Wednesday, April 15, 2020

‘All Together, We’re All Alone’: Deceased Artiste John Prine

The back cover of the "Lost Dogs
and Mixed Blessings" CD booklet.
There are generally three types of singer-songwriters, in my estimation. The first are the ones who are so trite and tired in their sentiments and songwriting that they clamor to be ignored. The second are the genius wordsmiths — at their pinnacle is, of course, Bob Dylan, the man who, according to many, put poetry into pop/rock, and still astounds and amazes those who are paying attention. But Bob is a cold fish whose songs lack emotional resonance — that was evident even when he was at his peak in the Sixties.

The third category of singer-songwriter is made up of the people who put themselves into the music and weren’t/aren’t afraid to let emotion run through their words and not just be smitten with the poetry of it all. They are the ones who have brought a tear to my eye, and while I’m still impressed by their craft (as I am with Cold Old Bob), I find it far more valuable as I age disgracefully to emotionally connect with music than to be marveling at someone’s deft verbiage.

That third list of people includes those who created lifetimes of great music, but thankfully have made only a select number of albums to contrast with the many cranked out by both Dylan and McCartney, who, when they fell from grace, fell hard. (Paul Simon has made a select amount of albums, but it’s been absolute torture since the Eighties.)

Some of that incredible group are the “not long for this world” artists who had pristine voices and were not going to be around very long. In that lineage is the beautiful work of Phil Ochs, Steve Goodman, Harry Nilsson, Townes Van Zandt, Harry Chapin, and Nick Drake, among the men; Laura Nyro and Judee Sill among the women (with honorable mention to the voices that were also “not long for this world” in their melancholy sound — from Billie Holiday to Karen Carpenter to Amy Winehouse). And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind — there were others.

Prine and his good friend Steve Goodman
back in the day.
In the top level of singer-songwriters who got to be seniors are Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits (with Randy Newman right behind). Also in that class was the now late, and always great, John Prine.

Prine was an artist who is spoken about as having emerged out of the “Chicago folk scene” and yet his early albums are all riddled with pedal-steel guitar and beautiful country-sounding tunes. I used to find his records in both the country and folk slots in stores — vendors and his first record company seemed to hype him equally to both audiences. (And, yes, he did get the “next Dylan” label in the early Seventies, which was usually a kiss of death for someone with talent.)

His songs sold well when covered by other artists, but his personal appeal was “cult” in the Seventies and Eighties, and then began to grow and grow in the last thirty years, thanks to influential country artists singing his tunes (often with him), his being featured on the talk shows that like to showcase great talent (for about 10 minutes max – and let’s not get too deep into talking, whaddya say?), and the fact that his kind of talent still exists, but it’s apparent that anyone with musical talent these days has to give their work away for free over the Internet and then (hopefully) make money off their music via live gigs and crowdfunding. (Prine realized this many years before the Internet and thus began his own record company, Oh Boy Records)

The most impressive thing about Prine, and the thing that put him in with Waits, but not Leonard and Joni, was that he moved effortlessly between brilliant humorous songwriting and exquisite ballads. His first album alone contained four country songs that still amaze in their maturity and eloquence about age and despair — “Sam Stone,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Paradise,” and “Hello In There” — and three absolutely wonderful humorous songs — “Illegal Smile,” “Spanish Pipe dreams,” and “Pretty Good” — while also offering us a piece of timely reflection (“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”) and his first killer précis of a relationship that’s failed (“Donald and Lydia”).

It’s an incredible debut LP. What was more incredible, of course, was that a young man (a Chicago mailman, among other jobs he held before he got the record contract) wrote lines in his early 20s like the chorus of “Hello In There”: “You know that old trees just grow stronger,/And old rivers grow wilder ev'ry day./Old people just grow lonesome/Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”

Kris Kristofferson’s liner notes summed it up beautifully:
“… Then [John] started singing, and by the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene (in fact Al Aronowitz said the same thing a few weeks later hearing John do a guest set at the Bitter End). One of those rare, great times when it all seems worth it, like when the Vision would rise upon Blake’s ‘weary eyes. Even in this Dungeon, & this Iron Mill.’

“He sang about a dozen songs, and had to do a dozen more before it was over. Unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Sam Stone. Donald & Lydia. The one about the Old Folks. Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty. I don’t know where he comes from, but I’ve got a good idea where he’s going. We went away believers, reminded how goddamned good it feels to be turned on by a real Creative Imagination.”

Looking back and re-listening to all of Prine’s studio work (there have been six legally released live albums, so far) that contained original songs, one finds that he experienced a fascinating and all-too-common phenomenon for great artists: a burst of incredible material, then a few good but not perfect albums, a bad bout of writer’s block, two returns in the Nineties with stunning albums, then more writer’s block, health problems that could’ve ended his career (and life), a spate of duet and live albums with no original songs (save one), and two “return” albums that showed him still capable of beautiful songwriting and evocative singing (with, obviously, a different voice with a different range).

