November 14, 2016
Steve Goodman and the History of 'Go Cubs Go'
There were four real breakout stars of this year's postseason, and when the Cubs capped that postseason with their first World Series title in 108 years, there were four departed dignitaries of Cubdom who ought to have been at the front of every fan’s mind. Three of the breakout stars are Javier Baez, Andrew Miller, and Alex Rodriguez (as a broadcaster). Three of the Cubs’ deceased heroes are Ernie Banks, Harry Caray, and Ron Santo. The final name on both lists is the same person, even though it's a name you might hardly recognize: Steve Goodman.
The song stuck in America’s heads for the last fortnight or so, the one baseball writers mostly loathe for its insipid catchiness, the one Cubs fans sang at the top of their voices after every win during October and November (even on the road), the one that sometimes served as a relentless auditory bed for the commentary on the postgame shows, the one sung by the cast of Hamilton on stage in Chicago and featured on Saturday Night Live, the one that reached the Billboard pop charts this week, belongs to Goodman.
But “Go Cubs Go” has a complicated history, and its composer had a somewhat complicated relationship with the team. Even (or perhaps especially) now that his ode to victory seems more fitting and more popular than ever, it's worth retelling the stories of Goodman and his two Cubs songs.
Goodman was from Chicago, but his family moved to the northern suburbs in his early adolescence. He went to high school with Hillary Rodham, and would have graduated alongside her in 1965 if Rodham hadn’t transferred to a newly opened school for her senior year. The future First Lady and Secretary of State would have known an ebullient, well-adjusted, bright kid from a loving family, someone with clear musical talent but a lot of roads to follow. It’s not hard to imagine an alternate universe in which Goodman ends up doing something much less memorable and much more comfortable than touring folk festivals, laying down jingles for radio commercials, and buying beers for Arlo Guthrie to get him to sit still long enough for Goodman to play him a song.
In this universe, though, Goodman had leukemia, diagnosed after persistent, severe fatigue derailed a second false start toward a postsecondary degree. He told very few people, even after the disease went into remission, but it had set his course. By 1970, he was a musician for life, for better or worse, and for a short or a long time.
Goodman was known and admired by a number of men who have ended up much more famous than he was. He became a friend and mentor to a young John Prine in the early 1970s. That song that he got Guthrie to sit and listen to was “City of New Orleans,” which Guthrie would turn into a top-10 hit, and for which Willie Nelson would win a Grammy some years later. Jimmy Buffett was a close friend, too. More than 200 times, Goodman was a musical opener for Steve Martin’s standup comedy show, and this was when Martin was at the early peak of his popularity. Those men knew a songwriter and storyteller who extracted profound meaning from mundane things, but knew how to convey that meaning to an audience with a light touch.
Goodman also knew how to deliver a barb, and that’s where his story bends toward the Cubs. He wrote a song (“Lincoln Park Pirates”) about a corrupt, overzealous towing company in 1972, and enjoyed some of his greatest notoriety for it. Even the notoriously litigious and occasionally violent owner of the company, Ross Cascio, was rumored to be proud of the song, which included a bad impression of Cascio as an actual pirate:
We-a break into caaaars if we gotta,
With-a pickaxe, and a-hammer, and a-saw,
They say this garage has no license,
But a-little care I for the laaaw
And ended with a (tongue-in-cheek) call to arms:
To me, way, hey, tow them away
Now citizens, gather around
I think it’s enough, now let’s call his bluff,
And let’s throw the bum out of town.
Goodman was no journalist. He wasn’t trying to vilify or out anyone. On certain occasions, he simply wanted his audiences to laugh with him at the brazen badness of life. He wrote another song, many years later, about falling asleep with the TV on and sleep-ordering everything on the overnight infomercials. Humor dotted all of his work, even if it was sometimes passing, and sometimes dark.
It surprised no one who knew his stuff, then, when Goodman wrote a slightly satirical take on his beloved Cubs in the early 1980s. It was entitled “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” and it begins with a man on his deathbed, asking his assembled friends this question:
Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around?
When the snow melts away, do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground?
When I was a boy, they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave, the land of the free,
And the doormat of the National League.
