Steve Forbert was one of a slew of new Dylans back when he hit the scene in the late 1970s. Emerging from the singer-songwriter movement with a rock and roll band from the south, he had a couple of hits -- the catchy "Romeo's Tune" and wise-beyond-his-years "Going Down to Laurel" -- and then faded, unable to live up to expectations as so many new Dylans before him failed.
But his disappearance does not mean he was not recording some good music. Forbert spent the next couple of decades recording with little fanfare. His Little Stevie Orbit and self-titled 1982 album were not well received commercially or critically and he ended up scuffling legally with Columbia Records.
By 1987, Forbert had relocated to Nashville, put together a crack backing band called the Rough Squirrels and toured relentlessly. At this point, as the liner notes to his current compilation disc Rock While I Can Rock: The Geffen Years make clear, luck intervened. He ran into Gary Talent, Bruce Springsteen's bassist, at a New York show and Forbert was invited to record some new songs at Talent's Long Branch, New Jersey studio.
The result was the surprisingly strong Streets of This Town, released by Geffen Records in 1988, which shows an older, somewhat more wary Forbert performing his mix of lyrically inventive folk and ragged rock songs. The disc, however, received little attention, and an equally powerful follow-up, 1992's The American in Me, also released by Geffen. Despite receiving positive reviews, the disc failed to chart and Forbert left Geffen.
Now, 12 years later, Geffen is reissuing both albums on one disc -- Rock While I Can Rock, which also features a British B-side.
Opening with the catchy "Running on Love", a song that is far more optimistic and uplifting musically than much of what was to follow, and alternating between bittersweet folk-rock and stripped-down rockers, the re-mastered disc offers a reminder of just how great Forbert's talent is.
Streets of This Town, which Talent produced, comprises the first 10 songs on the disc. It was a dark record lyrically, but one with a deeply held conviction of hope. Aside from "Running on Love", which likely would have been at least a moderate radio hit a decade earlier -- its sound echoes Forbert's best early work -- few of the songs could be called upbeat. Their focus was on loss and change, but they still, somehow, retained a sense of hopefulness.
Songs like "Don't Tell Me", which seems directed at his old bosses at Columbia, and "I Blinked Once" were painful and had an angry edge, as did "On the Streets of This Town":
"I'll lock myself away and not face one more day
On the streets of this town
And all I've got to lose, is a feelin' called the blues
And a little ol' frown;
I signed your dotted line and did my best at tryin'
Givin' all I could give
And all I've gotten back is this feelin' that I lack
What I'm needing to live."
But that darkness is not unremitting -- on "Mexico", perhaps the best song of the bunch, a bluesy bit of folk, there is a bit of love to keep him from his despair. "If not for your sweet love / I think I'd move to Mexico", he sings.
Tellingly, the 1988 collection closes with the lovely "Search Your Heart": "You've been down the long way / you know ties are tough / But if you search your heart / you'll find I say / If you search your heart / you'll find enough."
The final 10 songs come from The American in Me, produced by Pete Anderson, who also had worked with Dwight Yoakam. The disc lifts off from "Search Your Heart" and uses that same stripped-down rock and folk formula to allow Forbert to explore a very adult world of responsibilities and broken dreams, and to ruminate on the pace of change in the world.
"Born Too Late," which opens the album, treads the kind of lyrical ground Neil Young explored on After the Gold Rush, an America befouled and damaged by greed and falsity.
"People talk a lot, but hey can never find the heart and the soul / To put a lot of time into more than just a search for gold / The river's flowing dirty and it's moving down to Pass Christian / There used to be a time when its water was a healing hand", he sings, moving into the chorus: "Born too late and everything you know is gone, gone / Born too late and everything you know is wrong..."
As Scott Schinder writes in his superb liner notes to Rock While I Can Rock, the album seems to reflect Forbert's feeling of being "an unwilling tourist in a parallel-reality America."
It is an album in which economic pressures come to bear, pressing in on the characters about whom he sings, an album on which he explores generational connections and the responsibilities they entail.
Musically and lyrically, these albums do seem to work well together, lending Rock While I Can Rock a sense of unity that some compilations lack. Part of what makes this disc work so well, however, is Forbert's rasp of a voice, grown older and seemingly wiser with the passing years.
Overall, Rock While I Can Rock deserves a place beside Forbert's first two albums and Geffen deserves credit for returning these songs to circulation. I only hope they get a better reception this time around.