The years between the last four albums of original material were very long for fans (from five to four to ten to thirteen), but Prine’s talent and the great songs from the early period (and the return to form in the Nineties) were so stunningly strong that the last two albums were great, but pretty much the cherry on top of a songbook that was already filled with unforgettable couplets, characters, and wry looks at daily life.

If I had to recommend some of the albums, I’d say you’d be best off starting with the anthology Great Days if you can find it (2 CDs or 2 tapes). As for the 16 studio albums (which can all currently be heard on YouTube in their entirety, both uploaded by fans and legally by Oh Boy on YouTube here), there are five that are just sublime: John Prine, Sweet Revenge, Bruised Orange, The Missing Years, and Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings.

So many “10 best” listicles have appeared about Prine since his death last week that I know I’m adding yet another “playlist” into the Internet ether, but some of these songs were ignored, and some just can’t be left out. For instance, one of his finest from that initial burst of stunningly mature work from a guy in his 20s. His version of one of the two songs of his that were most covered (the other was “Angel From Montgomery”), from a very early (and unnecessarily psychedelic) TV appearance in 1972:

And because every time he wrote what Waits calls a “bawler” (read: a song you can’t help but cry listening to), John would write another song that was just ridiculous on purpose — and catchy as hell. Also from his first LP:

Prine’s life and work were tied up with his good friend Steve Goodman — another guy who sang and wrote both very funny songs and absolute heartbreakers. Here he is playing guitar and singing along to the best song from John’s second album, Diamonds in the Rough, “Souvenirs” (followed by Steve alone singing one of his own songs — that voice!):

Prine’s third album contained another bunch of perennial fan favorites, including “Dear Abby”:

So far, I haven’t touched on the rockin’ side of Prine’s work. This is a great example, the beautifully titled “Often Is a Word I Seldom Use,” played live later in the Seventies.

The fourth album, Common Sense, has another batch of terrific songs. One that’s been lost in the shuffle is this touching tribute to a dead friend, “He Was in Heaven Before He Died.” Again, a memorably catchy melody, but the lyrics… oh, the lyrics… “The sun can play tricks/With your eyes on the highway/The moon can lay sideways/Till the ocean stands still./But a person can't tell/His best friend he loves him/Till time has stopped breathing/You're alone on the hill.

“And I smiled on the Wabash/The last time I passed it./Yes, I gave her a wink./From the passenger side/And my foot fell asleep/As I swallowed my candy/Knowing he was in heaven/Before he died.”

Bruised Orange, Prine’s fifth album is a fan favorite (produced by Steve Goodman), which has delightful ear worms like “Fish and Whistle,” which is impossible to forget:

And a song that lays bare the utter sadness of show-biz promotion.

By the Pink Cadillac album in 1979 he was still trying to put out an album a year, but the songs were not as sterling as they had been a few years earlier. (How could they be?)  He started adding covers and got harder into the rock area for his melodies. But there were still some nice “odes” like this one.

Storm Windows (1980) was another album that had its moments — John’s middling material was better than other artists “masterworks.” The terrific title track:

Another fun humorous song that got buried in the more serious “songwriter’s songwriter” obits is this beauty about a horrible family vacation on Aimless Love. It starts at 6:00 into this video (great solo acoustic performance!).

After a five-year break from recording, Prine came back in 1991 with The Missing Years, which contains a raft of beautifully written songs, including the title track, a spoken-word piece about what Jesus did in the years between his childhood and his preaching: “Jesus was a good guy/he didn't need this shit./So he took a pill with a bag of peanuts and/a Coca-Cola and he swallowed it./He discovered the Beatles/And he recorded with the Stones/Once He even opened up a three-way package/In Southern California for old George Jones.”

One song spawned John’s first official music video (with Tom Petty):

The blissful “All the Best” (live on TV in 1992):

One of his best-ever openings appears in “The Sins of Memphisto” on this album: “Sally used to play with her hula hoops/Now she tells her problems to therapy groups/Grampa's on the front lawn staring at a rake/Wondering if his marriage was a terrible mistake.

“I'm sitting on the front steps/drinking orange crush/Wondering if it's possible/if I could still blush/Uh huh, oh yeah.”

"Memphisto" ends with a line that makes no sense. When asked about it, Prine admitted it was a placeholder, just a nonsense rhyme. Can you imagine if Dylan ever admitted that a line he chose meant nothing in particular, it was just something that struck his fancy at the moment? (Pretty much all of his new “Murder Most Foul” sounds that way….)

