Better Too Much Than Not Enough
By Jay Hardwig, Fri., April 2, 1999
That question has a short answer (Wong Fei Hong) and a long one (see below), but the first hints are in the grooves of Can You Live Without, a potent and personal recording that vaults Forsyth quickly to the ranks of Austin's musical and songwriting elite. Gone is the white-boy bluesman of 1995's Needle Gun, an album whose growling, slide-heavy blues-rock was adequate but rarely more. Enter an older, more contemplative Forsyth -- passionate, political, and devoted to his songs, still steeped in the blues but not tied down by them. Musically adventurous, by turns sinister, forlorn, and poetic, Can You Live Without is an admittedly "overt" album, a call to the listener to confront the essentials, ask hard questions, and avoid complacency at all costs. Make no mistake: Guy Forsyth has his heart on his sleeve here, and it's there for all to read, along with a hyper-sincere set of liner notes and that idolatrous portrait on the cover.
"Anybody who wants to make fun of me gets all the ammunition they could ever want on this album," Forsyth admits with a shrug. "I'm sure some people will get a good laugh out of it."
And to hell with them, he might add. "Put your weight and your will and your want in your do," urge those candid liner notes, and whether prophet or fool, Guy Forsyth has done exactly that. Ask the 30-year-old musician for the "Guy Forsyth story" and you'll get a roundabout answer. Rather than dealing in troubling minutiae -- where he was born, where he was raised, just how fat he was as a kid -- Forsyth starts with a statement of faith: "I love music." Give him a moment and he'll continue: "The most satisfying thing in my life has been writing and singing songs." Give him a couple of hours, and you'll get even more: his thoughts on ambition, performance, heroism, myth, on Tori Amos, Carl Jung, the Tao Te Ching, and the myth of Persephone. You'll get a lot of notions, but not a lot of facts; Guy Forsyth, he is saying, is built from more than facts.
But there are facts. Born in Denver, the only child of a TWA executive who moved his family around a lot, Forsyth eventually landed in the suburbs of Kansas City, where he developed into a smart, bookish, "socially retarded" youth that spent much of his time alone, reading, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and thumbing through his parents' records -- a motley collection of cowboy ballads, Broadway musicals, and novelty tunes that strayed somewhat wide of mainstream. He got into a lot of fights at school -- at 5'4" and 220 pounds, he was a bit slow with the fists -- and describes himself as "not a joiner" and "a very weird kid."
In time, that quaint alienation bred a harder affinity for the fuck-you ferocity of punk music, and by the time he picked up his first instrument -- a harmonica someone had given him for Christmas -- at age 16, his musical tastes had moved from Marty Robbins and Tom Lehrer to Johnny Rotten and Lee Ving. He bleached his hair, fronted a few garage bands, and picked up a guitar from a friend who had lost both arms in an electrical accident. ("He had a hook," Forsyth recalls fondly. "He taught me how to tune guitar with his feet, and he got more girls than any of us.") Along the way, he started to dip his toe into the local blues scene.
It was that infant interest in the blues that led Forsyth to plunk down $6 -- a significant sum for a poor punk-rocker -- to see John Hammond Jr. play the Jazz Haus in Lawrence, Kans., in 1988. The show changed his life.
"I was struck by lightning," recalls Forsyth. "It was just a guy and a guitar and a harmonica around the neck. But it was elementally effective. It was so accurate at getting to an emotion, getting to a place. Just this guy with an acoustic guitar, but it was more powerful than the punk, electric blues, or Tin Pan Alley I had seen."
The following months found Forsyth nosing around in the public libraries and used record shops of Kansas City, digging up worn LPs from the old masters, getting acquainted with Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Elmore James. He moved downtown and started sitting in on local blues jams, giving up dreams of Broadway for a stage of a different sort. Two years later, after a stint touring the nation's Renaissance Fairs as a tights-wearing wag in a slapstick Robin Hood act, Forsyth found himself on Sixth Street with an open guitar case, playing for change. He was hard up and homeless, but a UT coed kept him in out of the rain and he made enough cash to keep himself in strings.
