John Prine fans love stories. Beyond the American folklorist’s songwriting success is a fundamental interest in writing, as described here: “I guess I always loved to write, but I never had anything to really encourage it. I never thought I could be a journalist or novelist or anything, I just had a wild imagination and songwriting gave me enough rope to run with it.” This doesn’t sound exactly like an authentic John Prine quote to me, maybe it’s a paraphrase, but there is no disputing that John does have a wild imagination, and no doubt John experienced an early interest in writing. He and I certainly have that in common, even though he makes a lot more money than I do.
Indeed, John Prine generally has had greater fortune than most of us. Like some of us, however, the famous lyricist has had his share of health scares, and like some of us, he continues to work hard to persevere. Without any of these challenges, he would still be admirable. Yet, I might point out that his health challenges likely include the sort of debilitating fatigue that is the focus of this 31 day writing challenge for me.
Certainly it feels a bit disingenuous to be comparing myself to John Prine, but as a writer, comparisons and differences come automatically. They are instantly recognizable, and then sometimes, well, undeniable. The fact that one of the greatest living songwriters of our time shares interests and ailments in common with one of the most unknown bloggers on the internet seems a rather compelling synthesis–and this connection with the ordinary person explains, in part, what makes John Prine’s writing so successful. His humility enables him to identify with his fans, and we in turn, identify with him. He comes before us as a regular guy, albeit in his trademark black suit and carrying his guitar or guitar case, but on stage he laughs with us, he connects with us, and even shows his appreciation for us.
In all the John Prine concerts I have attended, my favorite ones have occurred since my head injury. Because of my growing adoration for him, my gratefulness to still be here able to enjoy art, and at that very moment, his music in particular…or maybe just because of the emotional lability that comes from concussion, after his finishing a song with his band (which is awesome and worthy of its own post), I have screamed to him on stage at the top of my lungs, “I LOVE YOU, JOHN! I LOVE YOU, JOHN!” During last summer’s 2014 concert at Red Rocks near Denver, Colorado, he clearly heard me (we were in Row 11; although I am pretty sure he heard me at other concerts, too; it may have been that he even recognized me as that screaming fan again), to my surprise, he didn’t turn away or act annoyed, but instead looked right at me and said with love, “Thank you. We appreciate that.” The man has a heart so big that he truly appreciates his fans’ appreciation. Like all great artists, neither joy nor sorrow escapes him, and we hear this in his music, we witness it at his concerts.
One characteristic most praiseworthy about John Prine’s work is that he takes cliche’s and spins them into extended metaphors of high art. Or to borrow a teaching metaphor, he turns “D” writing into “A” writing. I’m not sure he has to work all that hard to do this; at least he makes it appear effortless. His Irish whimsy and sense of the absurd seem ever present, and this elevates his language from prose to poetry, as if his inner William Butler Yeats is always there having a beer with him. His lyrics are filled with literary embellishment that employ tropes, wit, satire, sarcasm, irony, and even once in a blue moon, allusion. The best thing is when he draws his own characters, real or imaginary, such as “the oldest baby in the world,” “Sabu,” “Mr. Peabody,” the “big old goofy man dancing with a big old goofy girl” and “some humans [that] ain’t human.” Like a fine novel, his songs will make you laugh and they will make you cry. He’s like a modern day Dickens contrasting the great expectations of a people, large and small–but mostly examining the life of the small. Or, as John Prine plainly puts it in “Humidity Built the Snowman, “The scientific nature of the ordinary man / Is to go on out and do the best you can.”
That idea is certainly the philosophy behind Stumbler. We live our lives, take a few hits and a few falls, pick ourselves up as long as we can, and keep trying. That’s what’s happening with this piece, too, as I write spontaneously and a bit rushed to finish it a day later than hoped–hoping to have the day I hope to have today. Yesterday, I just got to busy living and then too tired to write about it. So, because writing is what matters here, this is what I stitched together last night–after the Cubs beat the Cardinals 6-3 in the second of five games in the National League Divisional Playoff Series–Lord knows (and John surely knows) that that was rare tv worth watching. Even though it was his birthday, John even may have been following the game himself…
It’s just past ten o’clock on the 10th day of the tenth month of the year, October, 2015. It also happens to be the tenth day of my 31 day writing challenge and one of the busiest Saturdays this woman has seen in a long time. I completed Day 9 of this writing challenge at about this same time last night, however mostly with my eyes closed. I’ve got no guesses as to what all of these tens could mean, but hopefully I will figure out something. I’m a little slap-happy here, but let’s see what happens. We can relax, because even though we’re on the internet and all, it’s only blogging. And we don’t really care that much; the point is to write. Sleepers may sleep, but we writers–we don’t sleep.
As I fight the fatigue that has plagued me for so long by forcing change in the ways I have been discussing on this blog and more particularly in this challenge–and mostly by just good old fashioned keeping busy–I find the days flying by, seemingly as quickly as the years that are already gone, including the long-suffering ones which were all but lost entirely. The decade and the decades–gone in a whoosh! But that’s cliche, I know. So I hope everyone will forgive me if nothing gold comes from this keyboard tonight–because I really hate to have to be writing this on the fly. Real writers write ahead of schedule; they make no apologies, but I’m just working a writing challenge, trying to figure out what all to say, and mostly trying to make my deadline by midnight tonight, because…
Today is the birthday of the great American singer/songwriter John Prine.