His next album, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, is definitely another high-water mark for Prine the performer and Prine the songwriter. His finest spoken-word song (there were only a few), and one of his most haunting songs ever, is “Lake Marie” from this album. It’s a very fascinating creation — a first verse recounting a Native American legend, a second verse discussing a failed marriage, and the third describing the TV news coverage of a murder. The whole song is excellent, but the lines that have haunted me since the album came out are “You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows, shadows! That’s what it looks like...”

Two other songs from this album must be spotlighted. The first because it’s one of my personal favorites. “We Are the Lonely” is a masterstroke, combining a spoof of personal ads with a very real commentary on solitude and loneliness. It also rocks out, thanks to a catchy-as-fuck chorus and featuring John at his raspy best. It’s a song he seemed to not perform in concert that much, but I think it’s an absolute gem.

“Down the hall upstairs from me/There's a girl I swear I never see./I hear the ringing of her phone/She must live up there all alone/She hangs her clothes out on the line/They're hanging there right next to mine/And if the wind should blow just right,/she could be in my arms tonight.

“We are the lonely all together/All together, we're all alone./We are the lonely all together/All together, we're all alone.”

And, on a timely note, here’s John duetting with Marianne Faithfull on a “Mad Dogs...” song. Hopefully, we will be allowed to keep her for a while longer – as I write this, she is in the hospital, afflicted with COVID-19.

Following from that tune, we move to his duets with women singers. His sentimental rasp and wry vocal style worked particularly well with women. The first of his three duet albums, “In Spite of Ourselves,” was named for the title tune, one of his rare compositions in the period from 1995 to 2005. It’s a wonderful song that encapsulates a cockeyed romance — as noted in the clip below, he wrote it for a movie few people saw (but is indeed floating around on the Net), Daddy and Them (2001), a Billy Bob Thornton film, in which John was cast as Billy Bob’s brother.

Prine had two bouts with the cancer, the first in 1998 and the second in 2013. The first one altered his singing style and the second altered his face. During this period, his music was still being discovered regularly by younger artists and younger listeners, so by the point he released a “comeback” to songwriting in 2005 with “Fair & Square,” he had become a sort of living legend.

What’s most interesting about the album is not only that it definitely is the work of a “survivor” but that two of the strongest songs were political in nature. There are wistful love songs on the record and also a great rockin’ cover of the Carter Family’s “Bear Creek Blues,” but for the first time since his debut LP, Prine directed his attention to politics. “Some Humans Ain’t Human” is a summation of what was happening at the time, with then-President W. Bush qualifying as one of the humans who ain’t human at all…

The other political song was “lost” in the shuffle of a limited edition release of “Fair & Square,” which included an EP of other songs that were left off of the album proper (and are available now only as official downloads and YT uploads, since the vinyl version that contained the songs is out of print and the EP is a collector’s item). Of the four songs, the best one is “That’s How Every Empire Falls,” with its stark lyrics about U.S. politics in the 21st century:

“Padlock the door and board the windows/Put the people in the street/‘It's just my job,’ he says./‘I'm sorry.’/And draws a check, goes home to eat./But at night he tells his woman./‘I know I hide behind the laws.’/She says, ‘You're only taking orders.’/That's how every empire falls.”

John continued to cover great old songs in the time between “Fair & Square” and the 2018 release that turned out to be his last album. Here he covers the old country chestnut “Old Shep” in 2017. The song is pure backwoods hokum, but Prine believed in it and gives it a terrific reading:

John’s last album, “The Trip to Forgiveness,” was something he didn’t exactly want to do — as chronicled in a great new Rolling Stone piece about his death. He was encouraged to finish off some unfinished songs and return to songwriting, so we did get a “final John Prine album” that even closes out with his meditation on his death, and what he’d like to see in the afterlife.

There’s a beautiful tearjerker on the record, “Summer’s End” (which has an equally sweet and sad music video), but the sheer delight comes with the upbeat country tune, “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door.”

And, yes, it may not be “Blackstar” or Leonard’s “You Want It Darker” in terms of a mediation on death, but if you gotta go out, you might as well go out with a smile ... especially if you were John Prine.

I’ll close out with one of my favorite covers of his work. Nanci Griffith is a wonderfully talented singer-songwriter herself, but she shone when doing a cover of this Prine song (from the album “German Afternoons,” which I left out of the chronology above).

The song itself is a beauty, but the video directed by Rocky Schenck was the cherry on the top of the cake. A beautiful b&w item with Nanci playing a variation on Bruno Ganz’s “new angel” character in Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Prine (who sang harmony and played guitar on the original track) playing the Peter Falk “old angel” role. In this case it’s “The Sky over Nashville” (the original German title of Wings was “The Sky over Berlin”). The image of Prine as a world-weary, black-clad angel is just lovely.