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Looking Back on John Prine Buddy Steve Goodman

Two new releases highlight the late folk singer’s versatility, resilience and unflagging energy

steve goodman reissue

Henry Diltz/Omnivore Recordings*

Steve Goodman, Artistic Hair ***

Steve Goodman, Affordable Art ****

John Prine is rightly getting plenty of love right now, which makes it a good time to reconsider the life and work of his friend and occasional collaborator, Steve Goodman. Thirty-five years after his death, Goodman is now mostly remembered as the writer of “City of New Orleans,” which Arlo Guthrie turned into a piece of haunted, mythic Americana; Goodman also produced one of Prine’s strongest and most agile albums, 1978’s Bruised Orange. Prine and Goodman met on the Chicago folk scene in the early Seventies, and Goodman was the impish, jubilant yin to Prine’s prematurely craggy, sardonic yang.

Few singer-songwriters of that era exuded such joy in performing as did Goodman, who literally bounced on his heels in concert and reveled in singing everything from novelty songs to pre-rock standards along with his and other writers’ originals. On record and on stage, he could swing from beautifully sentimental moments like Mike Smith’s “The Dutchman” (about an aging couple in Amsterdam), white blues (“Lookin’ for Trouble”), quirky homages to rewinding your life (“Videotape”) and touring (“Six Hours Ahead of the Sun”) or a condensed version of “Moby-Dick” (“Moby-Book,” from one of his best albums, 1975’s Jessie’s Jig and Other Favorites).

Goodman oozed versatility, even covering Fifties R&B hits like “Tossin’ and Turnin,’” but unlike so any of his peers, his songs evinced noticeably little angst. And if anyone should have, it should have been him: In 1969, Goodman was diagnosed with leukemia and eventually died of complications from a bone marrow transplant in 1984, at the age of 36. In retrospect, he reveled in the power of song (and observations about everyday life) as a way to ward off death as much as possible.

Very shortly before his passing, Goodman managed to squeeze out two albums, both newly reissued with the requisite bonus material. Like his label mate Prine, Goodman was bounced off Asylum Records at the dawn of the Eighties, although not for lack of trying to make the pop charts. Goodman’s journey from the folksy-funny troubadour of 1971’s Steve Goodman debut to 1980’s eagerly yacht-rocking Hot Spot, his Asylum finale, captures the way so many troubadours of the time scrambled to slick themselves up by the end of that decade. Right before Prine went the indie route with his own Oh Boy label, Goodman led the DIY charge, starting Red Pajamas Records and initiating the label with a 1983 live record, Artistic Hair.

That album’s cover—a photo of a shaved-skull Goodman, the result of his chemo treatment–made his health issues jarringly public. But as always, his energy didn’t flag. A collection of live tracks, Artistic Hair often sounds like a high-quality bootleg, but as his first concert record, it nicely captured a typical Goodman live show: One man, one guitar, maybe a friend or two, and songs that showed off his ragtime-jaunty guitar chops (“Let’s Have a Party”), his love of a ballad (the traditional “The Water Is Wide”) and his friendship with Prine (a version of “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” their country-novelty collaboration).

1983’s Affordable Art, the last studio record Goodman completed before his death, also spans his many musical worlds. “Old Smoothies,” a sweet song about aging ice skaters, shows the way he approached unhip subjects with zero condescension or sarcasm, and another Prine collaboration, “How Much Tequila (Did I Drink Last Night?),” makes you wonder if Goodman, had he lived, could have had a successful career as a Nashville songwriter. Among the added reissue tracks is a version of British folksinger Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London,” a song made for Goodman to sing.

Not surprisingly, Affordable Art has moments of startling gravitas : He and Prine team up for a duet of Prine’s “Souvenirs,” a song steeped in regret and sorrow, and Goodman’s own “When My Rowboat Comes In” is markedly somber. Even the requisite jokey cut, the anti-nuke “Watchin’ Joey Glow,” is pretty damn dark. (A family huddled in a fallout shelter cook meals and makes toast by way of their irradiated son: “You should see him heat the coffee up when he stirs it with his toe.”) To the end, Goodman couldn’t help but fight tragedy with a smile.

 

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