Friday Fives – Thoughts on John Prine

RIP John Prine: America's Humanity In Song and Story | The ...

How did you discover John Prine?

From Roy.  Roy has turned me on to more great music than perhaps any other single person in my life.  Or Kermit.  Those two are responsible for just about everything I listen to.  BUT…  Roy gets extra points.  Roy turned me on to new artists when I was older.  This is almost impossible to do.

Anyway, he created a bootleg DVD of ‘Sessions at West 54th’.  It is a perfect performance on every level.  First, the song selection.  It’s a nice combo of obscure personal favorites of his, and all the ‘hits’.   AND… perhaps most important… his sense of humor.  The show is very much of the vain of ‘Storytellers’.  Here are some of the performances below.

What makes him so special?

The way he turns a phrase.  It is more than just lyrics, but how he uses them.  In one sentence, he can tell a 30 page novel.  From ‘All the Best’

I wish you love – and happiness
I guess I wish – you all the best
I wish you don’t – do like I do
And never fall in love with someone like you

Man… those last two lines tell of a lifetime.  He seems to be saying genuinely “I want you to be happy.  Here is how you can be happy.  Don’t do what I did.  I fucked up bad, because I fell for you.  And you destroyed me!  So, I hope you don’t have to go through the misery you put me through.”  There is an urban legend that he sang this at an ex wife’s wedding.    Prine has a protégé in the great Todd Snider.  Snider expressed this sentiment even better.  This is from my favorite song of Snider’s ‘Too Soon to Tell’.

Are you ready for the most perfect John Prine-iest lyric not written by John Prine?

“I wish I could show you how you hurt me in a way that wouldn’t hurt you too”.  The influence is very traceable, too – from John Prine to Todd Snider.   Prine discovered Todd Snider, took him on tour, and released his albums.  Here is some Todd. 

Let’s say I have never heard the music, but am interested.  Give me one critical studio song

Sam Stone.  A heartbreaking piece of timeless social commentary… done by a goddamn kid!  He was 23 when he wrote that.  It’s not the song he is famous for, but it is John Prine 101.  The song he is famous for, and that even you should know, is ‘Angel from Montgomery’.  Bonnie Raitt took this song and ran with it.  I dare say 40% of Prine’s exposure to the world is thanks to Bonnie Raitt making it a hit.  Listen to this live version, and ESPECIALLY listen to how she executes on that last verse… the one that begins ‘there’s flies in the kitchen…’

ok, now one live one

how the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?

how about another stand out lyric?

this certainly relates to the conversation above.  Where 1 line is telling the story of a 30 year marriage crumbling.  This is from Lake Marie –

Many years later we found ourselves in Canada
Trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish
Whatever seemed easier

I got to see him live some years ago.  Setlist FM seems to think it was about a decade ago.  Here is the link and date and setlist.  Red Rocks, baby!  Got to see him with the late great Levon Helm.  Here is a clip from that very show.  In fact, there are a bunch of clips from that show online.  Here you go.

As news about his passing made it around, I was very surprised how influential he was.  I had assumed he was a niche folky.  I was wrong.  He was a master songwriter, and class on economy of words.  Every great songwriter knew him and was influenced by his.  This is great, because Prine doesn’t fall in your lap.  I have never heard a Prine song on the radio.  John Cale, or someone said ‘Velvet Underground may have only sold 40,000 records… but every one who bought one of those records went out and started a band.” *** Editors note to self – close, but still wrong.  Maybe that should be the name of your little blog.  The quote comes from Brian Eno, and goes mostly thusly.  “the first Velvet Undergound album may have only sold about 3,000 copies… but every one who bought that record started a band.”

I LOVE that line.  I don’t like Cale, or 98% of the Velvet Underground… but that quote is pure bliss.  Prine gives us Todd Snider, Bonnie Raitt, Sturgill Simpson, Kasey Musgraves. Only recently with his death have I seen the impact he had on modern music.  You know every band Gen X and above ascribes the reason they got into music was the Beatles, right?  I mean… every one.  An example?  Black Sabbath started out as a Beatles cover band called ‘Earth’.  That is how deep the Beatles’ impact goes.

It appears John Prine holds a similar place to folk and country artists.  Another important thing to me is his sense of humor.    Like his protege Todd Snider, you will often find a great little funny story at the beginning of each Youtube clip. He was a tough bastard!  Before this terrible illness, he survived 2 different cancer experiences.  The first one was so severe they had to take out chunks of his throat.  That is why in later years he kinda looked like the elephant man.



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