THE LONG-DELAYED, INEVITABLE JOHN PRINE ENTRY
My closest friends have tended toward the extreme. This isn’t to say they were particularly in-your-face or stuntmen or anything like that. They just tend to know what they like and aren’t shy about proclaiming their fondness for whatever to whoever might be available to listen. What they like, they LIKE, and what they don’t, they DON’T. My friend Matt was just as powerless to effectively explain his undying love for Dave Matthews as I was to get him to stop playing it all the time. It was what he wanted to hear. For the most part, at the time, it was ALL he wanted to hear. When it came to likes and dislikes, there wasn’t a lot of gray area for Matt. That guy could listen to “Lie in Our Graves” or “The Christmas Song” over, and over, and over, and over again, and it was clear that each time he heard the songs, it was alternately as though he was hearing them for the first time and discovering all new, previously unnoticed secrets with each consecutive listen. Whereas for me, it was like gouging at a chigger-infested, pus-plumped blister with a pair of rusty pliers for hours at a time on a daily basis. Truly different strokes for different folks.
I have nothing serious against Dave Matthews. I think he’s a talented guitarist and a solid songwriter, and it is no problem for me to comprehend why others might enjoy him. I just couldn’t fathom what would drive a person to listen to his music every single, solitary day, without fail, at length. I didn’t, couldn’t, get it. And while I wanted to blithely snap every one of his Dave Matthews CDs over my knee with a jolly grin and a jubilant cry of “tally ho!”, at the same time I envied Matt his clearly genuine obsession. He wasn’t electronically carving inch-deep grooves in his “Under the Table and Dreaming” CD to torment his roommates (though at the time I might not have been so quick to say such things). He was smitten, and he needed to hear those songs like he needed to eat, or go to the bathroom, or say stupid shit to pretty girls. I didn’t understand.
Same thing with my friends back in high school. My friend Ken was more gung-ho about his likes and dislikes than anyone I’ve ever known. I can’t recall ever hearing him say anything was just okay. Either he bought it and loved it unconditionally or left it at the store, in pieces on the floor once he was done stomping on it. He loved Hulk Hogan, Jim Rice, Run DMC, and Danzig, and he talked about them all the time, with terrific enthusiasm. My friend Ted had great affection for Hootie and the Blowfish, and remained undaunted by our refusal to recognize their penchant for hooks and the stirring baritone of lead singer Hootie McGee. My friend JR’s love for The Beatles was widely recognized by people who didn’t know him from a hole in the ground, and my friend Harold would happily fill you in on the merits of such college faves as Laurie Anderson and Adrian Belew, neither of whom had many fans in the greater Howland area, as you may rightly surmise.
Me, I had a lot of songs that I liked, but no one I ever raved about, or wallpapered my room with, or even gave much thought to in my spare time. And even if I had, I would have been reluctant to share my appreciation with anyone. Historically, whenever I admitted to liking a song, and it met with any disagreement whatsoever, I immediately stopped liking it, whether I wanted to or not. I simply couldn’t handle even the mildest dissent. If you didn’t want to hear it, I didn’t want to hear it either. And it wasn’t as though I made a conscious decision to stop liking a song or band upon learning that a friend, or even an acquaintance or complete stranger, hated it or them. I genuinely stopped wanting to hear it. It just made me think of an unhappy person, and why would I want to think of that?
Well, it’s a ridiculous, pathetic, and mentally destructive way to go through life, and if I could travel back in time I’d approach my young self and beat the crap of him/me to teach him/me a lesson. Where I haven’t gotten any better at personal confrontation, let alone hand-to-hand combat, in the decade or so that has spanned since those days, it would no doubt make for a miserable and ungainly and hilarious altercation, but hopefully it would eventually result in my 1997 self being able to proudly proclaim “Hey everyone! I like “How’s It Gonna Be” by Third Eye Blind and I don’t care who knows it!”. Not one of the nobler battle causes, but a personally important one all the same.
Anyway, that’s all behind me now, because I finally found a musician that I like so well, no amount of naysaying or disagreement or switchblade assaults could sway me from my enjoyment. His name is John Prine, and he couldn’t have come along at a better time. Had I heard him back in my formative years, I would have dismissed him as hokey country old-person music, which incidentally is not an entirely inaccurate assessment. It just happens, apparently, to be what I like.
