Steve Forbert - "Romeo's Tune"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Steve Forbert.

"Romeo's Tune"

Artist: Steve Forbert
Writer: Steve Forbert
Producer: John Simon
Album: Jackrabbit Slim
Year: 1979
Chart Position: #11 (US)
Label: Nemperor
The first "new Dylan" since Loudon Wainwright in the early '70s, Steve Forbert came twanging out of Mississippi by way of a stint playing for change in New York's Grand Central Station with Alive on Arrival, a wistful country folk gem filled with songs of innocence and promise. His next album, Jackrabbit Slim, went even farther, producing, "Romeo's Tune," a bouncy lovelorn single that nearly crashed the Top 10 in 1980, unheard of for a folk artist with purist sensibilities. Although Forbert never recreated the success of that smash, he has more than lived up to his purist sensibilities, forging his own low key path through upwards of 20 albums, the latest of which is Over with You. The kid who went down to Laurel with a pocketful of dreams has traveled far and wide, singing them to his faithful fans, along with the occasional older sister who still remembers falling in love to "Romeo's Tune."
Steve Forbert:
"Romeo's Tune" was almost finished in Mississippi for Alive on Arrival. That album took on a bit of an autobiographical concept in my mind. Here's a guy from Mississippi, going down to Laurel, goes to the big city, goes through some changes. And really I think that to have recorded "Romeo's Tune" and stuck it in the middle of all that would have been too heavy of a love song detour. And it wasn't finished. I thought it was finished. I played it in some clubs. Another singer/songwriter once told me at Folk City, "Man, what was that song you just did?" I said, "I call it 'Romeo's Tune.'" He said, "That's a hit song." So that was why I thought, well, maybe it could be. But it didn't seem to fit in Alive on Arrival. We did sort of a love song called "Settle Down," which gave us a little break from the regular narrative of "Big City Cat" and "Grand Central Station," "Tonight I Feel So Far Away from Home," and my little sort of manifesto, which was called "Steve Forbert's Midsummer Night's Toast." And a little bit of a crystal ball thing, which was "It Isn't Gonna Be That Way." So there's kind of a plot on Alive on Arrival and I didn't want to just jump out of it with "Romeo's Tune."

Not long after we recorded the album, I got together with most of the same musicians, and Steve Bergh, the producer, who is a great guitarist, by the way. We did a demo of "Romeo's Tune," which was just okay. We took a shot at it. It was weird. It wasn't the right rhythm. The next thing that happened was that I went out and started playing "Romeo's Tune" when I was touring far and wide, solo, and then with the band. I played it in Amsterdam right after Alive on Arrival came out and I got a good reaction to it. So I just started presenting the song as part of the tour. I didn't really think about it. I would just play it if it seemed like the right moment. That's what I love about playing solo. If the moment feels right to play, shall we say, "It Sure Was Better Back Then," I can do it. Or if the moment feels right to play "Tonight I Feel So Far Away from Home," I can do it. Linda Stein, my manager, suggested to me, "You know, that song is there, but not quite. It needs another verse." And I said, "Hmm, you're right."

So I remember being in Paris and writing that other verse, which turned out to be, "Let me see you smiling back at me, hold me tight in love, and love is free." And that worked well. Adding something to a song when it's already done can be tricky, because you might not be able to pick up the same emotion. It can be elusive, believe me. The same emotion can be elusive within one week of writing a song. One of the challenges of writing a song is to stick with the emotion that's the basis of it. It's hard to add it later. The classic example is "Bridge Over Troubled Water," with the verse about "sail on silver girl." That's the one where you go, "Now that you mention it, that really is a little different." The other part of the song is all kind of suffering and I'll be there for you. And then all of a sudden things are a lot better. "Sail on silver girl, your time has come to shine." Where's the troubled water? But in the case of "Romeo's Tune," I was happy with the addition. I played it for Linda, and we both said, "Yeah, okay." So that was a really good ending, because it fit me just a little bit more. Almost like "Step Inside Love," by Paul McCartney, which was a hit for Cilla Black.

Then we started getting ready for the second record and we took another shot at "Romeo's Tune" in Nashville. But my producer, John Simon, and I didn't feel like we got it. By this point, the record label and all of us think it's a hit, so we can taste it. Which was really a good thing. There are some good songs on the first record, but not with that broad appeal. So then John and I went to New York City to CBS Studios and recorded another version and that wasn't a whole lot better than the version I did with Steve Bergh. It was still just not the right rhythm. So John and I decided, with involvement from the record label, Okay, listen, we're getting good results in Nashville. Let's go back and try with those guys again. Besides, why do we want all these Nashville sessions and then to tack on stuff from New York City? Let's go back to Nashville. So we did. I think we got in a different drummer, Roger Clark, whose playing I'm very fond of. He even played on Strange Names and New Sensations a few years ago. And we got it right away. I mean, the first day was like, Right, this is the right band, and this is all happening. When all the musicians came into the room and listened to the playback, everybody said, That's it, that's the version we've been looking for. I think it was the third take that day.

