Cool Hand Leuk

 


After I began playing the guitar and discovered players I would never approach in terms of ability - Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin - I gravitated to acoustic: Paul Simon, James Taylor, and later, Leo Kottke. I heard rumors of shadowy, legendary players like John Fahey and Davey Graham, but was never able to find music by them. When I  eventually I found a book on James Taylor with honest-to-god tablature - way before tab was ubiquitous - I jumped a quantum level in my music. At this point in time being able to play Fire and Rain was a guarantee of sex, but of course sex at that time was not the sure bet for certain death it is currently. One day I ran into Jim Schwartz in the library at Georgia State University, where we both attended college: I was enraptulated (my word: combines encapsulated and enraptured) by headphones, listening to a reel to reel recording of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, which occupied most of my time on campus. Jim had played guitar with the band New Decade in high school, at the same time I was learning and playing with Mike Gill. He had a great ear and a similar affection for acoustic music, so we got together one evening at his parents house on Wildwood Road in northeast Atlanta. After several obligatory “Well, what do you want to play?” s, I brought out a version of John Lennon’s Norwegian Wood in the key of A. Jim played the sitar part on his Martin 12-35 and supplied perfect harmony, in a total inversion of the roles we would occupy for the next five years. Some of my best musical memories revolve around the heightened communication a musical partnership fosters, all with Jim Schwartz.


He introduced me to Livingston Taylor, Dan Fogelberg, Harry Chapin and Terence Boylan, and one day when I arrived at his door with guitar in hand, he greeted me with tickets for an unknown - to me, anyway - singer/songwriter: John Prine. He played me some of the songs from Prine’s eponymous first album, which were distinctly Dylan-influenced with a dry, sardonic wit. I was impressed, and we eagerly awaited the event.


Jim had obtained good seats for the show, and an enigma opened: a Groucho Marx character named Leon Redbone, wearing a white hat and suit, smoking a cigar, and looking remarkably like Captain Spaulding. He was the first man I ever saw play ragtime guitar, what I would much later realize to be Chet Atkins style, frequently yodeling and crooning in a manner that made me think of Leo Kottke’s description of his own voice: “Like geese farts on a muggy day.” In the middle of Diddy Wah Diddy a pretty girl walked across the stage, in what I now recognize as a set up - with the benefit of hindsight. Redbone tipped his hat to her without missing a lick. When he finished I knew I’d had one of those musical epiphanies that would change my world view.


Prine ambled out onto the stage, and drawled into the mic: “Yer in for a treat tonight. I have my best friend in the world with me, and he’s gonna do a few songs that’ll spin yer head around. Then he’ll stay and play lead with me, and we’ll do a couple numbers together. My good friend - Steve Goodman!


And this five foot four bundle of compressed energy bounded out on stage, absolutely vibrating with the sheer joy of playing his music in front of an appreciative audience. He began an amphetamine charged, jaw dropping version of the old Billy Mahew tune It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie, most often associated with stride piano legend Fats Waller. If Redbone impressed, this absolutely stunned me. I dreamed of virtuosity of this level, but never dared to hope it existed in the real world. Just the accompaniment was mind boggling, but he threw in an eight bar lead that linked bass structure and chords with single note runs that left me gasping with laughter of undiluted joy. He finished with a dead on Satchmo vocal impression and leaped into the air. As he landed the hall erupted with a maelstrom of enthusiastic applause.


Steve beamed at the crowd. “Thank you, folks! I wrote this next song with Jimmy Buffett in Key West, Florida. Anybody ever watch daytime TV? We were drinking beer and watching Let’s Make a Deal and figured ‘We need to write a song about this’. Here it is.” No one had ever heard Door Number Three at that time, and most are much more familiar with Buffett’s version. Steve improvised one of his patented solos, modulated, and tossed in the third verse from Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone: a perfect hand grenade of musical humor. Just watching the people around me realize - in their own way and time - where he was going with this was truly hysterical:


And ain’t it hard to realize - he’s not selling any alibis - when he stares into the vacuum of your eyes - and says - do ya wanna make a deal?


