In a documentary feature included in the DVD Steve Goodman Live From Austin City Limits… And More Kris Kristofferson tries to explain what Steve was like by citing a poem by a South American poet. The Poem talks about a man who scales a high mountain and looks down upon all the people on earth and sees them each like a spark of flame.
Some of the flames simply burn, others waver, but some are so bright and hot you can't even look at them. Kristofferson paused then, and you could see him struggling to control his emotions. He said that Steve was like that; full of so much energy inside of him that it was almost too much for one body to contain. Kristofferson laughed and said it took him a while, but he finally learned to stop having Steve open his shows for him. He got tired of the critics saying that Steve would blow him off the stage.
From 1969 until his death in 1984 Steve lived with the knowledge his days were numbered. For fifteen years he fought off the Leukemia that would eventually cause his kidneys and liver to fail in a Washington State hospital, writing and singing songs that made people laugh, and moved their hearts. He never received the popular acclaim that his songs did, Arlo Guthrie had the hit with "City Of New Orleans", but those who knew him or heard him sing understood the wealth he had to offer.
For those who never had the privilege of seeing Steve Goodman perform live while he was with us, or if you're like me and only managed to see him once long ago, finding out that a DVD was made of two of his concerts is like discovering the sunken treasure chest at the bottom of the ocean. Steve Goodman Live From Austin City Limits… And More was released in 2003 by the label he founded, Red Pyjama Records, and as usual with Steve's stuff, it flew under everyone's radar.
The majority of the material is taken from two concerts he performed on the inestimable television show Austin City Limits. The first in 1977 and the second in a show he recorded in tandem with his buddy John Prine in 1982. Sandwiched between the two halves of Austin is an interview given by Steve in 1983 overlooking Wrigley Field from the roof of one of those apartments you always see people watching games from.
Steve said no and explained he wrote it like he would write any song; he was bored, traveling on a plane, and needed something to do. Since he was flying into Chicago for a concert for the first time in a while he was thinking about Chicago and that made him think about the Cubs, and that made him think about this guy lying there dieing.
The public never knew about Steve's illness until it became impossible to disguise it anymore. When that time came, instead of lamenting or whatever, he laughed in its face, giving himself a new nickname, "Cool Hand Leuk" and released an album called Artistic Hair. The album cover featured a picture of him with a post chemotherapy hairstyle standing in front of a barbershop and a big idiot grin on his face.
Watching Steve perform, especially in the first half of the DVD, is like watching a firework splutter and spark all over the place. Sometimes he'll just simmer with an interior passion as on songs like "My Old Man", a song for his father, or "Old Fashioned". Other times he explodes like a Roman Candle and you'd swear this little five foot two inch Jewish guy from Chicago was imbued with the spirit of a revival meeting leader.
On the song "The 20th Century Is Almost Over" he stops strumming on his guitar, stands back from the microphone, and shakes and shimmies so much that his feat leave the ground; his arms flail about him, and the vocals drive out of him with such force that the audience is forced to start clapping along spontaneously. There's nothing forced or artificial about the moment, it's as natural as breathing for Steve to become that passionate about his music.
No set in Austin Texas would be complete without the inclusion of "You Never Even Call Me By My Name" which was a song that Steve and John Prine wrote together with the sole object of cramming every last Country and Western cliché into one tune. When they realized they still hadn't mentioned, trucks, mothers, jail, Christmas, trains, and the dog dying, Steve wrote one last verse including all of them.
In an interview on the documentary part of the DVD John confesses he was so embarrassed by the song he told Steve to leave his name off it when he recorded it. When the song became a hit for someone else, Steve phoned him and asked if he wanted to reconsider so he could share in the profits, John said no he would stand by his word. The next day Steve showed up at his house with an antique jukebox from the 40's worth around twelve thousand dollars as a present.
The 1982 concert excerpts are slightly more subdued than those from 1977, but they show Steve's wit and empathy as a performer to their fullest extent. The opening song "Talk Backwards" features him doing just that, singing half the song lyrics backwards, in a hysterical piece of nonsense reminiscent of the pieces he wrote with Shel Silverstein of Dr. Hook fame. "Elvis Imitators", his peon of praise to those folk who make their living pretending to be Elvis, offers a hint of his former ebullience as he does a brilliant Elvis imitation himself, complete with guitar and hip gyrations.
One of the biggest ironies of Steve career was the song he probably received the most recognition for and was one he didn't even write. "The Dutchman" was written by Michael Smith, but for me and probably quite a few others, it's Steve's version we will always hear in our heads.
Steve was joined by Jethro Burns, mandolin player extraordinaire, for "The Dutchman" and two other tracks. An instrumental called "Tico Tico" and this little tune you might have heard of called "City Of New Orleans". For those of you who are most familiar with Arlo Guthrie's version of the song, it will be something of a shock probably to hear it in its original bluegrass version, but that's how Steve wrote it.
I'm sure all the usual clichéd metaphors have been used to describe Steve's short life and none of them probably do justice to what he accomplished. But watching and listening to people like Marty Stuart, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and Arlo Guthrie in the documentary portion of the DVD trying to find the right way to describe their late friend, and stumbling around at a loss for words, I don't feel so bad knowing that anything I say won't be sufficient.
Watch the DVD Steve Goodman Live From Austin City Limits… And More and maybe you'll be able to find the words in your heart that work for you. I know that for me it managed to remind me one human being can light up a city with the power of his or her convictions, and the light given off by that energy can be a shining example for others.
Steve Goodman's ashes are buried beneath home plate at Wrigley Field.