Almanac Music: Thoughts on the death of John Prine

 

John Prine in 2016. Photo: wikicommons, attributing Yellowstone National Park

 

 

 

I’m devastated. John Prine’s death has hit me hard. It’s funny how we relate to musical artists, follow their lives vicariously through their songs, concerts and in this time, our connection to them through social media. So, when a favourite passes it feels like a family member has died. Prince hit me hard. Maybe it was his age. David Bowie too. Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash (huge sigh as I type) and Slim Dusty.

 

I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that John Lennon died. That was traumatic. I was doing work experience in 1977 when Elvis died. The first major jarring I felt for an artist on their death. I was working at a garage. I walked into the garage to find the mechanic sitting inside the bonnet of a car, head in his hands, shoulders slumped, sobbing. I went into the office and the boss explained that Elvis was dead. Oh, boy.

 

John Prine’s death was hard to accept. Not since Merle Haggard died, four years ago, almost to the day of John Prine, have I been so shaken. I know why and I don’t know why. We want our musical heroes to stay with us forever. They are bigger than us in so many ways and yet familiar in a way that we reckon we could have a beer with him next time he comes through. When the door shuts on that next time it slams shut in our heart. No new album, no new YouTube clips, no more existential ideas wrapped up in ordinary stories to contemplate, no more concerts.

 

John Prine was due to tour, performing at the Palais next week. The tour was cancelled in February following a health scare in Europe in January. He promised he would reschedule for 2021 and that was good enough. We could wait. His ‘Tree of Forgiveness’ concert last year was one of those up in the stratosphere level gigs. Like, out of this world. So, we could wait, knowing he would bring us our world in a way that only he could perceive it. A world we could recognise, that we had been living in. John Prine would take that ordinary and mundane world of ours, put it into his magician’s hat and presto, we would be looking at Donald and Lydia’s big old goofy world moving at the speed of the sound of loneliness and in spite of ourselves our boundless love would move us to say, hello in there.

 

My daughter Mercedes interrupted a Zoom meeting I was in on Wednesday to whisper with sadness in her eyes that John Prine had died. I could barely comprehend the message. But I couldn’t leave the meeting. Thirty minutes later I was on Twitter trying to find out what happened. Trying to understand. That his death was a result of complications due to the coronavirus made it even harder to comprehend. Several days later and it is still more unreal than real. Maybe it’s because we are living in such uncertain, unfathomable, unreal times. Maybe it’s because he was only 73 and I’m on my 58th lap around the sun. Maybe it’s because when a loved one goes everything sucks. That’s it. Everything sucks.

 

So, for what it’s worth, and maybe this is really just for me, here a couple of thoughts as they have come to me about the passing of John Prine.

 

I can’t remember exactly when I came to John Prine. It was sometime in the 80s. A close friend, Polly Coufos was our touchstone music encyclopedia. He had over a thousand records by the time he was twenty. Loved pretty much every genre you could name (maybe not so enamoured of jazz and hair metal). I think the first record he bought was Led Zeppelin, when he was nine. We met at teacher’s college, shared houses through the 80s. We spent our twenties, with good friends like Brett and Matty Q, Paddy and Neil and many others, playing records from lunchtime until the wee hours, drinking beer and seeing who could tell the biggest lies.

 

Country music was our go to. John Prine featured but at first, only as one of the many great artists we were coming to, thanks to Polly’s record collection.

 

The song that first drew my into his orbit was Grandpa was a Carpenter (who “voted for Eisenhower ’cause Lincoln won the war”) from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1989’s ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ collaboration album. That got the wheels going. When John Prine released The Missing Years in 1991 I was sold. As with any crazy-eyed fan, new to an artist who had already released nine albums, I threw myself into his river and I swam. Nine albums, almost every one of them with five-star reviews.

 

That is John Prine’s legacy. Up until his death, with over 150 songs, he had a strike rate with the critics to match the very best. Johnny Cash has said, “”I don’t listen to music much at the farm, unless I’m going into songwriting mode and looking for inspiration. Then I’ll put on something by the writers I’ve admired and used for years – Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Guy Clark, and the late Steve Goodman are my Big Four”. And if we used Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’ as the gauge I’m pretty sure John Prine would be on one of the higher levels.

