The details are a little hazy after all these years. I suppose that isn’t unusual considering the intertwined memories involved. What would the Chicago Cubs and Arlo Guthrie have in common anyway? If you’d ask Guthrie, probably not much. But memories continue to churn as they challenge me to line up the details just enough to connect at least some of the dots.
I last saw Arlo Guthrie on Valentine’s Day 2016, in a concert marking the 50th anniversary of his epic Alice’s Restaurant and it was a great show. One tune he performed was City of New Orleans, a song penned by Chicago’s late Steve Goodman. You should be well-acquainted with Steve Goodman by now, or at least one of his more widely heard songs, Go Cubs, Go. Among all songwriters and most of the general public, Goodman was undoubtedly the world’s most devoted Chicago Cubs fan.
Introducing City of New Orleans, Guthrie told a story about the song and his first encounter with Steve Goodman in 1971 at a club in Chicago. He didn’t mention the club’s name, but his description of the venue, his performance and the circumstances surrounding their meeting sent chills down my spine. He talked about how tired he was at the end of his second show, when a young guy with a guitar approached and asked if Guthrie would listen to a song he’d written. Arlo admitted he wasn’t very gracious to the stranger and tried to leave, claiming to be tired and not wanting to hear any more songs. But the young songwriter, who introduced himself as Steve Goodman, continued to press him. So Guthrie made him a deal. If Goodman would buy him a beer, Guthrie would listen for as long as it took to finish the beer.
Goodman played his new composition, City of New Orleans, and asked if Guthrie wouldn’t mind passing it along to Johnny Cash. Guthrie was so taken by the song and the young songwriter that he eventually asked permission to record it himself. Arlo Guthrie recorded and released City of New Orleans in 1972. It became a hit for Guthrie and paid for Goodman’s rent (and Cubs tickets) for years to come.
It was cold that January night in 1971. A college buddy and I had driven to Chicago for a concert. We drove to Chicago quite often for concerts and I thought this time it was to hear Small Faces featuring Rod Stewart. Whoever it was cancelled due to illness, leaving the two of us in the Windy City with no particular place to go. We headed to Old Town where we spotted a flyer stapled to a utility pole. Arlo Guthrie was appearing at the Quiet Knight, a music club in Lincoln Park. We climbed back into the car and drove over to the corner of Lincoln and Belmont avenues.
We enjoyed listening to Arlo Guthrie’s late show that night. I recall someone in the audience shouting out a request for him to play Alice’s Restaurant. His response was, “Go see the movie.” I can only imagine the mood Guthrie might have been in after playing two shows, then being approached by a young stranger, guitar in hand, asking him to listen to an original song. We can all be grateful he was thirsty enough to make that offer, though. Sometimes a beer for a song isn’t such a bad deal after all.