"There's a big old goofy man / Dancing with a big old goofy girl / Ooh baby / It's a big old goofy world." -- John Prine, "It's a Big Ol' Goofy World"
Imagine it -- you're sitting in a Chicago dive bar, having an utterly uneventful evening. A steady stream of dilettantes is taking the open-mike stage with their moon-June rhymes, banal diary entry songs and poorly rendered Dylan and Phil Ochs covers. From a table nearby you hear a few guys getting drunker and rowdier as the evening goes on. Maybe you can even hear some of the chatter. One guy -- a vaguely Asian-looking kid of about 25, fresh out of the army and currently working as a mailman -- is sniggering and telling his buddies he's miles better than these amateurs. They get sick of his bragging and tell him to get up there and prove it.
And so he grabs a guitar, walks up to the stage, tunes up, tests the mike and sings: "Sam Stone came home / To his wife and family / After serving in the conflict overseas," and moves on to the devastating chorus: "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes / and Jesus Christ died for nothin', I suppose."
Next up is "Paradise," which was destined to become one of the environmental movement's most powerful musical statements. And then he throws in the very first performance of "Hello in There," one of the only and certainly the most eloquent, touching and beautiful songs about old people ever written.
If I were that club owner and that scene had unfolded before me, I would probably have died of a heart attack on the spot. Except in the movies, totally unknown mailmen don't walk into open-mikes and serve up the debuts of three of the greatest songs in the history of American popular music back to back to back.
Luckily, the guy who owned that bar was made of sterner stuff. He promptly offered John Prine a steady gig. Prine was as astonished by the offer as the club owner was by his performance. "I'd never given any thought to making a living at it," he says, over the phone from his home in Nashville. "I might as well have been harboring plans to become an astronaut. And all of a sudden I become a singer-songwriter: I sang a couple of songs on a dare and they offered me a job."
Prine's elation gave way to concern. What was he going to do for an encore? Naive to the ways of show business, he figured people wouldn't be satisfied with the songs he sang that night. "I thought the same people were gonna come every week, and I'd better have different songs or they were gonna get bored with me," he says. "So I wrote my entire first album under that premise."
So between shifts at the post office, he sat down and cranked out "Spanish Pipedream," "Illegal Smile," "Donald and Lydia," "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore" and "Angel from Montgomery," all over the course of a few weeks, just so people wouldn't get bored with him. It's one of the most remarkable runs in songwriting history. "Illegal Smile" is the most fun and least preachy of all the pro-pot anthems. The enjoinder in "Spanish Pipedream" to "blow up your TV" is often quoted by people who wouldn't know John Prine from Nolan Ryan. "Your Flag Decal..." sounds just as current today as it did in 1971, and "Angel from Montgomery" would play at weddings without number throughout eternity.
Few singer-songwriters can match even one of these songs in their whole career, much less pack all of them on a debut album, but Prine was just getting started.
Ask John Prine about any one of his songs, and the interesting story is usually not in the song's genesis so much as it is in the song's afterlife. Take "Paradise," for example, the idyllic Kentucky hamlet where "the air smelled like snakes / we'd shoot with our pistols," the one Mister Peabody's world's largest shovel hauled away. It's a great anthem because it never preaches -- it merely states a few facts as to what "the progress of man" brought to a few square miles of a once-pretty, now-ruined Kentucky county.
There wasn't much to the actual writing of that song -- indeed, Prine thought so little of it he had to be dared to sing it the first time on that remarkable night in the Chicago bar. But once it was out there, no less an authority than Bill Monroe mistook it for an ancient folk song that had escaped his notice, and then it went on to serve as the hymn at a most unusual service.
"They shut down that [Peabody] mining operation because most of the coal in that region has sulfur in it anyway," Prine says. "And the people that lived there knew that already when they sold it -- they already knew about the sulfur, and the coal company spent millions only to find out the coal was no good. That particular shovel -- the world's largest shovel -- it was so expensive they floated it in by barge piece by piece and then assembled it on the site. And then it was so heavy, it dug its own grave -- it dug a huge hole for itself, and it was too expensive to move it when they shut the mining down. So they had to bury it. And a bunch of people buried it, including some who worked at Peabody, including the guy that operated it, they all stood there as they covered up the shovel and they sang ["Paradise"]. I thought it was pretty neat to live long enough to see something like that!"
And then there's "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)," the title track off a 1978 album that many, including this writer, believe to be his best. As with "Paradise," the details of the song are all true. Prine really did shovel snow at a church house on Sunday mornings as a child, and one day an altar boy at another church nearby really was "run over by a local commuter / just from walking with his back turned to the train / that was coming so slow."
Prine still remembers all the details of that awful morning. "It was early enough in the morning that it was only kids delivering newspapers and altar boys on the streets," he says. "It's a very isolating feeling to me -- I always thought Sundays were that way early in the morning. And there was this one kid that was an altar boy at the Catholic church a couple of blocks away, and I guess he was just walking down the train tracks and just kinda oblivious to the train and it came up behind him and just...dragged him for three blocks. And this all happened before I was going to work, and I was there at the church, and all these mothers were standing around, trying to figure out whose kid it was, because none of them knew where their kid was. And when they identified him, it was a mixture of relief and total grief. There were all these women who were both totally relieved and trying to console the other mother."
"Bruised Orange" would have an afterlife, too. "I've got quite an imagination, and sometimes when I write stuff from a real event, years later I wonder how much of it I got right and how much of it I made up," Prine says. "And I got a letter a couple of years ago from a family in Wisconsin, and it was their kid. And not only did they like the song, but they really appreciated it and said it had brought them some comfort. It was amazing to get a letter like that! After all those years, and they recognized themselves in the song."
And who, even someone as marked by tragedy as those parents, could fail to find comfort in words like these: "You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder / throw your hands in the air, say 'What does it matter?' / but it don't do no good to get angry / so help me I know / For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter / You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there / wrapped up in a trap of your very own / chain of sorrow."
Prine very likely had to take his own words to heart in 1997. Everything was going forward for him then -- he was newly married to his Irish wife, the two of them had a pair of young sons born ten months apart, his latest album, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, had been a critical and sales hit, and he was making great money on the road. And then he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. A tumor had lodged in his neck near his vocal cords. On the advice of friends, Prine came here to M.D. Anderson, where doctors at the Head and Neck Center excised the tumor and preserved his vocal cords. (Prine himself will joke that there wasn't much there to begin with.)
Prine says that stay was his only extended time in Houston, and you might think it would have left a bad impression. Even though doctors here saved his life and career, he could be forgiven for associating Houston with a dark chapter in his life, one of mind-numbing fear, pain and sadness. But he doesn't. "When I went down to M.D. Anderson, I was down there for three months one time and four months the next. So now when I go to play there...I wouldn't say it was a second home, but I really got close to some of the doctors there," he says. "They all come down from the Head and Neck Center. We don't advertise the thing as a benefit, but I always just give anything I make in Houston to the Head and Neck Center. I can't really see going down there to Houston and taking money out of the town, not after what those guys did for me. It was just the perfect, right place for that particular kind of cancer, and they saved enough for where I could go on singing."
Prine's only impression of Houston before had been the same one that all too many touring artists and other business travelers have, that it is a hot and hideous humidity-cooked savanna of parking lots and strip malls connected by potholed streets and clogged freeways, all overhung by choking clouds of smog. Most of us who live here know better, or at least that there's something more than that. Prine does: "For years I looked at Houston as just a whole lotta concrete," he says. "After my experience at M.D. Anderson, I learned there was a heart under that concrete."
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