Steve Forbert w/Becky Kessler
Sept. 15, 7:30 p.m., $20, Arch Street Tavern, 85 Arch St., Hartford, (860) 246-7610, archstreettavern.com.
It's less than three minutes into a conversation with Mississippi songwriter Steve Forbert, and I've already botched his lyrics.
"Don't look down, Pollyanna, don't look down at all," Forbert sings on the chorus of "Don't Look Down, Pollyanna," what I thought was the first track of Over With You, Forbert's first studio album in three years (his 14th overall), which came out on Sept. 11. "Shreveport, Louisiana is just as high as Niagara Falls," he continues, "You feel as though you're over a barrel, think you might be close to the edge, You're hoping there'll be somebody there who will get you back intact off the ledge."
It's a song about 21st century hardships, foreclosures and depleted savings, one of 10 outstanding tracks Forbert recorded with producer Chris Goldsmith, who's worked with Ben Harper, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Ruthie Foster. A music business veteran, Forbert knows his way around a struggle or two. Within months of moving to New York in 1978, a period during which he played on billiards tables in Bleecker Street dives and at CBGB's, Forbert, now 57, signed a record deal with CBS. His first album, Alive On Arrival, drew comparisons with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. "Romeo's Tune," from his second album Jackrabbit Slim, went to #11 on the Billboard charts. He was featured in Rolling Stone and played Cyndi Lauper's boyfriend in the "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" video. Taken out of context, it's hard to shake the sense that "Pollyanna"'s chorus is Forbert talking to his young self, a folk-punk ingenue in the Big Apple.
Wrong again. "I don't think so," Forbert said, by phone from Asbury Park, N.J., far from his Nashville, Tenn. home. (Funny how song interpretation is like batting average: even the greatest are wrong two-thirds of the time.)
"By the way," Forbert continued, "the album now starts with 'All I Ask of You.' The sequence has changed." (Strike three.) The conjunction though, Forbert tells me, in the chorus of "Pollyanna," its stature in the song cycle now diminished by its later placement (it's the seventh track), was later taken out and replaced with the word if. (My pre-release copy was an earlier mix.)
"Though is a very fat word, like a bagel," Forbert said. "It's not a thin word. If is like a piece of celery."
You don't argue about conjunctions with a guy who writes songs for a living, certainly not with a songwriter of Forbert's stature. "That's a lot of what I do," Forbert said. "Well, it's a small part of it, actually. But with songwriting, that's one of the things you are conscious of. Words have certain velocities... You'd feel as though 'though' was a roadblock." He's a brilliant lyricist, and not surprisingly a huge fan of Hal David, who passed away last week.
"You look at what he wrote with Burt Bacharach," Forbert said. "They were quintessential songwriters... To my shame, when people asked me who influenced me, I never said Bacharach and David... But I like Dionne Warwick and there's no better record than 'Walk On By.' But I wasn't coming home every day putting on Dionne Warwick records... I would come home and listen to the Rolling Stones and Herman's Hermits."
Once or twice a year, some piece of news will inspire Forbert to write a topical song. "It's really pretty random," Forbert said. "I wrote one years ago on the oil spills... It's fun to play, but it's a protest song." Other things leave impressions on Forbert that bubble up in unexpected places; the phrase "don't look down, Pollyanna," for example, comes from the 1960 Jane Wyman/Hayley Mills Disney film Pollyanna.
"It just stuck in my mind," Forbert said. "And then years later I find I want to write a song about a person who lost their home, who signed a mortgage they couldn't afford, and has gotten to dire straits and is adrift. You make the connection about 'don't look down, Pollyanna... Hopefully it works together. But you see, it's very abstract. It wouldn't be something that I'm consciously using. That's part of the fun part of writing songs, putting together different disconnected pieces that have nothing to do with each other. I don't think most people will ever remember the movie, and that's fine. It's fun to sing. So that's it."
There are plenty of band-friendly rockers on Over With You and scattered throughout Forbert's back catalogue. But Forbert prefers playing solo shows. "I know my songs," he said. "I can be very very spontaneous, and that's what I like, every night being different, taking requests and letting it go the way it wants to go. I would hate to be in a Broadway show. It's just the way I am. I just really like spontaneity." That attitude extends to the studio, where he tries to capture songs in a few takes.
"I've enjoyed recording as live as possible, without a lot of overdubs," Forbert said. He admits if he were more successful, he'd have to have more of a game plan on the road, but he doesn't seem to miss it much. "The Rolling Stones: they can't ruminate over one situation," Forbert said. "They had to keep moving and reach those back rows of the stadium, the lighting cues, the more people on stage. The money's great, but it must be boring."
Forbert plays more than 100 shows a year, and this marks his first appearance in Hartford in quite some time. "It's been awhile," he said. "I think it was a bit of a cultural wasteland in the '80s, during the Reagan era, if I remember correctly."