STEVE GOODMAN: FACING THE MUSIC
by Clay Eals
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Steven Goodman lived a mere thirty-five years before his death from leukemia, but during that time, especially during the last fifteen years, he made an indelible mark on the music industry. In a massive biography, Clay Eals attempts to understand who Goodman was and what his role in contemporary music was. In this attempt, Eals is successful in not only his depiction of Goodman’s life and work, but also, perhaps more importantly, in creating a highly enjoyable work, which should not daunt readers because of its size.
While Goodman is probably best known for writing the song “City of New Orleans,” which proved a hit for Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson, his songwriting output was vast, and was practically eclipsed by his performance presence. To spotlight this latter aspect of Goodman’s career, Eals opens the biography with a lengthy description of a concert Goodman performed at Parody Hall in Kansas City on May 21, 1984, a mere four months before his death.
Eals’s description of the concert makes the reader wish they could have been there, yet at the same time can’t do justice to the actual concert (which survives as a bootleg). Rather than just discuss the songs Goodman sang during the concert, Eals’s description focuses on the patter between the songs and gives some background to the songs Goodman sang.
Many biographies give a cursory look at the subject’s adolescence and teen years, as if they don’t become complete humans until they enter whatever career they select later in life. Eals, however, begins by looking at Goodman’s parents and his own childhood. It isn’t until the fifth chapter, more than 125 pages into the book, that Goodman really launches his career, even as he is sidelined by leukemia.
The massive section detailing Goodman’s life until he was twenty isn’t just fluff. Eals contacted numerous classmates, friends and neighbors of Goodman’s, ranging from his partner at the High School radio station to the son of the man who taught Goodman guitar, to classmate Hillary Rodham. More importantly, Eals has combined all their stories about Goodman to provide a coherent image of the boy, a technique which Eals continues throughout the biography.
Eals spent an entire decade working on his chronicle of Goodman’s three and a half decades. The going was not always easy, and despite the thousands of interviews he conducted, Eals notes that some important people were not interested in participating in the project. Nevertheless, Eals was able to fill in those gaps by using previously publishing interviews they had given about Goodman.
As Goodman leaves the safety of his family and Chicago’s suburbs, Eals carefully provides enough background information about the society through which Goodman moves to ensure the reader has context for the subject of the biography without providing so much information that Goodman is lost in the detail. This is true whether Eals is writing about Goodman’s college career, his time busking in New York, or opening shows for Steve Martin.
Once Goodman begins to make a living for himself as a musician and composer, Eals does tend to shy away from revealing too much about Goodman’s home life with his wife Nancy, although he is more than happy to discuss it when it is important, whether having to do with the adoption of their first daughter, Jessie, and the births of their subsequent daughters, or strife caused by his frequent travels. However, while Eals notes the problems Goodman’s schedule caused, he doesn’t dwell on it, merely noting the difficulties are moving on.
That isn’t to say that Eals has created a saint in Goodman whose clay feet he was afraid to reveal. Goodman comes across as a man who is trying his best to deal with his life, whether it is the leukemia that is constantly threatening him, even when it is in remission, or trying to find the song or album which will catapult him into the spotlight, as “City of New Orleans” did for Arlo Guthrie.
Perhaps the key ingredient in understanding Goodman is his commitment to helping friends, and potential friends. From the obvious cases of Goodman introducing Paul Anka and Kris Kristofferson to John Prine or loaning a struggling Jimmy Buffett money to get to Colorado, to inviting local musicians on stage with him, Goodman seems to have always shown a magnanimity of spirit.
There are some occasions when even that basic aspect of Goodman’s personality failed, however. Those cases, seem to be tied to setbacks in Goodman’s cancer treatment and are certainly understandable in that light, even if the people who saw those less than stellar moments in his life were not aware of his affliction. Although these appear to be uncharacteristic, Eals includes them in his effort to portray a complete individual.
In addition to Eals’s biography, Steve Goodman: Facing the Music contains a CD of 18 songs and a collection of interview clips. Although none of the songs are by Steve Goodman, they are all inspired by him, and often reference him. While the disk doesn’t have any of Goodman’s singing on it, it is a nice touch, and Goodman’s wife and manager have managed to make sure that all of Goodman’s albums, as well as additional material, is readily available on CD.In a relatively short time, Goodman made a major mark on popular music, influencing numerous other musicians (the last chapter traces some of that ongoing influence), creating a musical legacy for himself and others which lasts to this day. Eals book introduces this musician, songwriter, and entrepreneur to listeners and readers who may not be familiar with him and should make every reader rush out to sample Goodman’s music (I’d suggest the two disc “No Big Surprise” as a good starting point).
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