John Prine died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know…
I first heard him at the student union bar at my university in North London. I worked there and the bar manager, Tom, had a friend who was a punk from Northern Ireland. He saw that I liked country music and asked me if I’d heard of John Prine. I hadn’t. The next night he showed up with a CD, Prine Live. And after the bar closed and a few of us were locked in, I put it on.
It was instant. It was like when I read Camus’ The Stranger for the first time as a teenager and came across THAT first line, one of the most famous in all of literature, and I suddenly got “it”. So it was with Prine.
I won’t bother quoting liberally from his oeuvre as I’d like to, even though his words are like the gospels and you just want to belt them from the mountain tops. Those of you who don’t know his work are unlikely to start listening, and those who do are already trying to staunch the flow of sadness gushing from the John Prine shaped hole in your hearts, and you know already how funny he could be. And how tender. Sometimes all in one sentence, like in one of his most famous songs ‘Sam Stone’, about a heroin-addicted Viet Nam vet returning home.
‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all our money goes…’
My best friends in TO agree. And invariably on one of our many late nights his songs will be played. Usually the last one is Lake Marie. And we’ll sing along, smiles busting out of our faces. Not singing but shouting those last lines,
‘Do you know what blood looks like on a black and white Video? Shadows. Shadows!’
I saw him live in London. He opened for Bob Dylan. He was late. Stuck in traffic. And when he walked on stage he was given such rapturous applause that he seemed genuinely taken aback. And he apologized graciously and then played a barnstormer of a set which frankly left Dylan in the dust.
John Prine likened memories to souvenirs.
‘I hate graveyards and old pawnshops,
for they always bring me tears.
I hate the way they robbed me,
of all my childhood souvenirs.’
Just writing that my hackles prickle and my eyes moisten. But every time I hear his music, I get to pull an old souvenir off the shelf and dust it off…
It’s twenty years ago, at the student union bar in Tottenham. It’s late. The doors are locked, and it is just those that work there having a few drinks. Look! The great gang of us. I’m on the Guinness and smoking nine miles worth of cigarettes. Tom, the bar manager is there, he will be stabbed to death on the street a few years later. And there are my best pals Robin and the Bosher. Lizzie and Malin too. And that punk from Northern Ireland whose name I can’t recall but who I will always remember. And we’re drinking and laughing, all of us so happy.
Thanks JP. For one goddamn hell of a souvenir.