Like many of you, I went to bed a few hours ago with the news. Like some of you, I woke up too early, thinking about it.
His death was one of more than 1,800 attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. on Tuesday, according to the Washington Post. Were he writing a song about the pandemic, he might remind folks — say, people prone to throwing pandemic parties in their back yards or calling the novel coronavirus Just Another Flu — of that cold statistic. He’d do so with wit, maybe even warmth. A wink and a grin. A cocktail of satire and sympathy crafted with an appreciation for the human condition, enjoyed alongside a vodka-ginger ale.
In a time of trolls, rants and hot takes, we need voices that are playful, disarming and empathic. In a moment of suffering, we need laughs, cries and inspiration. Honesty, courage and hope. We need John Prine. And while he’s left us for that nine-mile-long cigarette in the sky, he’s also left us his lyrics, his timeless, universal stories. Those stories are his legacy; they are chronicles of everyday life, scene pieces rendered with a keen eye — a reporter’s lens. Anyone who’s thinking about writing something meaningful should listen, and learn.
So thanks, John, for those souvenirs. Here’s a few I find myself thinking of at the moment, some of his first and last — some that should encourage all of us to keep clicking the keys.
Hello out there
Prine drew inspiration from a John Lennon song and an old newspaper route to write “Hello In There,” a song on his 1971 self-titled debut album. In a 2016 interview with Performing Songwriter, Prine said the vocal reverb in Lennon’s “Across the Universe” made him think about “hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody,” which prompted memories of delivering papers to a nursing home, where lonely residents might have pretended he was a grandchild.
The song’s chorus:
You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”
And the last stanza:
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”
I’ve always appreciated the poignancy of the prose — and the call to action. If this is a song about aging, it’s also about human connection, a reminder of how important that is. In those last two lines, Prine pleads for us to get out of our own heads, to pause and recognize another person’s condition. Pure empathy. And he reminds us of the power of words, how we can lift people up, wake people up, with a simple acknowledgment.
Now, as people walk farther apart and glance at each other with tired eyes, that’s an especially powerful sentiment. (Indeed, as my 72-year-old father noted the other day, I see more people waving at each other from cars and porches and sidewalks these days.) If you’re reporting or writing something today, take a moment to appreciate what you’re doing — fostering connection. You’re saying hello. You’re telling people that they matter. And John Prine says thank you.
Before we get to heaven
As the news of Prine’s death blanketed our phones and feeds, I messaged my best friend, who replied with four letters that shouldn’t always be said but sometimes say it all.
I didn’t grow up listening to Prine, but discovered him in my late 20s, through my best friend’s brother. “Spanish Pipedream” was the first song I heard, and I was hooked. A soldier fleeing war, a dancer dishing advice, exploding TVs. I later found myself playing “Far From Me” on repeat — that line, “Well a question ain’t really a question, if you know the answer too.” The guy could turn a phrase.
Last night, as word spread, I managed a grin as people passed around one of his newer songs.
“When I Get To Heaven” — the last track on Prine’s final album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness — foretells Prine’s arrival to The Great Beyond.
The first stanza:
When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?
And then I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town
According to his website, Prine — a reformed smoker who kicked the habit after a couple of cancer bouts — wrote the song because, well, he missed cigarettes. Where else could he enjoy a smoke without earthly ramifications coming into play, he reasoned.
Some folks might perceive this song — and others by Prine — to be irreverent. OK, that’s one opinion. Even if it is, I’d argue that, really, it’s self-deprecating, and vulnerable. Better yet — and this is how it’s described on Prine’s site — the song lends levity to a grim situation. (Let’s consider a nine-mile-long cigarette. More robust than your average one-miler, more sophisticated than your simple, round 10-miler.)
The world needs levity right now. Laughs, too. And this is a song that asks us all to think about how we want to be remembered, and how we want to remember our friends and family.
My thoughts are with anyone who’s having to write an obituary these days, especially as people are dying alone and funerals are conducted over the phone. I wouldn’t dare insinuate that anyone make light of death and this disease, but I do hope all of us can conjure things that make us smile, maybe even laugh, as we remember our loved ones. Whether we write them down is up to us. How we characterize them is an awesome responsibility.
Write it down
At the end of Prine’s obituary in The New York Times, he is quoted about songwriting.
“Sometimes, the best ones come together at the exact same time, and it takes about as long to write it as it does to sing it,” Prine once said. “They come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, because if you mess around, the song is liable to pass you by.”
I didn’t dream last night, far as I can remember. And it took me a couple of hours to write this piece.
But I thought about that quote when I woke up at 3:58 a.m. and, after 10 minutes of brow-furrowing, dragged myself out of bed and started writing.
Thanks, John. It’s been too long.