Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Don't You Know Him, He's Your Native Son

Category: Book Review

Last year when I mentioned Steve Goodman in my "dates of note in country music," I received a reply from author Clay Eals. He thanked me for remembering Steve and mentioned he had a biography due. That biography is now out.

To call Steve Goodman: Facing the Music just a biography is to do Eals' book a disservice. Yes, it is a detailed look at Steve Goodman's life. It's also, secularly speaking, one of the most life-affirming books you can hope to read.
This book is not to be missed. Goodman fans, and indeed fans of country or folk music, will eat it up; however, the book is a must for anyone who loves life.

Steve Goodman: Facing the Music

For those who aren't familiar with Steve Goodman, he wrote "City of New Orleans," first a hit by fellow folk singer Arlo Guthrie in 1972 then a Grammy-winning country version by Willie Nelson in 1984. He also penned (along with fellow Chicago native, folk/country icon, and lunatic John Prine) "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," in which they "tried to cram everything that had been in every country and western song into one song." The David Allan Coe version stands as Coe's biggest hit as a singer, and even non-country fans know the punch line verse about mother, prison, trucks, and trains. If you watch Cubs baseball games on WGN, it is Goodman's voice you hear at the conclusion of victories: his "Go Cubs Go" is played after every win at Wrigley.

In a loving, thoroughly researched narrative, Eals takes the reader through Goodman's life and career. The book begins with an account of Goodman's final concert in Kansas City, where he struggled through his set because of the ravages of leukemia and the medication he had to take. The reader knows from the onset that the story has no happy ending (the complications of a bone marrow operation to treat the leukemia claimed Goodman's life at the far-too-young age of 36), which is a risk for a biographer to take. Yet, Eals builds the story masterfully through Goodman's childhood in Chicago, where he learned a love of music and performing at his synagogue, through the horrid diagnosis and the initial prognosis of "maybe three years" into the remission and recurrences, and a career where Goodman became a "songwriter's songwriter" (with artists such as Kris Kristofferson singing his praises).

Yes, the story is sad. It would be a cold-hearted individual who could read the passage about Goodman's life support machines being disconnected on that fateful September day in 1984 without being at least misty-eyed (or, as some of Goodman's friends and fans admitted to, crying openly). However, Goodman's life was one of jockularity, and Eals follows that trail as far as it leads, even to near the bitter end when Jimmy Buffett played some songs in Goodman's hospital room and reported that all of the alarms on the machines keeping the comatose Goodman alive started going off and concluded Steve didn't care for the latest Buffett tune. (Buffett has recorded a number of Goodman compositions, including "This Hotel Room," "Banana Republics," "Door Number Three," and one of my personal favorite Goodman songs, "California Promises.") Given that Goodman, like his lifelong friend Prine, could break your heart with one song ("My Old Man," about the death of his father) then have you crying from laughing with the next (such as "Sdrawkcab Klat [Talk Backwards]"), it would only stand to reason that Eals' work would follow that theme. You will cry, but you will also laugh out loud in response to Goodman's lyrics, his antics, and even his friends carrying out the lyrics to "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" for Goodman (scattering some of his ashes at Wrigley Field).

The book, currently in its second printing, is over 800 pages in length, meticulously cross-referenced. That is not a drawback. This is an easy book to read, because the writing is as warm and friendly as one of Steve Goodman's perpetual smiles.

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