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Son of Jack

Kerouac-inspired, Austin-based Guy Forsyth trips out in Americana dream

If somewhere within you lies a certain kind of yearning (symptoms: a gnawing urge to walk off the job, blow up the TV and/or make the highway your home), you may well be one of "Jack"'s many bastards. And if so, Guy Forsyth is your musical brother, whether you know him or not.

He has got a message for you on his new CD, a song called "Children of Jack," as in "Children of Jack Kerouac, the wandering soul personified." Those who've previously crossed paths with Forsyth, an Austin-based bandleader, will note that the number is a departure from the wickedly rocking blues or inventive explorations of old-timey acoustic sounds the multi-instrumentalist and singer is known to deliver. Instead, it's a poetic call from the heart that — along with 11 other tracks — makes Forsyth's second album for the Antone's label (1999's Can You Live Without) a major artistic achievement.

On "Children of Jack" the just-turned-30 songwriter articulates a vision of life in America that any person who has ever had the impulse to chuck it all and hit the open road, primed for self-discovery, can relate to. With its cultural lineage descending from the amphetamine-fueled narratives of the beat generation icon, the song addresses the need to flee the daily toil, abandon all those "black-dressing soul-testing lovers and liars," trust one's instincts and optimistically "ride away in the light."

Sometimes on stage Forsyth will play a carpenter's saw as one would a handcrafted cello.
Dennis Fagen
Sometimes on stage Forsyth will play a carpenter's saw as one would a handcrafted cello.

Given the allusion to Kerouac in the song's title, and a quotation from his classic book On the Road, which surfaces in the chorus, it's clear that Forsyth isn't exactly saying something new here. In fact, neither was Kerouac (his notion of traveling American turnpikes and byways as metaphor for spiritual quest found inspiration, as Forsyth does too, in 19th-century poet Walt Whitman, among others). But Forsyth's interpretation somehow works, transforming the age-old motif into a powerfully fresh and — dare I say — inspirational anthem for another generation of wandering souls.

"A lot of my favorite writers in a lot of different genres are trying to speak directly to their audience," Forsyth says, "as opposed to, like, a specific person." He puts his body where his ideas are, too. On his right bicep is a large tattoo depicting a flower-fringed red valentine over which the phrase "YOUR NAME" is inscribed on a banner. "I want to be able to connect with people the way I've been affected by my favorite artists, in a positive, personal way. I think that there's a real medicinal power in art of all different types."

Following a lengthy apprenticeship in a self-proclaimed love affair with music, Forsyth has emerged as a mature, imagistically rich songwriter. It's a talent evident from the first lines of the CD's opening track ("Calico Girl"), in which he lets loose a string of potently ironic similes: "And she was beautiful as an ambulance at midnight / Sweet as a practiced promise / Hungry as a video arcade / And I was lost as a coyote on Main Street / Desperate as the last day of summer / Runnin' like a dog on a chain."

However, his lyrics often go beyond the merely vivid to achieve an interpersonal you-me relationship with anyone who's listening. Near the end of the "Jack" song, for instance, he issues a direct challenge: "There's so much more to this wonderful world / Than we are sold on TV / So tell me if you are not already dead / That you'll come and live it with me." As the track builds toward its climax, Forsyth urges "you" to drop out of school, strip off the business suit, don some blue jeans and go. Never turn back. Against a gently textured musical backdrop (including accompaniment on drums, bongos, djembe, electric slide and 12-string guitars, Hammond organ and bass), it's a provocative, and overtly romanticized, glimpse of what could be.

Forsyth grew up on the obscene rants of punk rebels such as the Dead Kennedys and the Sex Pistols. Acknowledging that "the message approach is not the vogue in a lot of popular music," Forsyth nonetheless says, "I want to be able to do some good." At times in conversation, as on stage and on the latest recording, he can radiate an almost overwhelming hyper-sincerity, prompting the cynical query: Just who does this Guy think he is?

But the good-guy attitude that shows up now and then is just one facet of this would-be shaman for the masses. As anyone who has witnessed his live shows can attest, he and his diversely talented bandmates (guitarist George Rarey, big bass man the Mighty Gil "T" and percussion wizard "Mambo" John Treanor) are musical tricksters capable of radically shifting gears at the drop of a guitar pick.

In the nightclubs these dynamos feel a kind of moral obligation to get low-down and dirty when the communal vibe is right for what they call "the late-night voodoo-drums-sex-ritual." Their standard repertoire borrows heavily from the blues and roots-rock foundation, something on which Forsyth first established himself as a professional musician. It's captured on the 1994 CD High Temperature (recorded live in the Netherlands for the Dutch label Lizard Discs) as well as on his initial Antone's release, 1995's Needle Gun.

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