ROBERT GORDON: THE ‘FIRE’ STILL BURNS BRIGHTLY

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, January 24 2019

Take a stroll through the Asbury Park Pop-Up Museum, the temporary exhibit now open weekends on the boardwalk through mid-March, and you’ll see among the many artifacts, images and ephemera of the city’s architectural, cultural and sociological history a set of photographs taken at the old Fast Lane nightclub back in 1978. The pictures show a recently clean-shaven 28-year old Bruce Springsteen in a very familiar setting: jamming on the Asbury stage with a visiting musician; seeking out and finding that common ground in a shared influence, a fondly remembered song, or, failing that, a boundary-busting Chuck Berry riff for any occasion.

Then there’s the out-of-town guest whose gig that was some forty-plus years ago — a slick and slender figure sporting a mile-high atom-age mutant pompadour, a finely tailored sharkskin suit, and a knowing grin that lets on he’s well aware of the value of this cool moment.

The visitor in question was Robert Gordon — and the common ground was “Fire,” the classically catchy slowdancer that Springsteen originally pitched to a still-breathing Elvis Presley during that weird interlude between Born to Run and Darkness; a time when The Future of Rock and Roll was stranded in a jungleland of litigation, even as he was giving generously of his time and talents on projects involving everyone from Lou Reed and Patti Smith to those monumental first few albums by the Jukes.

While the prisoner of Graceland apparently had other peanut butter banana sandwiches to fry — and while The Pointer Sisters would be the ones to score an eventual hit with the tune — it was Robert Gordon (and his band that included the legendary guitar wolf Link Wray) who lent his king-ly baritone and his old school “he’s good bad but he ain’t evil” savoire faire to the song’s debut in the public arena. And whenever the rising-star veteran of the same CBGB scene that spawned Blondie, the Ramones, and Talking Heads passed within fifty miles or so of the Asbury HoJo’s, any rock fan might reasonably expect that “Fire” could spark a duet between the song’s ace interpreter and its proud papa.

“Bruce and I used to do ‘Fire’ a lot in those days, not just in Asbury but in some other places,” recalls Gordon, at the top of a winter tour of northeastern nightspots. “Thanks to that song, I feel like I have a real connection to Asbury Park…I’ve been coming there forever, and I’ve always loved the place.”

The old sky-high pomp may have retreated back to earth — and the svelte suits may have been mothballed in favor of a working-class wardrobe of black slacks and bowling shirts — but at the age of 71, the voice that lent new life to the music of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette and Jack Scott (and, lest we forget, introduced many of us to the songwriting skills of Marshall Crenshaw) has lost little to none of its smooth bourbon-y blast. As the self-described “rock and roll singer” tells it, however, there’s one traditional ingredient that’s gone missing from the old vocal recipe.

“I struggled with it for a while, but I finally gave up smoking cigarettes cold-turkey, about three years ago,” he says. “I made that choice for my voice…and I made the choice for my heart. I had a heart procedure a while back…I’m feelin’ good, and I consider myself lucky to be around.”

That said, when Robert Gordon comes around Asbury town once more this Friday, January 25,  he’ll be falling back into one of the happier habits of his long career.

A 1978-model year Bruce Springsteen duets on “Fire” with the singer who introduced his song, Robert Gordon.

The habit in question is the singer’s on-again/ off-again/ on-again partnership with Chris Spedding, the dynamic British guitarist who first recorded and toured with Gordon at the time of his first two major-label albums for RCA, Rock Billy Boogie and Bad Boy. It’s an association that’s spanned decades, surmounted disagreements, and staked its destiny with the 2007 Gordon-Spedding release It’s Now Or Never, an acclaimed album of Elvis covers that managed to bottle that TCB lightning-bolt spirit while avoiding the more obvious, casino-impersonator-act cliches.

“Chris has done a lot of great work with Bryan Ferry and others,” says Gordon of the musician, singer and producer whose activities on the UK session scene have yielded some solid sides with the likes of Roger Daltrey, John Cale, Elton John, Harry Nilsson, and Joan Armatrading. “But I’m proud to say that he really loves working in the trio format.”

When Spedding and Gordon take to the stage of the Wonder Bar on Friday night, they’ll be joined by another veteran instrumentalist with a 40-year connection to the singer: bassist Rob Stoner, who came to Gordon’s band in 1977, fresh from a stint with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour (the  roots-rock specialist has also worked with such music legends as Pete Seeger, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Garcia, Don “American Pie” McLean, and oh yes, Bruce Springsteen). Completing the combo is longtime Joan Jett drummer Thommy Price, himself a veteran of studio excursions with everyone from Enrique Iglesias to Cycle Sluts From Hell.

“I’m really proud of this band,” says the vocalist whose own acumen for assembling top-shelf talent is as legendary as the players — not just Wray and Spedding, but such guitar greats as Duke Robillard and the late, great “Humbler” Danny Gatton, in addition to rhythm ace Lance Quinn, Letterman band member Anton Fig, drummer Slim Jim Phantom, and The Jordanaires, the Elvis-affiliated gospel group with whom he recorded on multiple occasions.

Expect a rollicking retrospective of RG signatures that can range from “Fire” and Crenshaw’s “Someday Someway,” to Sun Records standards that he adopted and made his own (Billy Riley’s “Red Hot,” Hayden Thompson’s “Love My Baby”), and a potential grab-bag of  classics that could conceivably contain goodies from old friends like Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Bill Haley and Brenda Lee, or surprises by the likes of Nancy Sinatra, Fabian, The Yardbirds and The Hollies. All put forth with the full authority of one of the truly monumental rock and roll voices — and drawn from a discography that traces a sometimes quirky line from the high profile early albums, to a series of “kind of forgotten but really good records, on a whole lot of weird labels.”

Just take care not to up and call it “rockabilly,” a branding that Gordon has steadfastly rejected out of hand throughout the years — despite his crucial and instrumental role in jumpstarting the Rockabilly Revival that would deliver The Stray Cats to the top of the charts (“those guys used to come see our shows”). By the same token, he frowned on attaching the tag “punk” to his pre-solo career band Tuff Darts (a gang of guys who dealt in lyrics like “I’d rather slash my wrists, and cut my throat, than have to spend the night with you”) — to Robert Gordon, it’s Rock and Roll, is what it is, in all of its instinctively elegant simplicity and gloriously messy complexity.

As an artist who’s equal parts performer and musicologist/ curator of other people’s songs, Gordon has let the universal themes of those classic jukebox composers speak for the highs and lows of a rockin’ rollercoaster career that’s seen its share of personal tragedies, health issues, international fandom, film/TV projects (including a widely seen Budweiser commercial and a supporting turn in the Willem Dafoe film The Loveless), professional squabbles, and even a street mugging that left the singer with a distinctive facial scar.

The days and weeks ahead find Gordon, Spedding and company continuing to work that wintry road (including a January 29 gig at Kung Fu Necktie in Philly) — and, sometime in February, Robert Gordon returns to the studio in Austin, TX to commence work on what will be his first album since 2014’s I’m Coming Home, with the vocalist hinting that he’s been revisiting his collection of rockabilly records in preparation for the project.

Opening for Robert Gordon at the Wonder Bar will be The Primitive Finks, the combo of masked-marvel monster rockers whose sets have been a highlight of the Asbury Park Surf Music Festival (DJ Devil Bat of The Black Flamingos spins as well). Tickets, priced at $20 in advance and $25 at the door, can be reserved in advance at wonderbarasburypark.com.