John Prine, 1946-2020

Over the three months since John Prine died of Covid-19, I’ve often found myself thinking about him. Maybe you have too, but probably not.

In some ways, he was a typical victim of the virus. He was in his seventies and severely immuno-compromised as a result of two near-death bouts with cancer. Since those illnesses, in 1998 and 2013, respectively, he had seemed to be held together by chewing gum, string and strength of character, and his voice had changed markedly.

But in this respect he was anything but typical: all that while he kept writing and performing marvelous songs – and a few that, as longtime readers of these posts know, really ticked me off.

***

I just completed a desultory bicycle ride; it was hot and sticky outside and I had no desire to push myself. Also, Prine’s version of Clay Pigeons (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20Rucu7uNwc), written by Blaze Foley, was running on repeat in my head.

Prine was a great songwriter – a poet who wrote most of the songs that he performed. He had a gift for writing songs that were simultaneously heart-rending and funny. For some reason, though, this morning it was his version of Foley’s song that I couldn’t get out of my head.

Clay Pigeons paints a picture of a singer way down on his luck – in this instance, one who, while melancholically aware of his shortcomings (moral or otherwise is unspecified), is determined to give both singing and relations with others another go. As sung by Prine, the situation the song brings to life is hauntingly real.

Prine knew something about that sort of situation: “In 2013, Prine underwent surgery to remove cancer in his left lung. After the surgery, a physical therapist put him through an unusual workout to build stamina; Prine was required to run up and down his house stairs, grab his guitar while still out of breath, and sing two songs. Six months later, he was touring again.” – Wikipedia

It’s an ode to humility, perseverance and the hope of warm human contact.

***

One of the best things I’ve seen written – sadly, I forget where – about the behavior of the young people now doing their best to dishonor American leaders of previous generations, is that by pulling down the statues, ostensibly because of the moral shortcomings of the erstwhile honorees, they obscure the memories of the good those people achieved as well.

We honor heroes – with statues or in history books – for their achievements, not their shortcomings. We know of both. If we were to honor only the pure, none outside the realms of faith would make the cut.

***

Prine was very much a man of the left. Except insofar as I find a few of his overtly political songs grating, I don’t care about that at all. I love his music because of the vividness of the pictures he painted with his words and voice and the depth of the empathy he showed for normal people encountering all-too-human setbacks. His songs show imperfect people in a loving light.

The humility, humanity and humor that come through in Prine’s music show him as a man in full – one I wish I had had the chance to meet. Irrespective of his politics, or of any (other) mistakes he may have made, if I ever see a statue of him, I’ll tip my hat to it.

M.H. Johnston

One comment to John Prine, 1946-2020

  • Ron Cypers  says:

    Love it Mark – thanks for sharing. Best Ron

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