He closed the three song set with his heart stopping ballad “Would You Like to Learn to Dance?”, and I was convinced I’d found god. In my fervor of evangelical conversion I had little appetite for sticking around, and only my friendship with Jim kept me. Prine is a good songwriter and competent guitar player, but after that dazzling show there was no hoping for as good, forget better.


I proselytize for the things in life that change me, so I dragged my two friends Mark Gardner and James Ward to Athens Georgia, when I discovered Steve would be playing at a small music hall there - aptly named The Last Resort. Driving from Atlanta to Athens we broke every known speed law, and various additional laws, talking our way out of three tickets in the process: a story for another time and place. Of course we arrived an hour before the doors opened, guaranteeing excellent seats (“We couldn’t be any closer if we were in bed with him,” whispered Mark, placing his feet on the stage.) This marked the beginning of phase two in my disciple-hood with Steve Goodman, and the first time I saw/heard him open with The Red Red Robin (Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along), which replaced Sin to Tell a Lie from that point forward. It was so good I forgot how much I enjoyed It’s a Sin: I thought at the time it was better, but I’ve learned my emotional state colors experience as I process. The crowd went shit crazy, which was typical for his shows. Steve grinned at the audience from a foot away.


Thank ya, folks! Well, I finally have another album coming out in about three months. When I was young and stupid I signed with Buddah, but they told me if I wanted to change my pants they were gonna pick my pocket. So now I’m with Asylum, which is - of course - where I belong. I just finished recording it, so with your indulgence I’ll play a few new songs so they get their money’s worth....” He began an acoustic blues riff that fascinated me, and glanced at the mic with his characteristic imp grin. “I wrote this next song with David Amram and Herman Melville. The title is from the old schoolboy joke about the kid that stands up in front of English class and says ‘The name of my dick is...the name of my book is Moby Dick.’, so this is called Moby Book. It’s kinda like if Willie Dixon wrote Cliff’s Notes...” His fingers danced across the fretboard in the turnaround. The first line was “Call me Ishmael - Ishmael is my name.” 


That’s Melville’s line,” he deadpanned.


The album would be Jessie’s Jig and Other Favorites, and it opened with Sin to Tell a Lie and included Door Number Three, Moby Book, Unemployed and Old Fashioned, all of which he performed this evening. The set was marred only by one drunk who left early - after setting off Steve’s hair trigger temper (“Yeah, I remember my first beer, too...”). This was the second time I saw true stream-of-consciousness musicianship in action: one of Steve’s many gifts was total spontaneity on stage. He would make up songs on the spot just for entertainment value if he broke a string; change the lines to existing songs; and I cannot count the times I heard him say “Never played it before, but if you feed me the words, I’ll give it a shot!


This evening somebody asked for a song by Tom Lehrer: a Harvard math professor from the late fifties/early sixties who wrote hysterical parodies of a variety of popular song forms. My parents would spin his records when everyone was drunk at their late night parties, and I would sneak into the hallway to listen. Consequently I was probably the only fourth grader in California who knew the word necrophilia (which gave me a certain notoriety), and I always assumed myself to be the only person on this planet to have any familiarity with his material. To my surprise and delight he launched into Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, and at the end strummed absently and gazed at the ceiling. (This was also typical, I would discover, and a standard segue of his was “Well, since this is in G, too....G2 - sounds like a security clearance...”)


Hmm, what else of his can I fake?” he asked the roof. “Oh! I know,” and launched into Lehrer’s The Elements - a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan that lists and RHYMES every one of the chemical elements. He ended his Lehrer interlude with a revival/survival hymn entitled We Will All Go Together When We Go. If I had seen God face to face when I first encountered Steve, this was certainly the second coming.


He closed with his spectacular Unemployed, and it’s classic third verse:


Now, when I die, I‘ll get my just reward


    When the devil make me chairman - of the board


        Whenever we had the hard times in this land before


            They holler “the only way to stop it is to - start a war!”


                Don’t wanna hear this shit from politicians no more -


                    Or next election day they’ll be - unemployed.


