Graded on a Curve:
John Prine, John Prine

True story: I recently made a date with a woman, and on the day of the date she casually informed me we’d be going to an S&M party, then also casually let drop she’d be bringing a fellow named Lunchbox who just happened to be her boyfriend, and at the S&M party there were naked fat guys walking around in Viking helmets eating blue frosted cupcakes like at an elementary school affair, who watched while I watched Lunchbox whip my date and his girlfriend, after which she produced a trio of very lethal-looking stainless steel knives and proceeded to carve interesting patterns on my torso.

It was easily the weirdest date I’ve ever gone on, and quite possibly the weirdest date anyone’s ever gone on, and I can hear you asking: What in God’s name does any of this have to do with country-folk songwriting genius John Prine? Well I’ll tell you. I’ve given it some thought, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Prine, who has a voice like a stoned rodeo and a big old homely heart that pumps pure compassion, is the only person in the whole wide world who could somehow manage to capture both the absurdity and yes, the humanity and even the dignity of those naked guys in Viking helmets as they stood around eating blue frosted cupcakes watching other naked people get whipped.

The late Lou Reed, whom you’d think would be the man for the job, would have only made the whole scene seem decadent, which it most certainly wasn’t. Whereas someone with an eye for the absurd, say the late Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, would have turned the whole thing into a Monty Python skit, which it most certainly wasn’t either. No, Prine is the only songwriter I can think of who could write a song poking fun at those naked Vikings while empathizing with them as well.

Over the course of his 42-year recording career—during which he’s released 22 albums, including “best of” and live LPs—Prine has written some of the saddest, funniest, and most empathetic songs you’ll ever hear, including such timeless standards as “Angel From Montgomery,” “In Spite of Ourselves,” “Paradise,” “Far From Me,” and “Hello in There.” All of ‘em great, so great in fact that Kris Kristofferson, who “discovered” Prine in the country capitol of the world, Chicago, Illinois, said in jest, “We’ll have to break his thumbs.” Or at least I think Kris was speaking in jest. Prine’s songwriting was certainly brilliant enough to cause a lesser songwriter to take desperate measures.

The thing I love most about Prine is he gives you the sense he feels your pain, just like Bill Clinton or Idi Amin, and Prine’s warm-hearted way of looking at life is nicely summed up in the lovely “It’s a Big Old Goofy World.” The song combines a melody that’ll make you cry with a sublimely simple chorus that goes, “There’s a big old goofy man/Dancing with a big old goofy girl/Ooh baby/It’s a big old goofy world.” There is so much sympathy, and yes, also dignity, in those seemingly mocking lines—although you have to hear Prine sing them to know just how much—just as there is in “Donald and Lydia,” a song about a fat girl who reads romance magazines up in her room and a boy in the Army, both of them lonely and horny, whom Prine wonderfully turns into a couple, at least in their daydreams: “They made love in the mountains, they made love in the streams/They made love in the valleys, they made love in their dreams/But when they were finished there was nothing to say/’Cause mostly they made love from ten miles away.” Prine may laugh but never in mockery, is sad but never maudlin, and feels the pain of the whole world, and manages to communicate it with every single note he sings and plays.

I opted to review Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut because I think it’s the best of his LPs, although I almost went with 1975’s Prime Prine and when push comes to shove all of Prine’s LPs are great. But I ain’t shitting you when I say that John Prine contains at least six bona fide classics, which makes for a ratio of brilliance you’d have to look to Dylan at his mid-sixties prime to equal, and even its two weakest links are songs that almost any songwriter would be proud to call his own.

Prine opens things up with the hilarious “Illegal Smile,” perhaps the best song ever written about the joys of marijuana. Supported by Reggie Young on lead guitar, Leo LeBlanc on pedal steel guitar, and Bobby Emmons on organ, Prine starts the song with a rather doleful verse about the grimness of unaltered reality: “When I woke up this morning, things were lookin’ bad/Seem like total silence was the only friend I had/Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down and won.” But, he adds, “Fortunately I have the key to escape reality,” and then comes the great chorus: “And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile/It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while/Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone/No I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun.” And so it goes, the verses thick with great lines like, “Well, I sat down in my closet with all my overalls/Tryin’ to get away from all the ears inside my walls” followed by that wonderful sing-along chorus, until Prine shuts it down with some rhyming stoner nonsense: “Well done, hot dog bun, my sister’s a nun.”

