Book Review: Steve Goodman Facing The Music Clay Eals
I'm pretty sure that in years to come if you were to look up the word exhaustive in an English language dictionary that all they will need do is put a picture of Clay Eals beside the word and everyone will understand the meaning instantaneously. I guess other adjectives describing how completely he covers his subject in his biography of Steve Goodman, Facing The Music are also appropriate, but when a book is 800 pages long and over a thousand people have been interviewed in its making you can't go wrong starting with exhaustive.
If you've never heard of Steve Goodman, and I'm sure there are a sizable number of people who haven't, you're probably going to be wondering why so much effort has gone into writing a book about this guy. That's probably a fair question and can be best answered a couple of ways.
First of all there are the people who were interviewed for this book; starting with Arlo Guthrie who wrote the forward and Studs Terkel who wrote the preface and then proceeding down the line to Steve Martin (Yes the Steve Martin) Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Rait, Jackson Brown, Randy Newman, Lily Tomlin, Carl Reiner, Martin Mull, Marty Stuart, and some woman named Hillary Rodham Clinton. Of course there were like a thousand more then that but those are just some of the highlights.
This guy obviously had something in him that he could touch such a disparate group of people across generations and that's what Clay has taken great pains to study and understand. Who was this meteoric ball of fire that passed through the music world and left it long before his trajectory should have ended.
You see Steve's career was always going to be finite – he was diagnosed with leukemia when he was twenty but somehow held off the inevitable until 1984 – and played every song not knowing if it would the last time he got to play it. He was so successful at disguising what was going on with his body that it wasn't even until two or so years before he died and he had a major relapse that he even went public about his impending doom.
You might think you've never heard a Steve Goodman song, but if you've ever heard what Johnny Cash called the best damn train song ever written, "City of New Orleans" you've heard a Steve Goodman song. It was Arlo Guthrie who made the song famous and also kept Steve solvent. That song alone must have assured Steve and his family financial viability, especially considering his medical bills must have been substantial.
It would have been easy for Clay to write one of those valiant tales of the little guy who fought against great odds to fulfill his dreams and turn it into something sentimental and smarmy. But that's not the picture he draws of Steve, because obviously no one can be that kind of saint.
This is a warts and all portrait, with friends recounting that Steve was victim to a temper that could lay waste to a city block. Getting into fights with hosts at restaurants for not letting him in for being in violation of the dress code, or running down behind home plate at Wrigley Field and getting into a ferocious argument with the home plate umpire. (When the umpire proved he was right and Steve was wrong he was able to laugh at himself, but he was still mad)
It's Clay's insistence on accuracy that actually makes Steve Goodman seem that much more amazing an individual. While the accolades tell us what we already gathered from the fact that book was written, that Steve was a remarkable, it's the warts that keep him human and someone who it is that much easier to identify with.
Of course some of the anecdotes about Steve and famous people are a lot of fun; Johnny Cash walking on stage and taking his boots off when Steve said all he need was Johnny's boots and he'd look just like him, or Kris Kirstofferson and Steve Martin both saying the biggest mistake they ever made in their lives was having Steve Goodman opening for him as he would do such an amazing forty minute set that they couldn't compete with him.
In 1972 Steve and his wife Nancy adopted their first child Jessie. They had been warned that the possibility of Steve passing the disease along to a next generation was a real enough risk that they should consider not having children. According to people Clay interviewed once they began to raise children (three in total) Steve's obsession became to leave them a legacy.
"City Of New Orleans" ensured that the family of Steve Goodman will probably never want for much. It also seems that in the minds and hearts of thousands of people, all those interviewed for this book at least, that Steve created an indelible impression on people that will also be his legacy.
Clay Eals has created something unique in the biographic genre and it took me a bit to pin down what the difference was in this book from others of the type. Every single source is first hand. All the stories that you read, all the anecdotes that are retold, are told by the people who were there to see them. He didn't go to a library and read books about Steve, but he has written the book that people will seek out in the future.
Piece by piece Clay has built a picture of this remarkable singer whose music and person touched countless people. A proud man who never used his illness to generate sympathy for himself but lived with the fact that he only had a limited amount of to accomplish all that he wanted. There is information in this book and stories that offer insight into some of the fear that Steve must have lived with, and the courage that it must have taken him to get up every morning and to keep going.
Some might make a lot out of the fact that almost none of Steve's immediate family agreed to participate in the making of this book, only his dauter Jessie agreed to be interviewed, but I don't look on that as a slight against the book or the author rather a way of the family respecting Steve's desire never to put himself before his music and never to spotlight his illness.
For those of us who knew and appreciated the wonderful music of Steve Goodman when he was alive, and continue to do so long after he's left, Facing The Music is a treasure trove that you will continually want to delve into. If you were unfamiliar with Steve before reading this book, by the time you work your way through he will be forever engraved into your memory.
It seems that as the years have passed Steve Goodman's legacy continues to grow. The past year has seen the release of concert footage packaged into a DVD and the restoration of a club date he did at his favourite bar in Chicago, The Earl Of Old Town. It was at this bar that he told one of Chicago' most notorious mob bosses off to his face in song and … well read the book and you'll find out what happened.
Included in with each book is a copy of a CD of music recorded by folk musicians whose lives were touched by Steve Goodman's, either through song or personal contact. You might not have heard of any of these people, but that just shows how far and wide Steve's net was cast. The songs are originals written in his memory and honour.
Facing The Music by Clay Eals is a fitting tribute to an extraordinary man, and will hopefully help keep the name of Steve Goodman alive for many years to come.