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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Chasing the Blues

A new article for Paste Magazine ...


U.S. Highway 61, the most famous highway in musical history, no longer winds through the sleepy Mississippi Delta towns and hamlets of bygone days. The corporate takeover of the blues and the homogenization of America have seen to that. McDonald’s restaurants and Wal-Mart superstores now dot the alluvial flood plain from Memphis to Vicksburg. Tunica, Mississippi, where James Cotton and Skip James were born in tarpaper shacks, is now home to Casino Row, the largest gambling complex in the United States outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale provides a multimedia overview of the music in the comfort of the newly renovated, air-conditioned former train depot. A few miles away, not far from the junction of Highways 61 and 49, where Robert Johnson allegedly made his famous pact with the devil, Hopson Plantation’s Shack Up Inn offers guilt-ridden or curious white folks the opportunity to stay in renovated sharecropper cabins. Here visitors can experience the hardscrabble ambience of a tin roof overhead, a sagging front porch on which to meditate, and an uncomfortable bed on which to dream of crossroads and blues greats. And air conditioning, of course; there’s no profit in making life too authentic, particularly given the blistering Mississippi summers. It’s genuine simulated poverty and misery, an almost but not quite uncomfortable blues experience. For a price. And for a night. Then it’s time to head back to the Hilton Inn next to the resort golf course.

It wasn’t always so neatly packaged. Summer of 1961. One of my earliest memories involves an old black man named Roosevelt Samples. Roosevelt and his family live in a three-room sharecropper’s cabin on my grandfather’s farm outside Caruthersville, Missouri. They don’t have air conditioning. They don’t have plumbing, for that matter. Abe Lincoln may have freed the slaves almost a hundred years before, but you couldn’t convince my grandfather of that. You probably couldn’t convince Roosevelt, either. And there on my grandfather’s farm in the bootheel of Missouri, eighty miles up the Mississippi River from Memphis, life continues much as it has for the past one hundred and fifty years. My grandfather doesn’t own a plantation. He owns eighty acres on which he raises cotton and soybeans, and where he struggles to support his family. And Roosevelt, like thousands of other poor black men in the Jim Crow south, works a portion of my grandfather’s land, shares in the profits that never quite equal his expenses, and struggles to survive On Monday through Saturday he picks cotton in the fields. And on Saturday night he drinks his homebrew moonshine with his friends and picks and sings blues tunes on his front porch.

It is my grandfather’s regular summertime entertainment, a redneck version of Saturday Night Fever, and I tag along with him “Let’s go watch that damn fool of a nigger,” he says, and hoists me up into his pickup truck. I am too young to argue or protest. And so we pass a dozen or more summer nights of my early youth listening to an old black man play a battered Sears and Roebuck guitar, drunk out of his mind, howling at the moon. It is my introduction, although I don’t know it or understand it then, to an ugly world of bigotry and racism, a deeply embedded social cancer that has changed precious little since the Civil War. My grandfather doesn’t care about the music at all, but he likes the homebrew moonshine, and he likes the chance to get away from my pious, churchgoing grandmother. I don’t like any part of it, least of all the music. “Baby, please don't go/Baby, please don't go,” Roosevelt sings. “Baby, please don't go down to New Orleans/You know I love you so” It is a famous blues song, but I don’t know that at the time. I am only too happy to go. New Orleans would be fine, but home would be even better, far away from this strange culture and these frightening sounds. I want to be anywhere but where I am. It turns out I have the blues. But unlike Roosevelt, I can catch the nearest passenger train out of town and return to freedom, chase the blues away by simply sitting next to my mother and riding the rails to the north. It is my own private northern migration, at the ripe old age of five.


Summer of 1977. I am a college graduate now, ready to face the world with an almost useless degree in Creative Writing, a half dozen crates full of albums, and a total ignorance of American black music and culture. I do what any unemployed, nearly penniless, directionless young man would have done; I move back home with my parents. It is an uncomfortable period of my life, and I spend part of it doing what I had been meaning to do for a long time. No, not looking for a job, although that is inevitable and cannot be postponed for long. Instead, I organize my music collection, carefully arranging albums in alphabetical order, cataloguing artists according to genre. And for the first time it dawns on me. I have been an avid music collector for many years. And I have assembled a fine, representative collection of lily-white music.

Among my favorite bands and musical artists – The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Cream, Eric Clapton – the same songwriting names keep resurfacing. M. Morganfield. C. Burnett. W. Dixon. R. Johnson. Who are these people? I have no idea. But I know they write great blues songs, and that it is time to move beyond my narrowly defined musical world.

I come home from a university music store clutching an album called Muddy Waters at Newport, 1960. And there it is again: “Baby, please don't go/Baby, please don't go/Baby, please don't go down to New Orleans/You know I love you so.” I remember Roosevelt and his moonshine. And I remember the feeling of hopelessness, the humid oppression of the Missouri July nights, the desperate desire to escape.

