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.

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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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