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The last three times I saw Steve were in Atlanta’s Great South East Music Hall. I had discovered a wonderful singer/songwriter in that city that reminded me immensely of Goodman: his name was Tim Bays. I would realize much later Tim’s central influence was a Floridian named Gamble Rogers, who I wouldn’t discover for quite some time. Bays’ style was very reminiscent of Goodman’s, though Tim had never seen him perform. So, I was all aquiver when I heard he would open Steve’s show at the GSEMH in Atlanta, November 1977, AND - the show would be simulcast on Georgia State University radio WRAS where I worked as a DJ. My musical partner Jim Schwartz set up his cassette player for the event, and we waited impatiently for Tim to take the stage and begin the evening. He opened with a homage to Steve: his Chicken Cordon Bleus, about a man living with a health food devotee (as it was referred to at that time), containing the lines “I’m starved for affection, I don’t think I can take much more / This stuff is so strange, the cockroaches moved next door”. Some of Tim’s hysterically funny, Gamble Rogers style song/stories - The Baptist Gospel Rip-Off Hour and Buffalo Gals - provided thematic counterpoint to his more serious songs, like Closing Time and The Roots Run Deep. (http://timbays.com/)


Then Steve exploded onto the stage with his charismatic enthusiasm, and one of the most dynamic versions of Red Red Robin I ever witnessed. But - of course - I say that about every rendition. I have a profoundly shitty recording of this, and if you’ll bear with me I’ll take a small detour to tell that story...


Almost immediately behind me at this concert was an enthusiastic person who would hoot, scream and howl whenever Steve would do something extraordinary - which was constantly. I was attempting to record biochemically what was passing across my optic and auricular nerves - this is long before camcorders were everywhere - and he would constantly derail my train of thought with these vocal eruptions. Humans can block most sensory stimuli: we initially learn this as a method for dealing with our parents. On several occasions my mom actually screamed at me, attempting to penetrate the soundproof shield I erect when I read. It has always amused me - even when I was young and stupid - that people will pay money to see a performer and then yell so loud you can’t hear the music, and this was the one less than wonderful aspect I retained of this amazing show.


To keep this digression as short as possible: Jim’s sister Sharon worked at a Steak and Ale, and there was an industrial variety Goodman fan employed there as a busboy, who had recorded the event.




Sharon suggested a meeting, to which we ecstatically agreed: his name is Mike Russell - the picture to the left tells you more about him than I ever could - and he is very possibly the least sane person I have ever known. (Don’t misunderstand me: absolutely brilliant, but - who would want to be sane in this insane world?) He had gone to the concert in drag, solely to conceal a cassette recorder in a handbag. Now that recording contained the only source of Goodman’s first set, which was typically brilliant. Steve knew it was slated for broadcast on WRAS radio and had poured his heart and soul into the performance. Listening to the cassette I could hear my own voice as Steve began, along with the screams of the person recording. Almost the entire Robin was there, but the tape had been edited indifferently, concerned more with quantity than quality. Whispered voice-overs were heard dictating chord changes, songs were cut short with little regard for aesthetics or continuity, and the yips and howls I so well remembered were front and center in the mix: Mike was the yowler.


As it turned out, the first show was not the broadcast, as you have probably deduced from the previous paragraph. Tim Bays emerged for his second set with large, slightly glazed eyes. “I can’t believe I’m up here before that man returns to this stage,” he shook his head in shock. “Why didn’t somebody warn me, or cut off my hands?” Obviously rattled, he was unhappy with his tuning and made numerous minute adjustments. Finally he raised his head and grinned. “You're probably asking yourself why this tone deaf person took up the guitar in the first place...

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Steve was apologetic and bemused as he walked on for his second show. “Well, they told me WRAS was gonna simulcast the first show, and - sure enough - it’s the second show. To me, this falls under the category of ‘ It figures.’ So - with your indulgence - I’m gonna repeat a few songs so the people from Asylum get reimbursed.


Another slightly subdued version of Robin put the pedal to the metal, and he played most of the material from Say it in Private - his most recent album at that time: Video Tape, You’re the Girl I Love, a brilliant song he wrote with Prine called The Twentieth Century is Almost Over, and an obscure Shel Silverstein song entitled Three Legged Man, after someone yelled out the title. (This may have been a set up.)


