Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Tall Talent Named Chicago Shorty

Category: Birthday/Tribute

And now, a little love for one of the greatest songwriters we've ever had, a very short (5'2") man with a very tall legacy.

Steve Goodman showing off his smile
and his mandola on the back cover of
Affordable Art, the final album released
in his lifetime

It's hard to believe but Steve Goodman would have only been 61 years old on July 25th, a sad reminder of the brilliant talent we lost at such a young age a quarter of a century ago.

If there's a definition of "Americana music" in a dictionary somewhere, it should read, "See Steve Goodman." Goodman grew up sneaking into clubs to see blues artists where he would be the only Caucasian in the venue, playing in folk clubs, and listening to everything from Django Reinhardt to Hank Snow. He loved Smokey Robinson and Jimmie Rodgers and thought nothing of doing songs by both. Louis Armstrong was quoted as saying there are only two types of music: good and bad. That was Goodman's philosophy.

The reason Steve is not a household name is because the record labels didn't know what to do with him. Asylum could deal with the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt doing country, rock, pop, and reggae on the same album; however, let Goodman put country ("Roving Gambler"), Western swing ("Between the Lines"), Buffett-esque island music ("Banana Republics," a song that Buffett eventually covered), R&B ("Can't Go Back"), and old pop ("The Glory of Love," "Old Fashioned") on the same album (1975's Words We Can Dance To) and the same record label was at a loss on how to promote him. Goodman felt the pressure to "generate sales" and made his final two albums for Asylum uncharacteristically "commercial" rock, which didn't help sales a bit. He started his own label (Red Pajamas) and returned to making music on his terms. If that meant releasing an album that featured everything from "Winter Wonderland" to a smoking version of "Tico Tico," then so be it.

The more I listen to Steve Goodman the more one thought keeps popping into my mind: how did he do it? I'm grumpy with a head cold. This man, on the other hand, entertained the living daylights out of his audience; then, on more than one occasion, walked offstage and threw up because of the ill effects of chemotherapy and then went back out for an encore. Furthermore, he never asked for sympathy. In fact, until his 1982 relapse when he lost his hair after a round of chemo and had a very visible Ommaya reservoir implanted in his scalp, the public didn't even know he was a leukemia patient. And that's the way he wanted it.
Goodman walked onstage, even as he knew he was dying, and gave his audience their money's worth. He sang his great songs, beat the stuffing out of his guitar strings, told jokes, and cheered or booed the Cubs depending on whether they won that day. All the while, as he put it, he put out music "that doesn't tell you a thing about leukemia." Think of a man, knowing full well his life was nearing its conclusion, writing a song as hilarious as "Hot Tub Refugee" or as great as "Face on the Cutting Room Floor." Most of the perfectly healthy people calling themselves "songwriters" today could not match those songs.

Like the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers, Goodman never recorded a note without the knowledge that he had a fatal disease waging war on his body. But he kept that fact to himself, although he dropped hints in his songs such as the last verse of the title song of his second album, Somebody Else's Troubles:

Well I asked that undertaker what it took to make him laugh
When all he ever saw was people crying
First he hands me a bunch of flowers that he'd received on my behalf
And said, "Steve, business just gets better all the time"

Pretty heady stuff from a man who, at the time, wasn't sure he was going to live to see the album released -- or even completed.

What's even more amazing than the fact that Goodman could deliver a line like that is the fact that he delivered it with a SMILE on his face. It's not just his sense of humor, it's the fact that Goodman had an audible smile. You can listen to any song of his and tell when he was smiling, it is that obvious. Frequently he'd even laugh (such as in his recording of "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," when he chuckled during the song -- and refused to re-record it to remove the laugh). He could care less if he got through Homer & Jethro's classic "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs" (which he performed frequently when Jethro Burns toured with him) without laughing. To him, it was a good song, it was a funny song, and he was going to enjoy it as much as the audience did -- maybe more.

Sometimes I think that Steve Goodman's greater legacy is not his music -- the famous ("You Never Even Call Me By My Name," "City of New Orleans" [which netted him a posthumous "sympathy" Grammy based on Willie Nelson's version of the song], the Chicago Cubs' victory song "Go Cubs Go," and "Banana Republics") and the obscure ("God Bless Our Mobile Home," "Between the Lines," and his cover of Hank Williams' "Mind Your Own Business") -- but rather his living. This is a man who easily could have accepted what the doctors told him in late 1968, gone home, plopped down in a coffin, crossed his arms over his chest, and waited for the leukemia to kill him. However, even though leukemia eventually did win the battle in 1984, Goodman won the war: he had fifteen years he wasn't supposed to have, and in that decade and a half he LIVED. He enriched the lives of all around him, from his wife and children to his best friend John Prine to his musical idols such as Carl Martin to his fans. He gave the world great songs that have stood and will continue to stand the test of time. It's sad that he's gone, true, but we should consider ourselves blessed that he was here and that he fought his illness for the sake of sharing his music with the world.

Happy birthday, Chicago Shorty.

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