Thursday April 09, 2020
John Prine (1946-2020)
This was pre-Covid times. I was taking a walk in Seattle over to Volunteer Park—named for the men who volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War—and I think I was just leaving the park when, on my iPod shuffle, John Prine's live version of “That's the Way the World Goes Round” came on, and I felt such joy. It's more than the song; it's the story he tells about the girl who mishears the words.
The words go:
That's the way that the world goes ‘round
You’re up one day, the next you‘re down
It’s a half an inch of water, you think you‘re gonna drown
That’s the way that the world goes ‘round
And instead of “half an inch of water” she hears “happy enchilada.” Right. “It’s a happy enchilada and you think you‘re gonna drown.” So that’s what she aks him to play: “That song of yours about the happy enchilada.”
He tells that story halfway through the song and then finishes it up by singing her words in the chorus. When he does, there's a woman in the audience who lets out a scream of pure happiness and humor and joy. And I felt that pure happiness and humor and joy walking back home from Discovery Park. And here's the thing: I always felt that joy when I listened to the song. The whole thing is so perfect. The screw-up fits the theme of the song. You write a humorous song about the minor mishaps of life and someone comes along and totally mishears the words and renders the whole thing meaningless. How can you not laugh? How can you not embrace it? It's the way the world goes ‘round.
So I was happy that day thinking about how much I loved this song and John Prine. And I was sadder than I expected two nights ago when John Prine died from complications from the Covid-19 virus. I expected it when I heard he contracted it. He was not in good health. But there was still a sudden deep empty sadness.
I didn’t know Roger Ebert helped discover him. It was 1970, Ebert went to review a movie, but he left because his popcorn was too salty (really, Roger?) and went to a local bar for a beer. The bartender told him to check out the guy playing in the back room. He not only checked him out, he wrote about him for the Chicago Sun-Times:
“[Prine] appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn't show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
Among the songs Ebert heard? “Sam Stone” and “Angel from Montgomery.”
Here's Prine on NPR in 2018:
“I never had an empty seat after that. I was still making my living as a mailman. And [after that review] I was singing three nights a week and two shows a night. And there was a line outside. And things just got better from then on.”
Kris Kristoferson helped, too, and took him to New York and had him open for him. Bonnie Raitt helped, too. She plucked “Angel from Montgomery” and sang it in 1974. The people who knew, knew. I was late to the party. I think I first started listening to him in the ‘90s? Bob Dylan writes the best story-songs I’ve ever heard but I doubt anyone ever told better stories before singing their songs than John Prine: Sabu. Oldest baby in the world. Sam Stone.
Before the live version of “Sam Stone,” about a Vietnam Vet who becomes an addict when he returns home from the war, Prine talks about how he and his friend had a day to kill in D.C., and this is what they saw:
- Lincoln Memorial
- Hot dog stand
- Kennedy's grave
- Vietnam Memorial
I love the addition of the hot dog stand. It's so true for D.C. You check out this, check out that, then suddenly it's 1 PM and damn you‘re hungry and hey there’s a hot dog stand. You eat on the Mall and continue.
I just like were they go. It's where I go. Jefferson Memorial, too, probably, and the new FDR, and Chinatown. I like looking at the statues around town. I mean, I‘ve done DC a zillion times, but those are my places, and I’m glad they‘re his places. At the same time, it makes me wonder where Republicans go when they go to DC. Lincoln was a Republican, sure, but everything he stood for they now repudiate; so where do they go? I’m kind of curious.
John and his friend also head to the Vietnam War Memorial, which is right by Lincoln on the Mall, and what he says about it is probably the most succinct thing I‘ve heard about the dark beauty of that Memorial. Worth listening to.
John Prine wrote songs like Walker Evans took photos: speaking for Americans and raising up their stories for all to hear. He will be missed.— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) April 8, 2020
Some twinkle in the eye is gone from the world. But it’s also still here.