Steve spent many hours of his tragically short life in the “friendly confines.” And he’s spent time there in death, too: his brother scattered some of Steve’s ashes in the outfield, thanks to a groundskeeper friend. Yes, that last part sounds too good to be true—I read it in Clay Eals’s voluminous biography, Steve Goodman: Facing the Music. But I checked with Steve’s widow, Nancy, and she verified all the details.
I was supposed to be in Houston this weekend, but I changed my plans in the wake of the hurricane. And so while my personalized Cubs jersey sat in a suitcase somewhere back East, I headed off to see the Cubs play the Braves.
The first inning looked rocky, but the Cubbies roared back, taking what seemed like a decisive lead and then adding to it. A good thing, too, because the Braves had the tying run at the plate in the 9th and the Cubs’ closer seemed to forget his job. But the Cubbies won.
Which was the main thing I’d been hoping for. I wanted to hear Steve sing “Go, Cubs, Go!” in the building it was intended for.
And it was amazing. Nearly everyone in attendance stayed—after a nearly four-hour game! If the Mets had an equivalent song, everyone would be shouting the lyrics while racing down the stairwell. Still a community experience, but rather a different kind.
I made a video of the scene at Wrigley yesterday. Notice how you almost can’t hear the opening lines through the crowd noise, but then everyone either gets quiet or starts singing. What a gift Steve left behind for Cubs fans—for all of us.
I had a nightmarish day yesterday. I can’t even get a Story Safari out of it—that’s how bad it was. Almost the whole day seemed to be operating by Murphy’s Law.
And then I remembered Houston.
My day from hell would have looked pretty darn good for someone wading through chin-deep water in Houston today. Or someone huddled in a shelter, trying to dry out a clean pair of underwear for tomorrow. Or someone getting by on an hourly wage, trying to figure out how to make ends meet if the electricity really is out for six weeks. Freelancers and entrepreneurs—no internet, no work; no work, no income. I can’t even imagine.
Sending love—and music. This is how we deal with hurricanes in New Jersey. Sing it loud.
Back in 1975, Steve Goodman thought he had written the “perfect country and western song.” His friend, singer-songwriter David Alan Coe disagreed. Oh, Coe liked the song well enough. But he felt it needed a little bit more to make it the perfect country song. So Goodman added a verse.
Here, listen to Coe explain:
I appreciated finding this video embedded in a Rolling Stone article about Coe. It gives proper credit to Goodman—as Coe does in this clip. That doesn’t always happen when people talk about or write about this song.
Of course, I put the “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” in my Steve Goodman tribute show—you can hear a bit of it and its story starting at 1:50 in the clip below. I took the lyrics from Goodman’s recording, so they’re slightly different than Coe’s. No F-bomb, for one.
Our first guest blog post comes from…me, the singing side of me. I don’t blog often as Elaine St. George—come to think of it, I don’t sing often as her these days, either. But I’ll take any opportunity to remind the world about the underappreciated singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. So enjoy this post from July 10th, 2015:
Happy birthday, Arlo
by Elaine St. George
It’s Arlo Guthrie’s birthday today. Obviously Arlo holds a special place in the hearts of Steve Goodman fans. His cover of “City of New Orleans” gave Steve his first visibility. Well, as much visibility as a songwriter ever gets when he’s not singing his own song. Even if it’s a hit.
When I bought my first Steve Goodman album in the late ’70s and found “City of New Orleans” on it, I’ll admit I checked the credits twice. Like most of the rest of America, I assumed Steve was covering Arlo’s song. A few years later, of course, that perception changed. When Willie Nelson sang “City of New Orleans” in the mid-’80s, presumed authorship of the song transferred to him. Steve got his first Grammy when Willie’s cover won “Best Country Song.” But by then Steve was no longer around to receive it. He’d died a few months earlier.
And that brings me back to Arlo Guthrie, because in a way it was through him that I rediscovered Steve. Well, not “rediscovered”—I’d never forgotten about him. But that was when I decided to put together a whole show of Steve’s songs. And that show has now turned into an album. But I digress…
(Cue the harp and the wavy focus to signify a flashback…)
Five or six years ago, I did a show in Boston. The venue wanted a longer set than I’d planned so I had to add some material and I thought, “Why not do some songs written by people who live in Massachusetts?” First person who came to mind was James Taylor, but I had trouble finding a second. Then I remembered Arlo Guthrie had written “Alice’s Restaurant” about a place in the Berkshires so I decided he’d be perfect. I couldn’t cover “Alice’s Restaurant”—I didn’t have that much time to fill! But I thought I’d sing “City of New Orleans” and tell a story about how Arlo hadn’t written it, Steve Goodman had.
