Forbert’s Tune


It takes a special sort of young man to move from Meridian, Mississippi to New York City with little to his name beyond the guitar and harmonica that he knows will knock ‘em dead.

But that’s the sort of young man Steve Forbert was in 1976.

“I was very driven,” he said in a phone interview, “and I had the self-confidence it took to try anything.”

The attitude of Forbert’s Mississippi family toward his ambitions might be described as nonresistant.

“I didn’t get a lot of discouragement,” he said. “Naturally, they would have wanted me to go to college. But I think they saw I was going to have to try this, come hell or high water.”

Forbert performs May 20 at the B-Side in One Lucky Guitar.

After moving to Manhattan, Forbert lived in a series of hole-in-the-wall apartments in dangerous neighborhoods and worked as a courier by day. At night, he busked and performed in clubs, including the late, lamented CBGB.

This was a period when punk was ascending in New York City and there was no better place to watch its rise than CBGB.

Because Forbert never played punk, contemporary writers tend to assume that he must have been bucking the trend back then.

In truth, all sorts of music was being played in all sorts of places in New York City in the late 1970s.

“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s why it was so much fun.”

Forbert’s first album, “Alive on Arrival,” was not a commercial success but it was an enormous critical one.

He said he had some pangs just before the record was released because it sounded like nothing on the radio at that time.

“It wasn’t a chart album, but it got me off to such a good start,” he said. “But I listened to what else was out there and I thought, ‘Wait a second. The record’s coming out in a month and we don’t have anything disco and we don’t have anything straight, English rock.’ I kind of thought it was entirely possible that it wouldn’t find any type of audience.”

Forbert was called “the new Dylan.” Of course, every serious songwriter was called “the new Dylan” in those days.

Critics stopped using “the new Dylan” when most young listeners stopped being able to identity the old Dylan.

Forbert’s second album, “Jackrabbit Slim,” yielded his only hit, “Romeo’s Tune.”

It reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and ranked 60th overall at the end of 1980.

Forbert had no idea that “Jackrabbit Slim” would be his breakthrough release.

“I don’t think I have ever had a moment where I said, ‘This is it. This is going to work,’” Forbert said. “I still haven’t had such a moment.”

One of the things that considerably slowed down Forbert’s career in the 1980s was a long dispute with his record company, a dispute that he said he will address in depth in his forthcoming memoir, “Big City Cat.”

Whatever the reason, Forbert missed a window of opportunity (or a window of serendipity) that might have given him a career like Tom Petty’s.

Instead, he has cranked out consistently excellent (if commercially underwhelming) albums, he has toured incessantly and he has built up a passionate fan base.

He provides that fan base with rare tracks and recordings of live shows via his website.

Forbert said he still enjoys touring as much as he ever has.

“I am doing four dates in a row in the Midwest and if you look at the schedule, it’s as zigzaggy as it could possibly could be,” he said. “I am not sure why that happens. I really look forward to it. I look forward to getting out there in the great American heartland. I love it out there.”

Each show requires a rendition of “Romeo’s Tune,” of course, and Forbert admits that performing it has gotten a little ”automatic.”

“That’s just the way it goes,” he said. “I am sure that when Paul McCartney tears into “I Saw Her Standing There,’ the crowd loves it, but it’s a little automatic for him too.”

But “Romeo’s Tune” has aged well, Forbert said. The lyrics (“Oh, gods and years will rise and fall/There’s always something more/It’s lost in talk; I waste my time/It’s all been said before”) certainly don’t sound at all strange coming out of the mouth of the septuagenarian.

“I still relate to it,” he said. “I like it. I don’t know what ‘Year of the Cat’ means to Al Stewart. It’s a great record. I always love to hear it. But the girl and the patchouli? What does that mean to him now?”

Young musicians who are still working on their own songs about girls, patchouli and related topics sometimes approach Forbert after shows seeking advice.

“I never would discourage people much,” he said. “Because I feel like if you’ve got to do it, then you’ve got to do it. So it’s a moot point.

