Thanks John. For always being there.
When I was looking for old notes I had posted on John Prine while sharing music or lyrics, and wondering what to call this post I came across this from June 2018, and it just fit too well not to use it:
“It was well after the storms came through last night that I went to sleep, and Freya was making sure I wasn’t getting up early. So one of the times I went back to sleep this morning I had the strangest dream of playing acoustic guitar with John Prine based on a photograph of my grandfather playing guitar (which didn’t happen/doesn’t exist). The strangest part, was it started exactly like this song always does (“I’ve got glue on my string”) and then played out. After I got up I checked the music for the song and I had the chords right in the dream. I’ve never played this song, in fact it has been months since I tuned my electric, and I haven’t played my acoustic in years). But, I guess that’s the way that the World Goes Round.”
Then I found this video of Stephen Colbert and John singing it together in 2016.
When I was a kid, my uncle lived with us for a bit. He was the first one who introduced me to Dire Straits, Arlo Guthrie, and John Prine. I wasn’t even in school yet, but the storytellers were there. My father had a diverse record collection too, Gary Wright, Joe Cocker, and Dr. Hook to Donna Fargo and Kris Kristofferson. The latter of which was Jesus Was a Capricorn. The title track of which included the parenthetical (owed to John Prine) which I always thought was funny, and was always curious why Kris owed John something. John was always around and I thought he was around or a lot of other people too, but he wasn’t. At least not in the way he was for me.
When I got into college I started finding people who knew who John Prine was, and some had even seen John in Concert. Most of my college friends were older than me. It was like secret code, or hidden knowledge shared among a guild of cultured scholars who relish language and words and cultural commentary.
When they announced John had went into the hospital with complications resulting from Covid-19 I think most of us knew he wouldn’t make it. He had beaten the odds before but the deck was stacked solidly against him here. When I heard he had passed away on April 7, I didn’t even have to add his stuff to my playlist. It’s always been there, too. But, I did start seeing other people post on social media about what John Prine had meant to them, and it started me back to thinking about where I was, where I am, and maybe even where I might be, some of that is at least in part, because of an interview I heard on state radio in Louisiana in August 2018.
I heard this interview live on August 13, 2008 on the way from Baton Rouge, LA back to Beaumont, TX. I had no idea what the program was and it kept going in and out while I was driving. It was long time before I found it online but I have saved it ever since. The parts of the interview that came through had a profound effect on the trajectory of my life. I had just moved to Baton Rouge and started at LSU, and had started what would become my last serious relationship. I had went to LSU so I could do archaeology fieldwork because that was what I was going to do only to find out that I had to sign up with an outside group to do it which I could have done at Lamar for much less dinero. Nothing about that move felt right after that.
Prine’s songs, his anecdotes, storytelling, and his true to himself persona reminded me a lot about where I came from and where I thought I was going. When they talked about hitting number one John said that was the worst thing that could have happened, that it would have “frozen me in time.” They talk about getting to the top of that mountain, falling off, and then having to be put back up their through artificial means. John said he was “going around the mountain in a circle.” Then they played “That’s the Way that the World Goes Round.” The trip is about three hours, and after the show was over I had a pretty good ride in silence after I turned the radio off. I don’t know what I was thinking, or if I was thinking anything, but it was a major turning point. It’s that point that created another universe where things were different.
Later that week I left LSU and went back to Lamar. Ended up doing archaeology field work with UT and Tech in Belize, and began a hugely rewarded stint in vertebrate paleontology with an amazing mentor professor who taught me as much about myself as he did about Eocene mammals. I never had a plan to get to Oklahoma, or a PhD in the History of Science, or be the exhibits department in the library of an R1 research university, and I don’t know how things would have played out if I hadn’t heard this when I did, but I do know what I got out of this staticky two hour long interview with songs my uncle introduced me to when I was probably 4 was John telling me “Son, you’re doing things this way because you think that is they way they have to be done, because they are telling you to do them that way. You know there is always another way. Just because your way ain’t their way, doesn’t mean it’s the wrong way. Don’t lose yourself.”
Rolling Stone had a great tribute to John, and a part of it resonated again with my own experiences with his music. The article talks about John not being pop so it never got old and how his music was like a secret family thing. It really was/is and then you get out into the world and find other people with that same secret and you know there is something about them you can trust, something about them that’s real. If they “get” John Prine, they’ve got a good chance of “getting” you. It’s like they say when you see someone reading a book you like that is a book recommending a person. John’s music will has yet to recommend a bad person. We’ve all said our pieces, I have a longer one ot writeup as a blog post soon, but go to John’s Facebook (John Prine) page and just read through the comments from this post after Fiona posted it. It’s a long read, but read this before you go to bed. It’s worth it, if for nothing else than to walk down those well-worn memories of the first time you heard him, and appreciate that John finally got to play Paris.
Fiona mentioned that he was working on an autobiography, or a memoir. I really hope someone can get that finished. We got the Beyond Words Official songbook in 2017, but it’s really only a teaser of the stories John had tell. Rolling Stone recently noted that the All the Best Fest will be rescheduled and restructured as a tribute to John. Tributes poured in from fans and musicians alike. Elvis Costello said, “These were songs no one else was writing.” Bruce Springsteen called John’s music “pure Proustian existentialism.” Other tributes came from the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Ashley McBryde, Jim James, Tom Snyder, Margo Price, and Jeremy Ivey. Way more people were in on this family secret of music than it ever seemed, and that I think is a testament to the power of John Prine’s music. The New York Times, who called John a chronicler “of the human condition” posted a good obituary for John as part of their series about people who died in the Coronavirus Pandemic, but I think that even without that being the case he would have warranted one.
When I went back to my social media to aggregate all my old John Prine posts into one, I saw that I posted about him, or some music from him more than a few time a year. Something always reminded me of one of his songs, or pictures of my young son listening to Living in the Future with me in the car and bobbin g along with the music. While working through a series of posts on instagram (#50Suitsin50Days) I never made a post without thinking “Grandpa wore his suit to dinner nearly everyday, no particular reason, he just dressed that way.” Writing for the New Yorker Amanda Petrusich described John’s song as “perfect,” and wrote she “was grasping about for consolation, and I found it [in the song When I get to Heaven]. Even from beyond, Prine knew how to take care of us.”
John’s music never seemed to need a music video. He could play a picture of things you didn’t know you’ve already seen. A visual storyteller with some real surreal turns that appeared in your mind before you have a chance to push them away. There are two from his last album that stood out. I’ll link them below, but I’ll warn you, you won’t get through Summer’s End without your eyes sweating. The song itself is powerful, but the video will punch you right in the gut. It was bad enough watching it when it was released, but seeing it again after John died was just another level of emotion I don’t think I was prepared for.
John Prine had a way with words and music and mashing them together to make something greater than the sum of their parts. I have no doubt that some of the way I think and write was greatly influenced by listening to him. I’ll end this with another from his final album Tree of Forgiveness and like everyone who knew him, hopes he’s gotten to do it all.
Losing John Prine has an outsized impact on me, more than losing an artist, singer, and songwriter. It’s that too, but so much more. He was a constant Virgil showing you the things that are just below the surface and giving you the tools to expose them in ways that allow you to rock the boat without drawing the attention of the ferryman. (I should probably put a version of this in my dissertation acknowledgements). As a postscript, I’ll add that with the scores of phrases that permeate our wealth of John Prine productions, the one that I think of the most often comes from Jesus: The Missing Years:
“Jesus was a good guy, he didn’t need this shit.”