He toured the local open-mike circuit and eventually landed his own shows, including a regular gig playing for tips at Joe's Generic on Sixth Street. Performing for five hours at a stretch, skimping on breaks to keep the crowd around, Forsyth had a lot of time to hone his barroom blues and harmonica chops, the thick, muscular sound that developed eventually landing him bigger shows around town and a deal at Antone's Records. At 25, four years after he first hit the streets of Austin to make his way as a bluesman, Forsyth could boast a following in Europe, a strong local reputation, and a domestic debut in the can. With a little luck and promotion, he was headin' for the Big Time. Then, nothing.
"The hammer never falls," says Forsyth. "There isn't enough money for the record release party, because Antone's is bankrupt at that time."
Needless to say, Needle Gun fell flat; although the band sold a bunch in Austin, there was poor distribution and almost no promotion in the rest of the country. "It's like we showed up to the dock with all our bags, getting ready to go on this trip, and the boat sinks."
While the experience was clearly a frustrating one, the Antone's shipwreck taught Forsyth a lesson he cites to this day: Nothing is certain -- play what you love. For Forsyth, that meant straying from his trademark blues and taking a stroll down the Tin Pan Alley of his youth. Along with Christina Marrs, Kevin Smith, and a host of like-minded musicians, he formed the Asylum Street Spankers, the all-acoustic roots and vaudeville act that first lit Austin back in 1995. The Guy Forsyth Band was still together, but it was the Spankers who drew rave reviews, gaining local and national acclaim for their finger-snappin' set list and obsolescent flair. It was a sweet deal, but not entirely his own, and in time he was forced to make a choice between the Spankers and his band. He chose the band, of course -- his band -- but on new terms (play what you love) and with a broader musical palette than ever before. He would concentrate more on message than muscle, and play what struck his fancy, the blues purists be damned. To put it another way, when he left the Asylum Street Spankers, Forsyth took his ukulele with him.
Can You Live Without is the proud product of that decision. If it's blues, it's blues broadly defined, ranging from the conga carnival growl of "Calico Girl" and the dyspeptic trashcan symphony of "Don't You Mind People Grinnin' in Your Face" to the sweet ukulele softshoe of "My True Friends." Musically, it's a giant stride from Needle Gun, softer, sadder, and ultimately more soulful (credit the solid supporting cast, including regulars George Rarey on guitar, "Mambo" John Treanor on percussion, and the Mighty Gil T on bass). Add to that foundation a maturing vocal presence and some words that stick -- as Forsyth's surely do -- and you have an album that's closer to Tom Waits than Hound Dog Taylor.
"Everything that came before this was about establishing my foundation and learning about music," says Forsyth. "But this record is a more personal statement. Everything else has been about the tools. This is about using them."
While he's still enamored of the electric blues and its power to move people -- a celebration Forsyth regularly refers to as "the late-night-voodoo-drums-sex ritual" -- Forsyth is equally concerned with having something to say.
"You can't take yourself too seriously," he cautions, "but you can't not take what you do seriously either. In this society you can't have a position where people will listen to you and not say anything. It's unconscionable."
And indeed, it's the two most overtly political songs on Can You Live Without that have the most resonance. A challenge to take spiritual stock and decide what truly matters, both the title track and "Children of Jack," a birthday letter to Jack Kerouac that Forsyth penned back in 1991 -- a rambler's ballad that favors the romance of the road to the lifeless routine of college plans and one-night stands -- are uncompromising calls to shed conformity for a life more brave and true. Together, they straddle the border between passion and polemic, hovering just below the strength of sermon. Forsyth is trying to tell us something, alright, but the question remains: What makes him think we'll listen?
"And if I see you dying a little and your own spark let go, I will hold your hand too tight and pitch my voice a measure too hard and stare at you waiting for you to come back and not leave me here alone."
