Steve Goodman and That Cubs Song
There is a highly-regarded boxing analyst, Al Bernstein. And when I say "highly-regarded," it's not hyperbole, since he's in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. In addition to his long-time print journalism, he was an commentator on ESPN, as well has NBC for a couple of Olympics, and currently is an broadcast for Showtime.
Anyway, after the World Series game last night, he posted a note on Twitter about how moving it was to hear the 41,000 Cubs fans singing “Go Cubs Go.” So, I retweeted that with a mention of an article I wrote about Steve Goodman and the history of the song a few years back, and included a link. My reply was intended for the general public, and I never expected that Al Bernstein would take the time to check it out.
Well, he did, and sent two tweets about it. One as a general reply, and one to me directly –
“terrific story about the talented Steve Goodman. He wrote, sang "Go Cubs Go."-- one of MANY accomplishments. He's missed, especially tonight”
“Thanks for writing this story -- talented and very cool man. The Steve martin story was gr8.”
And then I got a notice that he Followed me.
To be clear, though this is nice personally, mainly I’m pleased that Al Bernstein was interested enough in the song and Steve Goodman to check it out.
It turns out that I shouldn't have all that surprised. I went to look at Al Bernstein's Facebook timeline, I noticed a few things. Most notably, it's that he must be either from Chicago or because he worked there for several years on the Lerner newspapers, because he's a massive Cubs fan. In fact, he has almost play-by-play infectious commentary on the Cubs playoff games in huge support of the Cubs.
In fact, he had a hilarious tweet last night about the Cleveland pitching ace Corey Kluber who's already beaten the Cubs twice in the World Series and is scheduled to pitch in the seventh game if things get that far. Al Bernstein's tweet read – “I think Corey Kluber should be deported immediately. No, I'm serious. I think it's the right thing to do.”
Good for him!!
Anyway, it occurred to me that I should post the Steve Goodman article here, since it's timely. Plus, you'll get to see the Steve Martin story...
This was originally published on the Huffington Post on August 2, 2008.
Steve Goodman, and the Surprising Story of "Go, Cubs, Go"
The Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 100 years. Perhaps that’s why they celebrate every victory - you can’t be sure when the next one will come along.
For the last two years, that post-game celebrating has included a song. Over 40,000 fans standing, partying, singing along to the recording of a boisterous anthem, “Go, Cubs, Go.” But for most people, the story ends there. In fact, it’s the beginning of a story that makes this all far more wonderful than most people swaying along imagine.
And therein lies the tale.
Singer-songwriter Steve Goodman has always been popular in his hometown of Chicago, bursting on the scene in the 1970s. However, he’s always been little-known outside the city. But there’s a good chance you do know Steve Goodman, because several of his songs have had great fame. In fact, he’s won two Grammy Awards.
His best known is the legendary “City of New Orleans.” Not only did Arlo Guthrie have a massive hit with it – but a decade later, Willie Nelson reached #1 with the song again.
With John Prine, he co-wrote the wry country hit, “You Never Even Call Me By My Name.” (David Allan Coe even refers to Goodman on the recording for adding a new comic-ending that Coe insists now makes it, “The perfect country-and-western song.”)
Goodman’s versatility was remarkable, from folk to rock, blues and country, yet above all, riotous and sly humor throughout. And then he’d burst your heart with “Would You Like to Learn to Dance?” and “My Old Man.” He was so admired that Bob Dylan sings back-up and performs on his third album, Somebody Else's Troubles.
As wonderful as Steve Goodman is on record, he was better in concert, where his ingratiating personality exploded. One time, I saw him at the Universal Amphitheatre, opening for Steve Martin at the peak of the comic’s stand-up career. Now, you must understand, this is when people showed up with toy arrows in their heads, reciting his album monologues by heart, shouting “Excuuuuuse me….” every other word. The last thing they wanted to see was any opening act, let alone a short, balding, cherubic folk singer they’d never heard of. Moreover, the place seated 5,200, all jammed with stomping maniacs. It was a rock concert for a stand-up comic.
And throughout all this, Steve Goodman simply kept singing, telling stories and winning over the Martin Fanatics…to their utter shock. By the end of only his fourth number, a guy sitting in front of me – who had heard my running, Steve Goodman commentary to my date – spun around, his face wide-eyed with that shocked look of heavenly discovery, and shouted, “Who IS This Guy???!!!!! He’s Incredible??!!!” By the end of Steve Goodman’s set, this amphitheatre of 5,200 Steve Martin cultists were stomping and screaming for the other Steve, as well.
