Monday, February 01, 2010

Optimism and Love in the Face of Trouble

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: When My Rowboat Comes In
ARTIST: Steve Goodman
SONGWRITER: Steve Goodman
ALBUM: Affordable Art
YEAR/LABEL: 1983; Red Pajamas

There aren't a lot of members of the 'class of 1969' walking around today with this stuff.
(Steve Goodman, 1983)

For nearly fourteen years Steve Goodman lived, raised a family, wrote songs, recorded, and toured with a secret. Coiled up inside his body, ready to strike a lethal blow at any moment, was a viper named leukemia. Initially Goodman did not discuss his illness publicly because he feared record companies and concert promoters would not deal with a man who, at age 21, had already outlived the initial prognosis he had received at age 20. And while living several years with relatively good health in a state of remission, there was certainly no reason to bring the issue into the open. His friends knew, but they, too, kept quiet (something that would probably never happen in today's media frenzy times).

When Goodman suffered a relapse in 1982 there was no way to avoid the issue any longer. Bald from chemotherapy, an Ommaya reservoir visible on his scalp, and looking terribly gaunt, Goodman broke his silence with a series of interviews once his condition improved. His stated purpose was not to entice pity but to provide emotional support for the statistical one in four who would be hit by cancer at some point in their lives.

During this time he also wrote "When My Rowboat Comes In," a song that was his most blatant reference to his plight. In baseball terms, the lifelong Cubs fan both hit a grand slam and pitched a perfect game with the song. In the space of three minutes and thirty eight seconds Steve Goodman invited everyone into his house, sat them in a comfortable chair, offered them refreshments, and explained life as a leukemia patient. Most amazingly, he did so in a way that left the listener feeling joyous, not sad.

Musically, the song was a marked departure for Goodman. Although he enjoyed dabbling in nearly every genre of popular music from R&B ("Can't Go Back," which he said he wrote "in case I ever run into Wilson Pickett") to Western swing ("Between the Lines") -- on the same album -- he had never ventured into bluegrass (although coming close with "Death of a Salesman," also on the same album as the R&B and Western swing songs). The bluegrass accompaniment, however, served to augment the overall warm feel of the song. Goodman's focus was on calming the listeners' uneasiness as he poured out his soul to them. After all, while the announcement of his leukemia was a shock to his fans it was not news to him, for he had spent every day since December 1968 with the knowledge that he had a disease that would eventually take his life.

Goodman was a masterful songwriter who frequently put multiple layers of meaning into his songs (often slipping references to his disease into songs in ways that only became apparent after he went public with his condition). Those who did not know the author and singer of "When My Rowboat Comes In" was undergoing chemotherapy treatments could merely chalk up the song title to Goodman's sense of humor. Since the title is a play on the term "when my ship comes in" the phrase, especially in the context of the verse about his professional career, could be seen as nothing more than frustration from years of being a successful songwriter ("City of New Orleans," "Banana Republics," "You Never Even Call Me By My Name") while never having a hit as a performer (and, to date, his only well-known recording is "Go Cubs Go," the song played at Wrigley Field after Cubs victories). The rough seas could be the lack of a record deal as easily as a health crisis.

For people who were aware of Goodman's medical condition, however, the deeper message was obvious. In the opening verse he referenced the "lucky stars" that disappeared "on a stormy night" with his relapse. He credited his wife Nancy (who knew he was sick when she married him in 1970) with being "someone who can find the sun and chase away my sorrow with her laughter." After acknowledging "the seas are rough in the highest tide" Goodman, backed by harmonies by Sharon and Cheryl White, sang with his trademark audible smile about his optimism: "When the sun comes out on the other side, everything will be all right when we go rowing."

The second verse began by looking at Goodman's career, where he toured and played "every song I know from the mountains to the bottom of the canyon." He then acknowledged that he was realistic about his condition by stating he was "looking for some moments I can borrow." As he neared the end of this brief autobiography he had answered every question many people had wanted to ask him but refrained from doing so. He then concluded with the most important query: what about the future? "If my lucky stars won't shine tonight," Goodman replied in his song, "I'd rather take my chances on tomorrow."

Goodman's nearly sixteen-year battle with leukemia ended on September 20, 1984 at the age of 36. Steve Goodman's story, however, is not about a dying man but a man who lived his life to its fullest until he died. That is the message of this ode to love of family and career, his marvelous hymn of hope. After all, Goodman did not title this song "if My Rowboat Comes In," but WHEN.


The entire Affordable Art album
-- sterling examples of Goodman's eclectic musical styles and songwriting (including what many consider to be his funniest song ever, "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request") in one neat package, with a comical cover photo (showing the diminutive singer posed amid statues as if he were a lawn jockey) to boot.

"The Water is Wide" (from Artistic Hair) -- a traditional love ballad with lyrics ("I can't cross over," "not as deep as this hole I'm in, and I know not if I sink or swim") that take on a completely different meaning because of a bald Goodman showing off what he called his "chemo 'do" on the cover of the album. This song's imagery ("build me a boat that can carry two, and both shall row, my love and I") may have inspired "When My Rowboat Comes In."

"Blue Umbrella" (from Jessie's Jig and Other Favorites) -- another song with a completely different meaning ("just give me one extra season so I can figure out the other four") because of Goodman's medical problem is this tune penned and originally performed by his best friend, John Prine.

"Face on the Cutting Room Floor" (from Santa Ana Winds) -- an aspiring actress rejects the casting couch in this song with a marvelous kiss-off line ("sunrise on Sunset she won't be around, I guess that settles the score").

"(Now And Then, There's) A Fool Such as I" (from Unfinished Business) -- backed by dear friend Jethro Burns on mandolin, Goodman fulfilled a request from his wife to do this lost-love Hank Snow classic. His spoken introduction is positively heartbreaking for the implication that this was a farewell song to Nancy in light of his rapidly-failing health. Thankfully, he did not say that explicitly or this would be unlistenable.


When I Lift Up My Head
Rose of My Heart
Rock of Ages, Hide Thou Me
Our Town
Old Memories Mean Nothing to Me
Not That I Care
Nobody Eats at Linebaugh's Anymore
My Book of Memories
Lost to a Stranger
A Little Bitty Heart
Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs
Life is Too Short
I Want a Home in Dixie
I Lost Today
Down to the River to Pray
Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Stealin' Time
Starting Tomorrow
Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate
She's a Runaway
Painted Bells
Out to Sea
One More Song
New Delhi Freight Train
Long Way Home
Heart of Rome
Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home
Entella Hotel
Desperados Under the Eaves
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

1 comment:

Ramcey said...

Thanks for revisit of Steve's great song. I was lucky to meet him backstage during the last year and can only remember his humbleness, and beautiful smile. He then walked out on stage and blew us all away. What an amazing man, songwriter, guitarist, musician, father and husband he was. I'll listen to "Rowboat" today and remember you; Steve.