Being touted as “the new Dylan” doesn’t mean about to be born again. Historically, anyway, it means about to be professionally dead. Yet Steve Forbert, 25, the latest successor so blessed (or cursed) by the critics, had a solid 1978 debut LP, Alive on Arrival, and a Top 20 single, Romeo’s Tune, on his second, Jackrabbit Slim. His current follow-up album, Little Stevie Orbit, is destined, despite the music recession, to anchor Forbert in the pop mainstream.
Comparisons aside, Forbert is one of the freshest songwriting talents in recent years. In his near-whispered rasp, which is actually as close to Rod Stewart as to Dylan, he delivers lyrics which are remarkably thoughtful for rock. “It’s often said that life is strange,” he sings matter-of-factly in January 23-30, 1978. “But compared to what?”
As for the demons of Dylanology, they still haunt Forbert, who split Mississippi for the same folk-rock picaresque trail leading to Greenwich Village. Steve also demonstrated a similar flair for reinventing the facts of his life as he went along (Steve Forbert, though, is his real name). But he stresses, “A ‘new Dylan’ is not what I’m trying to be, or what I think of myself. I’m not a poet or novelist. I write pop songs.” Regarding that fertile imagination, he has, for instance, described his father, Sam, variously as a lettuce farmer or owner of a True Value hardware store as well as a retired Air National Guardsman—which he is. Explains Forbert’s manager, Linda Stein: “Steve likes to puzzle people. Eccentricity is an essential part of becoming a legend. He likes to tell lies.”
But the real Forbert is also quirkily—and immodestly—opinionated on a wide variety of subjects and can unburden himself of the truth (as he sees it) when assessing his fellow legend makers. Springsteen, he declares, “takes on tasks that are like recreating the Bible.” He dismisses the Eagles’ sound as “too clean,” and rips Sgt. Pepper as “the worst album the Beatles ever made.” His few idols include Elvis Presley and George Jones (“the greatest singer alive”) and not one New Waver. Most of them, he says, are simply “machine-cold robots using electronic crutches.” As for his own studio style, Forbert claims that most tracks are cut in one take only and require very little overdubbing: “I write love songs. I try to capture how I feel at the moment.”
How he felt growing up in Meridian, Miss., a small city of 45,000, was mostly “bored. It was like a vacuum.” Then he found a brand-new bag at age 11 when his father got him an acoustic guitar. He played in local party bands with names like the Mosquitos and Sebastion Carrot, but still itched to hang with the in-crowd of jocks and cheerleaders. “There’s nothing harder,” he recalls, “than forcing yourself to fit into cliques you’re just not cut out for. Finally I quit trying and have been much happier since.” Forbert did stick around through two years at Meridian Junior College before Grey-hounding to New York in 1976. “I’m into destiny,” he says. “Some people are just born to make music.”
Plus money, though Forbert lives in a “junky apartment in total disarray.” He has no TV set or car, and his things are Mexican food, light beer, Southern writers (Capote’s his favorite) and wandering the streets after midnight. He has a girlfriend, Wendy Nerman, 25, a waitress, but reports: “I’m not ready for marriage or kids. I’m not even ready for cats.” Or, he insists, drugs. “Musicians take them when they don’t feel at home or connected on this planet,” he philosophizes. “The desperation and anxiety of such cosmic blues may turn people into psychopathic murderers, bank robbers or politicians. Others become so-called artists—painters or musicians.”
Of all of the above, Forbert is sure he’s in the right line of work. “The biggest thrill,” he beams, “is to write and sing a song that’s well accepted. Besides,” he adds, “what else am I gonna do?”