It should come as no surprise that Steve Goodman opened for Steve Martin over 200 times.
Indeed, Steve Goodman was incredible. And he was a massive Chicago Cubs baseball fan. He wrote two songs for his favorite team. One was the hilarious “A Dying Cubs Fan Last Request,” whose narrator ultimately envisions his ashes scattered around Wrigley Field. For the other, he wrote a radio jingle for them.
It was a song called – “Go, Cubs, Go.”
The song was written before the 1984 season began, when WGN radio asked Goodman to write something for them that could begin their broadcast. (If one listens closely, you can hear one of the lines, "Baseball time is here again / You can catch it all on WGN.")
When it was originally aired, I never was crazy about the song. It was okay, but compared to the best of Steve Goodman, it paled. (To be fair, compared to the best of Steve Goodman, most songs pale.) But it certainly was memorable.
You’ll note that I’ve use past tense a lot here. “Was” is, unfortunately, an important word in the story of Steve Goodman and the song.
Steve Goodman had leukemia, and though it went into remission, he always kept it a secret. Only a few people knew. And the knowledge of that makes his joyful personality and effervescence all the more impressive. (In pure-Goodman fashion, one of his nicknames was “Cool Hand Leuk.” Another was “Chicago Shorty.”) And then, after over seven years of remission, when most cases are thought to be gone – it so sadly returned. And in 1984, the same year he wrote “Go, Cubs, Go,” Steve Goodman died at the ridiculously too-young age of 36.
It was then that people discovered “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” was autobiographical.
He was scheduled to sing the National Anthem before the Cubs’ very first post-season playoff game in 39 years. But he died 11 days earlier. His friend Jimmy Buffett performed it instead, dedicating his performance to Steve Goodman.
And then, just like in his song, the Chicago Cubs ballclub allowed his ashes to be spread at Wrigley Field. That’s how beloved he was by the team, even back in 1984. Yet the best was still to come.
Because it turned out that Steve Goodman was far too good and far too full of life for the story to end there.
To be sure, Steve Goodman songs continued to be played and recorded by others, and there remained a core group of fans, most especially in Chicago. But 23 years dims that over time. Music changes, culture changes, people change. And time passes. A core group becomes a niche. And names to others become lost.
In the end, a new generation ultimately solidifies its place with its own interests.
But for whatever reason, some person in Chicago Cubs management remembered the radio song that Steve Goodman had written a quarter of a century earlier.
In 2007, the team had the idea the play it after the ballclub won, and it caught on and grew like a wildfire. It might have been nice as a radio promo, but it turned out to be infectious as a celebratory sing-along. And as the Cubs started winning and made the playoffs last year, the song took on even greater meaning to the fans. And as that winning actually grew and the Cubs suddenly now bizarrely have the best record in the all of Major League Baseball, and pennant fever has ignited in Chicago – with improbable dreams of a century-delayed World Series, no matter how unlikely – the song has not only become an anthem, but a requirement as part of a Wrigley Field experience. A packed-stadium united in joyful song. And finally, a phenomenon. Whereas in most ballparks, people leave before the final out to get to their cars in time, 40,000 jubilant fans stay in Wrigley Field, refusing to leave until they’ve all sung their song. Along with Steve Goodman.
And it’s not just a Wrigley Field experience. Two thousand miles away, a friend in Los Angeles gets the WGN television broadcast, and says that he and his 10-year-son always sing it together after each win. No doubt this occurs across the country. And with the Internet, probably around the world.
But the best part of all is an interview I heard with one of Steve Goodman's daughters, Rosanna, a musician herself, explaining how bowled over the family is by the way the song has become this massive, beloved exultation in the city and brought so much attention to her father. Once again.
His mother, Minnette, told the Chicago Tribune, “It blows my mind.”
A major 800-page biography – long in the works – was released last year, written by Clay Eals. Also, the day, October 4, 2007, was named Steve Goodman Day in Illinois. Last year, the Chicago Cubs drew over 3 million fans, and this year they’re on a pace for more. Most of whom now know Steve Goodman, when they didn’t before.
And with each victory, the people blasting out, “Go, Cubs, Go,” grows.
Though it won’t replace seeing Steve Goodman play live, here are videos of his wildly-exuberant, in-concert version of “Red Red Robin” and the haunting “Penny Evans.” But for a special treat, don’t miss this video of him performing “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” from a rooftop overlooking Wrigley Field.
And of course, his 20 albums still continue to sell, with newly discovered material released, along with archive concert recordings. The album, A Tribute to Steve Goodman” [an all-star concert recording with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Richie Havens, John Hartford, John Prine and more] won a third Grammy.