 

There’s any number of songs that each one of us will go to as our favourite in John Prine’s catalogue. I don’t have a favourite. There are just so many damned good ones. So many. But I do want to talk about ‘Angel from Montgomery’. In the early 90s I toured a one-man theatre show about Hamlet to high schools. The play was very well received and there were always plenty of questions following the show. One question came up often. What was it about Shakespeare’s writing that made him so much better than his contemporaries or any other writer in the 400 years since? Well, as an example, consider the monologue, what a piece of work is man. Write up what you think it is about. On average it would take at least two pages. Truth be told, you could complete a PhD on that monologue. Shakespeare took about twelve lines.

 

So it is with Angel from Montgomery. Specifically, the last verse:

 

There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say

 

The song itself, told in the woman’s voice chronicles a relationship that starts out full of hope and drive and sexual hunger (“If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire/This old house would have burnt down a long time ago”). By the third verse, about twelve lines later there’s flies in the kitchen. She is in a stupor, the relationship is dying on the line and a tension pervades every word. I have heard this song a hundred times and thought about it ten times more. I marvel at his perceptiveness, considering he would have been in his early 20s when he conjured it. I marvel at its raw honesty, its longing and its respect for both characters. Mostly I marvel at the last two lines. A devastatingly powerful observation. As with Shakespeare and the best of writers whatever the form of their expression, what sets them apart is how they can capture a universal idea in such an intimate, personal tale.

 

When our daughter Madeline turned 18 we threw her a party, a small gathering of family and close friends. I gave the speech. It turned on an idea that celebrated her character. I chose a John Prine song to emphasis this point. I chose ‘You Got Gold’. The chorus of this lesser known John Prine song is, for me, a sentiment that beholds a person’s innate majestical character, a statement of what they are and what they can be. And we wanted Maddy to hear that as she stepped into adulthood. As she becomes who she is, in her right. The chorus is simple but strikingly evocative.

 

Cause you got gold
Gold inside of you

 

 His words, not as poetry but as lyrics are so moving in their conversational tone, their melodic, and easy on the ear intonation. Their resonance is their power. Our daughter Maddy is a beautiful, spirited, confident young woman. She is smart and funny (she has a wit that could wither the best) and sensitive and kind. But she is also a young woman in a society more designed for how males might make their way than females. And as we all might well remember, from 18 to 28 is a terrifying time, with land mines littered across the green fields you want to dance across. We wanted to tell her that she’s going be alright, notwithstanding the blows and shocks she will have to absorb. In You Got Gold by John Prine we found the perfect way to articulate what we wanted to say to a young person on the verge of adulthood. Trust yourself, because you’ve got gold inside you.

 

In 2018 my sister Jo died. I flew to Perth to be with my brothers and sisters and to grieve this tragic moment. It was, to put it mildly, an awful time. Our daughter Mercedes flew into Perth and I picked her up from the airport. I was not in a good place emotionally and I was trying to centre myself. I explained to Mercedes how I was feeling and that also I had errands to run so we would be driving around Perth for the day.  She went with the flow.

 

There was a song I had latched onto that helped ease the burning hole of nothingness in my heart. It didn’t change things such as they were but it gave me some comfort. When we got in the car at the airport I told Mercedes that unfortunately she would have to put up with me playing a particular song over and over again as it was my lamp in this hour of darkness. She went with me on this journey and she was my second lamp. The song was ‘Summer’s End’ by John Prine.

 

I broke into tears pretty much every time the chorus came on and we might have played the song twenty times. That’s a lot of tears. But, as you know, a sad song to accompany you through a tough time is worth its weight in gold. The tears might flow but simultaneously a strength is building. I didn’t recognise it at the time such was my shock but John Prine’s ‘Summer’s End’ gave me the strength to hang in there through one of the most terrible and terrifying times of my life. And thankfully, I had Mercedes, not as a passenger but as an anchor.

 

I don’t know how to take this essay to its logical conclusion. So I won’t. I will leave the last words to Jed Hilly, Executive Director, Americana Music Association:

 

John Prine was our pied piper, our revered monk, our soothsayer. What John said, went. He had this magical way of making everyone around him feel special, whether you knew him personally or not. He could share his extraordinary being on such a personal level that fans felt like they knew him. He was their friend, their personal special find, their treasure. He was the most humble, kind, funny and real soul on the planet.

 

 

 

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About Rick Kane

Up in the mornin', out on the job Work like the devil for my pay But that lucky old sun has nothin' to do But roll around Heaven all day

Comments

  1. Frank Taylor says

    Fabulous and sober comment Rick.
    I must say, I had tears in my eyes toward the end o0f your piece.
    I have just finished listening to John Carver’s fine tribute to John Prine this morning on Melbourne’s PBS FM on his show”Six Feet High and Rising”.
    I rang a music mate immediately after and said he must listen to it – as it is available to listen to on demand.
    I recommend it to anyone, a must listen.
    Thanks again Rick.

