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Book Review - "Steve Goodman: Facing The Music"

If you are younger than 35 or so, then most likely all you know of Steve Goodman is his anthemic "Go Cubs Go", which was originally written for WGN radio (more on this later), and is now played over the PA system at Wrigley Field every time the Cubs win.

Every single one of you (no matter what your age) should read this book, and then go out and buy some Steve Goodman music, because this man was so much more -- although his Cub fandom was a very big part of what made him the man he was.

Where do I begin to review a 729-page biography? Clay Eals, a writer from Seattle (who comes by his Chicago chops honestly; his daughter lives in Chicago), has lovingly and comprehensively written the story of a man who many of us who came of age in the 70's and 80's loved for his music and his frenetic performing style and his love of the Cubs and the fact that he just seemed, well, so "Chicago".

The book takes him, in great detail, from his childhood in Albany Park to the move made by his family, as so many did in the early 1960's, to the suburbs. There his life intersected with a blonde-haired female classmate at Maine East High School who went on to become fairly well-known herself -- Hillary Rodham. We also find out about his first tentative moves to become a musician (to the horror of his parents, who wanted him to be a doctor at first -- how common a story is that? -- but later they became his biggest fans, and one of Goodman's most hauntingly beautiful songs, "My Old Man", is written in tribute to his dad), to his becoming well-known through Arlo Guthrie's iconic recording of Steve's "City of New Orleans" (and also, how John Denver nearly became famous for this song and why it's good that he didn't), to his 15-year battle with leukemia that finally took him, sadly, four days before the Cubs clinched the NL East in 1984.

I was also reminded, often, how those of us who grew up in the Chicago area in the 60's and 70's had so many shared common experiences, and how my life nearly intersected with Steve's on a number of occasions -- his first Chicago apartment was two blocks from where I now live; his father, after a divorce, married a woman whose son I attended high school with; and Steve worked on several occasions with people in the TV business with whom I worked years ago, and at least one who works with me now. The places he played at most -- the Earl of Old Town and Somebody Else's Troubles (named after another one of Steve's songs) -- were places I frequented in the 70's and early 80's.

Steve moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to try to revive a recording career that had flagged (during his life, none of his albums ever sold more than 50,000 copies; his popularity soared after his death, when his family cheerfully accepted three Grammys given for his songs), but even then, kept his Chicago connection. It was then that he wrote "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request", a song that got him briefly banned from Wrigley Field by Dallas Green, who felt that the song glorified the "lovable loser" image that Green was trying to shed. Green was right about that, but wrong about the song: it didn't glorify lovable losing, but lamented it. Goodman got back into the good graces of Green and the Cubs thanks to WGN program director Dan Fabian, who in early 1984 was looking for an intro song to replace the then-dated "It's A Beautiful Day For A Ballgame". After hearing Steve interviewed by Roy Leonard (one of Goodman's longtime champions on local radio), he asked him to write a song... and "Go Cubs Go" (which Lou Piniella charmingly called "Go Cubs Win" last year) was the result. Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote this blog entry last September that tells more of this part of the story. From the book, here's a quote from John McDonough that shows how he knew Steve's "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" spoke to the soul of the Cubs fan:

"Steve really understood what the fiber of being a Cub fan was all about," said Cubs executive John McDonough, who became the team's director of sales and marketing in 1983. "Instead of being overwrought with pain, he seemed to say, 'I'm gonna put a lighter spin on this because I'm going through what millions are going through. They're gonna win eventually, but let's have some fun with it in the meantime.' He might have been the first guy to kind of tell everybody, 'Look, it's OK that you can laugh at this a little bit, and it's gonna get better.' It was almost like he was the therapist."
I could go on and on and on -- this book took the better part of a week to finish, and I enjoyed every single minute of it. Clay Eals posted five diaries here at BCB asking for help in finding certain information and photographs to use in the book, and at least one regular poster here is given credit (among the more than 1,000 people who Eals gives recognition for assisting; Sen. Clinton, in fact, is noted as going "above and beyond the call" in helping out). Eals even acknowledges that in a book of this scope, there would likely be some minor errors (I found a couple of nitpicks, including the misidentification of WBBM-Channel 2 as Chicago's "ABC" affiliate) -- and on Eals' website he helpfully posts corrections and asks readers to send him more, for the second edition of the book that will come out sometime this year. All of that is what makes this book what it is -- a celebration of a life truly lived. Steve Goodman lived only thirty-six years, but crammed what seemed to be several lifetimes into those years. I saw him play only once -- at one of those Park West shows in the late '70s -- but man, what a performer. He knew exactly how to work a crowd, and in addition to his Chicago-themed songs ("Lincoln Park Pirates", "Daley's Gone"), his songs spoke -- and still do -- to the human condition. More than thirty years later, they stand up well, and the best tribute to Steve is that after all this time, people are still recording his music. The book also includes a CD that has songs written in honor of Steve by other artists and also some audio clips from radio interviews he did in the '70s.

This passage -- not even from the main body of the book; it was a sidenote (Eals helpfully puts footnotes on the margins of each page), I think sums up who and what Steve Goodman was (and you'll pardon the profanity, but that, too, was part of him):

Steve was keenly attuned to pennant races, though the Cubs rarely contended. Journalist Steve Weitzman joined Steve at Shea Stadium on Sept. 20, 1976, for a Mets/Pirates game. Weitzman was a huge fan of the Pirates, who needed a victory to get into the National League playoffs. In the bottom of the ninth, however, rookie Lee Mazzilli pinch-hit a walk-off homer, his first major league round-tripper, to reverse a 4-3 score and win the game for the Mets 5-4. Weitzman was "stunned and speechless". But Steve, wizened by years of Cub losses, whacked Weitzman on the shoulder and elicited a grin by saying, "September baseball is a motherfucker." [Note from Al -- that HR wasn't Mazzilli's first; his first was hit at Wrigley Field on September 8, 1976, capping a six-run Mets ninth inning. I imagine Steve Goodman would have found that somehow darkly appropriate. Also, the Pirates were 4.5 games out after that 9/20/76 loss and never recovered; the Phillies won the division.]
That's who Steve Goodman was -- a man of great talent who loved life, and lived it to the fullest in the short time he was granted on Earth. Get this book and celebrate along with him and his many friends and family who contributed to this tour de force.