Big City Cat – My Life in Folk Rock by Steve Forbert: Book Review

Baby boomers have been blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to autobiographies from their musical heroes. Excellent tomes from Keith Richards, Bruce Cockburn and Bruce Springsteen stand alongside pretty good ones from Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Graham Nash and Eric Clapton.

In the category of musicians writing about moving from the hinterland to NYC, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith have been at the top of the list. Now we can add a third.

Steve Forbert pulled out of Meridian, Mississippi and did look back. He found explosive success once his first album was released in the mid 70s, and then rode the ups and downs of the music business over the ensuing decades. His new book is accompanied by a soundtrack of sorts, called The Magic Tree. Each stands tall on its own.

Like the earlier Dylan and Smith books, Forbert has a warm way of describing the pull of NYC and the ensuing challenges of getting traction, against the context of a small town upbringing.

Forbert describes his younger days venturing out of Meridian with his family, opening his eyes to life over the horizon. He takes music lessons from a cousin of Jimmie Rodgers, the prior musician of note from Meridian. Forbert gets early exposure to the songs of Hendrix and Cream via a junior college concert performance by The Royal Guardsmen, who quickly expired their repertoire of “Snoopy vs The Red Baron” songs.

I enjoyed his description of “curve balls,” unique songs which kept coming across the radio, as songwriters like Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman and Bob Dylan began singing about topics in angular ways. All of it caused Forbert to re-examine his Baptist upbringing. “Only the Edwin Hawkin’s Singers’ ‘Oh Happy Day’ seemed to celebrate redemption,” he writes.

But the music of the church was always a strong foundation for Forbert. He explains his love for Christmas songs. He later describes how, after forays through British rock, prog rock, Southern rock and myriad other styles he was most drawn to folk music. The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and contemporaneous songs by Simon and Garfunkel were primariily responsible for charting his own musical course.

Once Forbert settled in NYC, his sharp eye provided poignant observations about the differences between CBGB and Folk City, mostly related to attitude and volume. He frequented all the available venues, never leaving his guitar for fear it wouldn’t be there when he got back. He sang whenever and wherever he could. The simplicity of his successful audition at CBGB’s is an inspiration for aspiring musicians everywhere, but he provides no guarantee that your next slot would be opening for Talking Heads or John Cale.

His perspective on what life was like for a 20 something recently arrived in NYC is sharp:

“You go out on a Friday night and minutes don’t slam in your face. Your script seems to love to just keep writing itself.”

After his first two albums exploded and the next two failed to follow suit, Forbert had a crisis of confidence and fired everyone in his orbit. He bravely gives one of his several ex-managers a page and a half to air his side of the story (some of which involves Forbert sharing managers with The Ramones).

Toward the middle of the book a chapter presciently ends with “In time I’d feel differently, but in truth there’s nothing like being on a major label.” He also provides a salient business observation that despite the often-maligned CD format, it did a world of good by giving an economic reason for labels big and small to go deep into their vaults and digitize obscure tracks. All those tracks are now ostensibly available through the myriad digital streaming services which have essentially replaced formats like CD and vinyl.

Many stories of touring are sprinkled through the book; one of my favorites was Forbert sliding into Howlin’ Wolf’s dressing room to hear some vintage stories.

Well chosen lyrics (most each only four lines long) are sprinkled throughout the book; the credits reveal Forbert’s influences.

In a paragraph, almost standing alone toward the end of the book, Forbert offers a sparkling observation about the pull of music as excellent as any I have seen. He points out that if you sent “Clair de lune” or Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” into outer space and it reached creatures with an ability to hear, they would be moved or at least detect the mathematical order of it.

You wouldn’t necessarily need to know anything about life on earth to appreciate “Clair de lune.”

Forbert points out that music is objective, in that you wouldn’t need to know anything about earth to appreciate it. That can’t be said of Citizen Kane, a painting by Picasso or Warhol’s soup cans.

But a brief music piece like “Clair de lune,” written by one solitary earth creature, to my mind could be truly universal.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.