-- from the liner notes to Can You Live Without
Sitting on a picnic table outside Quack's on 43rd Street, fresh from kung fu practice and attired in a burgundy guayabera and two-day stubble, Forsyth is talking about his heroes. He's big into heroes.
"I want to be Wong Fei Hong," he says with quick enthusiasm. "Wong Fei Hong is a Chinese folk hero. He's a doctor, he's a kung fu master. He represents the common guy, the good of the community. He goes around righting wrongs. He's the guy in the white suit who gets in the fight and never gets dirty. He's like the Lone Ranger."
Forsyth takes the chance to plug Once Upon a Time in China, a kung fu flick with Jet Li as Master Wong, a humble moralist who heals the sick, helps the poor, and generally goes around kicking righteous ass. At the beginning of the film, two banners unfurl. Their mottos reflect a simple heroism that Forsyth seems to want for himself: "Bravery Soaring" and "Magnanimity Overflowing."
"I value my white hat," admits Forsyth. "I want to be a good guy."
If there's something supercilious about imagining yourself in a white hat, Forsyth seems to think that everyone should do the same.
"People can do great things," insists Forsyth. "They can do amazing things if they work hard, and if they take risks. And I want that. I want that of myself. I want to be able to have that much discipline."
Forsyth spends 10 hours a week in kung fu practice, trying to cultivate the discipline of a Wong Fei Hong. Next he invokes Luke Skywalker, a childhood hero who still holds a place in the Forsyth pantheon.
"I'm still trying to be a Jedi," he shrugs.
But being a Jedi knight is more than just kung fu and cotton robes -- you've also got to fight against the Empire. As a recent appearance on KUT's Eklektikos made clear, Forsyth has no trouble with that. After a good half-hour discussing myth, symbols, and yes, heroes, with host John Aielli, Forsyth took a turn for the political, happily ranting about the moral bankruptcy of capitalism and the senseless persecution of Clifford Antone. An exchange about the economics of the recent prison boom was indicative of Forsyth's mood:
Forsyth: "It's very important that everybody realize that it is a big business. There is all sorts of money being made there ... A lot of people are getting rich putting people behind bars. That is as close a definition to evil as any I can find. I think that's wrong. I think that's wrong."
Aielli: "I think that you have spoken well and I agree with you. But we might get in trouble with some important people for saying so."
Forsyth: (with emphasis) "Bring it on."
Moments later, Forsyth was tunefully strumming his way through the rather innocuous "Pennies From Heaven" (one of his favorites), his crusader's cloak dropped in favor of the troubadour's song. The song, after all, remains foremost in Forsyth's mind. Nevertheless, there's little doubt he sees in his position a moral platform, an opportunity to mix some message in with his standard role as clown and entertainer, to add the role of social critic to his musician's résumé.
There is a chance, though, that in his zeal to speak the truth as he sees it, Forsyth has pitched his voice a measure too hard and held our hand just a little too tight. It's a delicate business, after all. Forsyth doesn't care.
"I will sleep better at night knowing that if it occurs to me, I'm going to say it," responds Forsyth. "Not that I say everything that occurs to me, or that my politics are better than yours. The songs on that album that are kind of political, like "Children of Jack" or "Can You Live Without" are all songs that I should be singing to a mirror. Those are songs that you sing to yourself, not at somebody."
If others are listening, all the better.
"I hope it does some good," he says earnestly. "Because the music that I love helps me. It really helps me. I learn stuff from it. There are lessons that I've learned in songs that can't be distilled to just conversation. There's a lesson in Hank Williams about being strong when life gets hard. Like Tom Waits or Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters or Lucinda Williams. They give you something and you use it. There's something there. There's a love for the world. There's a love for the people in your life, and the people who aren't in your life -- an argument for them, too.
"I want it to be nourishing. I do want it to help, because it's an ugly world. ... You have to be able to see what's wrong, and see what's right, and not give up because things are wrong, and not stop because things are right. The everyday ugliness of life in America, of franchise America, which is everywhere, which is the most overt face of our life -- where we spend most of our waking hours walking among -- is sad and hollow and very, very much surface-based."