What makes us like what we like? That’s a question that fascinates me above most. There are answers for that to be found in upbringing and environment, obviously, but I can’t help but wonder (and for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, to hope) that, to some extent, taste is ingrained from birth, via some tiny organelle or gland that hasn’t been discovered yet. I’d like to think I was both genetically configured and supernaturally preordained to like John Prine, and Matt to like Dave Matthews, and Annie to like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and on down the line. This type of explanation makes the most sense to me. Because you can’t decide to enjoy something. God knows I tried with Dave Matthews, in a last-ditch effort to preserve what remained of my sanity, but it never took. As it happens, I’ve succeeded in getting Matt into John Prine as well, yet I still have no burning desire to download “So Much to Say” (although I could probably sing it for you in its entirety). Which ultimately makes me feel kind of bad, like I should enjoy Dave Matthews in exchange for Matt validating my opinion about John Prine. But alas, it didn’t work that way, as I was not genetically configured nor supernaturally preordained to enjoy Dave Matthews. There isn’t a thing I can do. Maybe I should see a doctor about it, or an occult specialist. My new job has pretty good benefits. I should take advantage of them.
I listen to John Prine almost every day, and I force him on friends and loved ones whenever possible. This is a new thing for me, and I hate the things that come out of my mouth when I’m peddling his genius to people that clearly and understandably couldn’t possibly care less. But I can’t help it. I like him so much that I can’t comprehend the notion that others might not. It’s as if I alone have been introduced to chocolate chip cookies, and the only way anyone else on Earth can try them is if I mercilessly expound upon their virtues until they agree to give them a whirl.
Kind of a silly-looking man, no? He always has a smile and a funny hairdo for all to enjoy. His vocal stylings aren’t going to astound anyone with their tone or clarity. In fact, the man recovered from neck cancer, which ravaged an already shaky instrument. I read somewhere that before he had his operation, his doctor mentioned that the operation might ruin his singing voice, and John’s response was something to the effect of “Obviously, doc, you’ve never heard any of my albums”.
He can’t really play the guitar all that great, either. Not saying he’s a slouch, he just strums a few basic chords and picks a little. Nothing flashy. But the man can write a song. I’m a sucker for a catchy tune with a sad tale to tell, and he does that sort of thing better than anyone I’ve ever heard. He’s not afraid to be lyrically obtuse now and then, but his best stuff tells a story in plain English that occasionally sucker punches you with a brilliant (and generally heartbreaking) turn of phrase. And his voice and playing style work well with the material, complimenting the rough-around-the-edges characters that tend to narrate his songs.
It took me awhile to glom onto him. The first tune I ever heard by him was “Illegal Smile”, a sort of novelty little number I drunkenly downloaded at random one night that most people assume is about getting baked. It eventually grew on me, but it’s more of a fun singalong than a life-changing experience. Deciding to give him another chance, I downloaded something called “Christmas in Prison”, then promptly forgot to listen to it for two or three months. Then one fateful night or morning or whatever the day was doing, iTunes presented it to me on shuffle, while I was mostly likely playing Luxor or somesuch “match three like-colored balls” game. I heard a lyric. I paused the game, heard the rest of the song out, and played it again.
I waited for what I thought I heard, the best lyric about a girl in the history of American music. It came around again, and it was there, exactly as I’d heard it.
“Christmas in Prison” is a sad, spare waltz related from the perspective of a prisoner forced to spend the holidays apart from his girl due to the fact that, well, he’s in prison. It isn’t all bad: they got to have turkey for dinner (and there’s something innately funny and sad about the mentioning of the turkey; turkey doesn’t get brought up in songs too often, especially not tender love songs) and there are inexpensive presents and music.
Ah, the hell with it. These are the lyrics:
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.
Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
She reminds me of a chess game
With someone I admire
Or a picnic in the rain
After a prairie fire
Her heart is as big
As this whole goddamn jail
And shes sweeter than saccharine
At a drug store sale.
