‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose: A Tribute to John Prine
Wednesday, May 6, 2020
‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose: A Tribute to John Prine
Copyright - Joe Jencks, 2020 Turtle Bear Music
Jehoshaphat, was a radical cat
Fell off the roof today
Well they say he fell but I could tell
He did himself away
Well his eyes weren’t bright
Like they were the night
We played checkers on the train
God bless his soul, he was a tootsie-roll
But he’s a dead cat just the same
This first stanza of poetry from John Prine’s song, Living In The Future has always felt like it summed up something of his writing for me. Rooted in Beat Poetry and the indelible rhythm of the words, deeply connected to the great philosophers of global history, and still asking existential questions, Prine’s whimsical, seemingly absurdist poetry can at times feel intentionally obtuse. And yet, the more you listen, the more you hear. And the music is so squarely rooted in Roots, Rockabilly, Americana, Folk, and older Appalachian songs. The combination of influences and original style that came to define John Prine is deceptively complex for a man who tried to convince the world of how simple he was. And for many of us, his music was and remains part of the treasured soundtrack of our lives.
I was 13 years old the first time I played at an open mic in Rockford, IL. I played a song I had learned off of an Arlo Guthrie album, I’ve Just Seen A Face (which I later found out had been written by The Beatles) and I played John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV). I learned that one from my older brother John. He was a huge John Prine fan. And Blow Up Your TV, was one of the songs I grew up hearing regularly along with Paradise (Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County…) and Illegal Smile.
I am absolutely sure I was not quite getting the nuances of either of the songs I was singing that night. But I knew there was depth in each, and that both songs spoke to me far more deeply than most of the stuff the radio was trying to peddle to teenagers in 1985. Blow Up Your TV really did invite me to consider the very nature of commercialism, consumerism, materialism, and the ways in which I was growing up in an era that was dismissing the genuine experiences of living a full life on your own terms, for the fabricated and curated experiences that mass media was trying to sell us. They have gotten very good at peddling those images and ideas in the interim, and John Prine, well he just kept getting better at pointing out the solemnity and the folly of it all.
I remember the first time I saw Prine in concert. It was a co-bill with Arlo Guthrie at the Coronado Theater, in Rockford, IL. I was enthralled. I could not have been older than 14. And it was one of those moments when my life’s calling was grabbing my hand, and running full tilt toward the future. I knew I wanted to do that for a living. I knew I wanted to be a part of that world, the world of people who sing and write and travel, and who don’t always do what their told, and who get away with it. Sometimes. I did not want to grow up to work at a factory or a business. I wanted to get on that tour bus, and see the world. The circus had come to town, and I wanted to join up and be one of the “Carnies” who helped make the magic happen! I wanted to make music, and do it well.
I hung on every word. Arlo told great stories and sang The Ballad of Reuben Clamzo. It remains the one and only Clam Shanty I know. What a story teller. Prine was in rare form as well. What a night!
I never got to talk with John Prine. I just shook his hand briefly at the music table, when I was 14. I was not even prepared with a Sharpie to get him to sign the album I bought. But I remember that handshake. He looked me squarely in the eye, shook my hand firmly, and paused just long enough for me to really make eye contact. I said, “Thanks for the concert!” He winked at me and was on to the next person. But he took the time, even a moment, to actually connect with a kid who was filled with dreams and illusions, hopes and determination. And that one moment of validation was all that I needed.
I saw John a couple more times in concert, and his recordings were regular companions in my car for years. On long road-trips as my career progressed, I would bring John along for the ride. When my head was full of too much news, too many worries, too many thoughts to unscramble, I would put on Prine’s Great Days anthology in particular, and sing along with every song. Each one illuminating some different aspect of the human experience. Each song giving us one more way to turn the object we were looking at and see it through his eyes, and from a different perspective.
There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes
And Jesus Christ, died for nothing I suppose
Sam Stone is a song I did not come to fully appreciate until I started volunteering to write songs with military veterans, eight years ago. It was only then that the struggles of addiction in the Veteran’s community became more personal for me, along with the challenges of reintegration after deployment. And I am sad to say that Prine tapped into the universal with that particular song, in a tragic and beautiful way. I did not know Sam Stone when I was 15. But I do now. And it’s Sheila Stone too, in an era of greater integration. That song still speaks to a lot of people who are struggling.
All of John’s songs somehow remain relevant. Even when they were minted for a specific time. The songs reach across the years and into our hearts because while Prine tried to pass himself off as an “Awe shucks…” kind of guy, he was in fact a creative genius. John Prine was also a humanitarian of the first order, filled with empathy and compassion. And in the space that resided between his mind and creativity and heart, existed a forge wherein timeless ideas poured molten-hot, flowing into the molds of human suffering and triumph.