Gene Eichelberger was the engineer in Nashville. I turned to him and I said, "Gene, would you just make a recording now on the quarter inch tape of your mix?" I was into rough mixes back then. Perversely into them. Because it would always really bother producers. They see it as a rough mix. And I would always go, "Yeah, well, it might be the best. We may not top it." And they'd go, "Oh, damn, of course we can." So Gene ran it on the tape, and that's the version that was the hit.

As befitting a man whose first major production credit (after the 1966 hit, "Red Rubber Ball" by the Cyrkle) was the offbeat 1968 mockumentary You Are What You Eat, John Simon is a musical glutton of epic proportions, whose early works have survived to feed several generations of discerning fans. Listing in his exemplary portfolio such gems as Music from Big Pink by the Band, Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Child is Father to the Man by Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Songs of Leonard Cohen by Leonard Cohen, and Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel, he was the perfect choice to helm Steve Forbert's second album, Jackrabbit Slim, which produced Steve's biggest hit, "Romeo's Tune."
We listened to it later and I said to John Simon, "You won't be able to top Gene's rough mix." You know, he was playing the song as an engineer; he had all the levels up like it was a live show. It had a lot of apparent volume and a certain magic about it. I still like hearing it. So John said, "No, I can beat it." We tried in New York City a few times. And we're talking about John Simon here, who is very, very good. But then I'd say, "Okay, John, you mix this thing for two hours, whatever. Now put up the rough mix." And it would just kick its ass. So what you hear is the rough mix from Quad Studios by Gene Eichelberger.

We probably recorded it in June and it was out in October. I remember hearing it on the radio, and it was a lot different from hearing "What Kinda Guy" on a college station. We'd be going into, let's say, Lansing, Michigan on tour and it would be on the Top 40 stations. That's when you know this is hitting everybody and their sister. This is a freakin' hit. That was great. We had a lot of good momentum. The venues got bigger. We started moving up to some larger theaters. I wound up for a minute there on a tour with Kenny Loggins. I wouldn't have expected that. I went all the way to Japan. Ever since Alive on Arrival there was a lot of interest. I had a band after Alive on Arrival, and it was all touring, touring, touring, and plenty of activity. It was a helluva lot of fun. It's pretty great to be invited places where they're waiting to hear you sing your own songs and be yourself.

Nobody was ever breathing down my neck with, "Steve, give us another hit." I was signed by Nat Weiss at Nemperer Records and I knew that I wanted to pick my own producer for the first record, and I didn't want to have any overdubs. That was part of my plan to protect myself from being turned into something I wasn't. And Nat Weiss was fine with that. It worked really well, because Steve Bergh turned out to be a really good choice for Alive on Arrival.

After the second album, I had a lot of things I wanted to try. A lot of things were changing at that time and records were getting a little more crafted. It was the beginning of the MTV era. Records were being more manufactured rather than recorded live. So I was having to respond to that. I was trying to take some of the changes in the air into account. But it didn't produce another "Romeo's Tune." It just didn't.

I don't know. Maybe I didn't turn into the kind of monster hitmaker that Stevie Wonder is, but I was able to go my own way, and if it didn't turn out to be superstar status, well, I did it myself. I was allowed to make my own mistakes, my own choices, my own good ideas. Nat Weiss is still a friend of mine. He's a great person. My career has always been real similar to what it is now. We're talking about below the radar, but steady. I'm doing what I love to do. I'm on my way now to Pittsburgh. And then Saturday night should be really fun at the World Cafe live in Philly. So there you go. But, honestly, if it wasn't for "Romeo's Tune" it wouldn't be this easy to still do this. It is a great thing to have a good calling card, a song that's so popular and gives you some identification. There are a lot of people that come to a show because they know all the rest and they know the last few albums and they know what I'm really doing. But their sister might go along with them because she's like, "Oh, I remember that song. Okay. I'll go." And "Romeo's Tune" is always my encore. I did a tour a few years ago with several "folkies," including Jesse Colin Young, Tom Rush, and my friend Al Stewart. It was fun. And topping the bill was Don McLean. The first night he played "American Pie" early in the set and people just left. So if you're lucky enough to have a hit, you have to play it later.

November 27, 2012.
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Comments: 5

  • John C. Pasternak from ManhattanI love Romeo's Tune. It came at that time in my life where I just discovered the beauty of music. Being very young, I never thought about whom or what the song might have been inspired by. Living in Manhattan in the 2000's I ran into someone who had worked on the recording and asked him who the song was about. He said it was about an actress named Sela Ward who Steve grew up with. Now I listen to the song in an entirely new way. That is cool.
  • David from IndianaOh my, it just hit me today. Romeo's Tune was playing on my car radio way back in the winter of '79 the first time I parked with a girl on a vista overlooking the Ohio River and my home town. Actually a rather innocent night in retrospect, but yet one that opened a whole new, and wonderful, time in my life. Great song!!
  • Nimi from Lagos, NigeriaThey don't play the songs the way they used to play before anymore, thank goodness for preservation.
  • Rob from Palmyra, Vai feel the song "i'm in love with you" is his best one ever!!!
  • Michael from NcGreat song from the past. One of those that tskes you way back and makes you think of day go by...
see more comments

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