Going Down to Laurel – Steve Forbert
Our connections to individual songs can be intensely personal. A song might be no more than white noise to one person and yet to another it can be like a punch to the chest that stops the heart and snatches the breath. So it is for me with Steve Forbert’s “Going Down to Laurel.” Released in late 1978, I had been living in Ireland at the time and don’t remember hearing it until the summer of 1979 when I returned to the States. It was the summer before my senior year of college; much of the music I fed on in high school had grown stale and began giving way to new acts like the Ramones and the Clash that would become new favorites. Here came this bright-eyed folkie, full of verve and fun, an undeniable energy synched with the rhythm of my heart.
The single performance of a song multiplies as each listener’s particular set of experiences transforms the song in each listener’s mind. Steve Forbert recorded this song in Nashville in 1977, yet I heard it in the summer of 1979 in the midst of upheaval and the hyper-self-consciousness that affect us when we’re young. I had returned from a year at Trinity College, Dublin full of hope and plans, which fell apart within two weeks of my arrival home. What may be common in a young man’s life felt epic in my own. First came the explosion at home, the house and family no longer able to contain the combustion between my Dad and me, an explosion fueled by fights over beards, church, politics, independence and too many angry words. And the girl I thought I loved and pined for from across the sea – what a romantic I was – assured me that she loved me too, but once back home, there was this other guy that she loved a little more and on a sunny May day, I watched her slip her arm in his and walk away.
Well what was that you said when you had a tear
Rolling down your cheek the other night
I couldn’t catch it all there’s something going wrong
I hope you got it straightened out alright
I wound up crashing on a friend’s couch in Worcester, Mass, working two jobs as a janitor – my first university job, cleaning the gym and library at Clark University. I’d start work at 7 p.m. cleaning a car dealership, take off for two hours, usually downing beers in Moynihan’s, then head over to Clark where I worked from 11 till 8. I’d spend my days in a sweaty sleep or roaming Worcester, which seemed incredibly desolate in those days. What a mess though I was moving too fast to fully notice, like holding on tight to a rocking and careening subway car barreling through the dark. My destination remained my senior year, though I had no idea how I’d pay for it or how I’d get through it.
Into that mix, I heard “Going Down to Laurel.” Not sure how I first heard Steve Forbert, think I read about him first, then bought Alive on Arrival at a used record store. What buoyancy. No moaning or self-pitying there, just a guy happy to be in New York City, signing tunes about playing Grand Central Station, the foods he’d eat, the girls he loved and the fun he had. I fell hard for “Going Down to Laurel”, right from the cloudburst harmonica that broke open to the song and the voice that said, “Hey, you got check this out.”
Well everybody here, seems to like to laugh
Look at Johnny jivin’ across the floor
He can play the fool and make a few mistakes
But all the same he’ll never be a bore
Some lines were silly (“I’m glad to be so young talkin’ with my tongue”), yet who could resist the enthusiasm. It was a feeling I understood. Barred from my home, I remember standing on the ramp from Northern State Parkway to the Cross Island, not even $100 in my pocket, knapsack on my back holding everything I owned at a time when it seemed vitally important that my possessions included my Whitman and “Howl” and laughing, cause it was all so ridiculous, yet so freeing. What a sight I must’ve made to those cars whizzing past and how absurdly lucky I felt. Forbert knew the feeling:
Glad to be so careless in my way
Glad to take a chance and play against the odds
Glad to be so crazy in my day
The summer of 1979, I heard “Going Down to Laurel” one way. When he sang, “love’s a funny state of mind,” I understood the helplessness of love. Helpless in the way I felt; helpless in the way that I could not change the heart of the girl I loved. I fed off the energy of Forbert’s performance, the acceptance of the way things are and the way he relished his experiences.
Everything’s so loud and everything’s so fast
I hear your brother married once again
Yeah, the best of luck and all and try to have some fun
They tell me this great life can always end
As my world turned, so the song turned in my head. I managed to find my way back to school – borrowing, scrimping, and mooching to pay the freight – and slowly the girl I once loved and lost started coming back. I was the ridiculous choice – the self-fashioned poet bordering on losing control who thought it a point of honor to never go for a single job interview and my rival off in dental school, his clean cut looks and parlor manners perfect for meeting parents and setting up a good life. Yet the song proved true:
Little girl I’m goin’ to see
She is a fool for lovin’ me
But she’s in love
And love’s a funny state of mind
My girl’s common sense couldn’t save her; her friends couldn’t persuade her. Love’s a funny state of mind that won’t be denied. Come February, I enticed the girl to flee with me, on a whim hitching to New Orleans for a week away from Worcester’s winter, camping out on the shores of the Mississippi in Audubon Park, walking the streets of the French Quarter, spinning dreams, full of belief in the impossible. On our way back North, we travelled Route 59 through Mississippi and passed Laurel, the town that gave the song its title. By then, “Going Down to Laurel,” had become of joyous anthem of triumph. Love was undeniable. I had the girl of my dreams wrapped in my arms and all seemed blissful no matter how the whole world spun. “She’s in love and love’s a funny state of mind.”