The verses are spoken-word poetry with a simple guitar bed. It’s beautifully done. Goodman’s protagonist bemoans the way the Cubs “sent me down a wayward path”; accuses them of spurring his interest in drugs and alcohol, and worse, the lesser sports (“football, hockey, lacrosse, tennis”); and begs for a “doubleheader funeral at Wrigley Field,” where Keith Moreland can “drop a routine fly” to ensure he gets the full experience. It’s a loving tribute to the team’s futility, and it’s brilliant.
Cubs GM Dallas Green hated it, though, and the members of the team’s upper (then-corporate, as the team belonged to the Tribune Company) management were irked at the apparent jab from a relatively high-profile fan. For a year or two, the relationship between Goodman and the Cubs grew icy.
“A Dying Cub Fan” was assumed, and is especially assumed in hindsight, to be autobiographical. Goodman insisted it wasn’t. The truth lies precisely in the middle: the song was no more or less autobiographical than almost everything Goodman wrote. He had another song, about a man he met during his time touring folk festivals, named Carl Martin. Martin was born in 1906, a poor black man who formed a successful folk trio ... unless you measure success financially. A slice of the final verse of that song:
You know, Carl and his buddies never got too far.
When he died, Martin didn’t have a dime.
He was a little bit behind on his payments,
And a little bit ahead of his time.
All of what Goodman describes about Martin, from the date and place of his birth to his reputation for mastery of the mandolin, to the circumstances of his death, is factual. There’s no reason to believe this, which Goodman attributes to Martin and which serves as the chorus of the song, isn’t just as the man said it. It’s awfully convenient, though, for Goodman:
He said, you better get it while you can
You better get it while you can.
If you wait too long, it’ll all be gone,
And you’ll be sorry then.
It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor,
And it’s the same for a woman or a man.
From the cradle to the crypt is a mighty short trip,
So you’d better get it while you can.
Goodman’s songs were stories, and the stories were about things he related to directly. “A Dying Cub Fan” could as easily have been about his father (who died relatively young, and whom he memorializes more personally in another song) or an uncle, or an older friend, like Martin, as about Goodman himself. If there weren’t a kernel of personal truth at the center of the somewhat sardonic narrative, though, Goodman wouldn’t have written it—at least not so well.
Anyway, when the Cubs were looking for a jingle to replace the one they’d been playing for Goodman’s entire life (“It’s a Beautiful Day for a Ballgame,” an old standard made problematic not only by its old-fashioned sound, but by its creeping cultural irrelevance—”It’s a beautiful day for the ladies, so put all your dishes away” was a good line in Beaver Cleaver’s America, but not in Ferris Bueller’s--on WGN Radio, the producer in charge of finding one heard an interview with Goodman and decided to needle his own colleagues within the organization by hiring a man they hadn’t fully forgiven for his last Cubs song.
The result is “Go Cubs Go,” because Goodman wasn’t mad, and (contrary to the odd, prevailing perception of Cubs fans laid out by columnists in recent weeks) wanted nothing more than to see the Cubs “be the best in the National League,” and the song he wrote convinces you it’s always possible that that will happen, even though there was precious little evidence to support that belief back then. He was a fan, and his song is the quintessential modern fan anthem. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the anthem for every occasion, though.
Indeed, celebrating “Go Cubs Go” without knowing “A Dying Cubs Fan,” or without knowing that Goodman died in September 1984, having lived his whole life between Cubs appearances in the playoffs, or without understanding the strange relationship between those two songs, their author and their subject, is a little bit wrong.
Cubs fans didn’t lose their cultural identity when the Cubs won the World Series. They just had a lot more layers of identity through which to sift than most fans of championship teams do. You’ve heard, surely, about the chalk messages with which fans covered the exterior wall of Wrigley Field in the wake of the title. That was their answer to the caps laid on graves and the “W” flags draped across urns throughout Chicagoland. The Series win is only half the story of this team, which is the truly unbelievable thing. That Goodman lived and died without a Cubs team reaching October illustrates the difference. In “A Dying Cub Fan,” he wryly observes:
Now the law of averages says
Anything will happen that can (That’s what it says)
But the last time the Cubs won the National League pennant
Was the year we dropped the Bomb on Japan
They don’t play the blues in the ivy-covered burial ground anymore, but Goodman would love that. His generation (so many of them come and gone without a title to celebrate, adding to accumulated emotion that burst forth after the win in Game 7) still deserves a permanent place in the team’s collective memory and culture, though, so it’s great that “Go Cubs Go” connects today’s fans so intimately thereto—even if that song itself is just a small step toward understanding the legacy that generation left.