“Spanish Pipedream” is a plucky country number about a topless dancer intent on providing Prine with advice on right living. It features some fantastic pedal steel guitar by LeBlanc, honky-tonk drumming by Gene Chrisman, and is guaranteed to make you happy, it’s so sunny and ridiculous, and includes a great opening stanza: “She was a level-headed dancer on the road to alcohol/And I was just a soldier on my way to Montreal/Well she pressed her chest against me/About the time the jukebox broke/Yeah, she gave me a peck on the back of the neck/And these are the words she spoke.” Whereupon comes the great chorus, which itemizes her advice and which Prine sings in a voice so full of good humor it’s a wonder to behold: “Blow up your T.V. throw away your paper/Go to the country, build you a home/Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches/Try an find Jesus on your own.” As it ends up, of course, the two of them get married, and the song closes with Prine singing, “We blew up our T.V. threw away our paper/Went to the country, built us a home/Had a lot of children, fed ’em on peaches/They all found Jesus on their own.”

“Hello In There” is one of the saddest and most compassionate songs you’ll ever hear. One of the most beautiful too. To a melody that will put bullet holes in your heart, Prine sings about a lonely old couple whose children are gone and who “don’t talk much more.” She “sits and stares through the back screen door” while he watches the news which “just repeats itself/Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.” As for the chorus, it’s so beautiful and mournful it’ll make you want to cry: “Ya 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.” It’s especially poignant the way Prine tugs and pulls at that “there” like he’s tugging at your very heartstrings. The song ends with Prine making an ardent plea: “So if you’re walking down the street sometime/And spot some hollow ancient eyes/Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare/As if you didn’t care/Say, “Hello in there, hello.”

“Sam Stone” is another sad, slow number, about a veteran who comes home “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.” It opens with some big organ, then some nice guitar comes in, and Prine sings it very matter of factly, and somehow by doing so succeeds in underscoring the tragedy of Stone’s slow descent into doing whatever’s necessary to feel that good heroin rush: “And the gold rolled through his veins/Like a thousand railroad trains/And eased his mind in the hours that he chose/While the kids ran around wearin’ other peoples’ clothes.” As for the chorus, it’s a stunner: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose/Little pitchers have big ears, don’t stop to count the years/Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.” Ultimately Stone dies, “alone when he popped his last balloon/Climbing walls while sitting in a chair/Well, he played his last request while the room/Smelled just like death/With an overdose hovering in the air.”

Everything disappears sooner or later, even Eden, as Prine sings in his best hillbilly voice in the sad and lovely country classic, “Paradise.” An up-tempo number about the destruction of a man’s childhood getaway, it’s fueled by Dave Prine’s fiddle, the acoustic guitars of Prine and pal Steve Goodman, and Neil Rosengarden’s bass. Prine summons up recollections of “a backwards old town that’s often remembered/So many times that my memories are worn,” then he and Goodman sing the beguiling and bittersweet chorus: “And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County/Down by the green river where paradise lay?”/”Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking/Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” And so it goes, Goodman singing about an “abandoned old prison down by Adrie Hill/Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d/Shoot with our pistols/But pop bottles was all we would kill” before reaching the final stanza, which is sublimely transcendent and as mournfully beautiful as can be: “When I die let my ashes float down the Green River/Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam/I’ll be halfway to Heaven with paradise waitin’/Just five miles away from wherever I am.”

“Pretty Good” is a mid-tempo electric blues with some strange and Dylanesque lyrics I’m willing to bet Prine wrote while wearing an illegal smile. Young throws in lots of great guitar lines, including one long and excellent solo, Emerson’s organ is all over the place, and Prine sings about a friend who sells used cars, a Venusian girl whose “insides were lined with gold,” and an Arabian rabbi up in the sky feeding “Quaker Oats to a priest,” ending every stanza with variations of the ambiguous lines, “Pretty good, not bad, I can’t complain/Actually everything is just about the same.” I have no idea what he’s getting at, except I get the idea that “Pretty good, not bad, I can’t complain” is ironic, and what he’s really saying is that overall life is pretty darn awful. This is borne out by the verse that goes, “Molly went to Arkansas, she got raped by Dobbin’s dog/Well, she was doing good till she went in the woods/And got pinned up against a log/Pretty good, not bad, she can’t complain/Cause actually all them dogs is just about the same.”