“And if you don’t really have to do it and you’re just putting on a kooky hat and pretending to be a banjo player,” Forbert said, “Then you’ll drop it in ten months and you’ll move on to the rest of your life.”

Asked what advice he’d give his younger self if he could go back in time, Forbert said the proposition presents him with a quandary.

“The thing is,” he said, “innocence and naiveté are wonderful things. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I had to make some mistakes and all. But that’s where the songs came from and that’s been my life’s work: writing songs. If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have written a song like ‘What Kinda Guy?’”


Alt-Synopses: “Alien: Covenant”


Legendary director Ridley Scott returns to the universe he created in “Alien” with “Alien: Covenant,” the second chapter in a prequel trilogy that he promises will bridge the gap to the first film, a gap nobody perceived until he pointed at it.

“Alien: Covenant” will act as a semi-sequel to “Prometheus,” a semi-prequel to “Alien” and a semi-truck flattening your affection for this franchise.

In “Prometheus,” we learned that humans were created by a race of albino bodybuilders called the Engineers. At some point in the history of the universe, the Engineers apparently decided to kill all humans. The reason for this attempted genocide, according to allusions made by Scott in interviews, is that the Engineers were mad at humans for killing Jesus.

If true, this would be the worst plot twist since the ending of the “Planet of the Apes” remake, which featured a statue of Aperaham Lincoln.

Much of the plot of “Prometheus” concerned black goo devised by the Engineers for purposes that remained as murky throughout the film’s 124 minute running time as the goo itself.

The goo seemed as adept at creating underwhelming monsters as it was at generating arbitrary scenes.

At the end of “Prometheus,” Elizabeth Shaw and David the Android headed off to the planet of the Engineers, which they fully expected would be a technological, societal and environmental utopia.

In the new film, however, the Engineers’ planet is revealed to be the biggest disappointment since the Battlestar Galactica arrived at Earth in 1980 only to find it polluted by former “Brady Bunch” cast members and stock footage from the movie, “Earthquake.”

The “Covenant” of the title refers to a spaceship and surely is not meant to evoke the new covenant that Jesus established in the New Testament.

The Covenant is inhabited by six sets of couples, an arrangement designed to encourage colonization, pointless arguing, quick slaughter of the most annoying characters and aliens punishing people for having illicit intercourse.

The crew lands on the Engineers’ planet only to discover that is has largely become a barren, hellish wasteland, or – as it is referred to in the credits – Australia.

In “Alien: Covenant,” the black goo has become plant spores inside seedpods because why the hell not?

Alien DNA is scattered exactly the same way an innocent child scatters the seeds of an aged dandelion. In the new film, however, there are only aged dandelions of death.

Fox wisely abandoned the tag line: “Nature hasn’t been this evil since ‘The Happening.’”

In prior films, alien infants were known as chestbursters because of their method of egress from the human host. In “Alien: Covenant,” Scott will introduce backbursters, a nickname that should be self-explanatory.

Given the dwindling options, we are forced to consider the very real possibility that the next film will feature the debut of the assbursters.

“Alien: Covenant” opens tomorrow.

Viva La Revolution!


In 1981, bassist Andre Cymone left Prince’s band under contentious, ego-clashing circumstances.

Mark Brown said he knew of the subsequent vacancy, but he didn’t think he was in the running for the job or that he could put himself in the running.

“I didn’t think I would be considered,” he said in a phone interview. “He grew up with such a vast selection of awesome bass players in Minnesota. I was like, ‘Why would he pick me? I am the youngest of most of them. There’s no way.’”

Still, he kept seeing Prince in the audience at his shows. But he chalked that up to other factors.

Then one day, the phone rang at 11 p.m. at the community center where Brown rehearsed.

It was a guy claiming to be Prince.

“I was like, ‘This ain’t Prince. Get out of here,’” Brown said. “He didn’t say much after that. He just said, ‘I want you to audition for my band. I want you to learn all three albums. (Drummer) Bobby Z will pick you up tomorrow.’