I only met Steve Goodman once. It was at Dodger Stadium, where I’d gone with my pal Patrick Goldstein who had become friends with Goodman back as a reporter covering music in Chicago. Goodman saw Patrick, came over for a brief, charming chat, and then returned to his seat to watch the game. The game, after all, that was the important thing.
The other team playing was the Chicago Cubs.
That’s the story.
But this below – this is the experience.
A Small Proposition
'Tis the season for Propositions on the California ballot. It's a long tradition in the state -- and one I've grown to detest. In fact, years ago, I largely gave up voting on Propositions because I'm so opposed to the system as a terrible way to make laws, and have pretty much no interest in participating in the system or helping to perpetuate it. The only time I'll vote is when there is a proposition that strike as so deeply important that it would be irresponsible to ignore it. (This year, there are three, out of the many.) Other than that, no, I don't vote on them.)
I came to this conclusion when, after years of meticulously reading the lengthy booklet sent to voters to describe in great detail the Propositions, along with unbiased analysis, pro and con statements and cross-arguments, and then the exact, convoluted wording of the laws themselves -- that I just didn't want to read it all anymore, and if I (who eat up elections like a near-religious experience) wasn't planning to read the long booklet, then it was pretty likely to most voters didn't. And relied only on TV commercials. And this is no way to make laws.
This is an article I wrote for the Huffington Post seven years ago that deals with the problem with the Proposition system in California, and it holds today.
California Propositions are a Bankrupt Idea
Quite a few years back, I had a debate with a friend. I disliked California’s Proposition system, he thought it was great.
I am here to proclaim victory in the debate.
The Proposition System in California, while noble in theory, is an ill-thought out disaster. Somewhat like New Coke, the Edsel and Viet Nam. Miserable failure was the only likely outcome.
It was based on the premise of full-participation democracy of an informed citizenry, but even the Founding Fathers understood that that had its limits. America is not a democracy, it’s a representative democracy. This is the concept that most people just want to know where the On switch is for their computer, not how electronics works. When it comes to laws, just pass the things, and if we don’t like them, we’ll vote you out.
However poorly one thinks of politicians, the Proposition System is worse. It starts with the faulty premise that the voting public is going to willingly study a thick guidebook. The voting public didn’t willingly study even thin guidebooks when they were in high school and required to. Instead, with propositions, they turn to watching 30-second TV ads to learn what the laws are about.
Watching 30-second TV ads to learn what a law is about is like reading a fortune cookie and believing that you now understand Eastern Philosophy.
Initially, the Proposition System had its successes mixed among warning signs. That’s when the legal equivalent of the San Andreas Fault hit in 1978. Proposition 13 – the most appropriately-numbered law ever. This wasn’t just bad luck, this was The Big One.
For years, a crotchety coot named Howard Jarvis would annually try to get some loony proposition passed against having taxes. It was wildly entertaining, though a bit annoying, like watching a rapid dog yowl nightly at the moon. But in 1978, the moon yowled back, and his co-sponsored Proposition 13 actually passed. And the joke was on California.
On the surface, Proposition 13 appeared to be about limits on property taxes. What it actually did was send California crashing to ruin. It wasn’t just that revenues plummeted, but that Proposition 13 required a “supermajority” of two-thirds vote in the state legislature for any tax increase.
The resulting problem is that the public keeps voting proposition initiatives to improve the state – yet they vote against bills to pay for it. And the state itself is unable to raise revenues to make up the difference.
(Side note: in the comedy, “Airplane!”, a passenger gets in Robert Hayes’ cab, just as the cabbie leaps out. That’s actually Howard Jarvis. He sits in the taxi the entire movie, the butt of the joke, as the meter keeps running. Alas, talk about a prescient metaphor. California’s meter has been running ever since.)
The additional problem with the Proposition System is that, unlike when a legislator puts himself on the line when passing laws, there is no one to vote out of office if a proposition screws things up. No one is responsible. So, the death spiral continues.
The result is that the California budget deficit is now $26.3 billion. The state sent out IOUs last week.
Certainly, there are many causes for the problems California faces today. But the root of the problem is that the California Proposition System is a system that allows reckless action without accountability. And worse, it’s a system that increasingly does the very opposite of its original intent of full democratic participation of the public: the more propositions, the less the public wants to study them all – and the fewer people who vote. In the most recent special election this past June, specifically to deal with the state’s budget crisis, voter turnout was a paltry 28.4 percent.