    Frank

  2. Beautiful words about a beautiful soul. Sam Stone was on the Al Kooper (organ intro to Like a Rolling Stone) album Naked Songs.
    Sam Stone
    Came home
    To his wife and family
    There’s a hole in daddy’s arm
    Where all the money goes
    Jesus died for nothin’ I suppose
    (Poignant words that would cross my mind often coming home from the races. I bought Prine’s first album and tried not to listen to its awful beauty too often. I’m at the Hello in There age now.)

  3. Beautiful, Trucker.
    Just what I needed after also listening to PBS this morning.
    RIP John Prine.

  4. Colin Ritchie says

    Fantastic tribute Trucker! John Prine will certainly be missed. I was looking forward to seeing him perform in New Orleans at Jazzfest in couple of weeks time but as the world knows, not to be. “Tree of Forgiveness” is a cracking album and has had a belting over the past year or so. I especially love, “The Lonesome Friends of Science”, great song!

  5. Just beautiful. Xx

  6. John Butler says

    Well done, Rick.

    Clearly a piece from the heart.

  7. Rick Kane says

    Hi

    Thank you for your kind words. This was a labour of love. John Prine kicks serious arse.

    Frank, I’ll see if I can listen to this morning’s show. I’m lapping up everything about JP at the moment.

    PB, his first album and his incredible talent is all there, already formed! Did you read Jason Isbell’s comment on JP on Twitter? Brilliant.

    CR, that would have been a concert! ToF is a remarkable record and (as we have to see it) a fitting farewell.

    By the way, whoever reads this, Colin Ritchie has a piece about John Prine on this site with a link to a fabulous essay. You will not be disappointed.

    Smokie, Couf, JB, cheers!

  8. Andrew Gaylard says

    Thanks, Rick. That was beautiful.

    I came to John Prine a decade or two too late, through his patronage, if that’s the right word, of Iris Dement. Iris defines him in characteristic poetry on her website: “He cared enough to look — at me, you, all of us — until he saw what was noble and then he wrapped us up in melodies and sung us back to ourselves.”

    If you’re looking for more JP content, Brian Wise devoted about 40 minutes to John Prine on Off the Record, 3RRR, this morning, including about 20 minutes of a 2018 interview he did with him. On the 3RRR website.

  9. Frank Taylor says

    PS The PBS FM show was “Five Feet High and Rising” hosted by Miles O’Neil Shaw.
    Not as stated by myself earlier.
    My apologies…

    Frank

  10. Fabulous work RK. Really something. Don’t know that else to say.

  11. DBalassone says

    Beautiful tribute Rick. You’ve inspired me to seek out more of his work. What was it Bob said: “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”

  12. Monica Kane says

    A beautiful tribute Rick – you are a master storyteller. Even your funny, happy stories bring a tear. Thanks mate x

  13. Matt Quartermaine says

    Nice Ricky. Have to admit I wasn’t listening in the early days but I got there eventually.

  14. Kevin Densley says

    Heartfelt, lovely and evocative, Rick!

  15. Thanks Rick. The best music writing explores how the lyrics and melodies of a stranger enriches our lives. You’ve done this bravely and brilliantly.

  16. E.regnans says

    Thank you R Kane.
    I find reading your essay to be extremely moving.
    The first light of Easter Sunday is on my back and my daughters are asleep in the house behind me as I read.
    Thank you.
    Thank you.

  17. Shane Reid says

    Thanks for this essay, everything does suck in these moments of loss for sure. I plan to look John Prine up for a listen today. Thanks R. Kane.

  18. Luke Reynolds says

    Beautiful writing Rick. Can fully relate to your words on what our favourite artists mean to us.

    What a huge loss. This is as good as any tribute to Prine that I’ve read.

  19. Thank you for your comments, much appreciated.

    AG, Iris is another top shelf country singers. When they came together it was a musical match made in the proverbial!

    DB, you won’t be disappointed. In his own peculiar way he is like WZ and Tom Waits, with their ability to capture the ordinary through slightly bent viewfinders.

    MR, wow, thank you

    DW, what a lovely evocation, enjoy your day and family x

    Thanks Shane, and it may take you more than a day, maybe a lifetime!

