer, but we don’t know what’s going on. I don’t scoff at things.

STEVE FORBERT At Porter Square Books, Cambridge. Sept. 29, 3 p.m., Free. At Club Passim, Cambridge. Sept. 29, 7 p.m. Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at
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