Mainline to the Heart: A John Prine Homage

I’d been reflecting lately with friends that as bad as the coronavirus is, one glimmer of light is that I had not yet learned of anyone in my personal orbit coming down with the disease, and more widely still, no one in all of my own friends’ and acquaintances’ orbits had either, at least to my knowledge.

But then the news that John Prine had come down with the virus and was in ICU. And now he has died.

I knew John Prine.

Well, not personally—but actually, I did! 

That’s what happens with great artists whom one pays attention to over years. They crawl in through your skin, mainline themselves right to your heart like a powerful drug, move in like an Artist-in-Residence, bestowing their gifts in an endless stream through your life.

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John Prine’s songwriting has always combined humor and pathos, mischief and solemnity, devil-may-care and tragedy in a way that not only few other artists do, but that also reveals a whole human being, able to contain and abide the elements of light and dark that characterize the fullness of human existence. He could make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same song and even the same lyric line, sometimes the crying from sadness, sometimes from high (and low!) humor, sometimes from all of it jumbled together in a joyous, insightful, emotionally raw stew.

Here’s the first stanza from “Sam Stone,” written when Prine was under 25 years old and released his debut, eponymous album in 1971.

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.

And then the chorus, which begins with what I think may just be the single most powerful, haunting line in songwriting history:

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes… 

I don’t know how many thousands of times I have heard, sung, contemplated, appreciated and repeated that line in my life. I think it is about as perfect as one could possibly get in revealing a powerful, shattering tale, a whole world of woe, in a compact 11 words.

Dazzling, heart-rending, the envy of every poet worth a damn.

But then:

When I woke up this morning, things were lookin’ bad
Seem like total silence was the only friend I had
Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down… and won
And it was twelve o’clock before I realized
That I was havin’… no fun

But fortunately I have the key to escape reality
And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile
It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while
Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone
No I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun
Well done, hot dog bun, my sister’s a nun

The utter silliness and wordplay of that last line stands as a perfect cap to a song that celebrates the light-hearted escape offered my smoking a doobie, even as he lamented the darkness of drug addiction in the lyrics of “Sam Stone” in the same album.

Contradiction? No. This was John Prine, embracer of the world.

We had an apartment in the city,
Me and Loretta liked living there.
Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown,
A life of their own left us alone.
John and Linda live in Omaha,
And Joe is somewhere on the road.
We lost Davy in the Korean War,
And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.

So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”
 

That’s “Hello in There,” a somber homage to aging and a plea for basic human dignity, empathy and care. Again, Prine was not yet 25 when he wrote those lines.

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A bit later, in the 1973 album “Sweet Revenge,” he followed with this:

Dear Abby, Dear Abby
My feet are too long
My hair’s falling out and my rights are all wrong
My friends they all tell me that I’ve no friends at all
Won’t you write me a letter, won’t you give me a call
Signed, Bewildered

Bewildered, Bewildered
You have no complaint
You are what your are and you ain’t what you ain’t
So listen up, Buster, and listen up good
Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood
Signed, Dear Abby

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***

Many lines make one chortle and sing along in that ode to the famous advice columnist, but for me just the word, “Buster” is so pitch-perfect, so reflective of the real Abby’s measured but forthright finger-wagging to an obviously hapless ne’er-do-well, that it has kept me laughing over decades.

But then this, the first stanza of “Souvenirs,” from “Diamonds in the Rough” in 1972:

All the snow has turned to water
Christmas days have come and gone
Broken toys and faded colors
Are all that’s left to linger on
I hate graveyards and old pawn shops
For they always bring me tears
I can’t forgive the way they rob me
Of my childhood souvenirs  

One could slow-forward for hours and days with great profit through another nearly half century of music-making and the performing that Prine loved and his devoted fan base surely loved equally in return. Tempting as that is here, I leave it to you for a later time, content now to revisit him in this limited way, his loss fresh and devastating, putting an utter and full human face on this unfolding viral tragedy.

I saw John Prine three times in my life, twice in medium-sized venues with a backup band and another, earlier time sitting on a stool at the Sonoma County Fair, guitar in hand.

I preferred the latter, solo, plaintive and playful by turns, the fun-loving, dead-serious artist and human being that he was, surveying the human condition in all its absurdity and purpose and mirth, waywardness and renewal, seeking and finding and losing again, ever the stumbling pilgrim looking slightly askance at the world yet pronouncing it worthy always of attention and tender, soulful care.

