Thinking of John Prine in my Covid-19 isolation – From my journal of April 10

April 10, 2020

Nothing like someone dying to bring focus to their work. John Prine died last Tuesday as a result of the coronavirus. The news came later on the same day that Bernie Sanders announced the end of his campaign for president. I wondered if Prine was hopeful of a Sanders presidency. I’m guessing that if his personal politics were as genuine as his songs were, he was likely a Bernie bro, at least in his heart.

As expected, everybody and their dog posted messages all over social media, facebook being the one I am familiar with. RIPs were flying around like swarms of sparrows. He was widely admired and deservedly so. A very clever songwriter with deep wit and humanity who seemed to be free of bullshit and exuded genuineness. I remember being turned on to him by Virginia Roberts back when she was Gini Rothwell. Gini was always ahead of the curve much more than I was. She got me into the New Lost City Ramblers and the Greenbriar Boys. I was skeptical of John Prine at first, thinking he was just another trend, but I gave him a listen. The first album I heard was his second, Diamonds in the Rough, the all acoustic one with Everybody Needs Somebody and the Late John Garfield Blues, maybe one of his best songs.

I had just come back to Iowa after a year living in Portland, Maine, where I had my first regular gig singing weekly at a place called Cremo’s. Those years, when I was still in my twenties, seemed long and eventful. Several months later I was visiting my sister, Pat, in a suburban community west of Chicago and she told me that her back fence neighbor was the sister of John Prine’s wife and that he was coming over to visit one afternoon. This was in my early songwriting days when I had only a few good songs under my belt and several pretty bad ones that I didn’t always recognize as messes. (Prine has had some messes, too, but he didn’t record them until after he had reached legend status, when it didn’t matter to anyone.) But my good ones gave me the sense, incorrectly as it turned out, that maybe I could make it as a songwriter, given the right breaks. At the moment I thought that meeting John Prine might lead me in that direction.

I can hardly remember a word he said when he walked into my sister’s living room. I know he didn’t say much, he was soft spoken, and I remember we both awkwardly tried to make small talk, him cracking an occasional small joke, giving me the impression of someone who was too clever to keep it under wraps. I said something about my songwriting, prompted by my sister. I had written maybe 30 songs at the time and I somehow must have mentioned this to Prine because he told me it was more than he had written. Instantly I regretted putting a count on my compositions because I knew most of them were duds, at least compared to the magnificence of his songs. Prine made some vague promise that he would pass my songs onto his road agent if I sent them to him. Later, I have the memory of me standing in his sister-in-law’s driveway next to his road manager, him leaning on the hood of a car, like a character in one of his songs. Physically, Prine was a chameleon. You could meet him for an hour and walk away not remembering what he looked like. At least that is what it seemed to me, a person who always remembers a face.

John Prine’s best work, which is often the case with artists, was on his first album. Seminal songs like Hello In There, Sam Stone and Donald and Lydia, songs so powerful you wondered how anyone could have written them. And this was a guy in his twenties. As far as I am concerned, though he made good music until the end, he never got close to having as consistently a fine collection as that first one. The further he went on with his career, the more it was hit and miss, with some very good “hits” that exploited clever lyrics, catchy tunes and inspired rhymes. There was a lot of collaborative work. I don’t know how that works and I am sure it is not fair of me, but it always disappointed me to see a co-songwriter credited to a song of his I liked. (My own prejudice. I can’t imagine writing a song with someone else. To me it would be like being in the confessional with my mother.) The only song later on that really echoed the kind of powerful message and craftsmanship of his first album was the song, Unwed Fathers, who he co-wrote with Bobby Braddock. There were, of course, some very strong and unusually good songs in other respects, songs like Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis and Mexican Home, just enviable works of art that were immersed in layers of meaning and mystery. But a lot of his songs tended toward what appeared to be the simple task (a genius in itself) of stringing inspired rhymes together in litany of cliches. Like “fish and whistle, whistle and fish/eat everything that they put in your dish” or “you’ll be waiting for a phone call at the wrong end of a broom/that town will make you crazy, crazy as a loon”. It worked like a charm but it wasn’t that serious stuff like Angel From Montgomery, that slammed you over the head with the wooden plank of working class life. It was the kind of work that tended to please those who go for the clever stuff, the surface pleasures.

But underneath even the later songs were the many levels that a poet knows how to simmer and brew. No one since Johnny Cash was able to capture the careless pursuit of happiness in the side streets of working class dreams. A lyric like, “with a pack of Camel cigarettes in the sleeve of my T-shirt/heading out to Hollywood just to have my feelings hurt” is an example of how you pack in seven pages of a novel into a few words. The only other songwriter who knows how to do that is the under-recognized rival to Prine, Michael Hurley.

Being at home all the time during the pandemic and looking for distractions, I sat down the day after John Prine died and recorded on my Iphone – didn’t really know I could do this – the first song of his that popped into my head, which was Far From Me, that unbelievably mournful song about a woman losing interest in the speaker in the song, falling out of love and him knowing it long before she tells him. That haunting and powerful chorus: “The sky is black and still now/On the hill where the angels sing/Aint’ it funny how an old broken bottle/Looks just like a diamond ring.” He was, in his essence, a songwriter for the ordinary working class person who never gets a break, the fuck-up, the failure with a little light that somehow keeps burning, the drunk stumbling on his doorstep late, the lover with a big careless heart. And it all rhymed so wonderfully.

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