ARCHIVE: The Fire, Without the Smoke

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Give it up for the Bad Boy of Rock ‘n Roll, Robert Gordon, as he retro-rocks the Brighton Bar this Saturday night.

(First published on Red Bank oRBit June 10, 2009)

Did we give the impression that Robert Gordon was some kind of badass? That his career was a succession of punches thrown, bridges burned, grudges held? Hell, even the man’s Official Website has the singer known as RG cryptically fessing that “Everything was crazy back then…we were bad boys. It took me a long time to live it down.”

Even your characteristically happy-go-lucky oRBit editor was getting a bit peeved when we reckoned we’d been “given the high-hat” by RG after repeated attempts at securing an interview. But when we picked up the phone to find that sonorous, commanding baritone on the other end — that same Big Voice that put across some of the most thrilling displays of precision rockabilly we’ve ever borne witness to — well, he had us at the first “hey.”

At age 62, the man who introduced both Springsteen’s “Fire” and Marshall Crenshaw’s “Someday Someway” remains a bit of an enigma — a private persona playing a raucously public game; master of a reserved, studied kind of cool that front-loads all the emotion into the pipes, and keeps all other cards close to the vest.

Never one to embrace the branded identity of hat-wearing Nashville or by-the-numbers blues, Gordon seemed to spend much of his career distancing himself from any and all attempts at defining his sound — not Punk (although he fronted the first-wave CBGB band Tuff Darts), not an Elvis clone (although authoritative versions of the King’s songbook were always part of his sets), not even Rockabilly if you asked. And an odd career it’s been as a matter of consequence — for every voyage to the edge of the mainstream (a TV show appearance here; a Bud commercial or supporting role in an indie feature there) there were record label woes, falling-outs with bandmates, personal tragedies and a vague sense of exile from the millennial music scene.

On the other hand, there was that voice to see him through — always an uncommon instrument in modern pop music, and one that if anything has matured into a smooth fine bourbon that ultimately sells his most recent release, a seemingly inevitable but entirely non-jokey set of Elvis songs entitled It’s Now or Never.

It’s a resurgent RG who’s gigging Jersey again after way too many years; appearing at the beneficent Brighton Bar in Long Branch on Saturday, June 13 following an in-store at The Record Collector in Bordentown on June 12.

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RG’s seriously pompadour’d younger self with a way-young Bruce Springsteen, during one of several Asbury Park gigs that the Boss joined him on in the late 70s.

When Robert Gordon says “I wouldn’t use the word mellow” during our conversation, he’s referring specifically to his jams with his regular guitar player — although that could easily apply to his 21st century image: the battle-tested veteran who will talk about anything but has no interest in retelling the same old fish stories. The affable, plainspoken guy with just enough of an edge to keep you off balance.

More than 30 years after his solo career exploded off the line with the riotous “Red Hot,” Gordon’s achieved a personal style that’s a bit more relaxed than the look he put forth in the new wave era — all tailored suits, hi-maintenance coiff, matching tieclip and cufflinx; a look that placed him in the rarefied company of rock’s sharpest-dressed figures.

“The old suits don’t fit me these days,” he says with a laugh. “If you haven’t seen me lately, I’ve put on quite a few pounds since I gave up smoking — but not smoking anymore is what’s allowed me to keep my voice.”

The impeccable taste extended to his choice of bandmates, from Dylan disciples Tony Garnier and Rob Stoner, to Letterman regular Anton Fig, to absolute guitar originals like the late great Link Wray, the late great Danny Gatton, blues nobility Duke Robillard (”fucking great…it was a nice challenge for him to play with us”) — and Chris Spedding, the Brit artrocker (Roxy MusicJohn Cale) and punk progenitor (”Pogo Dancing”) with whom he played some of his most searing sets in the 70s and 80s — and with whom he reunited a couple of years back after a “bad divorce” that left both cars gasping and leaking precious fluids at the side of the track.

Gordon and Spedding will reconnect later this summer for a series of gig in Europe, where RG retains a fervent fanbase, playing, as he says, “from 300-capacity rooms on up to festivals with 60,000-plus.” For the current jaunt, the singer is joined by several members of the 1980s rockabilly revivalists The Rockats, including guitaristBarry Ryan.

“We mix it up; go with old stuff and new stuff,” says the alleged “purist” who’s been known to throw his fans such playful curveballs as Gary Glitter stompers andTommy James bubblegummers. When asked about that brief moment in time when he experimented with growing his hair down to his shoulders, however, he laughs again and says, “well — let’s just say the audience didn’t much like it.”

“I’ve been around for a while, and I guess you could say I’ve trod the boards,” he sums up. “I’ve seen a lot of my friends pass away, and I could have been one of the lost ones.

“But I’m still around; I put a lot of crazy stuff behind me, and I can honestly say I’m out here singin’ my ass off!”

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