Welcome to the third installment of “Real Men of Genius,” the semi-semi-regular feature that celebrates creative artists who, while successful, have been largely under-appreciated by the general public (with apologies to Bud Light for letting me rip off their commercial theme…so far).
Today’s nominee is Mr. John Prine. Ever since Robert Zimmerman burst on the scene as Bob Dylan (fresh from his field trip to the Crossroads), fans and critics alike have been seeking “the next Dylan.” For awhile, Prine was that guy. I first became aware of him in 1974, when a girl friend (as opposed to a girlfriend), handed me a cassette tape packed with Prine songs. (For my younger readers, a cassette was the bridge between reel-to-reel and CDs, with a side trip to 8-track land.)
I have to admit, it took me a few rewinds to begin to appreciate the songs. Prine’s voice is country-twangy, although his subject matter is anything but. (Strange that he hails from Maywood, Illinois, spitting distance from Chicago. But Springsteen sounds like he’s an Okie from Muskogee, and last I checked, he was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. In music, as in other creative disciplines, reinvention seems to be the name of the game.)
With Prine, it’s the writing that counts. Story songs about losers and drifters and old folks. Social commentary. Humorous ditties. And that dying American art form (sadly), the protest song. Simple melodies married to complex ideas. Entire lives summed up in four minutes with nothing lost. You’ve probably heard many of his best-known songs covered by other, more famous singers like Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, George Strait, Bette Midler and Dave Mathews.
In “Sam Stone,” the heart wrenching tale of a Vietnam vet who returns home with no prospects and a nasty drug habit, he writes: “And Sammy took to stealing
When he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime. And the gold rolled through his veins
Like a thousand railroad trains,
And eased his mind in the hours that he chose,
While the kids ran around wearin’ other peoples’ clothes…”
No preaching. Just telling a story that still makes me want to cry. And speaking of crying, listen to Prine’s ode to the elderly in “Hello in There.”
“Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger, And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day.
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”
Of course, not all Prine lyrics make you want to guzzle a fifth of bourbon. Some are merely bittersweet, like “Souvenirs.” “All the snow has turned to water
Christmas days have come and gone Broken toys and faded colors
Are all that’s left to linger on
I hate graveyards and old pawn shops For they always bring me tears
I can’t forgive the way they rob me Of my childhood souvenirs.”
And others, such as “Illegal Smile,” are downright whimsical (in keeping with the subject matter).
“But fortunately I have the key to escape reality And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone No I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun.”
I could go on and on. Let’s end with a passage from Prine’s best-known, and arguably most poignant, song, “Angel from Montgomery.”
“Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”
Prine has written and performed hundreds of songs throughout his long career. A great intro would be the “John Prine Live” double album from 1988. I’ve never actually seen him live, but he’s on the short list. Prine is such an established creative force that people stopped comparing him to Dylan years ago. Now folks are looking for the next John Prine. (Hint: His name is Todd Snider.)
For his clear song-writing vision and artistic integrity spanning five decades, John Prine is the winner of this blog’s third “Real Men of Genius” award. I hope it’s not the highlight of his career.