That is 10/10/46.
He is (or was) 69 years old today!
You would think that on such a great writer’s birthday I could get it together to permit the possibility of writing earlier in the day when one hopefully suffers less fatigue…but alas, I could not. I’ve been busy planning another birthday party; in fact, this one for my father’s 85th–a mere one week away. I had to get the cake ordered, the balloons, the photos…and there’s been some drama. So, stay tuned for all of that.
I just figured out the significance of all of these tens…even though it’s probably passe’ to say it now,
John Prine is a 10! / John Prine is a 10!
So, please allow me to trace, if you will, a summary of my affiliation with “John,” as most of his fans know him. I first heard John’s music coming from my brother’s bedroom stereo around 1971. Back then, I didn’t pay much attention; my brother was always listening to music; I just heard it enough to notice that it wasn’t Cream’s “White Room” or Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” I remember lifting my head toward the newness, then I kept right on staying out of my big brother’s hair, the way he and I both preferred. Most likely, I was on the phone. The land line. We called them house phones back then. They plugged into the wall and they had cords that were coiled and cords that were extenders, so we could walk around the room, kind of like we walk around the mall now, phone in hand. I had a phone that was pink. It was called a Princess Phone, and it had a rotary dial. I wonder whatever happened to all the phones people had. Was there a telephone landfill? John Prine started out as a mailman. I don’t think he ever worked for the telephone company, though lots of people did. Telephones have changed a lot over the years. I don’t think John has ever written a song about telephones. Maybe Bonnie Raitt has. If you know, you can tell me in the comments below.
So, my brother was a senior in high school, a gymnast, and four years older than me. John Prine was six years older than my brother; that is, the “middle” one–I had two older brothers, so one year older than my oldest brother, I would later learn, and also, whadd’ya know?, a gymnast, as both my brothers were–which was a huge deal in our family–and at a high school not twenty miles down the road from where we lived. I’m not sure what all these coincidences mean, other than it must have been meant to be that I found John Prine. I’ve got to be one of his biggest fans, in my way; certainly much bigger than my brother who still listens to him, but has become more like one of the people John sings about…
But back to then, the 1970s and 80s–years that felt like days passed….I didn’t hear John Prine’s music again until I was with my brother during his senior year and my freshman year of college when we were driving the long distance back home from the university we both attended (because my parents, imagining he would look after me, made me go to the same school as my brother). Of course, he didn’t look after me at all…but we did drive to and from school together whenever the occasion arose. Actually, he drove while I endured his driving.
So, one spring day toward the end of the semester, we were driving along in my brother’s old Pontiac Catalina convertible, listening to an 8-track audio tape of one of John’s most famous songs, “Illegal Smile.” Since this time I was stuck in the front passenger’s seat of the car with nothing but time, I now listened more carefully. My brother has always been more prone to “illegal smiles” than I, but to see us both, you would expect that even this first time listening that I was enjoying the song every bit as much as he was.
I remember how my brother and I laughed when John sang the surprise ending, which includes the words–with a big, sloppy caesura, a catastrophic pause to set the scene–
“Sonofagun /my sister / is a nun!”
We laughed at the irony of the tale of a stoner pulled over by a cop, nervously reciting all the excuses lawbreakers do to try to persuade cops to let him off the hook…because way back then, marijuana was not even close to legal. We laughed, too, at the wordplay of the sister being a nun, since as Catholics we always knew nuns really to be sisters…and of course there I was in the flesh, the always holier than thou, in fact biological, sister! If neither one of us was stoned at the time, we both certainly were beginning to feel like we were. As we laughed, we were bonded in a collision with our innocence, and I always remember this as one of my favorite memories of being with my brother.
The years went by, and we experienced tragedy in our family. Above all, we lost our oldest brother, whom we were both closer to than each other. It ripped the hearts out of my brother and me, and of course out of both of our parents. We all dealt with it in the individual ways that people do, and before we knew what to think anymore, my brother and I; that is, my only living brother and I, had grown divided and stopped speaking to one another altogether. In our disunity, we both remain John Prine fans to this day, some thirty years after the drive with Sam Stone in my brother’s convertible.
Here is a John Prine song that encapsulates some of these sorts of experiences between siblings, between me and my only two older brothers, both of them now gone from me. It has the lines, “We lost Davey in the Korean War / We don’t know what for / Don’t matter any more,” called “Hello In There.”
Here is another song I shared yesterday on the John Prine Facebook page, called, “All the Best.”
Awww, shucks, this has been fun. Yesterday, I woke up thinking of John on his birthday and then throughout the day. What I’ve found is that I could just write and write and write about John Prine. Maybe I will have to write about him again another time.
Fortunately, thank the heavens, I got some living to do.
Fortunately, thank everything I know, I got some gold inside me, too.
Here’s to all of you, John Prine fans old and new, remember always “You Got Gold.“
This is Day 10 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue
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