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Good-bye, old friend, to you and your ancient, knowing eyes…

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Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Prine portrait top of page WFUV Public Radio  https://www.flickr.com/photos/wfuv/

18 comments to Mainline to the Heart: A John Prine Homage

  • Mary  says:

    I knew John Prine, too…..and just as important: he knew us.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, he did, Mary. Thanks for reminding us that’s the magic of it, in the end.

  • Al  says:

    John Prine was as big a hero to me as anyone. And when I first heard him at “The Bitter End” in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1970, I had the smallest inkling that’s who he’d become. That line from “Sam Stone” is up there with Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Thanks for sharing that lovely homage, Andrew!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Oh God, yes, that one, too, Al! The kind of line that always gets me thinking, If that’s the only line I ever wrote, I could die a happy man…

  • Tamara Stanley  says:

    Thank you Andrew… xoxo

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Pleasure’s mine, dear Tamara…

  • Roy Bo  says:

    Heavy hearted, he was a great counselor!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Indeed he was, Roy—and music is most always a lot cheaper than therapy!

  • loweb3  says:

    Nice tribute. Luckily, this is as close as I have been to knowing someone who has died from coronovirus, too. As a Vietnam vet, “Sam Stone” hit close to the heart.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, Loren, I would think that song would have particular relevance. I think Prine had a lot of fans among vets who saw firsthand how things were, and what they had been thrown into. Thanks for your personal reminder.

  • Moon  says:

    Hello in there, believe it or not, always makes me a little misty. When I was younger, I always felt older folks were marginalized and forgotten. Now that I have achieved my seniorhood, I know the feeling of sometime feeling invisible and taken for granted. Song has relevance then and now. Helps to listen when an older person says something as well.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Moon, you remind me partly of what makes a great song: its ability to cut across age levels, gender, economic status, etc., to something fundamental and true. Doesn’t surprise me the song made itself “heard” to you even at your young age. Great art can do that, for those with eyes to see, ears to hear. I appreciate you sharing this.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Beautifully put Drew – we DID know John Prine, a dear friend, Patrick McIntire, sent a text saying that he and his life partner always thought JP’s “In Spite of Ourselves” would be their wedding song if they ever got married! The tune & album are all duets w/his favorite female singers, 4 w/Iris DeMent – the chorus of this goofy/sweet love song is:

    “In spite of ourselves
    We’ll end up a’sittin’ on a rainbow
    Against all odds
    Honey, we’re the big door prize
    We’re gonna spite our noses
    Right off of our faces
    There won’t be nothin’ but big old hearts
    Dancin’ in our eyes.”

    If that isn’t a great description of long time lovers finding the buried treasure of absolute acceptance, no strings attached, I don’t know what is!!

    I bet most blog readers will have the melody & JP’s voice in their heads just reading that chorus!

    Mainline to the heart (and funny bone) indeed – I last saw JP post 2nd operation at the 2017 Kate Wolf Festival – a great aging Hippie Americana-Fest on the Eel River in Northern Mendocino Co every June – his voice was a bit ragged but his unique spirit was sharp as ever, it was uplifting experience. Thanks for the lovely homage Andrew.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That’s great, Kevin, had forgotten about that song but very glad to come across it now, and recognized it instantaneously. One of the things I realized this morning in putting this together is the sheer quantity of wonderful songs he wrote—kinda hard to keep up, but this is a keeper! Assume you have seen this version, which includes a spot-on anecdote about Billy Bob Thornton? Big fun! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8tTwXv4glY

      • Harriet  says:

        Andrew, thank you so much. I could have watched and listened to dozens more songs on this post. Moon’s sentiments echo mine.

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          Happy to provide a little home concert service, Harriet, glad you enjoyed!

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    I needed this tribute today – thank you so much, Andrew. I heard the news this morning and cried. This one hurts badly. And I will also say that the man who wrote “Angel from Montgomery” will live on forever, for me and for the world.
    And along with the sadness, I also hear a song of his that I taught at summer camp for years, They *loved* it! Please Don’t Bury Me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEhqzOeJnto
    If he can write a song like that – he’ll have a field day with “John Prine. Died of the plague. 2020”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yep, Jeanette, that one, too (“Please Don’t Bury Me”), have loved it forever and cite/sing it out regularly, a completely infectious tune & lyrical combo, the very essence of his playful spirit wedded to an otherwise dark topic. Talents like his do not grow on trees, unfortunately…

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