Worse still, because of another proposition – term limits – representatives know they have no political future, regardless of what they do in office, so there’s no need to work out issues in the state legislature with your opponents, but just vote in self interest. The result is gridlock.
When you let politicians do what you elected them to do – for all the good and ill – at least you are getting 100% of the electorate represented in the results. And if you don’t like those results, you can vote your officials out. But with the Proposition System, a mere quarter of the public is at times deciding how the state should be run. Based on watching 30-second TV ads. With no accountability.
How can anyone be shocked to discover that people vote for things they like, vote against paying taxes – and a $26.3 billion deficit is created because a near-impossible two-thirds supermajority is needed to fix things?! And you throw out your leader to bring in an movie actor with no political experience to get you out of the mess.
This is no way to run a democracy.
Make no mistake, it crosses all parties.
In California, majority doesn’t rule. It’s the tyranny of the minority, but worse it’s too often the tyranny of the irrational. The California Proposition System may have begun with a noble intent, but it was ill-conceived, and has become selfish, greedy, mindless, unworkable and a disaster.
There is only one proposition worthy of having on the ballot and voting for. A proposition that would get rid of the California Proposition System.
It is so great to find out that my pal Phil Caruso just received the well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Camera Operators, as a still photographer.
I met Phil years back when we worked on a small, independent film in South Carolina, Staying Together, directed by the actress Lee Grant. He was a hoot, friendly, fearless and very talented, and for inexplicable reasons we performed an original rap song at the movie's wrap party. (Clearly, the joke was that a wrap party needed a rap song, but the inexplicable part was "why us?") This was made all the more bizarre when realizing that one of the actors in the movie performed, as well -- Levon Helm, the drummer and lead singer of The Band. Happily, we survived and stayed good friends since, me in Los Angeles, him in the far other end of the country up in Albany, New York, with his wife Kathy and kids Sarah and Vincent.
I'm not at all surprised that Phil got the Lifetime Achievement Award. That said, honestly though I thought that the first honor he would receive would be "Most Likely to be Beaten with a Stick by a Movie Crew" (Phil has a wicked, outspoken and hilarious sense of humor), but I guess when you've worked on such films as Forrest Gump, Casino, Parenthood, Backdraft, Analyze This, That Thing You Do, Twelve Monkeys, Wag the Dog, Meet the Parents, and Weekend at Bernie's, among so many more, it gets noticed sooner or later. And given that the iMDB records show him with 108 credits, I suppose that filmmakers find him endearing. And wildly talented.
One of the ways you can tell the level of quality of Phil's work, without even looking at his stills, is seeing how many filmmakers keep hiring him for repeat projects. Check out at his credits and you'll see repeat films with people like Ron Howard, Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal and others. They want him back. I don't quite understand it -- Phil after all is an acquired taste -- but I guess that when you're making a film and have so much on the line and so little time that you can't afford to mess up, you want the best, as well as people you can rely on, and those you enjoy working with. So, I guess I do understand it after all...
One thing I especially like about Phil (or Dr. Caputo, as I prefer to call him -- for reasons that are lost to history) is that because where he lives in Albany is reasonably close to Cooperstown, he tries every year to go to the annual Baseball Hall of Fame ceremonies. So, you know at the very least that his heart is in the right place, and his head is screwed on properly -- even when he tries to convince you otherwise. I always look forward to his phone call from the festivities, as well as the photos he sends. But then, I always look forward to any photo from Phil, whether he sends it or otherwise. His visits to Los Angeles are far too few, so you take what you can get.
And there's another reason this Lifetime Achievement honor is so wonderful. Phil's father-in-law is the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy (who among many other things, wrote Ironweed, in his Albany series of novels). And Phil always speaks of him with great pride and immense affection, regularly telling tales proudly over the years of the many honors his father-in-law has received. It's just wonderful to have a conversation with Phil about awards and get the opportunity to make it about him.
There aren't a lot of photographs of Phil. Needless to say, he's usually at the other end of the lens. Every once in a while when you do see a picture of him, it's usually with his arm in the foreground, as he holds his camera far away from his body. (Though he was ever the iconoclast and one of the first still photographers in Hollywood to start using digital cameras against tradition, he began taking occasional photos of himself before those devices came along and made the selfie process easier.) This here is a rarity. But then so is Phil Still.
This past January at the Consumer Electronics Show, I was talking with a tech publicist I quite like, Heather Delaney of the firm Dynamo PR. It's based in England, as is Heather, not shockingly -- although she's from the U.S.. (Actually, for those of you keeping score, that more properly should be "was based," since she's back now, in charge of opening up an office for Dynamo in San Francisco. Stop in and say, 'hi,' and you'll perhaps get a scone and clotted cream, along with a beautifully-wrapped gift loaf of sourdough bread to take home.)
