“THERE’S a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” sang John Prine in his Mid-Western drawl. “Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.”
The song, Sam Stone, was typical Prine, a crushing, fearless indictment of war.
It was about a Vietnam vet, back home and unable to cope, suffering from PTSD and using morphine to ease his pain.
This week, America lost Prine, one of its most influential songwriters, to coronavirus after he’d twice beaten cancer.
At 73, he was still touring, still making records, still loving life, still sticking it to injustice when the indiscriminate disease struck.
When I spoke to him in 2018 about his first album of new songs in 13 years, The Tree Of Forgiveness, he said: “I have a wonderful family with two grandchildren.
“My record company and businesses are all family-owned and doing well. My health is good so I’d say I’m in a pretty good spot right now.”
His album included a hilarious reflection on getting old called Crazy Bone. “Well, if you can’t laugh at stuff — especially the tough stuff like ageing — we’d all be miserable,” he said.
“I see humour in most things actually. I can’t help it. There is so much of life that is absurd and comical.”
But, throughout his career, he could also summon compassion for the downtrodden, hence Sam Stone. “I’m still singing it every night 40 years on,” he told me.
'The loveliest guy in the world’
“It’s sad that it’s as relevant now as it was in the Vietnam era.
“I don’t have good thoughts about the state of our country now. But we have come through a lot and we will again . . . everything turns.”
Prine, who started out as a postman in the suburbs of Chicago, may have flown under the mainstream radar but he was loved by those in the know.
His telling observations of the human condition were set to music that falls somewhere between folk, country and rock, somewhere between, as he saw it, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
He acknowledged his eye for “the in-between spaces”, the moments people don’t usually talk about.
And his death on Tuesday in his adopted hometown of Nashville has resulted in an outpouring of affection for the singer who won a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Grammys.
His wife Fiona left a heartfelt message on johnprine.com: “John was the love of my life and adored by our sons Jody, Jack and Tommy, daughter-in-law Fanny, and by our grandchildren.
“John contracted Covid-19 and in spite of the incredible skill and care of his medical team, he could not overcome the damage this virus inflicted on his body.
“I sat with John, who was deeply sedated, in the hours before he passed and will be forever grateful for that opportunity.”
Bruce Springsteen took to social media to say, “John and I were ‘new Dylans’ together in the early Seventies and he was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world.
"I was proud to count him as my friend. A true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.”
Dylan himself once eulogised about Prine’s “Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree.
“He writes beautiful songs. All that stuff about Sam Stone, the soldier junky daddy, and Donald and Lydia, where people make love from ten miles away.
“Nobody but Prine could write like that. If I had to pick one song of his, it might be Lake Marie (a tale of intrigue and murder about two abandoned baby sisters).”
Another huge admirer has been Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, who inducted him into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame last year.
“Your work is extraordinary. It’s a vast enduring treasury. A beacon of light in these ever weirder times,” he told Prine in a video message from England.
'Having a killer song in your pocket'
“Sometimes it feels like you’re writing for all of us, which in fact you probably are.”
At that event, the ever-smiling Prine gave an illuminating insight into his chosen career path.
He said: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket, and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.”
When he fell ill with Covid-19 last month, folk legend Joan Baez paid tribute by performing the Prine song that had long been part of her live set, Hello In There, in her kitchen.
As he lay intubated on a ventilator, she said, close to tears: “John, this song has been one of the most requested in my repertoire for over 40 years. Let me sing it you and send along my best wishes and prayers.”
Just this week, on the day after his death, I talked to singer and kindred spirit, Lucinda Williams, who duetted with Prine on his album In Spite Of Ourselves.
She said: “I’m just crushed. We knew it could happen because of his age and pre-existing health problems, but we still held that ray of hope.
“The thing that’s so devastating is that we also lost Hal Willner (producer of her album West) on the same day to the virus.
“It’s getting really near to home when you start losing people you’re really close to.”
Of Prine, Lucinda remembered how he’d written great songs while still working as a mailman before his breakthrough debut album appeared in 1971.
“He kept a sort of childlike attitude and I mean this in a beautiful way,” she added.
“He didn’t change. He still had the vision, still had the drive and the passion and that’s what makes his death all the more tragic. He hadn’t given up. He wasn’t retiring.
“Everybody who knew him kept saying, ‘Oh, John’s as strong as an ox, he’s going to beat this thing, it’s not going to take him down because he had beaten cancer twice.”
Prine was born in 1946 and grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood while his dad worked as a tool maker.
Though he started playing guitar at 14 and attended the city’s Old Town School Of Folk Music, he became a mailman on the advice of his brother.
While doing his rounds, he found the peace and solitude needed to form songs in his head, including the one about long-distance lovers, Donald And Lydia.
A stint in the US Army meant a posting to West Germany where he took up duties as a mechanical engineer, a period he remembered as “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks”.
Continuing mail delivery duties on his return to Illinois, Prine soon became a fixture on Chicago’s folk scene and was encouraged by a headline in the local paper: “Singing mailman delivers a powerful message in a few words.”
Then, bingo, Kris Kristofferson, who had just broken through himself, got a late-night glimpse of this burgeoning talent at the Earl Of Old Town club, which led to a deal with Atlantic Records.
Kristofferson wrote the liner notes for Prine’s self-titled debut album, which includes Sam Stone, Donald And Lydia and the enduring Angel From Montgomery, which became a big hit for Bonnie Raitt about “a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is”.
‘Like stumbling on to Dylan’
He said: “Then he started singing. By the end of the first line, we knew we were hearing something else.
“It must have been like stumbling on to Dylan when he first busted on to the (New York) Village scene.
“Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s two hundred and twenty. I don’t know where he comes from but I’ve got a good idea where he’s going.
“PS: Thanks to the people at Atlantic for making good things happen to someone who deserves it.”
For nearly fifty years, Prine released a slew of great records including Bruised Orange (1978) with its wry ditty That’s The Way The World Goes Round, and The Missing Years (1991) with lyrical triumphs such as All The Best and The Sins Of Memphisto.
It was in 1997 during sessions for In Spite Of Ourselves that he had his first brush with cancer, a Stage 4 growth on his neck.
He recalled “I felt fine. It doesn’t hit you until you pull up to the hospital and you see ‘cancer’ in big letters, and you’re the patient. Then it all kind of comes home.”
Despite an operation that changed his facial appearance, Prine recovered sufficiently to make a return to work.
His second scare came in 2013 after a spot appeared on his left lung but again the irrepressible singer bounced back.
When we talked in 2018, Prine seemed so content, so enthused by his life inside and outside music. One of his new The Tree Of Forgiveness songs was called When I Get To Heaven, about his arrival at the Pearly Gates.
“When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand/Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand,” went the opening lines.
The track was filled with the usual Prine humour and found him dreaming of his favourite cocktail “vodka and ginger ale” and a “cigarette that’s nine miles long”.
He was looking forward to premiering his latest efforts at New York’s fabled Radio City Music Hall. “I’m excited. It’s going to be a special evening,” he enthused. But he added: “I also like hanging out at home with my family, getting my cars washed.
“I go fishing a couple of times a year and especially love getting over to Ireland where we have a little home in Galway. I like not working!”
Now, sadly, to pick up on the first few words of Sam Stone, “there’s a hole” in our lives where John Prine used to be.
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