Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Steve Goodman's Goodbye Girl

Friends of mine sometimes have a difficult time understanding why I am a regular on the alt.obituaries usenet group, supposing I have an unhealthy preoccupation with death. (I guess my prematurely-posted Dylan obituary e-book [Like a Rolling Tombston- archived herein at May 2009] lends some credence to that view.)

But the truth is I just like to keep track of who's alive and who's dead. Case in point: today the newsgroup came to my informational rescue by providing elusive dates of death for Homer & Jethro. You may remember them as "the thinking man's hillbillies", having produced a passel of country parodies of pop standards through the 50s and 60s. Also prominently they were spokesjokesmen for Kellogg's Corn Flakes in a long-running series of spots.

Specifically, I was curious as to Jethro's death, because I once had a memorable brush with him during the spring of 1979, in conjunction with Dylan compadre Steve Goodman. As a reader of Radioactive Dylan, you're probably well aware that Dylan famously played on and sang backup for Goodman's album Somebody Else's Troubles under the name Robert Milkwood Thomas, a pseudonym that was a variation on one of Dylan Thomas's noms de plume.

It so happens that in the late 70s Goodman lured Jethro—real name, Kenneth Burns—out of the semi-retirement he had been in following Homer's death in 1971. Makes sense, since many of Goodman's wry songs are sort of a 70s and 80s extension of the satirical country music that brought fame to Homer & Jethro, and Jethro's expert mandolin work meshed well with Goodman's folk-rock act.

Goodman was on tour with Jethro in his backing band in Houston when I crossed their paths. I had used my Zimmerman Blues pull to hang backstage after the show, which also happened to feature Dylan acquaintance Leon Redbone as an opening act. In tow with me was an attractive young lady whom I'd met during the concert, and who not surprisingly was anxious to accompany me backstage after the gig.

I wish I could nobly claim I had no designs on her, and wish even more I could say neither did anyone else backstage. For while I was chatting with Redbone about his sole encounter with Dylan—from whence those photographs of the pair at Toronto's Mariposa Folk Festival five years prior—and also telling Jethro how much I had enjoyed his work over the years with Homer, the lady used that as an opportunity to get to know Goodman on the other side of the large room. The diminutive recording artist, maybe three inches shorter even than Dylan, had to look up a bit at her, but they seemed like they were getting along.

I don't suppose I must finish this story for you to know how it ended up. I remember the expression on Jethro's face when he, and I, realized why she was next walking with Goodman back to the station wagon he was touring in. (Can't recall if Redbone had a similar realization, or reaction.)

Never saw her again, but the late Goodman—who would die of leukemia at 36 on September 20, 1984 here in a Seattle cancer ward—I did see one more time. That was in 1982, at the shoreline in Seal Beach, California, where improbably enough, he and his wife were hawking Goodman CDs—including Somebody Else's Troubles—off the tailgate of another station wagon. I talked again to Goodman that day, but given who was accompanying him at the beach, I decided to not inquire if he recalled walking off with somebody else's woman.


BRYAN STYBLE/Seattle

2 comments:

  1. Jethro told the story of the night he met Goodman at the Earl of Old Town in early 1972, not long after Homer's death. He was there because his son, Johnny, was Goodman's opening act. He was cornered by Goodman in the dressing room while visiting Johnny and Goodman kept telling him he was Jethro Burns and quoting Homer & Jethro songs to him.

    After that, Jethro went out to his seat in the audience. When Goodman bounded out onto the stage, Jethro's wife instantly fell in love with him. She elbowed Jethro, pointed to Goodman, and said, "THAT is what I want for Christmas."

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