Chatting away on all manner of topics, not even necessarily tech, she mentioned a BBC television series she thought I might like. That's because she was aware of my novella, A Christmas Carol 2: The Return of Scrooge, which is a parody of the tale in which I interweave a couple dozen characters from other Dickens novels. The British series was titled, Dickensian, which was reason enough for her to bring it up. But the main reason she thought of mentioning it is because the fun hook of the show is that the story takes place in one particular neighborhood of 19th century London...which is inhabited by several dozen characters from Dickens novels!
Needless-to-say, I was intrigued, but tracking it down was another matter. The 20-episode series, which each run a half-hour (except for the longer finale) is not available on Netflix, at least currently, and for some reason it's not yet been shown on BBC America. In fairness, it's quite new -- it aired last year and finished its run only in February, so perhaps it will end up in these parts eventually. (If you have a multi-region DVD player, however, the DVD can be ordered by Amazon UK here.) Happily, though, thanks to a high-techie friend with access to such things, he was able to find and download all 20 episodes from a British site online and burn them to several DVDs for me.
I finally finished watching them last week, and...well, the series was spectacular. One of my favorite things I've seen on TV, period. Ever. Unfortunately, the BBC announced in April that they wouldn't be renewing the show, so that one season is it. My understanding is that Dickensian was respectably popular, but I suspect it was fairly expensive to make -- the period sets, costumes and attention to detail are meticulous and wonderful, and the cast is very large. So it might have done well, but just not well-enough to justify the expense and continue. At least it told a closed-ended story, so there's no unresolved cliffhanger. The tale comes full-circle.
I'm going to write here about why I loved the show so much, but it's a bit odd doing so because most people reading this might not have a chance to ever see it. My hope though is that at some point it will indeed be on DVD and then Netflix, and even BBC America. But even if not, it was simply too wonderful not to give it its due. And its full due begins with high-praise to Tony Jordan who created the show wrote half the episodes. He was the preeminent writer on the exceedingly long-running British soap opera EastEnders for almost 20 years, and among his many other works co-created the series Life on Mars, which was adapted as a U.S. series which ran here for two seasons.
But Dickensian I suspect, is his masterpiece.
I knew when I sat down to watch that there was a murder mystery involved, but that's all I knew about the show. About 10-15 minutes into the first episode, though, I started laughing because I was absolutely certain I knew who the victim would be. And if my thought was right (which I was sure it was), it was hilariously clever. I'm going to tell you, which isn't really giving anything much away, since the character dies about 20 minutes into this first episode of a 10-hour series. But if you really, truly don't want to know, just skip the next paragraph. But honestly, knowing may make you even more intrigued to watch it, if you get the chance.
Knowing that this was based on Dickens, I was trying to figure out who was going to bite the dust. I didn't think it could be a major character, since I wasn't aware of any major Dickens character who died in a mysterious way that would fit here. But then I didn't think it really would likely be a minor character, since that probably wouldn't be interesting for the audience to care as much whodunnit. Certainly it possibly could be a non-Dickens character, but that would seem to go against the theme of the series. So, hmm, who could it be? The story, like a good Dickens tale, of course starts on Christmas Eve. And as the characters were being introduced and storylines set up, I kept trying to look for clues about who we might not see much longer. And that's when I started to laugh. Because...Christmas Eve? I knew a Dickens character who died on Christmas Eve! It's the whole point that sets up A Christmas Carol. "Seven years ago this very night" is when Scrooge's partner Jacob Marley had died! Indeed, that's what brings the ghost of Marley to visit Scrooge on the anniversary of his death. So, I was absolutely sure that that's who the victim would be. And so it was! The premise of the show, therefore, is to find out who killed him.
Though the core premise of the series is to find the killer, Dickensian is really about so much more. Because there are other stories interwoven through it all, some of which touch on the murder mystery, and others that dance by but stand on their own.
Much of the early fun of Dickensian is the introduction of the characters -- some directly, but some in a whimsical roundabout way. For instance, in what is probably the major dramatic storyline (and not related to the murder mystery), we come upon a brother and sister whose father has just passed away, and the young man, Arthur, is gut-wrenchingly livid that his sister has inherited most of the estate and he only gets a much smaller portion, plus a salary from the family brewery. For much of the episode, we only know the siblings as Arthur and Amelia. And then only later, very offhandedly, the young man is quietly referred to by an acquaintance in a good-naturedly way, easy to slip by, along the lines of, "Come now, Havisham, what do you say?" And that's when you realize that his sister, Amelia, is...Miss Havisham, here the young woman who will grow to be Dickens' memorable centerpiece of Great Expectations. And the storyline with them is the back-tale of how this charming young lady came to be that famous, half-crazed, torn character we meet in the novel.