The search light in the big yard
Swings round with the gun
And spotlights the snowflakes
Like the dust in the sun
Its christmas in prison
Therell be music tonight
Ill probably get homesick
I love you. goodnight.
My guess and my hope is that the same lyric that struck me struck you. At the end of the day, what guy doesn’t want a girl who reminds him of a chess game with someone he admires? Lyrics come and go, and most of them only mean anything to the person who wrote them, if even that, but that first time you hear a favorite…man, there really isn’t anything like it. You’re only solution is to track down everything else that guy or gal ever recorded. Which can occasionally lead to disappointment, a sad realization that you’ve already bumbled upon that musician’s finest moment. Needless to say, in this case a happier outcome awaited me.
John Prine on unrequited love, from “One Red Rose”: What I never knew I never will forget.
That lyric makes me want to kick him right in the balls. He has ruined the very concept of unrequited love for any writer of any medium who may have cared to expound upon it. Everything that need be said on the subject is right there in that eight word lyric. I hate it when people are good at things.
John Prine on aging, from “Hello in There”: Old trees just grow stronger/And old rivers grow wilder every day/Old people just grow lonesome.
John Prine on Jesus, from “Jesus the Missing Years”, in which Prine imagines what Jesus did with his time during his less-documented adolescence:
Wine was flowing so were beers
So Jesus found his missing years
He went to a dance and said this dont move me
He hiked up his pants and he went to a movie
On his thirteenth birthday he saw “Rebel Without a Cause”
He went straight on home and invented Santa Claus
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.”
In every John Prine song there’s always a lyric I especially look forward to, but that hardly means it’s a chore to sit through everything surrounding it. I listen to John Prine every day, and on a lazy hot Saturday evening you can occasionally find me engaging in a beery singalong with myself, an enormous and outdated monitor, a blaring pair of headphones, and a guitar with a missing high-E string. I’m not gonna say everything he touches turns to gold. On occasion he’ll try to get a little too self-consciously cute, or he’ll try to craft a song out of nonsense lyrics that don’t add up to much. Believe me, I notice when he’s not at his best. But even his weakest work is rarely dull, and coming across a song by him that isn’t perfect is almost a relief, a reassuring reminder that he isn’t an otherworldly song machine from the planet Wondermagic.
All right, I’m staring to annoy myself with all the blather, so I’ll cut it short here, with the exceptions of posting the lyrics to arguably my favorite Prine song, “Sam Stone”, which devastatingly accounts for the listless life of a beaten-down war veteran, and an obligatory video of him singing it. Seeing him perform this song live at the Troy Saving Bank Music Hall is far and away my favorite concert memory. It was during the portion of the show where he played a solo set, sans backup musicians. Without bothering with introductions, he just launched into it, him and a guitar, and 2/3 of the way through his backup guitarist and bassist wandered onstage and joined him, almost as an afterthought, as though they didn’t want to be left out of this one. No doubt it was all part of the act, but it worked, and it pretty well wrecked Annie and I. It’s as pretty as it is sad, horribly sad, and no songs come to mind that draw me in so fully, like a terrible but important memory.
Sam Stone came home,
To his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas.
And the time that he served,
Had shattered all his nerves,
And left a little shrapnel in his knee.
But the morphine eased the pain,
And the grass grew round his brain,
And gave him all the confidence he lacked,
With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.
There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,
Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don’t stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.
Sam Stone’s welcome home
Didn’t last too long.
He went to work when he’d spent his last dime
And Sammy took to stealing
When he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime.
And the gold rolled 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…
Sam Stone was alone
When he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well, he played his last request
While the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air
But life had lost its fun
And there was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the G, I. Bill
For a flag draped casket on a local heroes’ hill
And here’s the man himself singing it live, in all his cragginess. If you like this, I strongly urge you to track down the studio version. Hell, I strongly urge you to track down everything the guy ever did. If you do, I swear I’ll shut up about him. Seriously, not another word. On my honor. John Prine? Why, I’ve never heard of the man. Is that a gentleman with whom you have become acquainted in the midst of your day-to-day travails? Because his name certainly conjures not even the faintest glimmer in my mind. What was him name again? Ron Fine? Lon Dine? Flon Gline? No idea, I’m afraid. Sorry.