“I worked at a 7-Eleven store at that time,” Brown recalled. “(Prince) said, ‘I’ll have him pick you up at 7-Eleven.’ I was like, ‘How did you know I work at 7-Eleven?’”

The unsuspecting Brown, aka BrownMark, was on the verge of joining the Revolution, one of the few backing bands in music history that became almost as famous as its frontman.

Prince would never lead its like again.

In the wake of Prince’s death, the Revolution reformed to pay tribute to its fallen leader.

It is now on tour, providing closure for fans and opening a new chapter for itself, perhaps.

The Revolution will perform Saturday at the Majestic Theatre in Detroit.

Brown recalls being nervous during the drive over to Prince’s house for the audition. His jitters were not eased when Bobby Z looked over at him and said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“I was like, ‘What is that? What kind of question is that?’” he said.

Brown was confident in his bass-playing abilities. He just wasn’t sure how he and Prince would get along.

“What was nerve-wracking was not knowing him,” he said. “I had heard all sorts of rumors about him. This was my first time meeting him, face to face. So my fears were more of, ‘How is he going to respond to me? How am I going to respond to him? Is he straight? Is he gay?’ I knew nothing.”

Apparently, Prince answered his own door in those days and Brown was not prepared for the sight of the man.

“Prince was literally about 5 foot 2,” he said. “I’m six feet and I am looking down on this guy. He had on leg warmers with shorts. His hair was coming all down and he had big earrings on. I just remember, I was like, ‘Holy crap.’”

Prince’s androgyny was a pretty radical concept in those days.

“Prince spewed sexuality,” Brown said. “When I saw him, I had never seen anything like that before.”

After the audition, Prince gave Bobby Z the night off, saying he would drive Brown home himself.

Brown wasn’t sure what to make of that either.

“I was like, ‘Oh, crap,’” he said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘It’s just me and this guy.’ I was like, ‘Wow, this is weird.’”

Whatever was happening in Brown’s overworked imagination, Prince merely used the drive to offer him the job.

“I was so happy, I almost (peed) my pants,” he said. “But I tried to keep my cool.”

Prince had a reputation as a tough bandleader and that toughness was on display from the first rehearsal, during which Prince repeatedly tugged Brown’s ear and kicked him in his hindquarters, saying, “Play the bass.”

Even when dispensing practical advice, Prince could be as enigmatic as a funky Confucius.

A funky Confucius wearing butt kicking boots.

But Brown said he eventually figured out that Prince wanted him to play more aggressively.

“That guy taught me so much about professionalism,” he said. “I owe him my entire career. If it wasn’t for him, I never would have been able to accomplish half of what I accomplished in my lifetime.”

Brown’s first concert, in front of a hostile Rolling Stones crowd, was as fiery as trials by fire get.

“I had only been in the group a month at that point,” he said. ‘Within the first few seconds of the opening number, a grapefruit landed on my bass keys. It knocked me clear out of tune. I sounded horrible.

“People were screaming,” Brown said. “Somebody got hit with a bag of chicken. Bottles we’re flying on stage. We were dodging stuff. Prince was so afraid of my reaction. He said, Mark, this isn’t the way it is. We were just trying this out.’”

Brown let Prince know that he wasn’t at all daunted.

Prince’s dream for the band that he would come to call the Revolution, Brown said, was something along the same lines as Fleetwood Mac: a band in which every member had something to contribute creatively.

The band sometimes jammed for ten hours at a stretch, he said.

“We were developing a sound,” Brown said. “That’s the work ethic he taught me. If you want to develop a unique sound, you play, play, play with each other. Don’t play songs. Just play. Release yourself. We developed this massive sound. He called it a freight train. That’s where the Revolution was born.”

The precision of the machine he’d built became evident during the writing of the song, “Purple Rain.”

