Rich Wilhelm

Steve and Me, 33 Years Down the Road o’ Life

In Music/Memory on March 29, 2013 at 4:03 am

The voice on the other end of the line was incredulous.

“How old are you?”

“I’m 15 but I’m a really big fan.”

It was late on a Friday night, October 10, 1980. After years of trying to win radio station contests, I had gotten through to the disc jockey at WIOQ, Philadelphia’s premiere “progressive rock” station at that time. I was on the verge of winning a pair of tickets to see singer-songwriter Steve Forbert, but it looked as though my age could be a deal breaker.

“Do you have a way to get there?”

“Yeah,” I said, though I wasn’t entirely certain that I did.

A brief pause.

“OK, you got ’em. Your name’ll be on the list. Tomorrow night at Widener College.”

I hung up the phone and fairly exploded with excitement, yelling to my parents that I had just won Steve Forbert tickets. I don’t remember their reaction, though they may have had the same concerns the DJ had: what about the fact that you’re just 15? How are you going to get there?

Mom and Dad must have been cool with the idea though, since the next day, when I was at Granite Run Mall with my old grade school friend Dave, I mentioned that I had these Steve Forbert tickets for that night and told Dave that my dad would drive us down to the concert if wanted to come with me. Dave tentatively agreed.

Later, after we’d gone our separate ways for the day, Dave called to tell me that his parents didn’t want him going to the show. Just coincidentally, I think that was the last time I ever spoke to Dave. We were attending different high schools and the drift had already begun.

With Dave out of the picture, we decided that Dad would go with me to the show. I’m not sure how excited Dad was by the prospect, though he undoubtedly knew a few Forbert tunes: “Going Down to Laurel,” and other tracks from Forbert’s debut, Alive on Arrival, had gotten decent radio play on WIOQ. Forbert’s second album, Jackrabbit Slim, yielded a genuine hit single, “Romeo’s Tune,” and his third album, Little Stevie Orbit had recently been released.

And so it was that Dad and I drove to the gym at nearby Widener College that autumn Saturday evening nearly 33 years ago. Walking to the gym doors, there was predictably trouble with “the list,” as it initially appeared that my name wasn’t on it. This caused me some consternation, but my name was eventually located and we were in.

It was Dad, me and a few thousand college kids, nearly all of whom were smoking pot. It was the first time I’d ever encountered that particular aroma. Neither Dad nor I indulged.

Forbert’s show that night was great. Later that night, I breathlessly wrote in my diary that Steve Forbert was “fantastically superb.” What fifteen-year old uses that combination of words? Not a phrase I’ve used since, but I was excited. I had just seen one of my first rock concerts.

I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty certain Dad enjoyed the show that night as well. I think he enjoyed experiencing live music, but I remember him being somewhat cranky about the process of getting to and attending concerts. I can count on one hand the number of shows that just he and I attended (beginning with the Forbert show), but each one was a memorable experience.

Going to see Steve Forbert with Dad is one of my favorite memories of my teenage days with Dad. It was also the only time I ever saw Forbert. Since Dad’s passing in 2003, I’ve occasionally returned to that 1980 evening and it occurred to me that if I ever got the chance, I’d like to let Forbert know the role he played in the lives of Dad and me three decades ago.

Last Friday night, I had that opportunity. Forbert was playing an acoustic set, opening for Paul Thorn at the Colonial Theatre, right here in Phoenixville. I decided to go, on my own, and was able to grab a front row seat. I could have brought Donna along, or even Jimmy, but seeing Steve Forbert for the first time in 33 years felt like something I wanted to take in on my own.

After Steve’s performance, I strolled out to the lobby, with the covers of his first three albums in hand. At the merchandise table, I bought Forbert’s latest CD, Over With You, which was released last September. (I’ve listened to it several times over the past week and it is excellent.)

When it was my turn in line, I introduced myself to Steve and told him the story that I’ve just told you. It was a condensed version, as I didn’t want to take too much of his time, but he was very gracious and friendly. After he signed my album covers I stepped away, but then decided to step back in line to ask if I could have my picture taken with him. Again, he graciously obliged:


After meeting Steve, I headed back to my seat for Paul Thorn’s show. I had not heard of Thorn before, but he and his band immediately won me over. As I listened I thought that Dad would have enjoyed Paul Thorn, as well as Forbert’s opening set. It was then I noticed that the seat next to me had been empty throughout the evening. So maybe, in some way, Dad was indeed at the Colonial last Friday night.

I plan to see Steve Forbert again. Sometime sooner than 33 years from now.

Here’s my Cheap Red Wine video from a few years ago, in which I tell the story of how I won the tickets back in 1980:

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