“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” is a humorous anti-war folk song that bounces along to the accompaniment of some great pedal steel guitar and basic drumming, and concerns a guy who takes to sticking American flag decals everywhere in the belief that by doing so he’ll be winning brownie points with St. Peter. The lyrics are hilarious: “Well, I went to the bank this morning/And the cashier he said to me/”If you join the Christmas club/We’ll give you ten of them flags for free”/Well, I didn’t mess around a bit/I took him up on what he said/And I stuck them stickers all over my car/And one on my wife’s forehead.” But his quest to cover his car in American flag decals ends in tragedy: “Well, I got my window shield so filled/With flags I couldn’t see/So, I ran the car upside a curb/And right into a tree/By the time they got a doctor down/I was already dead/And I’ll never understand why the man/Standing in the Pearly Gates said…,” at which point the band goes into the great chorus: “But your flag decal won’t get you/Into Heaven any more/They’re already overcrowded/From your dirty little war/Now Jesus don’t like killin’/No matter what the reason’s for/And your flag decal won’t get you/Into Heaven any more.”

Love comes and love goes, and “Far From Me” is one sad, sad country song about the end of an affair between two café employees. A slow song with a beguiling melody and a pedal steel guitar as doleful as a dog in the pouring rain, it features Prine singing, “She asked me to change the station/ Said the song just drove her insane/ But it weren’t just the music playing/It was me that she was trying to blame.” I particularly love the chorus (“And the sky is black and still now/Up on the hill where the angels sing/Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle/ Looks just like a diamond ring/But it’s far, far from me”) just as I do the lines, “Why we used to laugh together/And we’d dance to any old song/Well, ya know, she still laughs with me/But she waits just a second too long.” And I’ve heard few lyrics as bleak and heartrending as the song’s final stanza: “Well, I started the engine/And I gave it some gas/And Cathy was closing her purse/Well, we hadn’t gone far in my beat old car/And I was prepared for the worst/”Will you still see me tomorrow?”/No, I got too much to do”/Well a question ain’t really a question/If you know the answer too.”

“Angel From Montgomery” is the album’s highlight and quite possibly the most beautiful song Prine, or anybody for that matter, has ever written. It opens with piano, organ, and electric guitar, and like “Hello In There” is about the loneliness of growing old. Told from the point of view of an old woman, “Angel of Montgomery” has Prine singing about the dismal present, the distant past, and the never-ending onrush of time: “When I was a young girl/Well, I had me a cowboy/He weren’t much to look at/Just a free rambling man/But that was a long time/And no matter how I try/The years just flow by/Like a broken down dam.” Then comes the soaring and lovely chorus, which is and probably always will be one of the loveliest things I’ve ever heard: “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery/Make me a poster of an old rodeo/Just give me one thing that I can hold on to/To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” And I don’t know what else to say about the song except that it’s perfect, and what I want to hear as I enter the Gates of Heaven and put on my halo and pick up my harp and ask where the nearest bar is, and if I can run a tab.

“Quiet Man” is one of my faves on John Prine, because while it’s understated just like its title it ends in a great crescendo that never fails to amaze me with its sheer beauty. A mid-tempo and bluesy number, “Quiet Man” opens with some strummed guitars and Prine singing, “Strolling down the highway with my shoes in my hand/I don’t talk much I’m a quiet man.” At which point some really cool organ and an electric guitar join Prine for the cryptic chorus: “You got news for me/I got nothing for you/Don’t pin your blues on me/Just go ahead and do whatever you wish to.” And so it goes, with Prine singing, “Last Monday night I saw a fight/Between Wednesday and Thursday over Saturday night” and “Steady losing means you ain’t using/What you really think is right” until the final stanzas, when the quiet man, following a great wah-wah solo that is like a ray of light, has a revelation so overwhelming (“Oodles of light, what a beautiful sight/Both of God’s eyes are shining tonight/Rays and beams of incredible dreams/And I am a quiet man”) he sings it not once, or even twice, but three times. And I can’t describe to you how rapturous those final stanzas are: you’ll just have to listen to them yourself.