To be very clear, you don't have to know Dickens at all to enjoy Dickensian. The stories and writing and acting and production values are all too good. It's a wonderful murder mystery, but it's also a separately wonderful and very intriguing drama about a young woman at the center of a profound deceit, and there's another wonderful family drama, as well, of a conflict when the patriarch hits hard times. And other terrific tales, as well.
As for that family drama, it involves another of the great-fun introductions. The family is the Barbarys, whose name meant nothing to me, despite having read all the Dickens novels. The father, Edward, has learned that his fortune in great trouble -- and has to borrow money. Needless-to-say, the lender is none other than Ebenezer Scrooge, of course! But when Barbary is unable to pay it back, he's thrown in debtors prison. His daughters Frances and Honoria have to figure out how to resolve this dire situation. Several, very interesting episodes later, it all eventually become clear what this story actually is. That's when the older sister finds that the elderly nobleman she's interested in is not at all interested in her, but rather in her younger, pretty sister Honoria -- who is herself deeply in love with a young dashing soldier, soon to hopefully be her fiance. But the older, devious sister connives to marry off her sister to the nobleman in order to bring a fortune into the family. Which is how she manipulates things with Sir Leicester Dedlock. And...wait -- "Sir Dedlock"??!! When you hear the name, that's when a good Dickens fan realizes that this means....yes, young Honoria is who will later become -- Lady Dedlock! The mysterious, distant, withdrawn woman at the heart of Bleak House. And so here we get the back story to that, But even without knowing any of this, it's a terrific, moving tale on its own.
And the way the lives in Dickensian work, Honoria Barbary from Bleak House and Amelia Havisham of Great Expectations here are best friends. Which is one of the ways that characters and stories overlap.
Among the many other characters whose stories cross paths in Dickensian include Fagin, Bill Sikes, Nancy, the Artful Dodger and Mr. and Mrs. Bumble from Oliver Twist. (Though the storyline with the Bumbles is completely separate for the other Oliver Twist plotline, which crosses paths with Ebenezer Scrooge, who Fagin naturally wants to partner with.) Bob Cratchit, his good wife Martha, Tiny Tim and the children are here from A Christmas Carol...as well as, of course Jacob Marley, and the aforementioned Scrooge. There's also Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Show (who is introduced hilariously if one knows that story -- she infamously dies in the novel, in perhaps Dickens' most mawkishly maudlin passage, and when we first meet her in the series, she's of course on her deathbed -- but here recovers.) And as it happens, one of the Cratchit boys is infatuated with her, and courts the young girl. And there are a great many lesser-known characters, some of whose names I did recognize, but some I didn't -- though what was fun (and what I recommend if you do get to watch the show) is to track down a character list online and keep it handy like a theater playbill. (There's a good one in Wikipedia.) Characters from Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Pickwick Papers and more from Bleak House, Great Expectations and others, like Mrs. Gamp, Jaggers, Miss Biggetywitch, and Mr. Venus (beautifully played by Omad Djalili), a taxidermist from Our Mutual Friend who offers advice and assistance to Inspector Bucket, the detective from Bleak House who here is investigating the murder.
I didn't know most of the actors, but did recognize a few. Peter Firth (who starred on Broadway decades ago as the young boy in Equus) plays Jacob Marley. I also recognized Anton Lesser -- who is in the Masterpiece Mystery series Endeavour as the elderly Chief Superintendent, and played Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall -- is a superb Fagin, bringing wonderful, humanizing levels to the character. But the best-known actor to me was Stephen Rea, who got an Oscar nomination for The Crying Game, with numerous other recognizable credits. He plays Inspector Bucket, a minor though important character in Bleak House, here investigating the murder, using this new technique of "detection" which is looked at askance by his superiors. He's absolutely superb in the series, a quirky master of subtle looks and pointed expressions that he rolls carefully around in his mouth.
Two other actors particularly stood out for me. Ned Dennehy plays Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps today the most now-cliched characters in all of Dickens, and he brings such great depth to him, making Scrooge far more human and rounded than we've come to expect of him -- yet just as cold, cruel and spiteful. And Sophie Rundle is terrific as the lovely and eventually conflicted Honoria Barbary, soon to be Lady Dedlock. This isn't fair to all the other actors in the series because pretty much all of them are gems, including several who are in major plots -- like Tuppence Middleton, so involving as Amelia Havisham, and Tom Weston-Jones who plays the diabolically ingratiating Meriwether Compeyson from Great Expectations. But if I kept naming them all, it would just be a long list.
