“My Old Man,” by Steve Goodman
By PAUL ZOLLO
When it came to writing a song about your father, even John Prine knew that nobody ever did it better than his pal, the late Steve Goodman. Prine had already written a great song about his own father, “Paradise.” It was a song that moved his father more than any he ever wrote. But that was about more than his dad. It was about coal-mining in America, and the little town of Paradise where it happened. It was about America, and how swiftly it has changed.
But this one. “My Old Man” by Steve Goodman. It’s a song long beloved as among the greatest ever written from a son to his dad. For so many reasons. But more than anything, because it’s genuine. From the heart. The son, the father, the love, the regret, the tune. All of it. When Stevie wrote a song, he wrote a song to be remembered. More than forty years since it first emerged, it still is pure and perfect.
It’s also a perfect example of the songwriting wisdom that the more specific a song is, the more universal. Although this is as specific as it gets, with the true details of the life of his dad, known as Bud Goodman, a used car salesman in Chicago, it’s a song about all dads, and all children of parents who have dealt with the grief of losing their own dads.
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“He wrote it for his father, Bud,” said John Prine, who has performed this song more than any other by Steve Goodman, his best pal, “It was after Bud died of a sudden heart-attack. Took about six months for it all to sink in, He kept telling me he was wondering when it would soak in, but he didn’t know it would turn into a song.”
Prine heard this one long-distance, and in the middle of the night.
“Usually when he finished a song he’d get on a pay-phone, wherever he was, and call me, and wake me up, and say, `Prine, I got one.’ That’s how I heard this one the first time. I always thought it was a really pretty one.”
Steve Goodman’s dad didn’t work in a coal mine. He was a used car dealer. But as Steve sings in the song, never was there a more charming guy on this planet. Even when he’d look you in the eye and sell you a used car. And never was there a more sweet and poignant song about a father than this one. Written in 1977, it was on Steve’s album Say It In Private, produced by Joel Dorn.
It’s got his dad’s real character – the corny jokes, the cheap cigar, his greatness at selling used cars. But also the history – time in the war, marrying mom, and then, becoming a dad. Then the fights with Stevey and his brother. The guy was human, not a saint. And Stevey also was human, and hardly a perfect son – admitting to tuning out his father – and the regret:
“And I’d give all I own to hear what he said when I wasn’t listening.”
Plus the sad and ironic humanity of father and son reflected:
“He was always trying to watch his weight/but his heart only made it to 58…”
And then the key line, which is about the songwriter, and about all humans having to somehow accept a loss so deep that it’s hard to fathom. Yet it’s a necessary acceptance, though heartbreaking, before singing the inevitable song of grief, the one which never really ends. But it begins.
“And for the first time since he died/late last night I cried/I wondered when I was gonna do that for my old man…”
In concert he introduced it with a smile, saying, “This song is for Joseph Bayer Goodman, my father. I asked my grandmother why she named him Bayer, cause there were no Bayers in the family. Anywhere. She said she had her reasons.”
He then shrugged to the audience, as if to say, “Who knows what that is all about?”
In 2006, Steve’s daughter Rosanna Goodman produced a tribute album for her dad called My Old Man, featuring many artists doing songs by Steve, and not the usual ones. But the highlight is her own beautiful version of the song.
Like many songwriters, when I first heard Steve’s song about his dad, I abandoned any idea of ever writing one of my own for my father. Because he’d done it so well. It’s simple, funny, poignant and beautiful. It doesn’t get better really. After knowing this, what could I write? It’s a dilemma never resolved.
John Prine felt the same way. Usually it was Steve Goodman who sang John Prine’s songs, as he sang Prine’s praises to everyone and anyone who would listen. It was Goodman, and those in the know already know well, insisted Kris Kristofferson hear him, which led to Prine getting signed but Atlantic.
But of all the songs by Steve Goodman, this was one Prine performed more than any other. He knew Bud, Steve’s dad, so he could see into the song as if he wrote it himself. He also knew and loved Steve Goodman, who died at only 36 years old in 1984. John outlived his best pal by 26 years, and kept Goodman’s spirit alive always. Prine’s performance of this song was always poignant and great, paying tribute to his absent pal with this song Steve wrote about the death of his dad. He wrote as a way of making sense of his own grief, and poured into it the loving, gentle whimsy that was his essence.
“My Old Man”
By Steve Goodman
I miss my old man tonight
And I wish he was here with me
With his corny jokes and his cheap cigars
He could look you in the eye and sell you a car
That’s not an easy thing to do
But no one ever knew a more charming creature
On this earth than my old man
He was a pilot in the big war in the U.S. Army Air Corps
In a C-47 with a heavy load
Full of combat cargo for the Burma Road
And after they dropped the bomb
He came home and married mom
|And not long after that
He was my old man
And oh the fights we had
When my brother and I got him mad
He’d get all boiled up and he’d start to shout
And I knew what was coming so I tuned him out
And now the old man’s gone, and I’d give all I own
To hear what he said when I wasn’t listening
To my old man
I miss the old man tonight
And I can almost see his face
He was always trying to watch his weight
And his heart only made it to fifty-eight
For the first time since he died
Late last night I cried
I wondered when I was gonna do that
For my old man
3 thoughts on “Behind the Song:”
Goodman was always a favorite of ours. I was fortunate to see him perform with Earl Scruggs in suburban Chicago in the 70s. In the middle of a song Steve broke a guitar string. The duo continued with some improvising as he replaced and tuned his new string, then finished the song.
Hey Jim my fellow suburban Chicagoan. I grew up in Wilmette! Where are or were you? You know Stevie did that in almost every show. He played so intensely – and who else could do that – he would replace the string onstage in motion! Greatest solo performer ever.
In the late 70s, I lived in W. Aurora and N. Aurora teaching there at the time. In the 80s, I married and we moved to St. Charles. We moved from there to Iowa City in 92. Chicago area has been a favorite haunt drawing us back.