Steve Goodman (7/25/48 — 9/20/84) was a big presence in Chicago my teenage years. For those less familiar, here is his Wikipedia page and a very nice fan site. The former notes Goodman’s Jewish background, but — as far as I know, and I was a pretty big fan — he didn’t speak, write, or sing about it himself. Scott Simon mentions, in NPR’s Cubs-related tribute, having gone to the “same house of worship” as Steve but only talking about the Cubs.
Steve Goodman’s lyrics often focus on time: The first track of his first album was “The I don’t know where I’m going but I’m Going Nowhere in a Hurry Blues.” He said he wrote “The 20th Century is Almost Over” when he saw a calendar labeled 1977, declaring it “later than I thought.” Many of his songs, like “My Old Man,” “Fourteen Days,” “Song for David,” and “The Ballad of Penny Evans,” focus on specific time-related treasures and regrets.
“Between the Lines,” reflects the awareness, from early in his career, that leukemia would number his days:
The day you’re born they sign a piece of paper
that will certify the date of your birth
And the day you die they sign another
just to prove you’ve gone back to the earth.
…but you must read in between the lines
–Steve Goodman (z”l)
Nationally, if people know one Steve Goodman song, it’s usually “City of New Orleans,” recorded by Arlo Guthrie. Or, perhaps, following the Cubs’ World Series win: “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” and “Go, Cubs, Go.”
But in and around Chicago, his concerts were more famous for politically-minded, funny songs like the “Chicken Cordon Blues” (vegetarian diet, enforced by spouse) and “Lincoln Park Pirates” (Chicago’s long-defunct, but then very active and expensive, towing racket). The latter offers one of his sillier rhymes — “fenders ruined” and “lagoo-on” — which typified his work and somehow got laughs, not groans.
…Egypt and Wherever We’re Headed
“Broken String Song” — “…somebody, please, who works in this place, go in the back and open the case…” — illustrates the way Steve Goodman related to an audience: He was a lot of fun, even at moments that might have seemed boring or frustrating for/with just about anyone else.
Maybe the world has no need of more silly rhymes. But it’s hard to imagine that the ability to squeeze more life and music into the world, even at dull or unpleasant times, will ever be irrelevant. And the ability to maintain a connection, even during stressful situations, seems no less in need. Goodman embodied qualities or skills we can all use on this perpetual trek between Egypt and wherever it is we’re headed.
I returned to my seat and told my friends of the encounter; they refused to believe me until he walked out on stage.
I saw Steve Goodman perform numerous times. Once, at Ravinia (outdoor venue outside Chicago), one of the very few times I wasn’t on the lawn, I was returning to my seat during a John Prine concert and saw someone who looked very much like Goodman, only skinnier than I’d remembered, alone on a bench, looking a lost, even a little desolate. I recall thinking maybe it wasn’t him: Why would someone so famous (locally, anyway) be on his own? And I remember, too, almost moving past, in the interest of his privacy. But there was something about his demeanor that led me to sit down next to him, confirm his identity, and thank him for his music and all it had meant to me. Goodman seemed genuinely grateful and then excused himself
…After realizing he was going to perform, I later wondered if I’d interrupted his private preparation, although a public spot seems less than ideal for such a goal; I believed at the time — and am still convinced — that I’d stumbled upon something more existentially fraught. When he died a few years later, I was very glad I’d been able to convey my gratitude, possibly brightening a dark moment (or maybe just interfering with a performer’s effort to grab a minute of solitary peace). Either way: I once met Steve Goodman, and I still cherish those few moments with an extraordinary soul.