There has never been a singer with more heart than John Prine.
He once sang ‘some humans ain’t human, though they walk like we do….some humans ain’t human, some people ain’t kind.’ This lullaby with a waltz lilt to its beauty sounds like comfort, though its spits and rails against the cruelty of some human beings that forgot, or perhaps never knew how to be human – how to be kind and warm and loving and accepting and sweet. This is the engine behind the genius of John Prine’s songs – some people ain’t human, but most of us are, and those of us that are we are messy and funny, and we sometimes gets it wrong, but we love, and live and laugh and we do it with some aplomb, perhaps a few country rhymes and a melody that sounds like you heard it somewhere before, even if it was only in a dream about Hollywood honky tonk, where they people all go crazy as the proverbial loons as they dance in squares and wonder how it all got so insane, like he wrote in Crazy As A Loon, on his album Fair and Square in 2005.
Prine is no saint, he errs and stumbles, and gets that illegal smile high just like the rest of us down here. John is always human, always warm, if not always perfect. This is what makes Prine’s music so endearing. We are not listening to a man preach, we are listening to him stumble around for the truth, whilst doing as little harm as possible, and trying to bring some comfort to others. Prine doesn’t write joke songs, but he is comedic, and when he is at his funniest he is truly a joy to listen to. Illegal Smile, might be one of the funniest, truest, and at the time, bravest songs written. There are many songs written about getting stoned, but none as satisfying as Illegal Smile with its refrain of “Please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone!” Back in 1971 people still went to jail for a roach at a Grateful Dead show. Putting people in jail for trying to ‘have me some fun’, sending them in front of a judge for a bit of weed, for not being grey ‘insurance salesmen’, for smiling and giggling is hardly beneficial to society. While Hunter S Thompson was on his campaign to make weed legal, John Prine was poking fun at the weed paranoia and singing about hiding in his closet, but is it paranoia if they really are trying to put you in jail for that ‘illegal smile’? I don’t think so.
The people who populate his songs are the people who live in ordinary America. They are the old who need you to say ‘hello in there’, they are the veterans who came back from Nam with a smack habit and a need for the needle in their arm, even if it meant that their children were ‘running round in other people’s clothes’, just as Prine immortalized in the ballad of a Vietnam Veteran who did not adjust to coming home, Sam Stone.
Even when the subjects of Prine’s songs are not wholly lovable and sympathetic, they are always human, we are always asked to empathize with the lost and the fallen, even those who are not likable. Sam Stone came home, and instead of building a life after dodging death, he ends up bringing home a heroin habit as well as the purple heart. This is a man whose children suffer because all the money is going in ‘daddy’s arm’ instead of feeding and clothing them. His wife doesn’t get her husband back, she gets a problem instead. The kindness and the honesty is balanced by Prine in something which seems more like magic than good writing, and that is the peculiar and precious talent of John Prine. A sweet song, with a bitter message, but delivered with immense love. Sam Stone overdosed, his wife had to sell the house he bought on the GI Bill in order to afford to bury her husband, and we, the listener listen into the tragedy and the shame and the sadness. Sometimes it is hard to know where to put yourself when listening to John Prine. If you immerse yourself in his writing and those sweet melodies it only brings pain, then the comfort of knowing you are not the only lame-ass fuck up in the world. It is the comfort of solidarity, of not being alone in the human condition of imperfection.
Prine’s America is full of lovers who are not lean, mean loving machines, but uselessly trying to be brave enough to invite each other out to a movie and show that tenderness towards each other that is so hard to let out. John wears his heart on his sleeve just like every human does, but the thing is with Prine, is that he lets the world see his vulnerability.
Prine’s Dear Abbey pokes fun at the writers and readers of the old advice columns found in the newspapers and magazines of the 20th century. Abbey has the medicine for the petty complaints, it is always the same medicine, no matter the complaint:
……… You have no complaint You are what your are and you ain’t what you ain’t So listen up buster, and listen up good Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on woodDear Abbey, John Prine.
The solution to most problems, that universal medicine might not be Abbey’s advice, but it is as good a solution as any but the real medicine is found in the laughter that the song draws deep from the bellies of the listeners, and even, when performed live, from Prine himself.
The medicine is not the formulaic mutterings of any Abbey writing for the local paper, but instead the knowledge that we are all screwed, we are all struggling, but there is comradeship and humor, bittersweet poignancy and the knowledge that at least John Prine sings for the little people with their little lives and their little loves and small desires and sees how all that is not quite so small after all.
John Prine was a master of understatement, of treading that fine line between sentimentality and the ability to invoke an emotional response, to make us, the listener look inside to what makes us feel something, even if that something is longing for past times, sadness at our failures, and a healthy ability to laugh at ourselves and our small victories and tragedies.
Perhaps my favorite John Prine song, one that was written at the end of his life, is only my favorite song because it picks out my own sad little tragedy, my own sad story and invites me to know that I am not alone. Perhaps you are an “In Spite of Ourselves” kind of person, I never found that romantic love that made that my song. Maybe you are an “Angel of Montgomery” sort of human being, but I am just not that country and my life has been wide ranging and rambling. I have not been tied to a house or a country, I have been in exile. No, my song, is Summer’s End.
My story is encapsulated in this little song. Prine makes us all feel as if there is a song written just for us, and only for us and this was his talent. He felt and he empathized and his heart was as sweet and pure as those chords out of his guitar. Every time I hear this song, I remember those years I spend on the road, living in campgrounds with my children and my friend. It was summer’s end for me. The last of the days without knowing absolute loss. It was the last time everyone was together and everyone was safe and everyone that I fought so hard for, was with me. Swimming suits and lakes, and the end of the best, the kindest of days, at least in some ways. This is the song of the days when I had two children that loved me, and that I loved too. These were days when vacationers told me that I ruined their vacation by living in my camp, with my tents and my truck, and not letting their dog shit on my kitchen area. These were the days when the truck was as comfortable as it got, and nothing every worked right. These were days when children made me cards, and those cards broke my heart open because part of me knew it couldn’t continue forever. I could not win for trying, just as John sung. New Years eve, birthdays, all of it made me cry because they were all ‘last ones’ and the ‘last one’ of anything when everyone is still so young and there is so much time left, is always so painful and so sad amid the happiness.
“Summer’s end came faster than we wanted,” and that is the truth of it. I had no home to “Come on home’ to. I am not alone yet, but soon I will be and then I will be a ghost on the tracks, another Sam Stone, where everyone will understand and pity me, but I will be gone just the same. All the love, all the life I built and protected all of it gone. Still, John Prine will be there to sing me home and make me laugh at the smallness and the universal knowledge of the things that matter. Mum, me. Children. Friends. Summer. The fact it ends. The end.
Won’t you let your heart open to the little things? The little people? The little tragedies that mean so much to Prine and to me? In the meantime, I am going to listen to a story about an old woman, named after her mother, who dated an ugly cowboy once, but she had her little sadness, and little happiness just the same…