For the most part, the storylines are riveting and fascinating -- whether or not you know Dickens. A couple slightly misfire, most notably the sub-plot with the Bumbles trying to better themselves. It seems largely for comic relief, and it's definitely fun but comes across as too separate from the rest of the stories. There also is a comic subplot with Miss Gamp and her lady friends which centers on the tavern and is lively, but gets a little repetitious. But the writing for these and throughout the series is so smart, so true to Dickens, so vibrant and accessible that it all comes across as fresh, and the plotting is ethereally good. I have to note here once again Tony Jordan who created the series, and additionally wrote half of the episodes. It's a tremendous achievement and deserves a repeat mention.
The resolution of the murder mystery (don't worry, I won't say who) is very respectably satisfying, which is a difficult trick because you figure that they have to stay pretty true to Dickens. And I'm not aware of any major characters convicted of murder, and a minor character would seem to be unsatisfying here. But the writers came up with a solution that I'd say works fine.
Oddly, I found the final episode that wraps up the show and the storylines the least successful for my taste. It was as richly done as the others, and is very good. In part, though, my reaction is because the murder investigation is wrapped up in the previous episode, so there's none of that in the finale, and almost nothing with Inspector Bucket, my favorite character. Instead they deal with several of the other stories. But, although those stories are great on their own, as I said, it's just that for various reasons I won't get into -- in case people here do see the show -- the finale didn't all pack the punch that for me was the most-satisfying release of everything. What I'll say is that the main stories they focus on in the last episode -- one with Miss Havisham and another Honoria Barbary (to be Lady Dedlock) -- are incredibly dramatic, indeed riveting, but unlike most Dickens novels, which tend to end on abundant good cheer and the hopes of bright futures, these are not those kinds of storylines. So, the ending here is more wistful and moody that you might otherwise get in Dickens. To be clear, the finale was good. Beautifully done and full of emotion. And everything does get resolved. And in a way that you look forward, if not to bright futures for all, at least for some, and all with hope.
One final word, about one thing where it does help to know Dickens. For the entire series, there are hints of lines from the books, but the dialogue is otherwise original, entirely its own. Except for the very end. And I mean, the very end. That's when a little boy is introduced late in the finale, without mention at first of his name, and he weaves his way around for a while alone and homeless. Eventually, this waif, who goes by the name Oliver Twist, runs into the Artful Dodger.. And the Dodger's dialogue, explaining that he's about to introduce his lucky new friend to his "respectable old gentlemen," Fagin, is a long passage that is directly out of the novel, word-for-word.
And with that, as the two head into a tavern, and the door closes behind them, the series ends.
It's just great. And I do so hope Dickensian makes its way to Netflix or BBC America.
Here's the trailer, followed by an extended. Neither does the series justice, the trailer focusing mostly on the murder mystery and Big Dark Drama, and the whole show itself is far more graceful and vibrant, even at times funny. But this trailer is attention-getting. It also gives away the murder victim (as does the following scene), so if you don't want to know, then skip them. But really, there's no reason not to know.
[NOTE: The original trailer I embedded is no longer available. This is the same one, but with Spanish subtitles. But all the dialogue and narration is in English.]
And here is a longer scene. It largely involves the Bumbles, who as I said are relatively minor characters in the series, but the clip gives you a better sense of the quality of the writing and acting. So, for those reasons I think it's worthwhile to include.
[NOTE: Unfortunately this video is no longer available either, and dthe only standalone scene I can find is almost literally the last one in the series, which I'd rather not post, but instead here's a brief "teaser" about one of the upcoming episodes.]
NPR on Steve Goodman
It was nice today to hear a piece on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday about Steve Goodman. The main focus of the story was that he wrote the song, "Go, Cubs, Go!," which is particularly timely at the moment. Host Scott Simon talks to Goodman's biography Clay Eals, and plays clips for a few songs in the five-minute segment. (Left out was that Steve Goodman and Hillary Clinton went to school together, Maine South High School, in Park Ridge. Illinois.
Speaking of high school, if memory serves I’m pretty sure that Scott Simon went to the one I did, New Trier. He wrote an autobiography, Home and Away, that was fun, and turned out to have a lot of overlap with my early life.