Being a thorough kind of gal, I researched the backstory and I discovered two things:
Arlo first heard “City of New Orleans” when Steve had the guts to walk up to him out of the blue in a crowded bar, introduce himself, and ask Arlo to listen to the song. The rest, as they say, is history.
Steve had the guts to do that because he knew he didn’t have any time to waste. He was dying of leukemia. In fact, he had died in 1984 at the age of 36. And I’d had no idea.
A little more research confirmed that #1 wasn’t exactly the truth. But #2 absolutely was. This guy whose work I loved—whose songs were so full of life and heart—was gone. And I’d missed it completely.
How had I remained so clueless? I’d moved on, listening more to showtunes, the Great American Songbook, and jazz than to the folk music that had sustained me in my teen years. But now that I knew the real story—or something closer to the real story—of Steve’s big break as a songwriter, I thought more people deserved to hear it. And I decided I needed to tell it.
For the record, the real story—as recounted in Clay Eals’s incredibly thorough book Steve Goodman: Facing the Music—is that the meeting was no accident. It was set up by a Chicago club owner who knew Steve had a great song on his hands and wanted to get him a break. The other part of the real story is that Steve only became a songwriter after doctors told him he had leukemia, and maybe only a year more to live. With typical Steve guts, he managed to stretch that one year out to 16.
That resonated with me. No one would have blamed Steve if he’d spent the rest of his life on a beach somewhere. But he insisted on living. And creating. That’s when he turned himself into a songwriter. And that’s how he had the guts to sing his song for Arlo Guthrie. Yes, the meeting was prearranged. But Steve showed up for it. And he kept showing up, until the leukemia finally claimed him.
I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything creative—art, singing, whatever—but it takes courage to stand up there on stage or hang your picture on a wall and say, “This is who I am. This is what I care about.” Steve did that. He seized every opportunity he could to share his work with people. He inspires me as an artist every day. And I hope that by telling his story and singing his songs, I can inspire other people to do whatever seems hardest for them.
All of which is a very long-winded way of saying: Thank you, Arlo Guthrie. You have no idea who I am, but you’ve had an impact on my life. Happy birthday.
I’ve been in Canada this week, loving how friendly and polite everyone is. But this sign along the seawall in Victoria takes “polite” just a bit too far.
Deposits? Someone on the by-law committee clearly misread “barking dogs” as banking dogs.
And “any deposits”? As a dog owner myself, I shudder to think.
Cities the world over require that people clean up after their dogs; Victoria is the only one I’ve ever encountered that legislates it by euphemism.
Still, it’s Sunday so I shall deposit this song here. I thought about giving you singing dogs, but instead I’ll let Dick Van Dyke and company explain the wondrous results of even a small deposit in the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.”
Today’s songs—yes, two!—come to us via Malcolm Gladwell, whose glorious podcast Revisionist History has returned for a second season. His examination of “The King of Tears,” country music songwriter Bobby Braddock, demonstrates that details pack emotional punch like nothing else.
Few of my readers may be aspiring country songwriters. But whatever genre we write in, we all want our pieces to pack emotional punch. Because that’s what gets them remembered. And—say it with me, folks—”if you don’t want to be remembered, why are you writing in the first place?”
To get at what’s different about country music, Gladwell compares a classic country hit to Mick Jagger’s song “Wild Horses.” Jagger wrote the song while keeping watch over his girlfriend, Maryanne Faithful, who had overdosed on heroin. He’s determined not to leave her side: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”
Details pack emotional punch
It’s a powerful statement, and visual too. Jagger overcomes the cliché by turning it into a literal promise, vowing that he and his love will ride those wild horses, “someday,” when she’s recovered.
Gladwell compares that song of undying love to one of the lachrymose ballads that were Bobby Braddock’s stock in trade, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
He said “I’ll love you till I die,” she told him “You’ll forget in time” As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind
He kept her picture on his wall, went half-crazy now and then He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again
Kept some letters by his bed dated nineteen sixty-two He had underlined in red every single “I love you”
Every couplet here offers us a detail about the man, his feelings, his sentimentality. Because of those specifics, we don’t just learn about the man. We see him, we have empathy for him.
“Wild Horses” gives us a fact. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” paints a picture. You may not know the latter song right now, but I guarantee that after listening to Gladwell’s podcast, you’ll never forget it.
My favorite version of “Wild Horses” is Susan Boyle’s. Go figure. And for the country song, George Jones sang it first. But I give you Randy Jackson, singing at George Jones’s memorial service at the Grand Ole Opry. But really, you should listen to the podcast first.