“Ya know, just ‘cause you called for it and obviously don’t think I know it - I’m gonna play that song!”


“I’m a three legged man with a two legged woman, being chased around the mountains by a one legged fool...” (Tim Bays would incorporate this into his repertoire, possibly improving on Goodman’s version from this moment on. If that is possible.)


One of his more amazing tricks on guitar was to switch from deisel-burning flatpicking mode (the entire Three Legged Man), abruptly hold the pick with his ring and little finger against his palm to fingerpick Travis style, and alternate between these two styles lightning quick: numerous times in tunes like The Dutchman. By contrast, I dropped the pick so constantly as to discontinue it’s use until Chet Atkins taught me about a thumbpick. Just now I think I’ve about got the hang of the damn thing. Only took me seven years...


One of the many highlights of a Goodman concert was his heart stopping rendition of the previously mentioned Dutchman. If you’ve heard Mike Smith’s version (the composer) you know how completely Steve adopted this and made it his own. In response to several members of the audience howling for this - he grinned, wrapped his capo around the fifth fret, and began the unmistakable intro.


If pressed, I’d say this is one of my favorite songs,” he murmured into the mic. “It’s the only love song I know that doesn’t grunt.” A heartrending story about an elderly couple in Holland - he with failing mental facilities and she the caretaker - people around me got misty eyed as the song unfolded, and then he scattered like stars the chords and lead lines of the instrumental break. Into the last verse and chorus people began singing along - each in their own various keys, of course. “Let us go to the banks of the ocean, where the walls rise above the Zeider Zee. Long ago I used to be a young man - and dear Margaret remembers that for me...


This next song is for Younger’s Tartan Ale and the pubs in England. I was asked to go to the UK after Arlo’s cover of City of New Orleans kept my family out of debtor’s prison - if they still have such things. BBC radio wanted me to do a show and graciously paid for my flight and accommodations - basically allowed me to drink my way through London, where I discovered Younger’s Tartan. So I’m ready to go onstage and this officious English butler type rushes up and tells me I can’t perform ‘cause I’m not British and don’t have a work permit. So I wind up lip syncing City of New Orleans...” He paused for effect, gazed out at the silent crowd and shook his head slowly. “Lip syncing on the radio...I guess ya had to be there....Anyway, with the beer I had something called Winkle Stew down by the Thames River, made from these little barnacle type organisms. There’s a little kid’s song about ‘em: “I have a little winkle but I cannot get to him, the more I try to get him out the further he goes in...”Anyway, this is called Six Hours Ahead of the Sun, which is the time difference between Chicago and London, or ‘ Don’t Wait Up For the Winkle Boats, Grandma, Grandpa’s Coming Home with the Crabs’...


This was also the first time I saw Steve perform with Jethro Burns, an association that continued throughout Goodman’s life. Burns was Jethro of Homer and, and Chet Atkins first cousin. Together they did a kickass version of Is it True What They Say About Dixie? and Mama Don’t Allow It. And just to make those of us who attempt to play guitar lose any vestige of hope, Goodman did an impromptu slide show featuring the old gospel tune I’ll Fly Away and segueing into Bandstand. This is preserved on his anthology CD No Big Surprise, and probably the underlying reason I have never seriously pursued slide. This journey through the past included Turnpike Tom and Lincoln Park Pirates from his his first and second albums on Buddah.


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Steve died in 1984 from leukemia. He may have contracted the virus prenatally, but was first aware of the disease in his early twenties, long before my first exposure to his musical magic. We spoke several times: I wouldn’t consider myself a close friend, but he always remembered my name, because he was one of the friendliest, most genuine people ever to draw breath. Very few were aware he had the malady because he didn’t publicize the fact. I read long after he died - from the booklet of his previously mentioned compilation CD No Big Surprise on his own label, Red Pajamas Records - he considered it a challenge to live every day as if it were his last. His favorite name for himself was Cool Hand Leuk.


Play on for us, wherever you are, Steve.


It sure feels lonely down here right now.