John never made any bones about his own struggles, personal challenges, shortcomings and many failures. He wrote about them, told stories about them, and used art to transform suffering into wisdom. I have no doubt that somewhere in the world, there are people who feel like John failed them in some way, and for whom forgiveness of his ever-present humanity was or remains difficult. And I have no doubt that there was genuine sadness and contrition in his own heart, for the times when he was not able to be the man he wanted to be in this world.
But on balance, for anyone he may have wronged, he did so much right and decent and good in his life. And he inspired countless people to play music, to own the emotions present in his songs as if they had penned it themselves. John Prine was simply one of the finest songwriters I ever heard with my own two ears. And I know a lot of songwriters. He was honest in his art. Uncomfortably so. His song about the murders at Lake Marie in Illinois (an event that happened in my childhood and was in the news for weeks) talked about the fact that in black and white pictures, blood looks like shadows.
Not unlike Leonard Cohen, Prine was in touch with his “shadow side,” as Carl Jung described it. And as Joseph Campbell defines the hero’s journey in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Prine was on a heroic journey throughout his whole life. From poverty to postman to poet to internationally acclaimed troubadour, his life was a heroic journey in the most archetypal sense. Campbell says that the hero must be transformed by the experience of being in the world and on the journey, and bring sacred and mystical knowledge of what lies beyond the veil of the known world, back to his people. Campbell also notes in his observations of the heroic themes that unite global mythology, that the hero is always and forever changed by what has been learned and experienced. And that in this apotheosis, the hero is never again fully a part of the world in the same way. The hero cannot return to life as it was.
John Prine was one who allowed himself to be changed by the world. He did not cling with self-righteousness to preconceived notions of who he himself was. In fact, he stalwartly accepted change, loss of control, at times his own frailty, and kept making music. He was a man and a poet, on a journey of exploration and transformation, ever willing to make light of his own mistakes and shortcomings. And there is magic in the way he made us all feel a little better about ourselves as he did it. He gave us all permission to be just a little more human, a little more gentle with each other, and with our own inescapable imperfections.
In his song The Great Compromise, John Prine wrote about a relationship that went south. He wrote about being a young man, and driving his sweetie to the drive-in movies. While he’s off to get concessions, she hops in the car of another fellow.
I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory
And awake by the dawns early light
But much to my surprise when I opened my eyes
I was a victim of the great compromise
Well you know I could have beat up that fellow
But it was her that had hopped into his car
Many times I'd fought to protect her
But this time she was goin' too far
Now some folks they call me a coward
'Cause I left her at the drive-in that night
But I'd druther have names thrown at me
Than to fight for a thing that ain't right
As a teenager, John’s lyrics taught me in one fell swoop that we should choose our battles wisely. And that what some people define as power, as proper manhood, maybe isn’t. Maybe throwing a punch isn’t the way you preserve your dignity. Maybe sometimes walking away with a clean conscience is worth more in the end than what people think of you. You only see them sometimes. You have to live with yourself. That’s true as a nation too. And the allegorical nature of this song as an anti-war statement didn’t really hit me until I was 19, and a freshman in college, and the US sent more young people off to war again, this time into the Persian Gulf.
Prine’s song titles alone, are narratives: Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard. Yes I Guess They Ought To Name A Drink After You. Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore. He Was In Heaven Before He Died. Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone. That’s The Way That The World Goes ‘Round. The Speed of The Sound of Loneliness. Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian. Jesus, The Missing Years.
Hello In There, Souvenirs, and Angel From Montgomery remain among my favorite of John’s more thoughtful songs, but who can pick? The only thing harder than coming up with a list of my favorite John Prine songs, would be to compile a list of the John Prine songs I hate.
Ummm… Right. None.
I could write a book. Maybe I will. But for now, I just want to acknowledge that one of the most nuanced, most complex, most substantive writers and humans in the world of music, has left us. And we all feel the loss in our own ways. And the fact that his death comes in the midst of (and as a result of) Covid-19, prevents us from gathering in towns and cities, clubs, bars, coffee houses, and concert halls across the world to honor John, by singing his songs in person. But he left us with an amazing legacy. And I know we will keep singing his songs until we ourselves are destined for other shores.
Please don’t bury me, down in the cold, cold ground
I’d rather that they cut me up and pass me all around
Throw my brain in a hurricane, the blind can have my eyes
The deaf can have both of my ears if they don’t mind the size
Thank you, John. You were a friend to a whole lot more people than you knew. May Paradise await you, like it was before Peabody.
~ Joe Jencks