I’ve described “Donald and Lydia” briefly above: suffice it to say it’s a lovely song with a lovely melody full of lovely lines and one of the most empathetic songs you’ll ever hear. From its great opening lines (“Small town, bright lights, Saturday night/Pinballs and pool halls flashing their lights/Making change behind the counter in the penny arcade/Sat the fat girl daughter of Virginia and Ray”) to its beautiful instrumental close this is one great country song, what with that pedal steel guitar wailing and Prine strumming away until the chorus: “But dreaming just comes natural/Like the first breath from a baby/Like sunshines feeding daisies/Like the love hidden deep in your heart.” Prine’s descriptions of both Donald and Lydia are nothing short of brilliant, as is the way he utters their names before each description, and if there is anything sweeter than the song’s pedal steel/acoustic guitar ending I suggest you bottle it and sell it for not a penny less than a billion dollars, because otherwise you’ll be getting screwed.

“Six O’Clock News” is one strange and sad little song, slow as a sluggish creek fed by the tributaries of Bobby Wood’s electric piano and Young’s electric guitar, and concerns itself with the sad fate of a boy who discovers he’s illegitimate. The verses tell the story and each ends with the cryptic single-line chorus, “C’mon baby, spend the night with me,” which presumably is what the boy’s stranger of a father said to his mother on the night of his conception. The song’s denouement comes with the boy “Sneaking in the closet and through the diary/Now don’t you know all he saw was all there was to see,” and ends with the lines that gave the song its name: “The whole town saw Jimmy on the six o’clock news/His brains were on the sidewalk and blood was on his shoes,” followed by “C’mon baby, spend the night with me/C’mon baby spend the night with me.” It’s not my favorite song on John Prine, despite its great details (“’God bless this kitchen’/Said the knick-knack shelf/Dinner’s almost ready/Go and wash yourself”), because its melody is just so so and it lacks Prine’s usual alchemical ability to transform the dross of sadness into gold, but hey, everybody has the right to write a total bummer if they feel like it.

Closer “Flashback Blues” features Prine and Steve Goodman on acoustic guitars and Noel Gilbert on fiddle and is an up-tempo folk blues about, well, let’s just say I think it’s about a guy leaving his woman, just like “Free Bird,” except that Ronnie Van Zant would take one peak at Prine’s lyric sheet and say in that Jacksonville drawl of his, “Wha’choo on, boy?” I love it when Prine sings, “Photographs show the laughs/Recorded in between the bad times/Happy sailors dancing on a sinking ship/Cloudy skies and dead fruit flies/Waving goodbye with tears in my eyes/Well, sure I made it but ya know it was a hell of a trip.” I can’t say I’m crazy about the song’s melody, but I sure do love its propulsion, just like I do the happy-go-lucky chorus: “Spent most of my youth/Out hobo cruising/And all I got for proof/Is rocks in my pockets and dirt in my shoes/So goodbye nonbeliever/Don’t you know that I hate to leave here/So long babe, I got the flashback blues.”

Meanwhile, back at the S&M party, I watched a guy with a bullwhip hit the exact same spot, and I’m talking a spot the size of a dime, on a woman’s back at least eight times in a row. Even let him try it on me. Sure, it stung, but sometimes feeling pain is better than feeling nothing at all, and I’ll bet you John Prine could write a great song about that too. Because Prine is a very wise man, and like I’ve said before a very compassionate one as well, and I can’t think of anybody who can lasso the wayward or lonesome or just plain twisted soul of a man and turn it into a heartbreak of a song the way he can. Life is hard, and Prine knows it, and people do weird things to make it through, like walk around naked in Viking helmets eating blue cupcakes at S&M parties in the suburbs, and Prine knows that too. And he can relate. He can empathize. He may laugh, but there’s sympathy in that laughter, because like he says in “Illegal Smile” those naked fellas in Viking helmets ain’t killing anyone, they’re just trying to have some fun, well done, hot dog bun, my sister’s on the run with a six-gun, from the law.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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