Photo by Rett Rogers
Goddamn. A tough one. We mourn the gut-punching loss of singular songwriter, storyteller, poet, bard, meat-loaf-eating good ole boy and lovely human being John Prine, whose deep, wry, bittersweet songs of everyday life have helped so many get through so much. For almost two weeks - or was it two years? - Prine had been hospitalized in critical condition from COVID-19. The news of his illness sparked a vast outpouring of grief and hope from thousands of strangers who felt profoundly bound to him, people who felt like he was their beloved best friend or sweetheart or brother with the biggest heart in the world even though they'd never actually met him. They posted tributes, stories, covers of his songs in their living rooms, "pestering God 24/7" and honoring "a huge soul" whose kindness shone through as clearly as the wit and grace and genius of a songwriter who "could be the funniest and the saddest guy in the room, sometimes simultaneously." "If love could save a person, Prine would never die," wrote one. And, "This world desperately needs him around as long as possible. Side note: F* you, Coronavirus." When word of his death came Monday night, many devastated fans borrowed from Prine's "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)" to declare, "My heart's in the ice house." David Simon was bitter: "I got nothing for anyone today except for John Prine's honest words. Our leaders are shit. The disease is shit. The news is shit. Only people - most of us, anyway - are worth a damn. 'And all the news just repeats itself/Like some forgotten dream that we've both seen.'" Others mourned, but celebrated Prine's gorgeous, gleeful, not-quite-broken-hearted songs and the tender man who spun them. "RIP John Prine. Thanks for being so much more than we could ever deserve."
At the humble start a singing mailman whose carpenter grandfather had moved the family from coal-country Kentucky to melting-pot Chicago, Prine retained a plain-spoken Midwestern sensibility. His songs, he once said, let him "live deep down inside my head" and offered the minimalist joy of what a friend called "saying the thing without ever saying the thing." Chicago was a touchstone for many songs that told the front-stoop stories of his life there: He really did scrub parking lots (Fish and Whistle), get dumped by a girlfriend outside the cafe where she worked (Far From Me), muse about the lives of those he delivered newspapers to at a Baptist old people's home (Hello In There), and see a kid who'd been hit by a train when he went to shovel snow at a church (Bruised Orange/Chain of Sorrow). He stayed true to his roots: He wrote the searing He Was In Heaven Before He Died for his hometown bestie Steve Goodman, and decades after Goodman died he was still dedicating Souvenirs to him. Other songs had more abstruse origins: He could never really explain how, as a 20-something kid he came up on the spot with the aching Angel from Montgomery about a lonely, aging housewife - "There's flies in the kitchen I can hear 'em there buzzing" - trapped in a loveless marriage: "Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery/Make me a poster of an old rodeo/Just give me one thing that I can hold on to/To believe in this living is just a hard way to go." And it was only after Prine wrote the small, weird Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone - a tale of Sabu the Elephant Boy touring the Midwest dazed and confused - that he realized it was also about him being lonely on the road. Prine loved telling the stories of his songs, often with a sly kicker: "When I wrote this I stayed in my room for three days. I was afraid someone was going to ask me what the song was about."
Prine happily ranged from myth-busting country - "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" - to blasphemous - Jesus during the missing 18 years - to scrappily radical, with the pained guy and his unfaithful sweetheart at the drive-in as metaphor for the Vietnam War: "I used to sleep at the foot of old glory/And awake in the dawn’s early light/But much to my surprise when I opened my eyes/I was a victim of the great compromise.” He once said his favorite song, and one of ours, was the exquisitely melancholy Far From Me: "And the sky is black and still now/On the hill where the angels sing/Ain't it funny how an old broken bottle/Looks just like a diamond ring/But it's far, far from me." Always, the words dazzle: The "spaces between Donald and whatever he said," the Happy Enchilada (sic) guy stuck in the bathtub, "naked as the eyes of a clown," the sausages in the dark Lake Marie - "And man, they was sizzzzlin'" - how "If heartaches were commercials/We'd all be on TV," how "Broken hearts and dirty windows/Make life difficult to see/That's why last night and this morning/Always look the same to me." His fierce admirers liked to say he was a songwriters' songwriter; there are odd or raunchy or goofy John Prine songs, but there are really no bad John Prine songs. "If God's got a favorite songwriter," Kris Kristofferson, who gave him his first big break, once said, "I think it's John Prine." Robert Plant called him “a beacon of clear white light cutting through the dark days." Ron Sexsmith described “a humanist (who) could make you laugh one moment and rip your heart open in the next.” Others praised "the voice in the wilderness who gets a direct download from god three centuries before the religion is founded...A wizard making jokes only his friends will laugh at after pondering for 700 years."
Prine later moved to Nashville, and his raspy voice grew raspier with battles against neck and lung cancer, but the songs kept coming, and the joy he offered kept spreading. Near the end, he got some well-deserved glory, with a cascade of awards, a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and unprecedented success with his final album "The Tree of Forgiveness," his first in 13 years. It includes the mournful Summer's End about the opioid epidemic - though you have to listen hard to know it - and the jaunty When I Get To Heaven. "I'm gonna smoke a cigarette/That's nine miles long," the longtime smoker exults. "Yeah, this old man is goin' to town." As word of his death exploded online, his thousands of fans who had long thought they were somewhat alone in their devotion suddenly found much grievous company. "He was so good," wrote one. "I hope he knew how much joy he gave." Prine's wife Fiona, who had been sending online updates and helps run his independent Label Oh Boy Records with their son Jody, thanked fans for their love; she asked, in lieu of flowers, for donations to three of John's favorite non-profits helping the hungry, the homeless, and women survivors - thistlefarms.org, roomintheinn.org, nashvillerescuemission.org. The night he died, I dreamed he was back, filled with boundless joy. We hugged, laughed, exclaimed how cool it was he'd come back; when I realized he had to leave again, I felt an infinitely tangled mix of grief and gladness for all he'd left us. The dream felt extraordinarily rich and real. He was here. He still is. Thanks for all the gifts, John.
Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature's got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now