“(Keyboardist Lisa Coleman) had some chords,” Brown said. “Prince had an idea. It slowly started to come together. I remember, I just sat there most of the day, listening to the changing, the progression. It was an all-day event. The song took on many different shapes and forms before we got it to where it was.”

“Purple Rain” – song, album and film – was the juggernaut that propelled Prince into the mainstream.

It was during this ascension that Brown began to fully appreciate the scope of Prince’s vision and the iron will that drove it.

“I call him a genius mastermind,” he said. “I believe in my heart, from ‘Dirty Mind’ forward, he knew what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there. He just had to figure out the pathway.”

It might be hard for some people today to appreciate the improbability of Prince’s massive success at that point in time, Brown said.

“For me, it was very explosive,” he said. “I was stunned. There had never been a band, a multiracial band, that had broken through some of the racial barriers of the time. I know about those racial barriers because I am a black man. And there were heavy racial barriers in the music business. Prince was determined to break through them, and he did. I was in awe.”

Prince’s decision in 1985 to add a half a dozen new members to the Revolution for the “Parade” tour doomed the band, Brown said.

“Two of the security guys were now at the front of the stage doing dance moves,” Brown said. “Everything started changing. I didn’t want to be a part of it. I was like, ‘Time for me to go.’”

He insists that the band never broke up, that no one was fired. Everybody just mutually decided to close that chapter.

Brown went on to found the group Mazarati. Prince gave Mazarati the song, “Kiss,” to record, and when he heard the band’s demo, he asked for it back.

Brown said he and Prince maintained contact over the years. Prince would call him out of the blue, using a silly pseudonym if Brown’s kids answered the phone.

“He used to call me 2, 3 o’ clock in the morning,” he said. “Sometimes he would call my house and my kids would run up to me and say, ‘Somebody named Alexander Nevermind is on the phone.’ I knew who that was.

“He always reached out to us,” Brown said. “He always stayed in touch with us. And that was endearing. I loved it. He truly was my brother.”

Brown said he heard of Prince’s passing by phone from a member of his security staff and cried for two days.

He was subsequently angry about the salaciousness of some of the media coverage.

“People immediately want to jump to a negative conclusion about a guy I knew,” he said. “They have no clue who he was internally. This guy was a very private man. And in that privacy, sometimes you make mistakes.”

Prince had been contending with excruciating chronic pain for many years, Brown said.

“I have female friends with hip issues,” he said. “Prince wore the high-heel boots. The difference between him and the women I know is that he didn’t just wear them. He danced in them.”

At the time of his death, Prince was planning to reform the Revolution and tour with the band, Brown said. He had secured promises from the former members that they would not perform as an entity without him.

The reunion happened. Just not on Prince’s terms, tragically.

Performing with the band mates he first met four decades ago is exactly like it was four decades ago, Brown said. Only better.

“We are the same,” he said. “Prince called us a freight train. That same energy is there and that’s what shocked me the most. He really put together a set of unique personalities. When we come together, that energy is so powerful that even we scratch our heads and say, ‘My word.’

“We’re even more seasoned now then we were then,” Brown said. “So it’s even more dynamic.”

There is a certain “New Orleans funeral” aspect to the shows – fans mourning by way of celebration.

Where it goes from here is up to them, Brown said.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this involves and where we take it,” he said. “And a lot of that is going to depend on the fans, on what you guys want us to do. It’s going to be fan-driven.”

A version of this story can be found at


The Gospel According to John


If you lived in a progressive town or city in the late ‘80s, the so-called New Folk Movement had a lot in common with the British Invasion.

The airwaves and stages were inundated with confident young acts that used folk music as a springboard into unexplored artistic realms.

The Paul McCartney of that movement in terms of talent and good looks was John Gorka.

He was a heartthrob to Reagan-era wearers of tie-dyed maxi skirts and patchouli oil.

With his baritone voice and woodsman’s beard, Gorka was folk music’s answer to Barry White.

Which is not to suggest that White required an answer from folk music.

That was 30 years and one digital revolution ago.

