Vale John Prine: A common voice for common people falls to COVID-19

April 9, 2020

“There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear ’em there buzzing. And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.”

These lines from “Angel from Montgomery”, written by iconic US country singer/songwriter John Prine and that was later a hit for Bonnie Raitt, are just one example of Prine’s lines about loneliness and isolation that feel unnervingly relevant in the midst of our enforced isolation right now.

But there’s more to Prine, who passed away on April 7 from a COVID-19-related illness, than just sad songs about abandoned people. Over nearly five decades of releasing music, Prine never wrote a song that couldn’t also make you laugh.

His songs were deceptively simple — sort of nursery rhymes for adults — yet they were unfailingly funny and profound in equal measure.

A product of the '60s generation, Prine wrote many socially conscious or protest songs, but not one was heavy-handed or didactic. The template was set by his 1971 self-titled debut, a classic that contains more than half a dozen tracks that, for any other songwriter, would all be career-defining gems.

The album includes “Sam Stone” (about a traumatised Vietnam veteran who is killed by his opiate addiction), “Paradise” (one of the first ecological protest songs that tells the true story of how Prine’s home town in Kentucky was destroyed by a coal company), “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” (a witty take on war and nationalism) and “Illegal Smile” (a funny yet razor sharp attack on drug prohibition).

In “Illegal Smile”, he describes his day: “A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down… and won. It was 12 o’clock before I realised I was having no fun.”

His recourse, harmless to anyone but him, earns him an “illegal smile”.

In “Sam Stone”, he describes the descent of a traumatised veteran trying to adapt to post-war life with his family in one simple line: “Sweet songs never last too long on a broken radio.

Summing it up, he declares: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes. And Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.”

That a song released in 1971 can feel even more relevant today is a sad indictment on this system.

It was a stunning debut, but he kept the standard up throughout his career. He never achieved large commercial success but he wrote a number of critical smash hits, and was referred to by many as the “songwriter’s songwriter” (Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash were among many to rave about Prine).

His deeply humanist ethos was captured perfectly on his 2005 song “Some Human’s Aint Human”, another song that feels all-too-relevant. He sings:

Some humans ain't human
Though they walk like we do
They live and they breathe
Just to turn your old screw

They screw you when you're sleeping
They try to screw you blind
Some humans ain't human
Some people ain't kind

It takes aim at arseholes big and small, but only its final verse includes a specific reference to an individual. Specifically, that “hotshot from Texas” who starts a war in Iraq.

Winning two battles with cancer, Prine was recording music and touring right up to his death. His last album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, was as good as anything he'd released.

It includes the poignant “Summer’s End”, which tells a story about the opioid crisis ripping the heart out of the US. But there’s also “When I Get To Heaven”, a tale of all the things he wants to do when he dies, with the reluctantly ex-smoker looking forward to a nine-foot long cigarette to go with many, many vodka and ginger beer cocktails.

Then there is “The Lonesome Friends of Science”, which is classic Prine. Light-hearted in form, it looks in typically absurdist style at just how science gets treated in this society. That such disdain for science from the Donald Trump administration helped to kill Prine is a bitter irony.

As for “Caravan of Fools”, well he doesn’t name names, but you don’t need Prine’s immense imagination to guess who he was thinking about.

It feels strange to mourn Prine when, on the same day he died, almost 2000 of his fellow US citizens also died from COVID-19. When there are nameless grocery store workers dying, why give special attention to some guy just because he wrote a bunch of songs?

I think the answer is that Prine was a symbol. He was a fundamentally ordinary man who wrote extraordinary songs about and for other ordinary people.

Prine was a mail carrier in Chicago whose songs lived in his own head until he was “discovered” in the late '60s, almost by accident.

Kris Kristofferson (another iconic signer-songwriter, responsible for “Me and Boggy McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”) saw Prine at some Chicago coffee shop and, blown away, famously joked that Prine was so good they’d “have to break his thumbs”.

It wasn’t just Kristofferson who became an early advocate. Famous film critic Roger Ebert was sitting in a Chicago movie theatre around the same time, annoyed that his popcorn was too salty. He walked out and into a random bar to get a beer.

There, the unknown Prine came on stage and began performing to a disinterested crowd. Ebert watched as every drunk in the joint stopped, on hearing the words, and begun to listen transfixed, to Prine sing. Ebert wrote Prine’s first review, a gushing tribute.

There are wonderful ironies in Prine’s career. He became known as a country artist after his debut album was recorded in that style, yet the Chicago resident had nothing to do with the country. The photo that graces the album cover has Prine sitting on a bale of hay, which he later joked was the first bale of hay he’d ever seen.

But the thing that stands out about Prine is how, by every account, he remained ordinary. He was bemused by critical adulation and was renowned for his humility and basic decency in an industry where both traits are in short supply. Stories abound of the people he helped just because it was the right thing to do.

In the words of Robert Forster, himself an iconic signer-songwriter with Australia’s The Go Betweens: “I know many people have died and are in heartache and pain from the virus — but it’s an evil, challenging, heartless beast that can take the life of John Prine.”

It is one more mind-boggling tragedy, in a world full of them, that COVID-19 can claim John Prine and yet Trump is still alive.

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