    LR, with the depth of love you have for music, you have artists riding with you for the long haul. His life is gone but his spirit burns brightly!

    Dips, Mon, Kevin and Matty, cheers xx

  20. Grant Broadbent-Smith says

    Thanks Rick you capture and express the existential the beauty and the emotional layers that john prine stirs up in me … I came late to JP and have been madly swimming in his lyrical and melodical river ever since …

  21. Dave Nadel says

    An excellent tribute, Rick.

    I am about the same age as John and bought his first (self titled) album in 1971. It is still my favourite JP album. Almost every song on it is memorable and a lot have been covered by other artists, most memorably Bonnie Raitt’s version of Angel from Montgomery. Paradise is probably my favourite song on the album. It probably wasn’t the first environmental protest song but the irony of the last line of the third verse is devastating.

    “Then the coal Company came with the world’s largest shovel
    And they tortured the timber and they stripped all the land
    Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
    Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man”

    The album also included “Illegal Smile” one of the better dope smoking songs, “Sam Stone” about Vietnam Veterans and Heroin addiction – “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” “Hello in there” (Does anybody know a better song about old age? He was 24 when he wrote it.

    Then there was the ultimate hippy song “Spanish Pipedream” – “Blow up your TV, Throw away your papers, Move to the Country, Build you a home, Plant a little garden, Eat a lot Peaches, Try and find Jesus on your own.” There was “Your Flag Decal Won’t get You Into Heaven Anymore” (“They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war”) which caught the madness of Nixon’s America perfectly. I haven’t yet mentioned “Far From Me”, “Donald and Lydia”, and “The Six O’Clock News” all of which were also brilliantly written songs.

    I saw John Prine twice. In 1988, when I was on my long service leave trip around North America I saw him at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Nanci Griffith was the support act and she brought on Guy Clark to sing with her. What a concert! The other time was last year at the Palais where he sang a lot of songs from his first album and a lot of songs from his last album which I also love.

    Thanks again for your article Rick. Let’s hope John’s ashes are floating down the Green River and his soul is rolling up to the Rochester Dam.

  22. Stunning words Rick.

    Love the background and connections you give to particular songs.. Funny how certain music, and their lyrics, can hook you into such specific moments in time and embed themselves into your being.

    Well done.

  23. A wonderful tribute and I am like you mate I miss him dearly but know his fabulous songs will live on

  24. Laurie Duncan says

    phew – magnificent tribute. I got his first album in 1971 and every one since. Saw his several times in Australia and the US. He was the best since Hank Williams.

  25. Rick Kane says

    Cheers Grant and enjoy swimming with JP’s music down Green River to Paradise!

    Hi Dave, agree with your sentiment towards his first album. Have reflected many times on its brilliance. What an experience to see him at Carnegie Hall and with Nancy Griffith and Guy Clark! Wow!

    Oh yes, Kate, music is so embedded in our life’s journey.

    Thank you Haje.

    Excellent Laurie, I would have loved to see him play a hundred times. Yep, he has certainly kept the tradition of Hank’s insights into the human condition burning bright.

    Cheers

  26. At the back of the paper where used to be sport,
    Now pages of notices – the dead to exhort;
    Nothing much left in the paper to see,
    Than page after page – obituary;
    The internet’s crammed with retweets from Him,
    Wish Donald got Covid – instead of our Tim;
    Nothing much sadder than the death of John Prine,
    Could only be worse – if the obit was mine.

  27. Andrew Gaylard says

    For those who will keep seeking things to read or watch about the great John Prine, Elvis Costello has written a long and thoughtful piece, introduced here by Chris Willman:
    https://variety.com/2020/music/news/elvis-costello-salutes-john-prine-appreciation-1234579383/
    And a YouTube search on their respective surnames will yield an episode of Costello’s music/performance series with an interview and two songs by John.

  28. Rick Kane says

    PB, touching and irreverent!

    Wow, Andrew, than you for this! Reading the EC essay took me way past one am last night (when I should’ve hit the fart sack by midnight)! Then I watched the Spectacle episode (which I had long forgotten). Now that was a great series. I love how little Elvis is ever the fan. Great interview. For JP fans, this is a must.

    Cheers

  29. Best thing you will see this week; month; year. Great singers. Greater people.
    Only available this weekend. Turn off the footy and watch. For love. Not for money.

  30. Rick Kane says

    What PB said!

    We watched it last night. So beautiful. Bonnie Raitt’ singing Angel is sublime.

    Cheers

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