Music to My Ears

John Prine – In Spite of Himself

I did a Copper piece on John Prine a year ago (Issue 80). However his passing on April 7 brought me back to the closet. John was a friend to all Americans and a music mentor to me for 45 years. I will miss him as will his legions of fans.

Our generation’s Mark Twain was born in a Chicago subdivision called Maywood just north of the Eisenhower Expressway. Mom and dad came from Muhlenberg County in Kentucky. Every summer the family would travel back to Paradise, Kentucky to visit family.

 

At this point John had been singing that song for about ten years and it still made him smile. I’ve been listening to it for 45 years and it does the same for me.

John Prine grew up in Chicago and when he was 14 his brother taught him to play guitar. Brother David turned young John onto a Ramblin’ Jack Elliot record and the journey was started. Boy howdy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. There’s another story right there.

In the beginning Prine never considered a career in music. He worked a mail route. Sure, he played at parties with friends but never believed he could make a living at it. In January 1966 he and his friends were drafted. Some went to Vietnam, some stayed stateside, and John ended up in a motor pool in Germany.

Upon returning to the USA in 1968 John experienced that beside the tragedy of 58,000 American troops killed (according to a National Archives estimate), among those who did return, many never really made it back. Prine went back to his mailman job in 1968 and started writing songs in his head while on his route. “Sam Stone,” one of his greatest and most well-known, was written in this way and he said the song came from his trying to reconcile what had happened to his buddies. He hurried home after work to pick up his guitar and make sure the song sounded as good as it did in his head. Um, it did.

One night Prine was drinking beer at a Chicago pub called The Fifth Peg, which was holding an amateur night. By his account the talent was “pretty awful” and at one point he said that aloud.  Someone at the bar turned and said, “you think you can do better?”

John got up and sang “Sam Stone.” He later related in an interview that at the end of the song the bar was dead silent and he thought, “Uh oh. That was a short career.” Then the joint erupted, of course. He went on to sing the other two songs he knew, “Hello In There” and “Paradise.” Management hired him for a weekly gig so he had to go home and write more songs for the next week.

So dig. The first three songs he wrote were “Sam Stone,” “Hello In There” and “Paradise.” Shiver me timbers.

While Prine was playing at The Fifth Peg, Steve Goodman, another young and balding songwriter, stopped in. This started a fortuitous and deep friendship that lasted until Goodman’s untimely death in 1984.

In 1971 Prine was playing at the Earl of Old Town and Steve Goodman was performing at another club in Chicago with Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson was talking to Goodman about getting Steve into the studio and good man Goodman insisted they go over to catch Prine’s set at the Earl. They showed up along with Paul Anka and Samantha Eggar. Kristofferson was so impressed he told Prine, “you keep writing songs this good we’re gonna have to break your thumbs.” Instead he hired Goodman and Prine to come to New York and open for him at the Bitter End. In the audience was Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records. The next day Wexler signed Prine and Goodman to contracts. Yeah. That’s how that happens.

There’s a great story of Prine and Goodman celebrating (drinking) in a hotel room at the Waldorf and writing “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” This is one of my favorite Goodman tunes. Steve showed the song to David Allen Coe as the “perfect country song” and Coe expressed it was missing key elements like dogs, trains, drunks, pickup trucks, prisons and mothers. Goodman added a last verse and Coe had a hit.

This live version has a slightly different last verse than the one Goodman recorded. The studio version did mention a drunken dog.

By the way. Steve Goodman was a hoot. Wrote “City of New Orleans.”

 

John Prine did play at Red Rocks in 2019. But not in July as first advertised. He had to have surgery and postponed the tour.

Prine was a life-long smoker and in 1999 had surgery to remove squamous cell cancer from his neck. In 2013 he again had to go under the knife to remove cancer in a lung. The result changed his voice and almost ended his career. He related in an interview that during rehab his doctor said he wouldn’t release him to tour until he could run up and down stairs then sing while still out of breath. John pulled it off and in 2014 was touring again.

But the health problems caught up with him. He had to postpone our July 2019 Red Rocks concert from July to September. My wife Diana and I had been huge fans ever since a band I played with in the 1970s did a lot of his music. We were really looking forward to the show. In fact this was my 65th birthday present.

Diana had to have surgery herself in August and so could not attend the concert in September.  I took my daughter Amanda who grew up around his music and we had a wonderful evening in the magical Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, CO. I cried the entire night. There was one tissue in my pocket and I abused that little guy. I guess I was overwhelmed by the combination of knowing all the songs and that likely I would never see him again. Plus Diana missed it, and I missed having her there as well.

A couple of days later I was cooking Sunday breakfast and we had John Prine streaming from the living room. I started tearing up during “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out” (when I’ve packed my bags and gone.) Yep. Pathetic.

Prine continued that tour but in New Zealand had to stop because of leg problems. By April we’d heard he’d been hospitalized with the COVID-19 asshole virus and he didn’t make it. He passed from us on April 7 at the age of 73.

Like the song says, John’s wife Fiona spread some ashes into the Green River. The rest were buried next to his parents in Chicago.

I read they sent his stomach to Milwaukee in case they ran out of beer. They put his sox in a cedar box and got them out of there. Venus de Milo got his arms, someone else got his nose.  They sold his heart to the junk man, and gave his love to Fiona.

 

Bonus. Early Prine talking about his grandpa and grandma.

 

Bonus 2. Yeah, he’s worth it. In 2001 Prine had a supporting role in a Billy Bob Thornton movie called Daddy and Them. Thornton loved Prine’s music and asked him to write a song for the movie. Here is John with the honey-tongued Iris Dement, In Spite of Ourselves. There’s a reference to Oh Boy Records. He formed the company in 1981 so he wouldn’t have to deal with the main labels. Prine said in an interview he named the label because in good times you’d say “Oh Boy!” and the same in bad, minus the exclamation point.

 

No one will miss John more than Fiona, Jack, Tommy and Jody. But coming in hard are the lucky folks who cherished his music and unique style of storytelling while we shared sky, highways, farms and rivers. God bless you John. Kiss that pretty girl on the Tilt-A-Whirl for us.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Yellowstone National Park/YPF/Matt Ludin.