That Thing That Johnny Said
Within minutes of John Prine dying, some folks had already put content on the internet about his most "essential" works. It offended me so much that I posted something that night and called them some horrible names.
I talked to my daughter Lindsay about it this morning, and she justly took me to task for what I had done. She gently reminded me of something that I had pushed on her and her sister for years which was not to be the one spreading negativity. She also told me something that I had learned long ago, "You don't know people's situation, so don't make assumptions pretending that you do."
I guess in a way. out of grief, I was trying to don sackcloth and cover myself with ashes and let everybody know that I loved John Prine more than they did. It was a dumb thing to have done, and I'm truly sorry. It was especially bad considering that it was something that the man himself would probably not have enjoyed.
The last couple days I have been listening to heartfelt tributes from every corner of America, some from famous people, but even more from the ordinary folks who were always John Prine's biggest fans. It's been humbling to see just how many people were hurt by his passing and who shared the words and the songs that moved them and for a moment made the life on this wobbly little planet just a bit more bearable. Damn, what a wonderful legacy he left behind!
So, in an effort of atonement, I want to share some of the lyrics that have made me sit in the darkness with my headphones on and gasp out loud in awe of the man's ability to turn words into moments of great beauty.
There's a ton of great lines and phrases to choose from, way too many for any one person to know, and it is a testament to Prine's ability to pluck to everyday wisdom out of the air around him. I know that all the people who loved him got their own list of these. Here are some of mine.
I'm including titles in case someone wants to check them out. In some cases, I've highlighted the passage that made me stop in my tracks.
Angel from Montgomery
I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that's grown old
If dreams were lightning thunder was desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago
(Prine's most covered song. Right from the start he told everybody that even though he laughed and joked all the time that he was a serious songwriter saying serious things.)
Billy the Bum
For pity's a crime
And it ain't worth a dime
To a person who's really in need
(Who doesn't need to learn this lesson about the difference between pity and empathy?)
Christmas in Prison
She reminds me of a chess game
with someone I admire
or a picnic in the rain
after a prairie fire
(Just the phrase 'a picnic in the rain' but adding 'after a prairie fire', damn. It almost makes you forget the wondrous line above.)
I bumped into the Savior
And He said pardon me
I said "Jesus you look tired"
He said "Jesus, so do you.
(I just love the idea of this.)
The Frying Pan
I come home from work this evening
There was a note in the frying pan
(There is a freaking note in the freaking frying pan! That is not how you start a country western song.)
That's the Way That the World Goes Round
I was sitting in the bathtub counting my toes,
When the radiator broke, water all froze.
I got stuck in the ice without my clothes,
Naked as the eyes of a clown.
(If this is not my favorite simile ever, it is only because Prine has written several others just as nice.)
Far From Me
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.
(Far From Me is such a sad song, and anyone who has ever had their heart broken can relate to this image of when things are just beginning to move past the point of no return.)
I got kicked off Noah's Ark
I turn my cheek to unkind remarks
There was two of everything
But one of me
(Two lines that perfectly encapsulate everything Orwell said in 1984, and totally refutes everything written to support the collectivist idea that humans are supposed to live like ants and bees.)
You Don’t Even Call Me By My Name
I've seen my name, a few times in the phone book
And on the neon sign above the bar I used to own
(That he co-wrote this song with his buddy Steve Goodman makes it special by itself. This line describes such a mundane incident, but they shined it up so pretty that, damn it, if it don't sparkle like a freaking diamond.)
The Torch Singer
I picked through the ashes
Of the torch singer's song
And I ordered my money a round
For whiskey and pain
Both taste the same
During the time they go down
(John Prine is famous for his sense of humor and for all the comedic situations he created. Lord, but he could plummet the great depths too. He could just as easily have collaborated with Dostoevsky to provide the film score for The Brothers Karamazov or made Beckett's Waiting for Godot into a Broadway musical.)
The Lonesome Friends of Science Say
Those bastards in their white lab coats
Who experiment with mountain goats
Should leave the universe alone
(There are a lot of good scientists, but more than a few of them need to keep experimenting on mountain goats, and leave the explaining of the mysteries of universe to John Prine and Bob Dylan, people who never stuck a thermometer up a goat's ass.)
He Was in Heaven Before He Died
The sun can play tricks
With your eyes on the highway
The moon can lay sideways
Till the ocean stands still
But a person can't tell
His best friend he loves him
Till time has stopped breathing
You're alone on the hill
(I spoke at a friend's funeral this last year. I had written a post about how his death impacted me wherein I tried to explain how when we always greeted each other with the F word, it was just how we expressed our affection in the gritty "boys will be boys" world where we grew up. When I went up to speak, I remembered how John Prine had said pretty much same thing in this song. He set the message up so perfectly with the outright beauty of the first stanza then punches you in the gut with the second.)