I also traded several emails a while back with the guy he interviews, Clay Eals. I’d mentioned Eals and his biography, Steve Goodman: Facing the Music, in an article I’d written about Steve Goodman, and he sent me a copy, which I wrote about. (It was enjoyable, most especially for huge Steve Goodman fans, and a seriously impressive bit of scholarship – but is egregiously looooooong. The book is oversized – much bigger pages than a usual book, and it was still close to 800 pages. This for a fellow who died at the age of 36. I read a biography of Winston Churchill that was only 600 pages. The shame is that the book is well-written and a terrific introduction to Steve Goodman (along, of course, with his albums...). But no matter how good and especially-scholarly the book is, if you want to introduce Steve Goodman to people who don’t know him, they might pick up a 350-page book – but most likely not an oversized 778-page book. So, it probably cuts out a good part of the potential market. I suspect that Mr. Eals and the publisher recognized that there weren't probably gong to be many other biographies on Steve Goodman, so they wanted to be definitive. And this is that.
One quibble with the interview. That's when they ponder about if the Cubs would lose their mystique if they won the World Series. I’m sure that will be the case for some people – most of whom aren’t from Chicago -- but they were talking about Steve Goodman, who was a maniacal Cubs fan, and I can’t imagine him or any Cubs fan who are that die-hard who wouldn’t be going crazy cheering for them to win.
Of course, with the team down two games to one, we might not have that problem to deal with. But we hopes...
Here's the five-minute piece --
Sorry, I meant to post something earlier, but it will have to wait. I've been in tech hell. It didn't seem like a big program -- and technically it really wasn't -- but it was still hellish. And it's only finally been resolved.
It began first thing this morning when I went to reboot my system. Fine. Except that once shut down it wouldn't boot up. I eventually called my techie friend who said it sounded like the power supply went out. He had a used spare one around, but it should be fine, with at least a couple years left on it, so I went over to his place where he hooked it up. We tested it, all was well, so I brought my computer home.
Plugging everything back in, I booted up the system and started working on my piece here. When all of a sudden -- kablooey! (That's the technical term.) The computer shut down and went black. It started to boot back up, but shut down again. Same thing happened yet again. And then it pretty much went silent.
I called my techie friend, and he said this was probably incredibly flukish (swell...), but the power supply he put in probably had enough juice in it to look like it was fine, but most likely was defective. So, I had to go to the store to buy a new one. "Get one that's AT compatible," he said, "not an ATX."
Alas, the store only had models that used the ATX protocol. So, heading back to my car I told him this, and prepared to make the loooong drive to a computer supply story. Oh, wait, he said, I told you wrong -- "ATX is what you want. It's fine."
Good! So, I bought it, took the new power supply to him, which he set up. It worked perfectly. Great. Since this was a new power supply, it should last longer than 20 minutes...
I got home, plugged everything in once again, and...well, hmmm, odd. It was taking really long to boot up. And something looked wrong. And once the Windows Desktop showed up, it looked really wrong. Icons for programs I hadn't used in years, files I no longer used. So, I checked System Properties -- and it was running Windows 7. Now, that might seem okay to some people...except I use Windows 10!!! I rebooted to see if that might address the issue, and not only did it not fix anything, but it took almost four minutes to shut down, rather than 15 seconds.
And so...okay, you know the drill at this point -- I called my techie friend.
Fortunately, he knew I had a second, older drive in my system, and it likely had Windows 7 on it, for extra capacity and as a backup if necessary. During the drive home, a plug must have fallen out of the main C:\ drive -- which runs Windows 10 -- which is why the computer could only boot up to the old Windows 7. And because this Windows 7 drive was so old, that's why it took so long to boot up and shut down, it was looking for material that was no longer there. (There were other reasons, too, but that's a main one, including that my newer, main drive was an SSD -- Solid State Drive -- which is much faster.)
And so...again, I shut down the computer, opened it up and found that, indeed, a plug had fallen out of the Solid State drive. I plugged it in, plugged all the other cord in once more, and booted up.
And it works! O huzzah.
And so, I'm posting this instead of what I had planned. But then, I had a lot of things planned. My beloved Northwestern was scheduled to be on ESPN for football. There was a screening at the Writers Guild I wanted to see. I got a call that morning from my cousin who was in town for a wedding, and invited me to the pre-wedding party on the beach. And I had to be home by 5 PM for the Cubs.
Ah, the plans of mice and men. At least I'm watching Northwetern in the background -- tied 17-17 against #6 ranked Ohio Sate. And eventually I'll decompress.
It was such a simple, basic issue. And it only took six hours.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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