[7 September 2006]
Twenty-two years have passed since Steve Goodman died. There’s a whole generation of Chicago denizens who not only have never heard him sing, but have never even heard his name. That’s truly sad, as Goodman was the Windy City’s most beloved musical ambassador. He celebrated the town in song, created myths about its famous (Mayor Daley in “Daley’s Gone”) as well as its not so famous citizens (the local automobile towing company in “Lincoln Park Pirates”), and was a die-hard Cubs fan to boot (“The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request”). But Goodman was much more than a local Midwestern hero. His “City of New Orleans”, most famously covered by Arlo Guthrie, made him a national star with a major label recording contract. While other artists like Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, and Jimmy Buffett performed splendid renditions of Goodman’s material, he himself was a fine interpreter of other people’s songs. His cover of Michael Smith’s “The Dutchman” is better known than Smith’s, and Goodman regularly recorded tunes by friends like Shel Silverstein, as well as classic Americana from the past, and made them his own through his exuberant style.
A few unreleased Goodman recordings have found their way to the market over the years, mostly due to the efforts of John Prine’s Oh Boy record label. (Goodman “discovered” Prine and brought the fellow Chicagoan to the attention of Kris Kristofferson, which launched Prine’s career back in the early ‘70s.) Goodman’s records are on the Red Pajamas imprint of Oh Boy. This new disc features Goodman performing live to a friendly and receptive crowd at one of his regular haunts, The Earl of Old Town, back in August 1978. There’s nothing special about the show. A few of his regular cohorts join in, including Jethro Burns on mandolin, Corky Siegel on harmonica, and David Amram on pennywhistle and percussion, but it’s your basic Goodman gig from that era. And the very ordinariness of the concert suggests how extraordinarily talented Goodman was.
The 17 tracks show Goodman’s eclectic tastes. He sings “City of New Orleans” with an awareness that the crowd expects it, and seven other self-penned tunes that range from the strictly humorous (“Men Who Love Women Who Love Men”) to more serious songs of love (“Hand It to You”). The first is a politically incorrect tune by today’s standards about the gender-bending sexuality parading on the streets of the Big Apple, the latter a romantic tribute to his wife. Goodman also performs feel-good versions of Americana music like “Truck Driving Man”, “Red, Red, Robin”, “The Auctioneer”, and “Lost Highway”. But whether he’s singing originals or well-known covers, Goodman energetically delivers the goods with a happy, feel-good sensibility.
There is something corny and old-fashioned about Goodman’s approach. As the son of a used car salesmen, Goodman seems to want to put his arm around your shoulders and ask you to kick the tires before delivering a special deal just for you. The thing is, Goodman follows through. There are no lemons on his lot. Goddamn it, every song offers a reason to smile and sing along. He makes you want to brag to your friends about what a good deal you got, flirt boldly with a pretty person of the opposite sex, and generally just goof around happily. That’s not an easy thing for a musician to do.
Unfortunately, it’s these very traits that have led to Goodman’s present obscurity. He was never hip by the standards of his time, and therefore doesn’t date well. (Remember, 1978 is the year of vital punk rock, glam rave ups, earnest country rock, and hot disco biscuits… what chance does a man with an acoustic guitar who sings sweetly have?) Old fans still remember Goodman well and speak wistfully about the past. They’ll enjoy the agreeable nostalgia and cheap thrills accorded by the new release. But new audiences should hear this, too, for their own pleasure. Ironically, one of Goodman’s most popular songs was about a man whose girlfriend didn’t even seem to know his name; David Allen Coe’s version of Goodman’s “You Don’t Have to Call Me Darling”. Well, you don’t have to call Goodman darling to appreciate what a darling he truly was and to remember his name.