I taught a wonderful class on revision yesterday. And today’s song played a supporting role.
One of the concepts my writers always have trouble grasping is Rest. I mean, they know what it is, what it means. They just fail to see how it applies to them.
Surely some hack with no sense of shame could leave a first draft in an imperfect state, I can almost hear them thinking. But not me. Or if they’re fresh out of academia, Not I.
But the truth is, we need distance because we demonstrate time and again that we are highly subjective judges of our own work. We think a first draft sucks when actually it contains some true gems. We think something is brilliant when it’s drek.
That’s why I built two time-outs into my revision process: Rest after the first draft and Revisit after the second.
But that word- revisit – implies that you have left at some point and now return. Or, as Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks croon:
How can I miss you when you won’t go away?
I learned that song from an ex. In retrospect, perhaps I should have worried about our relationship sooner. But in any event, it’s a fun song, and this is a rollicking live rendition of it.
A James Baldwin essay I read this morning began with quotations from two bits of poetry. Rudyard Kipling’s paean to colonialism, “The White Man’s Burden,” and a stanza from a gospel hymn called “Down at the Cross.” I’d never heard the hymn before, so I went looking for it. Following the disturbing casual racism of the Kipling poem (and Baldwin didn’t even quote the worst part of it!), I certainly wasn’t expecting such joyful, toe-tapping music.
It took a while to search out the right rendition. I found choirs full of white people bluegrassing it up all over YouTube. But I wanted to give you something closer to the hymn as Baldwin would have known it, and I think I did, in a lovely late-1940s recording of three black women singing close harmonies with a brisk, positively toe-tapping rhythm. They called themselves the Simmons-Aker trio: Dorothy Simmons, Hattie Hawkins, and Doris Akers at the piano. I wonder why Hattie Hawkins got left out of the billing?
Turns out Doris Akers not only played religious music, she also composed it. One song she wrote with gospel diva Mahalia Jackson sold more than a million records. Near the end of her life, in 1992, the Smithsonian Institution dubbed her “the foremost black gospel songwriter in the United States. The Gospel Music Hall of Fame inducted her posthumously, six years after her death.
And so today’s song is “Down at the Cross.” Toe-tapping gospel: I dare you to listen and keep still.
Who else can I turn to on this long 4th of July weekend but Bruce Springsteen? I’ve heard this song about hope, dreams, and this country he loves many times. But it’s never made me cry before.
Springsteen first sang “Land of Hope and Dreams” publicly in 1999, during his reunion tour with the E Street Band. Remember 1999? Bill Clinton was president—though the Senate would try to impeach him. The Twin Towers still stood watch over lower Manhattan. Most people’s biggest worry was a massive technological failure. Tech folks thought that computers programmed to look only at the last two digits of the year might roll us back to 1900 when the new year hit. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)
But life was pretty good, at least if you weren’t a person of color. Or an immigrant. Or—God forbid—both. (Springsteen would later write a song about the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo.) Or LGBT. A Gallup poll found that while half of the country thought “gay or lesbian relationships between consenting adults should be legal”—thanks ever so much—only 35% of our neighbors thought we should be able to legalize those relationships in marriage.
So when Springsteen sang “Land of Hope & Dreams,” he was singing about an imperfect country full of imperfect people. But imperfect people striving to be their best selves, and to make their nation its best self.
Well, this train carries saints and sinners This train carries losers and winners This train carries whores and gamblers This train carries lost souls
I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted This train, faith will be rewarded This train, hear the steel wheels singing This train, bells of freedom ringing
I was going to write about this song about unleashing creativity. It’s called “A Wizard Every Day.” And I will.
But as I was searching the YouTube for the best rendition of it, I got to thinking about the creative people who wrote the song, composer Nikko Benson (you’ll hear him singing on the video I chose) and lyricist Liz Suggs. And about all of us who make art come out of our minds and our fingertips. Maybe not every time we try. But enough times that we’ve made people go “ooh” in appreciation. If it happens even once, that’s magical.
I’ve heard Benson and Suggs’s song twice now, both times sung by my favorite male singer, Brian Stokes Mitchell. And I can’t believe I didn’t blog about it the first time. But I didn’t, so here we are.
Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the song by writing too much about it. You should listen for yourself. All the way through.
I say “all the way through” because at first you’re going to think it’s just a silly song about a man’s encounter with a trick-or-treater. It is that, but it’s not just that.
So thank you to Nikko Benson and Liz Suggs, wherever you are, for unleashing creativity in the form of your song “A Wizard Every Day.” The world could use more wizards. Who knows—maybe one of my readers…
I’d love to know what you think of the song. What’s your favorite line or moment? Let me know in the comments.