Gorka, well into his silver fox phase these days, never had much interest in his own sex appeal.

He is now, as ever, a compelling performer and earnest artist who is always trying to write a better song today than the one he wrote yesterday.

He will perform Friday at the Ark in Ann Arbor.

One of Gorka’s earliest mentors was the late Greenwich Village folk singer Jack Hardy, who taught Gorka a blue-collar approach to songwriting that turns out to be fairly unusual.

Most famous musicians will tell you that they eschew a songwriting regimen in favor of awaiting the muse.

But Hardy advocated a greater amount of self-discipline.

“It was the first time I had met someone who wrote songs on a schedule,” Gorka said in a phone interview. “He was finishing a song a week. That was his schedule for many, many years.

“I had never heard of that before,” he said. “I knew that novelists would sit down and try to write a page or a chapter a day. But I didn’t know songwriters could do that.”

Hardy’s view was that waiting around for inspiration to strike is a cop-out, Gorka said.

“He believed that if you work at it, you’ll get better, faster,” he said. “Even if you throw out three quarters of the songs you write, you will get better.”

Gorka said he started slow at a song a month. He worked up to two songs a month, and then he and his wife started having kids. The pace inevitably slackened.

Having a family meant that Gorka no longer had “large, unencumbered blocks of time.”

“They were great for musing and letting song ideas bubble up,” he said. “I used to be able to wake up slowly. That’s not an option anymore.”

In the midst of writing a song is still Gorka’s favorite place to be.

“Seeing where it’s going to go,” he said. “Even though you can work at it, the process is still a mysterious thing. The quality can vary. Sometimes a song takes a lot of work and sometimes it comes easy. Both of them can be equally good. And just because it comes easy, doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good.”

Gorka alters established songs in performance if he is dissatisfied with some aspect of them.

“I will change lines in a song that I don’t think were even right at the time or when they don’t seem to be right to sing anymore,” he said. “The world changes and the meaning of the song changes.”

Last year, Gorka was given an opportunity by his label, Red House Records, to release an unusual collection of personally primordial material.

“Before Beginning” features demo versions of songs that were eventually remade for Gorka’s debut album, “I Know.”

The demo versions were professionally recorded in Nashville with studio musicians, so the songs have more of a country flair than the versions that made it to vinyl and CD.

Gorka said the reel-to-reel tapes (which had been in the possession of the sessions’ original producer, Jim Rooney) had to be baked before they could be played.

Baking magnetic tape at a low temperature reverses deterioration, Gorka said.

“We didn’t use an oven,” he said. “We used a box with a hair dryer set on low.”

It had been at least 30 years since Gorka had last listened to the tapes.

The John Gorka of 30 years ago was a relentless performer who would go out on tour for long periods of time.

When Gorka and his wife started having kids, he curtailed this custom considerably.

“If you are away enough, people will learn to get along without you,” he said. “You want to stay indispensible.”

Gorka said he has a friend whose father was a frequently absent, long-haul truck driver.

“Until one day, he said to his mother, ‘Mom, that man is here again,’” Gorka recalled. “That was the end of his father’s long-haul trucking career.”

Changes in the music business have meant that musicians who used to depend on recordings to pay the bills now have to depend on touring.

Full-time folk musicians, on the other hand, have always had to do a lot of touring.

That doesn’t mean that artists like Gorka have been immune.

“In terms of the royalties that you get from streaming,” he said. “You get these ridiculous checks. I got one for one cent. I managed to save that one. It took 49 times that to send that check to me.”

A musician can laugh at a check like that or be discouraged by it, Gorka said, and he or she should always try to choose the former.

Gorka has no grandiose goals for his career at this point.

“I want to try to get the kids through college without enormous debt,” he said. “And to stay healthy and do it as long as I can do it. People have been coming out and that’s been really encouraging. I’ve been pretty lucky.

“I always think it could end tomorrow,” Gorka said. “So I’m grateful when people show up.”

(A version of this story can be found at