Please buy Clay Eals' wonderful Steve Goodman biography

In honor of the Chicago Cubs (undoubtedly shortlived) presence in the playoffs, Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn has declared it Steve Goodman Day. The diminutive Chicago folkie, who penned the best damn baseball song ever written in "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" (listen to it here), died 23 years ago from leukemia at the not-so-ripe age of 36. (The Wrigley faithful naturally prefer Goodman's much sunnier "Go Cubs Go," which apparently is enjoying a Renaissance of sorts this season.)

Goodman's best known for penning "City of New Orleans," which Arlo Guthrie scored a hit with in 1972. Renditions by Judy Collins, John Denver, Willie Nelson, and a slew of others followed. He also wrote "Banana Republics," an acid-tongued paean to American ex-pats living in the Caribbean that's generally associated Jimmy Buffet.

But Goodman was also a virtuoso guitarist (remarkable considering his 5' 2" frame) and a comic imp who could win over the most retractable of audiences. How many folkies, after all, could've survived opening for Steve Martin during the height of the wild-and-crazy-guy years? Armed with a passel of what he dubbed schtick-kicking songs, Goodman disarmed jackasses with arrows in their heads for years.


His studio albums never quite captured Goodman's peculiar genius. Probably the best of the bunch is Somebody Else's Troubles, his second album, which features Bob Dylan on piano on one track. There's also been a slew of swell posthumous live releases. But easily the best means by which to get acquainted with Goodman's music is through No Big Surprise: The Steve Goodman Anthology. Released in 1994, it includes one disc of studio material and another of live cuts. From the lovely spiritual "I'll Fly Away" to the outrageously crass nuclear holocaust number "Watchin' Joey Glow," it's a knee-bucklingly good collection.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of getting to the point of this post: Clay Eals' excellent, exhaustive Goodman biography Facing the Music. Released in May by ECW Press, it's roughly the size of a phone book for a mid-sized American city. Eals interviewed more than 1,000 people in researching the book, from Hillary Clinton (a classmate at Maine East high school in suburban Chicago) to David Allen Coe, the outlaw country singer who scored a hit with "You Never Even Call Me By My Name," the goofy country parody that Goodman wrote with frequent crony John Prine. Adorned with hundreds of photographs from throughout his life, the volume is a sweet valentine.

Eals is particularly adept at describing the burgeoning Chicago folk scene of the 70s that propelled Goodman and Prine to national renown. My favorite anecdote is a late-night gathering at the swank Palmer House hotel in Chicago that involves the unlikely assemblage of Kris Kristofferson, Paul Anka, Donnie Fritts, Lola Falana, Melvin Van Peebles, and a 22-year-old Goodman. The night ends with Anka offering to fly Goodman out to New York and set him up with a recording contract.

This heady start never quite developed into the commercial success that Goodman craved. His albums pretty much bombed. He drew succor from the road, gigging relentlessly even as leukemia sucked the life out of him. And he never lost his wit, dubbing himself Cool Hand Leuk right down to his last days. Eals recounts all of this with intelligence and compassion.