Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Steve Goodman: The Loving of the Game

Another new article for Paste Magazine. Once upon a time there was the convergence of a great city called Chicago, a great singer/songwriter named Steve Goodman, and a bad baseball team called The Cubs ...

It is late February. Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training a week ago. Opening day is a little more than one month away. It is that time of year when Midwestern Americans, weary of winter’s onslaught, dream of sun-drenched summer days, the crack of the bat, the commingled smells of newly oiled leather gloves and stale popcorn and freshly mown grass, the sounds of vendors hawking peanuts and ice-cold beer in the stands. Anything and everything is possible. The Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series in 60 years, are still undefeated. And Steve Goodman, a terrific singer and even better songwriter who lived for the Chicago Cubs and died far too young, still might one day receive the critical and popular acclaim he deserves. You never know.

Diagnosed with leukemia when he was 21 years old, Steve Goodman spent his entire recording career with a death sentence hanging over his head. In one of life’s ironic jokes, he recorded his first album in 1969, the year the Cubs blew a 9-game late summer lead to the New York Mets, and his last album in 1984, the year the Cubs lost to the San Diego Padres in the National League championship series. Chiefly through Goodman’s song “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” the fortunes of the man and the baseball team will forever be linked. The Cubs never made it to baseball’s Promised Land; Steve Goodman never made it beyond a small but dedicated cult following. You can view it as futility if you like; certainly Cubs fans know the feeling all too well. Or you can view it the way Steve Goodman viewed it in one of his earliest recorded songs:

All the good times going by, got to have ourselves a few.
Where I'm going has no end, what I'm seeking has no name.
No, the treasure's not the takin', it's the lovin' of the game.

For Steve Goodman, the game could not be contained by a season or a stadium. Nor could it be defined by a single genre or stunted by a death sentence. His eponymous first album, released during the year of the Amazin’ Mets and the Chokin’ Cubs, was a folk-rock classic. It was highlighted by “City of New Orleans,” a future hit for Arlo Guthrie and now a folk music staple, a song that Kris Kristofferson and John Prine have called “the best damn train song ever written.” I wouldn’t argue with them.

Throughout his career Steve Goodman confounded listeners and critics by tossing musical changeups and curveballs into the mix. Pegged as a sensitive singer/songwriter folkie, Goodman turned around and wrote hilarious parodies of country music (“You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” which skewers every cliché ever lassoed to a two-step shuffle), covered jazz standards from the ‘30s, and enlisted stalwart bluegrass mandolin picker Jethro Burns to be his musical foil. Pegged as a serious, literary writer, he thumbed his nose at pretension by concisely summarizing the plot of Moby Dick as a twelve-bar blues. Pegged as a musical comedian, he turned around and wrote songs that were full of regret and sorrow -- “My Old Man,” a wry, wistful remembrance of his late father, “The Ballad of Penny Evans,” a bitter, angry denunciation written from the point of view of a Vietnam War widow. And always he wrote about his beloved Chicago, firing broadsides at the notorious Lincoln Park Towing Company, simultaneously eulogizing and sending up longtime mayor Richard Daley, echoing the prayers and doubts of millions of Cubs fans worldwide.

By the early ‘80s the leukemia was well advanced. The albums were numbered, and so were the days themselves. The cover of Artistic Hair showed a beaming Steve Goodman in front of a barber shop—bald as a cueball from his chemotherapy treatments. Then, finally, Affordable Art, which featured “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” It can break your heart if you’re a Cubs fan. Or a Steve Goodman fan. But it will also make you smile. That was Steve Goodman, too:

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground
When I was a boy
they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League

All too soon he was gone.

A 1997 tribute concert featuring Jackson Browne, Lyle Lovett, Iris Dement, Emmylou Harris, and Steve’s buddy and regular performing partner John Prine belatedly brought recognition to Goodman’s talent and his musical legacy. Commenting on Frank Sinatra’s song “My Kind of Town,” Chicago humorist and concert emcee Studs Terkel put it in perspective. “What the hell does Sinatra know about Chicago?” Terkel growled. “Steve Goodman is Chicago’s true musical laureate.”

Steve was scheduled to sing the National Anthem at Wrigley Field for the first game of the 1984 National League playoffs, but he succumbed to leukemia on September 20th, 1984. He was 36 years old. Four days later the Chicago Cubs clinched the National League East pennant. It was their first playoff appearance since 1945, three years before Steve Goodman was born.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Andy, I just happened upon your Steve Goodman piece while looking for information about Pierce Pettis who I am not familiar with but have an opportunity to see in concert soon.

Steve Goodman was like a cool musician cousin for me. (Not really related but our family considered him our own.) I have several of his albums and just loved hearing him live. Growing up in the Chicago area, I could relate to many of his lyrics and once (during my own Lincoln Park days) even spent a half a day trying to retreive my car from the pound with Steve's song playing over and over in my head.

I originally found information on Steve Goodman in my school library microfiche collection through my intense research into Bob Dylan which led to Woody Guthrie which led to Arlo and then to Steve.

I talked my parents into taking me to see him when I was about 14 at this great ski bar-venue called Harry Hope's in Cary,IL. My big band-loving folks fell in love with his talent and interesting stories and songs like the LPP and SET. We saw him several more times and Jethro was with him at least one time I remember. We turned my college brother who was more likely to turn up at arenas for Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones into a fan, too.

A week ago I bought and downloaded Yellow Coat, Would You Like to Learn to Dan, The Dutchman, the Auctioneer Song, Somebody Else's Troubles, Two Lovers and a few more of Steve's songs onto my iPod. The music brings back wonderful memories of those magic evenings at Harry Hope's. Your review/essay did too. Thanks!