He pauses to reflect.
"I know so many friends who are not happy with what they're doing, with the way that they put money in their pocket or bread on the table. And none of them are starving, but a lot of them are suffocating. I don't know if it's my place [to say so], but I don't care."
To his critics, such bald moralism must smack of self-importance. In the cautionary tone of Can You Live Without, or in the insistent instruction of the Eklektikos interview, they will see more pride than politics. They may well quote to him his own song, and suggest he sing it to the mirror once more: "Can you live without them whispering your name? Can you live without cashing in your fame?"
And those same critics will doubtless point to the self-referential/self-reverential album cover as Exhibit A in the case of Forsyth's Runaway Ego. That wasn't the idea, insists the singer. His label wanted his likeness on the cover, explains Forsyth, to build face recognition for an artist whose name barely registers on national scales, "but I didn't want to have just a picture on the cover -- some pouty picture with a guitar." Instead, working with local ad agency GSD&M and local painter Gregory Smith, he envisioned a romantic portrait filled with symbols central to his own life.
The Chinese butterfly sword, says Forsyth, represents yang and control; the burning roses, yin and insanity. The soft handle of the sword suggests the comfort of holding onto power, the thorny stems of the roses, the pain of letting go. The background is filled with other dichotomies -- night and day, sun and moon, city and country -- meant to suggest the endless flow of yin and yang. A "consummate amateur" of myth and the universal language of symbols, Forsyth wanted the cover of Can You Live Without to reflect classic themes of both Western and Eastern thought. That it's iconic is intentional; the hagiography, he says, is happenstance.
"I'm trying," Forsyth says earnestly when asked if the total package -- the painting, the esoteric liner notes, the overt moralism -- is too much. "I'm trying to do the right thing."
He mutters something about being a "vain, egotistical motherfucker," but his heart's not in it. Instead, he returns to the notion that it would be worse if he said nothing at all.
"I know there's a lot of stuff worth yelling about. Damn straight. There's a lot of stuff that needs to be yelled about. And yeah, it's dramatic. I'm dramatic. I'm a romantic.
"Better too much," he says finally, "than not enough."
"Yes, I want to die with my sword in my hand. The sword that is bright and terrible and as lethal to the bearer as to his or her foe. Uncompromised truth made matter and a test that owes no allegiance save nature and her first and only law. That which can, Will." -- from the liner notes to Can You Live Without
Ultimately, the charges of egotism don't stick on Guy Forsyth. He's just too damn sincere. If there are elements of vanity tied up in Can You Live Without -- as their surely are -- they are more than outweighed by the simple power of an artist singing what he believes in. There's a force of conviction behind the album, a passion that, coupled with just enough doubt to keep it shy of self-righteous, is plainly refreshing in a social landscape littered with the corpses of ironic detachment. Guy Forsyth is no Phil Ochs, but neither is he palsied by the passive self-absorption favored by so many modern scribes.
"I don't want to stop trying," Forsyth says when asked what the bright and terrible sword of his liner notes means. "When I die, I want to feel like I used it up."
"I'm scared," he adds later, "of not doing what I can."
And he's convinced that the place he can do the most good is with his music. Part of that good is as an entertainer, as facilitator of the late night voodoo-drums-sex ritual that's still part and parcel of every Forsyth set. It's a role he still cherishes. But there's another side to Forsyth, one that wears the clothes of critic and crusader, white hat and all, fault-finders be damned. Bravery Soaring, Magnanimity Overflowing. His critique is complex, born of serious thought, but in the end it may best be captured with a single line from "Children of Jack," his most strident anthem to date:
"There's so much more to this wonderful world than what we are sold on TV. So tell me if you are not already dead, that you'll come and live it with me."
Guy Forsyth wants to die with his sword in his hand, and perhaps a bunch of flaming roses in the other. Why, you could almost picture it: a crimson robe, lots of soft yellows, the mythic flow of yin and yang played out in the hazy background.
Better too much, after all, than not enough.