By ROBERT MORGAN FISHER
Videos by American Songwriter
In the summer 2008, I got a message from my old pal Paul Zollo.
He said his friend Seattle journalist Clay Eals, had written not just a biography of the late great folk-rock icon and Chicago native, Steve Goodman, but he’d in fact written the definitive and only biography about the man who wrote “City of New Orleans” and so many other great songs.
“He’s doing a little promotional tour of SoCal and we need a few singers to play Goodman songs. Interested?”
I said of course. A few weeks later I was onstage at several Borders (remember Borders?), playing my version of “Turnpike Tom” and “The 20th Century’s Almost Over.”
I met Clay. He handed me his doorstop-of-a-book (800 pages) and said:
“I hear you’re a screenwriter.”
I’d had a few things optioned and did some script-doctoring. Quite a bit of script-doctoring, in fact.
“Well,” he said. “This is a movie.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” I smirked.
Two weeks later, after reading and highlighting my copy of the bio and taking extensive notes, I called Clay and gushed:
“You’re right—it’s a movie.”
“You see, Steve Goodman was a force of nature.”
You see, Steve Goodman was a force of nature. He was about five feet nothing but had these amazing big brown eyes and a smile that wouldn’t quit. He could connect with people a hundred rows out and completely own the room, auditorium, theater, arena—whatever. Following him onstage, according to Loudon Wainwright III was “a nightmare.” Goodman wrung every last drop of adulation out of every crowd. He was a phenomenal guitar player, singer, songwriter. The only person who could open for Steve Martin in his stand-up heyday (over 200 shows).
Oh—and he’d been living with leukemia since the age of 19.
Back in the late 60s, when leukemia was pretty much a death sentence, Goodman was told to “get his affairs in order.” After a bit of uncharacteristic depression, he sucked it up and volunteered for every crazy experimental Sloan-Kettering chemo treatment available. If you get leukemia today, you stand a very good chance of surviving, thanks in large part to Steve Goodman.
But what made Goodman’s 16-year folk-rock career truly incredible, was that he soldiered on through remission, relapse—and never gave up. He was directly responsible for the discovery of John Prine, who’s receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy as I write this. Prine and Goodman were best friends and when Goodman got his break—he magnanimously took Prine with him.
Think about that for a second: Paul Anka and Kris Kristofferson offer to fly Goodman to New York and Goodman says: “You like me? Wait till you hear John Prine.”
Prine immediately got signed to a bigger label and rocketed to folk-rock stardom while Goodman struggled on smaller labels, constantly touring and, yes, battling leukemia.
Steve wrote a lot of famous songs, including the iconic “City of New Orleans,” “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” and “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” That last one underscored Goodman’s lifelong love affair with the Chicago Cubs. He also wrote “Go Cubs Go.”
But there were dozens of not-so-famous songs now considered folk standards: “My Old Man,” “Would You Like to Learn to Dance,” “Door Number Three” and “Banana Republic.” He co-wrote songs with Prine, Shel Silverstein, Michael Smith—there’s really no end to Goodman’s genius. He wrote like a man who… well, didn’t have a lot of time.
And his songs were often hilarious: “Turnpike Tom,” “Vegematic,” “Talk Backwards.” They were funny when he wrote them and they’re still funny. Timeless.
I immediately started my screenwriting process; outlining and even getting 32 pages of actual script. That fall, the US economy flew off a cliff. Scriptwriting ground to a halt.
The next few years were understandably a challenge. Movie projects were canceled, work dried up. Everyone was fighting just to stay alive, keep their house. I angrily turned my back on the movie business, vowing to re-tool my career by finally getting that MFA and then teaching/writing short fiction (which, next to songwriting, is my passion and where the real money is, he said sarcastically). I did that and the script for Goodman languished in some buried folder, deep in my laptop’s hard drive.
Then, in 2014, the Brian Wilson bio-pic Love and Mercy came out. It was one of the first in what would become a hot trend for movies about great musicians. I watched it one night on cable and went to bed in a blissful trance. Like any bio-pic it is imperfect, but I loved it and couldn’t remember feeling this good after seeing a movie.
That night, a grinning Steve Goodman came to me in a dream and said:
“What about me?!”
I woke up shaking. As I reached for the phone, I paused and thought:
got a lot on your plate already. Writing the rest of this script will be a
massive time investment. If you knew for a fact that it would NEVER get made…
would you still finish it?
Without hesitation, I said: YES.
I owed it to Steve Goodman, his widow Nancy and family. Nobody, I was pretty sure, was going to write a script about Steve Goodman. And if they did? It wouldn’t be as good as mine. I knew that intuitively and know it now for a fact.
I got on the phone with Clay and said: “I know you think I’m dead, but Steve Goodman came to me in a dream last night and I’ve got to finish this script.”
Clay said, “Well, I’ve been talking to some other screenwriters—”
“FINE,” I said. “Let them write their script. I can tell you right now that mine will be better.”
And that’s how I got back in the saddle and rode out the rest of the screenwriting process for Goodman with the meticulous Clay Eals proofing each detail.
There’s some heat on the script right now. Important entities are interested.
John Prine loved the script and said: “I wouldn’t change a thing!”
Steve’s records continue to sell, there’ve been some recent re-issues.
He’s as popular as ever.
People say: “I started reading the script—and couldn’t stop.”
The time seems right.We’re all cautiously optimistic. No idea who will play Goodman or Prine. I’m not a big believer in the movie biz. It’s let me (and many others) down more often than not. But I am a big believer in one thing:
The music, talent and courage of Mr. Steve Goodman.
Robert Morgan Fisher won the 2018 Chester Himes Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 John Steinbeck Award. His fiction and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals, including Bluerailroad,. Pleiades, The Arkansas Review, Red Wheelbarrow, The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast, The Seattle Review, The Spry Literary Journal, 34th Parallel, The Journal of Microliterature, Spindrift, The Rumpus and others. He teaches creative writing at UCLA and is currently on the teaching faculty of Antioch University in several capacities. Since 2016, Robert has led the UCLA Wordcommandos, an acclaimed twice-weekly writing workshop for veterans with PTSD. Both his music and fiction have won many awards. Robert also voices audiobooks. (www.robertmorganfisher.com)