John Prine is dead. He died on April 7, due to complications from COVID-19. He was 73.
This is an incredible loss for the music world and all those who look to his songs for comfort, consolation and wisdom, as well as an artistic ideal. He was a musical and lyrical genius, and his influence cannot be confined to the country-folk genre.
My husband and I took a trip to Boston a couple years ago to see Bob Weir and Phil Lesh perform acoustic concerts. A billboard at the theater showed an enlarged head shot of Prine; the album cover for his last album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.” Back then, I didn’t know he had released a new album (he hadn’t in 13 years). I was struck by how fragile he looks in the photo. It made me sad to see him like that. I realized he might not be with us much longer.
Sadly, that turned out to be the case. He survived two bouts of cancer, but the damage to his lungs made him susceptible to the ravages of coronavirus.
I was introduced to the legendary Prine in my late teens. I started learning to play guitar when I was 15, and as I progressed, I wanted to deepen my knowledge of music. (I still do.) That became a project of finding out who the “greats” are. I had an anthropology professor during college whom I really admired for his sharp intellect and wide knowledge of music history. He tipped me off to Prine. I bought Prine’s self-titled debut album at his recommendation.
I connected with Prine’s music immediately. Soon after, I serendipitously saw Prine on the show “Sessions at West 54th Street” on PBS.
My appreciation has only grown with the years.
Prine had the amazing ability to write a profound song set to simple, catchy music and easy-to-understand lyrics. He was a poet. He channeled the old country and rockabilly sound. Like an old spiritual, that music goes right to my soul and touches all the sweet and sorrowful chords.
Loneliness, longing, boredom, quiet desperation; these were his main subjects. And to that sweet sadness of a romantic, he added his own brand of humor.
His debut album was released in 1971, and it became an underground classic. The entire record is full of what could’ve been hit songs; so catchy, so realistic, so perceptive. It contains “Sam Stone,” his resonant song about a heroin-addicted veteran; “Angel from Montgomery,” about a woman withering away spiritually; and “Hello in There,” about the isolation of old age.
My other favorite albums of his are “Fair and Square” and “The Missing Years.”
In “Fair and Square,” he has a track called “Long Monday”:
“It’s gonna be a long Monday
Sitting all alone on a mountain by a river that has no end…
Stuck like the tick of a clock that’s come unwound again.”
He’s saying that time is empty without the one you love.
“The Missing Years” takes its name from a track in which Prine talk-sings an imagined adolescence and early adulthood of Jesus; a time of rebellion, restlessness, confusion and disillusionment:
“On his thirteenth birthday he saw ‘Rebel without a Cause’
He went straight on home and invented Santa Claus
Who gave him a gift and he responded in kind
He gave the gift of love and went out of his mind”
The song is ironic and sad and clever and catchy. Some would also call it blasphemous, while others see humor in the audacity of his imagination.
Prine shows his sense of humor here and there in his songs. In “Spanish Pipedream” on his debut album, he sings:
“She was a level-headed dancer
And she did the hoochy coo”
She may be a “topless lady,” but she knows a thing or two; namely, the key to a sane and happy life. She tells him:
“Blow up your TV
Throw away your paper
Go to the country
Build you a home
Plant a little garden
Eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus
On your own”
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate Prine. He is plain spoken in his music, and he makes you feel understood. He had a keen intellect, communicated with a common touch.
He was a great artist. He will be missed.
Rest in peace, John Prine. Your spirit, genius and wisdom will live on in your songs.