The true story of 'Go Cubs Go!'
Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I'm a die-hard Cubs fan. And almost anyone within reach of the sports section must have noticed that the Chicago Cubs, the team with the best record in the National League, have made the playoffs for the second consecutive season, the first time our lowly but beloved team has accomplished that, well, since we last won the World Series in 1908. Since Lou Piniella took over as manager last year, Cubs fans have sensed that something special is in the air --we've been winning, winning a lot. And whenever we win, since sometime early last season, the fans at Wrigley Field celebrate by singing a joyous anthem, "Go Cubs Go!"
As with so many things involving the Cubs, the song has a bittersweet history. It was written in 1984 by singer-songwriter Steve Goodman, just months before the Cubs clinched their first postseason berth in nearly 40 years. Sadly, Goodman never got to see a playoff game -- he died in September of that year of leukemia. Goodman was a songwriter of many talents, having written an Arlo Guthrie hit ("The City of New Orleans"), a batch of wonderfully wistful ballads ("My Old Man" and "The Dutchman") and some wonderfully comic tales, including a country music spoof (co-written with John Prine) called "You Never Even Call Me by My Name."
A lifelong Cubs fan (he also wrote the wry "A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request"), Goodman would've loved this year's team, which has overachieved, triumphed over every adversity and has a colorful pitcher named Carlos Zambrano who not only throws 95 mph fastballs but is a switch-hitter with a .337 batting average. (If one of this week's Cubs-Dodgers games goes into extra innings, expect to see him as a pinch hitter.) There's a great story behind the recording of "Go Cubs Go!," which turns out to have background vocals performed by some of the Cubs who played on that first great 1984 playoff team.
The song was produced by Goodman and Hank Neuberger, one of my old friends who worked as an engineer for everybody from Goodman and Prine to Cheap Trick, Ramsey Lewis and the Ohio Players. With the first Cubs playoff game scheduled for this week, I asked Hank to recount the back story to the song that we fans hope will be sung over and over after some stirring Cubs victories during the next few weeks. Here's Hank's fond memories about how the song came to be:
In March of ’84 when Steve Goodman called to book studio time for a recording session the following week, he said that WGN had hired him to do a new theme song for the Cubs' radio broadcasts, and they needed it right away. “So I better start writing one,” he said. The Cubs were in the middle of assembling the very worst record in the Cactus League that spring training. Nothing new there.
When Steve arrived at the studio, he explained that WGN had first offered this gig to the Beach Boys but they had turned it down, so he got the call. Steve, the ultimate Chicago sports fan, was thrilled.
WGN actually did get the Beach Boys to do a Cubs theme song a few years later and did use it for a while. And as great as the Beach Boys are, hearing them sing about Chicago’s Cubbies felt just plain wrong. Bad chemistry.
But Steve Goodman, Chicago’s native son, was altogether right for this. Beloved in Chicago, he had embodied the Chicago folk scene, along with his friend John Prine, for 10 years after writing "City of New Orleans," "Daley’s Gone," "Lincoln Park Pirates" and "A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request."
We had a top rhythm section, including Steve Rodby on bass, who went on to join the Pat Metheny Group, and Pat Leonard on keyboards, who went to L.A. the week after the session to audition for the Michael Jackson tour, got the gig and went on to produce hit albums for Madonna, Elton John, Bon Jovi and many others. The sensational lead guitar licks were provided by John Burns, the son of Steve’s longtime friend and frequent accompanist, bluegrass legend Jethro Burns, of Homer & Jethro. The next night, we added a chorus of 30 nicely lubricated friends who Steve invited down to help.
In early June, after the Cubs traded for Rick Sutcliffe, and started to make some real noise with Sandberg, Cey, Eckersley, etc., WGN wanted to release the track as a 45 (remember those?). They wanted to bill it as Steve Goodman and the Cubs Chorus, so I suggested that maybe we ought to add some Cubs. So one Monday off-day, in came Jody Davis (C), Gary Matthews (LF), Keith Moreland (RF), Thad Bosley (OF) and Jay Johnstone (OF) to sing along:
"Hey Chicago what do you say
The Cubs are gonna win today."
So now why are folks just loving staying in the park and singing along with this 24-year-old radio theme? The track is solid, John Burns’ fills are timeless, and Steve composed a natural anthem, which is not surprising after his thousands of gigs -- including opening 250 shows for a stand-up comic named Steve Martin. But the most timeless aspect of this record, the secret ingredient that makes it work as well today as back in ’84, is simply Steve’s magical voice. You can’t hear Steve Goodman’s voice without hearing the smile and joy inside it. The very sound of Steve’s delivery expresses what every Cub fan at the ballpark feels -- that there’s no place on Earth today we’d rather be than right here at Wrigley Field.
By July of ’84, Steve was losing his battle with the leukemia he had been diagnosed with back in 1969. He died in September, a few days before the Cubs began postseason play. Jimmy Buffett, who used to crash on Steve’s sofa before "Margaritaville," sang the national anthem at Wrigley that first game against the Padres and dedicated it to Steve.
So here we are 24 years later, and unlike any other major league game in America, when the Cubs win at Wrigley the fans stay at their seats, rise up and sing along with Steve Goodman:
"Go Cubs Go! ..."