Tuesday, April 07, 2020

JOHN PRINE, 1946-2020.


Like a lot of people my age, I got an earful of early John Prine early on, then didn't think about him much for years. When I finally swung my attention back I was shocked, dumbbell that I was, at how much great music had passed me by. Pretty much everyone knows "Hello In There," "Sam Stone," and "Illegal Smile" from that amazing first album, and they're wonderful, but that was Prine just starting to take his surreal, sublime gifts for a walk; over the years he got way out there but without ever (not once!) getting precious or pretentious. Head in the clouds, feet on the ground, as another songwriter put it. I don't believe there is any such a thing as a bad John Prine song.

Here's an example from "Christmas in Prison," a waltz that's as sad as its title but not maudlin because even sad people have poetry and humor, maybe more than happy people:

It was Christmas in prison
And the food was real good
We had turkey and pistols
Carved out of wood
And I dream of her always
Even when I don't dream
Her name's on my tongue
And her blood's in my stream...

The search light in the big yard
Swings round with the gun
And spotlights the snowflakes
Like the dust in the sun
It's Christmas in prison
There'll be music tonight
I'll probably get homesick
I love you

Prine's music not only sounds good, it is good, if you know what I mean; that is, beyond the immediate pleasure of his voice -- a plaintive voice that's so Chicago it sounds like Oklahoma, and that flips quickly (sometimes it takes a moment to catch on) from earnest to sly -- and even beyond the pleasure of his lovely tunes and lyric invention, his songs survive long attention; some of them I've been listening to every week for years and I'm in no way sick of them. They're whimsical, but they're damn sturdy.

I'm crazy about his ragged third album Sweet Revenge, which in addition to the classic "Dear Abby" has the purely joyous breakdowns "Onomatopoeia" ("Bang went the pistol, crash went the window, ouch went the son of a gun") and "Automobile," which is like a Jimmie Rodgers Ramones song:

I held a little bitty baby
I held a woman all night
Whenever I get the hiccups
I hold my breath 'til my head gets light
Then I drive my automobile, drive my automobile...

Later on in "Living in the Future" he wrote one of my all-time favorite choruses; it always feels fresh, like a statement on These Times no matter what times you're living in:

We are living in the future
I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago
We're all riding rocket ships
And talking with our minds
We're wearing turquoise jewelry
And standing in soup lines

We could do this all day. I won't make recommendations as such because anywhere you look in you'll see something great. And he was still writing and playing and singing, and had beat death a few times already in the cancer wards when this fucking thing finally finally got him. I guess he had some idea that the next stage was in the wings (to put it Prinely), and he gave this lovely valedictory you see at the top of this post, at the end of his last album. We could feel cheated, but really we were blessed.

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