I wrote these words exactly one year ago. When we lost John Prine. You couldn’t pretend anymore that this thing wasn’t real.
I was 100% convinced that he was going to pull through. It was impossible to conceive otherwise.
It was the first of many times over the last year that I expected one result, and got another.
The world was a better place with him in it. It’s undeniably shittier with him gone.
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We were hoping he could beat this thing. The same way he beat cancer. Twice. There were hopeful signs. His wife was keeping us informed. He was holding on. Fighting. He was our barometer. It wasn’t gonna get him. And that being the case, it wasn’t gonna get us either.
It would not dare take John Prine. This cowardly thing. We’re gonna get through this. And when it’s over we’re all gonna have well deserved illegal smiles. For a long time.
And then the news came the way news travels these days. Facebook. One post. Then another. Then my entire feed lit up. He was gone.
I shook a little. Deep breaths. I went outside to get some air. It was a beautiful night. So quiet. And dark.
There was a full pink moon outside. It had the night to itself. And now this. It seemed to dim as I was looking at it. It knew as well.
I got suddenly furious. With those who still aren’t taking this seriously. With those who could have slowed this thing down and did not. With those still claiming that it’s over-hyped. Media driven. Politically motivated. Whatever. All these assholes blend into one punchable face to me. It’s a monstrous face that is killing people.
John Prine didn’t have to die. That’s what I’m saying. He did not have to die. There was nothing inevitable about this.
I exchanged a few texts with a few friends. Trying to make sense of it all. None of us could. We just didn’t feel like being alone. So we gathered in a Covid-19 sort of way. Nobody saw my tears. And I didn’t see theirs. But there were rivers. I could sense the current rising.
I didn’t know what to do. I found my guitar and sung one of my favorite Prine songs, “Souvenirs”. I got through it. Lots of folks were doing the same. It’s how we pray.
I sat up really late last night. Nursing beers. Trolling through old Prine performances on YouTube. Duets with Steve Goodman and Iris Dement and Bonnie Raitt. And recent 2019 shows where he’d end shows with “Lake Marie” ("you know what blood looks like in a black and white video? Shadows..") and tears off his guitar to jig across the stage, into the wings as ecstatic crowds raved on. I watched as the tributes rolled in relentlessly on Twitter. Fans. Famous musicians. But then again…”fans” covers them as well. Nobody who worked with Prine wasn’t in awe of him.
I saw, over and over, a lovely man who was beloved. The way it’s supposed to be.
He made the world a better place. Do you?
I finally went to bed. I don’t know what time it was.
I’d written about Prine before on these pages. I’d touched on his extraordinary empathy as a songwriter. His ability to say more in a couplet than other artists say in a career. He was the closest thing to Mark Twain that America has produced since….well….Mark Twain. And through it all, his feet never left the ground. Remarkably unaffected by the extraordinary job he was doing. And the effect it had on others. Everybody said it. And everybody is saying it now. He was always a humble, kind, decent man. A loving husband and father. And one of the greatest songwriters this nation has ever produced.
I’m trying to remember when it started for me. He was 20 years older, so I backed into him. I’m guessing it was my brother who sparked it. Patrick would pass this great stuff on to me. He used to make me mix-tapes. And he’d annotate them. That’s probably where I heard the stuff from “Bruised Orange”. Or “Grandpa Was a Carpenter”. I remember when I first started to learn the guitar I could play “The Frying Pan” and “Sour Grapes”. And then I realized that I could pretty much play them all. The songs were so simple….3 chords…..but insanely memorable. And I started thinking…..”I wonder if I could do that?”
I quickly realized I couldn’t. But that didn’t stop me from trying. Then. Or now.
“The Missing Years” came out in the early 90s and shattered me. I’ve sung “Picture Show” for years. Loved Tom Petty's harmony on the record.
And the title track. My god. They almost made me a believer. Nobody else in the world could write these lines...
So he grew his hair long and threw away his comb
And headed back to Jerusalem to find Mom, Dad and home
But when he got there the cupboard was bare
Except for an old black man with a fishing rod
He said "Whatcha gonna be when you grow up?"
Jesus said "God"
Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?
I'm a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood
They're gonna kill me Mama. They don't like me Bud.
So Jesus went to Heaven and he went there awful quick
All them people killed him and he wasn't even sick
I remember my wife really loving the “Fair and Square” record. We’d play it in the car all the time. She’d sing along. I don’t think she even noticed she was singing along.
He put out the “John Prine Live” record in 1988. Just him and his guitar in a small California club. As great as the songs are, his stories setting them up equal them. It’s as funny as any stand-up act you’ll ever hear, and it’s probably the record of his that most soaked into my DNA. I still take it on trips. I still reach for it when nothing else will do.
Right now I can’t listen to any of them. I hear them all now, in my head. And my hands are shaking. That’s as close as I can get.
But I have faith. And my faith will be rewarded.
And once again he’ll be part of my soundtrack. And once again I’ll listen and study and laugh and cry and then throw up my hands in awe. But at the same time….proud that I walked the same earth and breathed the same air as John Prine did, for 53 years.
In a bit..