So John Prine is dead.
Is it too sour of me, or too much of a damning statement to make, the day before Easter, if I note the following:
Bernie Sanders is older than John Prine, and he’s still alive.
Joe Biden and Harry Reid are both older than John Prine, and they’re still alive. (By the time he was 24, John Prine had written his first album, which includes the songs, “Spanish Pipedream,” “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” “Paradise,” and “Angel from Montgomery,” among others. By the time they were in their 70s, Reid and Biden had written many, many bills and regulations that made the world a worse place.)
Nancy Pelosi is 23 centuries and several Ptolemaic dynasties older than John Prine, and she is still, sort of, “alive.”
That’s the kind of world we live in. Nancy Pelosi survives locusts and frogs and the Angel of Death taking out first-born sons and the other Biblical plagues, and then she lives through the Black Plague in the Middle Ages, and 800 years later she walks through the Spanish flu of 1918 like it was nothing. Polio, TB, whooping cough, German measles, the vapors, ebola, housemaid’s knee, tennis elbow, affluenza, carpal tunnel syndrome, the heartbreak of psoriasis – none of these have any effect on her.
And then in late 2019 – when Nancy is in her early 2400s – which you would think would put her in a vulnerable age group – and when she keeps all of her internal organs in canopic jars beneath the haunted pyramid she lives in – which (I’m not a doctor) should probably compromise her immune system, shouldn’t it?! – a bunch of Chinese knuckleheads over-do it on the bat buffet. And then a bunch of murderous slave-state Chicom socialists cover up the resulting disease outbreak, so that it can spread all over the world and kill a lot of people, and then some empty-headed mouth-breathers like Jim Acosta can blame Donald Trump for it.
And it kills John Prine.
Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi doesn’t miss a day of work. A private nurse stops by to check on her, and Nancy tries to shoo her away with a wave of her hideously desiccated mummy hands. But the nurse is dedicated, and she rolls up the burial wrappings from Nancy’s bony arm and finds that her pulse hasn’t changed from its usual zero beats per minute, and then takes her temperature and finds that it hasn’t changed from its normal: “room.” She tries to listen to Nancy’s heart, but is then reminded that it is in the smallest of the canopic jars beside the stone slab that she sleeps on each night, and so she gives up.
And Nancy gets right back to her important work, making sure that not a single baby goes tragically un-aborted during this world-wide pandemic.
Ugh. I know that tomorrow is Easter, so I can’t post something this completely negative.
Instead, let me put aside the pols and the pundits who are testing our patience, and meditate for just a moment on the value of language and music in the hands of a talented artist.
I envy people like CO, who have musical talent. Though I haven’t played an instrument since the saxophone in high school, I’ve always enjoyed many different types of music. I especially love lyrics that capture a perfect, telling detail, or suggest an entire story in just a few words.
I remember the first time I heard Johnny Cash sing, “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout/We’ve been talkin’ bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out.” Many angsty novels go on for hundreds of pages, and many people spend months talking to therapists, without sketching out the story of a relationship any more clearly than that! Listen to the rest of that song – it’s not more than a couple of hundred words – and you’ll learn more about male and female psychology than you can get in four years and $150k worth of debt from any gender studies program in the country.
My favorite songwriters are an eclectic bunch – Tom Petty, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Dylan, Springsteen – but they all have a gift for language and the mot juste. (And yes, I realize how weird it sounds to try to describe the language skills of such quintessential American or Brit songwriters working in English with a snooty-sounding French term.)
John Prine, at his best, was as good as it gets. He could be goofy (“Daddy’s Little Pumpkin,” “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian”), and he could make you laugh (“I knew that topless lady had something up her sleeve”) and he could inhabit wildly different characters from himself in the way that Shakespeare could write everyone from women to workers to nobles to social outcasts like Africans or Jews.
Prine was around 22 years old when he wrote “Hello in There,” a pitch perfect song about old people which seems more and more true the older I get.
The song “Sam Stone” is a jewel, as tragic as Macbeth and as concise as a Hemingway paragraph. The story has been pared away to sinew and bone, and if there’s a better description of the pain experienced by children of an addicted parent than, “there’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes,” I haven’t heard it.
If you don’t know Prine’s music, take advantage of the downtime from this quarantine and check out his songs on Youtube.
As I was writing this, I remembered a short story I wrote around 25 years ago, in another life. An editor had asked if I had written any stories about music for a theme-centered issue he was going to be publishing later that year. I said, “Absolutely I do. Let me polish it, and I’ll send it to you.”
I had no such story, of course. But I loved music, and I loved writing, and I had an editor actually asking ME for a story. So started sketching out a few ideas, and ending up writing a story called “Dancing About Architecture.” In the story, I had the protagonist recite some of his/my favorite musicians, and of course I included a little shout-out to John Prine, a quarter century before I sit here tonight, writing about how much I’m going to miss him.
If any of you are John Prine fans – or if my recommendation causes you to check out his music for the first time – I’d be honored if you’d check out that story of mine. You can find it on this website; it’s one of two short stories, the only non-politics-mocking pieces there. If you like it, let me know.
If you don’t, keep it to yourself: I’m mourning a great musical hero over here, and there’s a pandemic going on too, you heartless critic!
One final and very different note, on the day before Easter. A couple of years ago, I came across a Youtube video of what looks like a Russian orthodox priest and a young girl singing a chant of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, and it is absolutely incredible. I don’t understand a word of it, of course, and it comes from a culture very different from mine. It’s sung in front of the pope (I’m not Catholic), and the lead male singer looks like the terrorist villain from a Michael Bay film. But if Christ had an amazing singing voice (and looked like a villain from a Michael Bay film), this is how I picture Him pouring out His heart in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But whether you’re an atheist, agnostic, Buddhist or Zoroastrian, or festivus-celebrating philatelist, if this music doesn’t give you chills, there’s something wrong with you. Go to Youtube and search “Aramaic lord’s prayer chant,” and you’ll find it.
Happy Easter, and RIP, John Prine.