Photo by Oh Boy Records
Taking a break to wish the incomparable John Prine - "songwriters' songwriter," master of tender tales of grace, grief, wit, war, love, junkies, Pluto, murder, Jesus, sausages, old age, broken hearts, Abu the Elephant Boy, the speed of the sound of loneliness and the sweet imperfection of all things - a Happy Birthday. At 73, he's beat cancer twice; for his trouble, he's gotten a croak of a voice, a new album, a pile of awards and a devoted following who swears nobody writes like him, and it's true. He grew up outside Chicago; he likes to boast he was "such a good kid childless couples used to ask to borrow me." He learned three chords from his brother, served in the Army - Germany not Vietnam - and started singing in small local places while still working as a mailman. "He starts slow," wrote Roger Ebert in a 1970 review of his first show titled “Singing Mailman Who Delivers A Powerful Message In A Few Words.” "But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.” At that point - a 23-year-old, with heart - he only had three songs; one was "Hello In There," his poignant look behind the eyes of old people. Bob Dylan, who's favorite Prine song is the three-pronged "Lake Marie," calls Prine's music "pure Proustian existentialism... Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.” Prine's more spare: "There's only two things. There’s life, and there’s death."
Today, the battered-looking Prine lives in Nashville with his third wife Fiona; she and their son Jody help run their independent record label Oh Boy from home. The rest of Prine's scene is likewise down-home: A friend to meatloaf, fried chicken and old Cadillacs, Prine drives to his gigs, which are booked by his longtime road manager and feature not pricey catering but six-packs and "$12 deli trays." Since surviving neck cancer almost 20 years ago - he's also had lung cancer, and most recently heart surgery - his voice is a sand-papery croak. But it hasn't stopped him from winning a host of new honors: Last year, he was inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame; earlier this year he won PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award; and at September's Americana Honors & Awards he won album and song of the year - the first, for "Tree of Forgiveness," his first album of new material in 13 years, and the second for "Summer's End," a mournful song about the opiate crisis. Both were also nominated for Grammies; in wry good-ole-boy style, on stage at the Americana awards to give his acceptance speeches, he pulled out a scrap of paper and cracked "I still got 'em" from the Grammies. Offering a nod to mortality born of his illnesses, the album includes a light-hearted "When I Get to Heaven" in which he fantasizes about smoking a nine-mile-long cigarette. The closest he gets to current politics is the dark, allusive "Caravan of Fools." It's in a minor key, because, “Nothing good ever happens in a minor chord.”
Back during the Vietnam War, though, Prine's most well-known songs were often powerfully, if elliptically, political. "Flag Decal" was rowdy, but bitter: "Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore/ They're already overcrowded from your dirty little war." "The Great Compromise" told of an idealistic young man - "I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory/ And awake in the dawn's early light" - who takes a fickle date to the drive-in; as soon as he goes for popcorn, she "hopped into a foreign sports car." He refuses to confront the new guy: "Now some folks they call me a coward/ 'Cause I left her at the drive-in that night/ But I'd druther have names thrown at me/ Than to fight for a thing that ain't right." Most famously, still searingly, and now painfully timely is "Sam Stone," the Vietnam veteran who returns home "with a monkey on his back." Prine tells his story liltingly, brutally: "Sam Stone's welcome home/ Didn't last too long/ He went to work when he'd spent his last dime/ And soon he tool to stealing/ When he got that empty feeling/ For a hundred dollar habit without overtime./ And the gold roared through his veins/ Like a thousand railroad trains,/ And eased his mind in the hours that he chose,/ While the kids ran around wearin' other peoples clothes." The plaintive chorus lingers, still: "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes,/ Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose."
Mostly, though, Prine writes simple, heartfelt, achingly true songs about everyday, often lonely people, trying to get through imperfect lives the best they can. His lyrics shine like small, sad, perfect shards of light: The guy in "That's the Way That the World Goes Round" stuck in the bathtub, "naked as the eyes of a clown." The homesick inmate enduring Christmas In Prison: "We had turkey and pistols/carved out of wood, and I dream of her always/even when I don't dream." The sad-sack couple in "Donald and Lydia": "There were spaces between Donald and whatever he said," while to Lydia, "It felt just like Sunday on Saturday afternoon." The sad guy in "Far From Me" who waits in the parking lot as his sweetheart turns off the cafe lights and "wished for once I weren't right": "Why we used to laugh together/ And we'd dance to any old song./ Well, ya know, she still laughs with me/ But she waits just a second too long." The lover in "Souvenirs" mourning his memories slipping away: "Broken hearts and dirty windows/ Make life difficult to see/ That's why last night and this mornin'/ Always look the same to me." The old woman in "Angel From Montgomery," flies buzzing in the kitchen: "Just give me one thing that I can hold on to/ To believe in this living is just a hard way to go." Thanks for it all, John. Have a good one.
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Summer's End, with backing vocals by Brandi Carlile and proceeds to Music Cares, offering help to those with addiction or other critical needs in the music community. "Summer's end came faster than we wanted."
Young John. Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage