Steve Goodman: Facing the Music

Steve Goodman: Facing the Music

A Book by Clay Eals

(ECW Press)

First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6

Written by Douglas Heselgrave


Facing the Music, Seattle writer Clay Eals’ new book about Steve Goodman, is likely to go down in the history of music journalism as one of the most comprehensive tomes ever written about a performer. Weighing in at almost 800 pages, one wonders how a singer-songwriter who had such a brief career could have inspired so much effort, thought, and research to tell his story.

To begin addressing this question, a quick glance at the names of some of the more than 2,200 people who either were interviewed for or contributed to Facing the Music ought to give an indication of the esteem with which Goodman’s work is regarded. Featuring a preface by Studs Terkel, a forward by Arlo Guthrie, and reflections from individuals as diverse as Hillary Clinton, Steve Martin, John Prine, and Kris Kristofferson, it soon becomes obvious to even someone who is completely unacquainted with Goodman’s music that something in his compositions has influenced and resonated with a lot of people.

Goodman’s sole claim to mainstream musical fame was to author Arlo Guthrie’s signature concert staple City of New Orleans — a tune that Johnny Cash called the "greatest, damned train song ever written." This, of course, is saying a lot, considering American roots music’s obsession with all things locomotive. As Facing the Music progresses a portrait emerges of an artist whose influence far exceeded his sales and public profile. In a telling interview, Kris Kristofferson humorously reveals that the greatest mistake that he ever made in his professional career was to hire Steve Goodman to open a concert for him. By Kristofferson’s account, Goodman played such a jaw-dropping set that it was pointless to try to follow him onto the stage.

Like fellow roots performers Townes Van Zandt and Victoria Williams, Steve Goodman was an artist who was loved during his lifetime primarily by his fellow musicians and a core group of astute music fans. Eals’ purpose in writing Facing the Music seems to be to assure that Goodman’s art not only will live but also will be reconsidered by future generations, once his present champions and fans have all passed away.

If Eals simply had contented himself with writing an extended "love letter" to Goodman, Facing the Music wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting as it is. Indeed, after the sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of Eals’ undertaking fades, readers will find that he has written an appealing, engaging, and approachable work.

Diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 20, Goodman obviously knew that he had a limited amount of time to make his mark upon the world. Eals did a commendable job of portraying Goodman’s intensity and sense of purpose, and thankfully, he resisted any impulse to cast Goodman’s career in a melodramatic or tragic light. Eals took on the complexity of Goodman’s art as well as his personal challenges, and the result is a balanced account of Goodman’s life, one that is completely free of hyperbole or exploitation. In fact, Goodman emerges as a character who, in many ways, was not likeable or a lot of fun to be around, but who at the same time refused to use his illness as a way of attracting attention or sympathy. As Facing the Music reveals, many of Goodman’s closest associates were not even aware of his condition. It wasn’t until he relapsed in 1982 — two years prior to his death — that the truth he continually had tried to conceal became known.

To his credit, Eals avoids the obsessive pitfalls of Dylan archivist and historian Michael Gray, whose Song and Dance Man and The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia are, in terms of depth and exhaustiveness, the closest cousins to Facing the Music. Eals’ book is something that people actually will want to read. While most biographical examinations of art essentially require a preestablished familiarity and a sympathy toward their subject, Facing the Music accomplishes the difficult feat of making those who have never heard of Goodman want to rush out and buy his albums.

While the immensity of Facing the Music initially is off-putting, it rapidly evolves into a real page-turner. There’s nary a bum phrase or awkward sentence in the entire tome, which also comes packaged with a CD containing 18 songs that pay tribute to Goodman. If it was the only book to be found on a desert island, it would keep its discoverer thoroughly engrossed until the rescue boat had arrived.

In short, Facing the Music is likely to remain the definitive statement about Steve Goodman’s art for a long time. Written for the general reader as well as for the roots music fan, Eals’ book does a wonderful job of illustrating how Goodman’s career, though brief, burned with an intensity that belied his material success. It also effectively makes the case that he left behind a body of work that will survive for many, many years to come. starstarstarstar


Of Further Interest...

Robert Greenfield - Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life

Phil Lesh - Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead

Michael Walker - Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story...


Steve Goodman: Facing the Music is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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