This is not the flashy electric blues of Clapton or Zeppelin. There are no jaw-dropping guitar solos. It is rougher, more raw, more ragged. But there is an undeniable power and majesty in the vocals, an insistent cry at the heart of this music that startles me in its intensity. I want to hear more; a lot more.

And so begins a journey that still continues today. I chase the blues because the blues are hotwired to my soul, an electric jolt of sorrow and joy that can rouse me from the lethargy of unending, monotonous days. It is difficult to escape the grey, drab dreariness of the routine. But the blues are life in Technicolor, an inexhaustible wellspring with a thousand rivers and tributaries; the most constricted and limited of all musical forms, and yet infinite in variety and nuance. I chase the blues up to Chicago with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Magic Sam, Willie Dixon. I chase them down to the humid Delta with Robert Johnson and Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Charley Patton, and over to Memphis with B.B. King and Sleepy John Estes and Furry Lewis. I chase them out to east Texas with T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, across to California with Big Mama Thornton and Lowell Fulson, up and over to the rust belt with John Lee Hooker and Robert Lockwood, Jr., across the country with the great blues/rock guitar slingers – Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan. I chase them across the Atlantic with Eric Clapton and John Mayall, Jeff Beck, early Fleetwood Mac.

The blues are life writ large, and they cut to the chase and cut to the bone, every time. You won’t find flowery, lofty language here. You won’t find metaphors or similes, philosophical navel gazing, or simpering existential angst. But you’ll find life distilled to its most essential qualities. And if the lyrics are frequently earthy and coarse, it is because the realities of brutal existence leave little time for social niceties or metaphysical meditation. The subject matter reflects life at its most basic and elemental – love, sex, betrayal, violence, grinding poverty and oppression, the devastating effects of floods, tornadoes, and drought; crossroads that point the way to anyplace but where you are, and railroad tracks that invariably head out of town. And death. Always death.


Summer of 1979. My grandfather has succumbed to colon cancer. We’ve said our goodbyes, attended his funeral service, planted him in the ground not far from his cotton and soybean crops in the hopes that he will rise again. My grandmother has decided to sell the family farm. And now we journey to Greenville, Mississippi to visit my uncle and aunt, one last family reunion to remember and celebrate. I have not been here since my youth, and I am curious to see what has changed.

We take Highway 61 out of Memphis, wind our way through the Delta past Robinsonville and Tunica and Clarksdale, deep into the heart of the south that I longed to escape many years before. My uncle stands over his barbecue grill, preparing one last family feast, and I head outside in the blistering Mississippi heat to join him.

“What ever happened to Roosevelt?” I ask him. He looks puzzled, then remembers. “That old nigger?” he says. “Why, he drank himself to death years ago.”

Not much has changed.


November, 1981, a cold, blustery night in Columbus, Ohio. Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, would be dead in less than a year and a half, but here he is in front of a crowd of fewer than 100 people in a smoky bar, stalking the front of the stage, growling and roaring and moaning. He rolls his eyes upward in some heavenly musical ecstasy and rips through his greatest songs, holding nothing back, the sweat pouring down his face. He is 66 years old.

His band lumbers into “Mannish Boy,” and that thunderous guitar riff, embedded deep in rock ‘n roll’s DNA, explodes from the speakers. “Ain’t that a man?” Muddy shouts, and the crowd, all 75 strong, bellows back “Yeah.” It is love of a sort, between this old black man and those who have been touched by his music. It is a call and response that is better than church, a give and take that leaves everyone moved and changed. The crowd shouts in unison; Muddy beams from the stage. The devil’s music, some have called it. Not this night.

“Baby, please don’t go,” Muddy sings near the end of the concert. “Baby, please don’t go/Baby, please don’t go down to New Orleans/You know I love you so.” It is one of those transcendent moments that every true music lover knows well. I sing along at the top of my lungs, as does everyone around me. I believe I can die a happy man now. It is Muddy’s song, but it is my song too, taken up and made a part of my life, as the best songs always are, a signpost that tells me where I’ve been and that points the way home.

Muddy leaves the stage with a wave, the lights come up, and I stumble out into the Ohio November chill and head home, exhausted, exhilarated. But I can’t fall asleep. I don’t want to fall asleep. It is one of the best nights of my life.


I wouldn’t mind staying at The Shack Up Inn if the air conditioning was working. And I think I could probably enjoy the Blues Experience, as marketed by corporate America, if the Hilton Inn wasn’t too far away. I know something about the blues, but I’d prefer to keep that knowledge theoretical and relatively abstract. I don’t like to be too uncomfortable. And I hate it when people die.

All of them are gone now; my grandfather, my mother, my uncle, Roosevelt, Muddy. Long gone. You live long enough and you get the blues, no matter your station in life. You hope, you fervently pray Baby please don’t go, and Baby goes anyway.

February 2005, another cold winter evening in Columbus, Ohio. It has not been a good few years for the blues, or for Chris Duarte, the hotshot Texas guitarist I see this night. Blues festivals are folding, public funding for the arts is dwindling, and Duarte, once heralded as Stevie Ray’s heir, hits the stage thirty minutes late after waiting in vain for the crowds to appear. It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks for me, either. My father-in-law died a week ago, and I’ve just returned from my third funeral of a close relative in the past nine months.

