Steve Forbert, Jackrabbit Slim, and Blue Highways

Sure, it was only $1. But record people love anything they get for free. Not only that, but I recalled Steve Forbert’s Jackrabbit Slim not merely for the hit single “Romeo’s Tune,” but because it was a stone-cold fantastic record. Still is.

Marshall Bowden

My intention was to write this week about a Vinyl Find that I actually picked up last fall, so probably a year ago, a copy of Steve Forbert’s second album,1978’s Jackrabbit Slim. How I got this album is that I was in a resale shop on Belmont Avenue in Chicago, and I had picked out four albums, including a copy of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and I forget what else, but one of the records I threw on the pile was a $1 copy of Jackrabbit Slim. Condition VG+ both album and jacket. But when I got to the register and the lady who runs the show rang up my records, she looked at Steve’s album and said “You can have this one free.”

Sure, it was only $1. But record people love anything they get for free. Not only that, but I recalled JRS not merely for the hit single “Romeo’s Tune,” but because it was a stone-cold fantastic record. Still is.

Jackrabbit Slim and Steve Forbert in general make me think of the singer-songwriter era. Not just James Taylor, Carole King, or Neil Diamond, or even Dylan himself. It’s just that in the 1970s and into the 80s there were an incredible number of folks who grabbed a guitar or sat at a piano and wrote songs themselves. They could do the whole thing themselves and so they didn’t have to be in a band. Just one guy or gal, one instrument. In Chicago, we had great writers/performers like John Prine and Steve Goodman who bridged the gap between the folkie message songwriters of the counterculture and the country writers of their blue-collar dads.

Now, Steve Forbert didn’t just intend to be up on the stage himself. He had some rock tendencies, and he works well with a band, unlike some songwriters. Forbert has some of the same ability to recall the halcyon days of pre-Beatles rock without sounding like a pastiche as Springsteen or Tom Petty, but there’s also the tones of honky-tonks and country roads. I guess it’s what’s referred to these days as Americana. Back then there wasn’t really a name for it. It was just a good record.

It can’t have helped Forbert’s career, even after “Romeo’s Tune” became a hit, that the seventies were shifting musically from hippy jams and space music to punk and new wave rock. But he left the south for NYC anyway to take his chances as a songwriter and a performer, and in the process he’s become a true resident of the tri-state area, recently living not far from Asbury Park, NJ. This is an area of the country that ‘gets him,’ and from which he continues to draw inspiration.

It goes without saying that the songs on Jackrabbit Slim are uniformly well written, world-weary, and full of wry observations like “Light from the streetlamp seems to shine better/After the autumn has been here and gone.” Forbert gets a lot of help from a sympathetic band that adds emotional colors, particularly the organ of Paul Errico.

Another musician who makes a large mark on Jackrabbit Slim is longtime Elvis pianist Bobby Ogdin, whose country-influenced playing colors every tune, and provides ‘Romeo’s Tune’ with its instantly recognizable piano hook. Ogdin continued to do studio work with many well-known recording artists, but here he’s only two years out from his last gigs with Elvis and his playing is just incredible. Forbert even lucked out when the original producer decided to work on another project instead, and John Simon, best known for his production on The Band’s records, came aboard. Simon had an instinctive feel for Forbert’s music as well and all of these elements combined to make JRS, Forbert’s second record, even stronger than his debut. That’s rare.

But it’s not just that Steve Forbert could write a good song or that he had a good band and could make a good record. It’s not just his lyrics, filled with offbeat observations, wry putdowns, and weary melancholy. It’s in his voice, which has been called one of the most distinctive in recent pop music memory, and his delivery: a little cranky yet good-humored. Tired but not done yet. When he sings “I’m a worn-out sail/On the sidewalk sea” you just have to nod, because you know exactly what he means

Maybe it’s not coincidental that I pulled this album to write about at the same time that I started to reread William Least Heat Moon’s 1982 bestseller Blue Highways. The book is a journal of Moon’s trip around the United States taking only the back roads represented in the Rand McNally road atlas as blue lines on the map. Eschewing cities, he travels more or less around the perimeter of the country admiring the land, meeting random people with whom he talks about all kinds of things, and looking for something he can’t really define. It’s a generational book somewhere between On The Road and Wild where we learn a lot about America’s past and the history of its land and the people who live here as well as the changes that were taking shape as the eighties began.

It’s not that I’m romanticizing the time or the place–things were not really simpler, and they weren’t necessarily better for everyone. But I’m not alone in feeling like somewhere things began to go off the map, and now it’s hard to imagine a record like Jackrabbit Slim or a book like Blue Highways capturing people’s imaginations the way they did back then. Yet Forbert has managed what he always wanted–a long career as a songwriter and performer who has made a lasting impact on American popular music whether anyone has heard of him or heard his music. Indeed, there is a generation that has seen Forbert many times in the Cyndi Lauper video for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” without hearing a note of his music or having a clue as to who he is. Doesn’t matter. The records are there for anyone who wants to listen.

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