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The underknown Steve Goodman and the Cubs

If this piece gets one person who’s never heard Goodman before to check out any of his stuff, my 2020 TT writing is a success.

Steve Goodman Onstage At Auditorium Theater
“Steve wanted to live as normal a life as possible, only he had to live it as fast as he could.” — Nancy Goodman, his wife.
Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Back in 2015, for a Twins/Cubs game intro, I wrote some words about one of my heroes, the late singer/songwriter Steve Goodman, who was a lifelong Cubs fan. (The Twins’ starter that day was Trevor May, and Byron Buxton played in his seventh MLB game... feels like longer ago than it is.)

With the death in April of beloved singer/songwriter John Prine, Goodman’s closest friend and frequent collaborator, a few people on this site asked me why I mention Goodman in my comment signature line. So I thought I’d share some stuff about him today, including what I didn’t know back in 2015.

We’ll start with this July piece from Chicago NPR station WBEZ. It’s a brief article summarizing an absolutely fantastic 20-minute broadcast clip about Goodman’s life, music, and connection to the Cubs. The host starts crying at the end. I did too. I strongly recommend a listen, even for people who don’t like the Cubs or radio podcasts in general.

Here’s the overview. Goodman, a Chicago native born in 1948, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 20 – at the time, an almost immediate death sentence. Experimental treatment sent the cancer into remission. (Although he’d battle it all his life — in her autobiography, June Carter Cash wrote that after seeing what Goodman went through, “I know nothing about pain.”)

It’s then that Goodman decided to focus entirely on his music career. He became a Chicago club legend, helped Prine get his first record contract, and wrote several songs that became hits for other performers; but he never had a hit himself.

In 1981, Goodman wrote the gallows-humor “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” It was immediately a huge favorite among his fans. Naturally, since the song was about how completely and historically the Cubs stank, the team didn’t like it, and banned Goodman from performing it at the stadium.

But the 1984 Cubs didn’t stink. (Ryne Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe, etc.) Dan Fabian, program director at WGN, asked Goodman if he could write a more upbeat Cubs song. A few days later, Goodman had written one, and quickly recorded “Go Cubs Go” in the station studio (which added some Cubs players singing the chorus). They played it, listeners liked it, and WGN started using the song to promote Cubs broadcasts. (More than 60,000 copies of a single version were sold for charity fundraising.)

The Cubs asked Goodman to sing the national anthem before their first postseason game, if they had one. They did, for the first time since 1945. Yet Goodman didn’t sing the anthem. His cancer had returned. He died on September 20th, four days before the Cubs clinched the division. His family scattered part of his ashes on Wrigley Field – just as in the lyrics of “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” (The rest, they scattered at the baseball field in Cooperstown — and jumped a fence at night to do it.)

Since “Go Cubs Go” had a pretty cheesy 1980s production style, eventually WGN stopped using it. Until years later, when somebody decided to play it at the 2007 Cubs Convention. (That’s kind of their TwinsFest.) The players and fans in attendance all sang along; the Cubs noticed. So they started playing it after victories at Wrigley Field.

The thing took off like crazy. WGN would wait for the postgame show to begin until after it broadcast the fans all singing along. People would even sing along in sports bars. “I don’t remember people ever staying for the victory song, but they are staying for that song,” Cubs marketing director Jay Blunk said.

Still, cheesy 80s sound, so a few fans wanted the Cubs to use something else. The Chicago Tribune put out a call in 2015 for local musicians to record something better (here’s BleedCubbieBlue on the subject). Nothing really came of that, though – and then, in 2016, this happened:

(My favorite comment on the YouTube page is “Damn even Joe Buck stopped talking for once.” This came at the end of the song. THERE’S ONE LAST CHORUS BUCK YOU DUMBA**)

Now here comes the parts I didn’t know. After that 2016 championship, “Go Cubs Go” became a hit. It made the charts. Finally, Steve Goodman had a hit song which he sang, not some bigger recording star. (In his autobiography, Johnny Cash said that turning down Goodman’s offer of “City Of New Orleans” was the biggest regret of his career.)

I assumed that after their World Series win, Wrigley would keep it forever. Not so fast! The Cubs have their own new regional sports network now (since that’s where the big money is). It’s co-owned with despicable demon seeds the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Guess how much Sinclair/the Cubs want fans singing along to a song with the verse “you can catch it all on WGN”? (Although just watch the clip above, nobody sings the verses, they sing the chorus.)

For now, the Cubs say they’ll keep playing the song. We shall see. Corporate greed has, on occasion, and as shocking as this may sound, taken priority over what fans want.

I don’t run a soulsuckingly vile broadcast empire, nor do I tend to believe in spectral presences... but I don’t know about messing around with the ghost of a man whose song refuses to die, and whose 88-year-old mother got to hear 40,000 people singing her son’s song 32 years after cancer killed him. I just wouldn’t go there.

Whatever happens in this case, I’ll simply repeat what I’ve always repeated, and will until TJ gets sick of my crap or a new comment system eats my sig: Steve Goodman lives.

I can’t leave this without providing a sample of Goodman live; I never saw him, yet everyone who did says he was at his best with an audience. There’s this amazing cover of fellow Chicago songwriter Mike Smith’s “The Dutchman” (with stunning mandolin by country music Hall-Of-Famer Jethro Burns.) It makes me break down in heaving sobs every time. But I’m not here to make you cry (the Twins in the playoffs are). So I’ll do with this two-fer:

The first song is sardonic commentary on Americans behaving arrogantly in poor countries; the second is a bit of pure silliness Goodman co-wrote with Prine. What’s amazing here is watching how Goodman works the crowd. It’s way more yuppie/all honkie than the Chicago bars he usually played. (That’s just how these things are filmed; a guy I knew who attended an MTV Unplugged years ago told me they made him sit in back because he wasn’t “hot enough.”)

They sit in confused silence during the first song. But without missing a beat, just some teensy chord changes and a few jokes, Goodman’s absolutely on the verge of owning them. And I promise, if you take 9:15 to watch the clip, Goodman will be on the verge of owning you as well. The lyrics are mostly (not all!) dated. It doesn’t matter.

STANDARD SITE DISCLAIMER: kids, do not take what it sure looks like Goodman took before he did that show. But, ya know, if it’s the 70s, and you’ve got cancer, and you can write like he wrote, and perform like he could perform... than who am I to judge.