Midway through the concert Duarte finds his groove. The notes spatter like machine gun fire. The voice moans and soars like Muddy or the Wolf. And I am transported to a better place. It doesn’t matter that Duarte is white, that his long pony-tail owes more to Haight-Ashbury than the Mississippi Delta, that the bar is half empty on a dead Thursday night in the middle of a Midwest winter. He’s doing what I’m doing, what we’re all doing. We’re chasing the blues.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Rubber Is Your Friend

My father-in-law's funeral went as well as it could. There was sadness, but there was also much laughter and rejoicing. I am so thankful to be a part of a wonderful extended family.

I found out a couple things about my father-in-law that I did not know. He was definitely the strong-but-silent type, and although he had many significant accomplishments in his life, he rarely talked about them. Here's one I knew about, but it's worth mentioning. My father-in-law worked for B.F. Goodrich, the tire/rubber company. During WWII, when he was certainly of combat age, he was given a special deferment to continue his research. Eventually he designed the rubber suits worn by navy personnel when they were submerged in water. They were, of course, buoyant and heavily insulated, and his work probably saved countless thousands of lives. And here's one I did not know: one of the space suits my father-in-law designed is on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. His name appears as part of the display.

I am far from a mechanical/engineering genius, but I know one when I smell one. He smells like rubber. There was a very nice full-page article about him in the Akron Beacon Journal on Friday, the day of his funeral. I'll try to scan it in if anyone is interested.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Making Love

My father-in-law, Carroll Krupp, died yesterday. He lived a long time – 87 years – and yet his death is still a shock, still a stinging reminder that a life, crammed full of joy and sorrow and a million moments that can never be adequately captured, can be snuffed in an instant. He was just a man, like every other man, and there will never be another like him. It is always that way.

Carroll and I had a rocky history. He didn’t want me to marry his daughter, and I married her anyway. He was looking for a doctor or a lawyer for a son-in-law, or better yet, an engineer like himself, and my liberal arts “I want to write the Great American Novel” ways didn’t inspire much hope in my abilities to perform as the all-important Protector and Provider. He made life hell for a while, and he almost didn’t come to our wedding. But on the morning of our marriage he came to me, told me that he had spent a sleepless night, and with tears in his eyes apologized for his behavior and wished me well. I don’t think he ever really understood me. I’m not sure I ever really understood him. But after twenty-three years of wary circling we had reached a sort of grudging mutual admiration. I think he was beginning to be convinced that it just might last.

His own marriage lasted 63 years. He tried and tried and tried to have a son, and then he tried and tried and tried some more. He ended up with six girls – smart, passionate, and opinionated, one and all, and a smart, passionate, opinionated wife. I married his youngest daughter Kate, the surprise fruit of his loins when he and his wife Irene were forty years old. Carroll did what any self-respecting male of his generation would have done under the circumstances; he retreated to the shop and the garage.

And he designed and made things, beautiful things, for his family – tables, desks, entertainment centers, chairs, stereo cabinets. He designed and built his own automobile, dubbed “The Bobcat,” from the blueprints on up, and molded the fiberglass for the body by heating it in the kitchen oven. He made model airplanes – not the kind you put together with Elmer’s glue, but the kind that really fly – and then he flew them in competitions. And won. Then he went to work Monday through Friday and made more things, things that we all now take for granted – the rubber gasoline hose at the gas pump, the carbon brakes that stop the airplanes we fly in, parts of the the suit that Neil Armstrong wore when he strolled on the moon.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Carroll Krupp was a mechanical genius. He was not so much an engineer as a good, old-fashioned inventor, a latter-day Thomas Edison, and when he died he had more than forty patents to his name. He did it with a high school education and a native ability that was astounding. For whatever reasons – his inherent shyness, his stoic German upbringing that frowned upon overt displays of emotion – he wouldn’t or couldn’t express his love for his family verbally. So he did it the only way he knew how; he made love, one beautiful work at a time. And he bestowed the gifts of his imagination and craftsmanship again and again on those he loved.

The fruits of his labor are all around me. They fill my home. But I see Carroll’s legacy most clearly when I leave home, as I do every Thanksgiving holiday. Thirty-five of us – four generations of the patriarch and matriarch, their daughters and son-in-laws, the grandkids and great grandkids, show up at a state park in southeast Ohio and simply relate – laugh, cry, share our lives with one another. We do it every year, and no one would miss it. My nieces and nephews are all grown up now, scattered across the country, raising families of their own. And they keep showing up, again and again, because they know what we all know: this is something special. Carroll didn’t make functional furniture. It was far too beautiful for that. But he did something better, something nearly miraculous in these dysfunctional times; he made a functional family. In the end, the best thing he built was a life, a family, a legacy that ripples generations down the line. He was a good man. I miss him.