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."
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.
But a typical Forsyth show might also draw from his previous association with Austin's all-acoustic neo-vaudevillians Asylum Street Spankers. That distinctly retro sound is evoked on his new CD's closing ditty, "True Friends," which includes instrumentation on ukulele, accordion, clarinet and violin, and which creates a mood the front man refers to as "coming home."
Yes, songs such as "Children of Jack" or the provocative title track, "Can You Live Without," are explicitly philosophical, seeking to demand a certain serious introspection on the part of listeners. But the new recording, like the live performances, still offers plenty of "wild kingdom" music, as Forsyth says, citing the cut "I Like It When She's Easy" as just one high-octane testosterone-laced example.
There's also a vibrant three-track sequence sonically inspired by the experimental example of Tom Waits. "He's my favorite artist," Forsyth says. "One of his most powerful ideas is that he got away from the stock musical sounds of pop music and tried to find sounds that connected with his emotional imagery." Kicking off with the disc's only cover tune, a raspy "trash-can-symphony" treatment of early Delta bluesman Son House's "Don't You Mind People Grinnin' in Your Face," it segues into the slinky and menacing "New Monkey King" and culminates with "Tattle Tale," which the songwriter impressionistically describes as "weird music that might come from the walled-up, lowest level of a Cuban jail."
"I like the idea of using found sounds, recognizable sounds in musical contexts that haven't already existed," says Forsyth. After explaining how certain established aural effects, such as "that whole Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas Stratocaster thing," lose their potency through repetition by emulators, he vows to resist creating music that "carries baggage with it."
Besides playing a couple different guitars, Forsyth will also play the harmonica, kazoo and maybe even a carpenter's saw, which he skillfully flexes and plays with a cello bow to create an eerily divine noise that enhances most selected songs.
For Forsyth, such moves aren't gimmicks as much as they are honest attempts in his quest to avoid homogenization and thereby discover his own artistic vocabulary. "I think there's immense power to be found in using sounds that aren't heard a lot in music," he says. And for him it's power with a purpose, something that tightens the bond between performer and audience. "Music is the quickest possible path to transcendence. There's nothing like it to take a group of people that are listening and move them into another space, transporting you somewhere else."
Mobility, exploration and transcendence are recurring themes in Forsyth's art and life. No big surprise for a proud child of Jack.
The Guy Forsyth Band appears on Saturday, July10, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616Washington Avenue. Call (713)869-COOL or (713)629-3700 for ticket information."Music is
possible path to transcendence."