Obit_John_Prine_36754

John Prine accepts the artist of the year award during the Americana Honors and Awards show in Nashville on Sept. 13, 2017. Associated Press/Mark Zaleski

The numbers numb the mind: More than 425,000 cases of COVID-19 across the United States alone, still growing by the thousands each day. A national death count, now over 14,000, spiraling ever upward.

Then, out of it all, a face emerges.

“John Prine died,” my wife told me quietly Wednesday morning as I rose in the pre-dawn darkness.

Maybe you knew of him. Maybe you didn’t, although at some point you most surely came across his songs – “Angel from Montgomery” or “Dear Abby” or the heartbreaking tale of “Sam Stone,” who came home from Vietnam addicted to heroin and traded “the house he bought on the GI Bill for a flag-draped casket on a local heroes hill.”

I first heard of John Prine in 1971. I was 17 and played the guitar. My oldest sister, Ann, who at the time attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, sent me a hot-off-the-presses album by a guy who only a few years earlier had been a mailman in Chicago and wrote songs while on his lunch break.

“I thought you might like this,” Ann wrote in a note, well aware of my love for all things Bob Dylan. “It’s your kind of music.”

She had no idea.

I devoured the self-titled album. I memorized every lyric that came though my Hitachi turntable and two box speakers. And thanks to the simple chord arrangements, I soon began banging his tunes out on my guitar, unconsciously infusing my voice with that twang he inherited from his parents, both born and raised in Muhlenburg County, Kentucky.

I’d grown to idolize Dylan for his often-complex poetry, dissecting his imagery and symbolism in search of the real meaning behind his words. For a teenager growing up in a Boston suburb, that wasn’t always easy.

Not so with John Prine. When he sang “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” – “They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war”  –  I knew exactly what the man was talking about.

And when he told the story of a couple growing old in “Hello in There” – “And all the news just repeats itself, like some forgotten dream, that we both seen”  – I felt their age, their sadness, the slow deflation of their lifelong dreams. That Prine could have that effect on a kid not yet out of high school speaks volumes about how he connected people across generations, how his songs were vivid stories that made us all feel so utterly human.

I saw him for the first time at Milwaukee’s Summerfest in 1974, where he preceded a song at the Schlitz pavilion by raising a can of beer to “the late great, Joseph Schlitz.” I realized that day he wasn’t just a great songwriter he was also a perfectly understated comedian.

Once he was doing a live performance of “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round,” which includes the lyric, “It’s a half an inch of water, you think you’re gonna drown.” He told the audience that at a previous appearance in San Francisco, a young woman had approached him and asked if he’d “sing the song about the happy enchilada.”

“Geez, I’ve never written a song about any enchilada, let alone a happy enchilada,” Prine told her. “You might have me confused with somebody else.”

No, she insisted, it was Prine’s song.

Well then, he said, how does it go?

“It’s a happy enchilada and you think you’re going to drown,” the woman said.

Replied the always affable Prine, “I’m glad you like the words.”

I would see Prine perform many times over the years. And whenever a new album came out, I’d marvel at his ability to keep going, to keep holding up to us that mirror of our lives.

Cancer surgery on his neck in 1996 permanently altered his already raspy timbre. After a year of speech therapy, he finally was able to retake the stage.

Cancer returned in 2013, this time in his left lung. After that surgery, a physical therapist prescribed for Prine a unique regimen: First, run up and down the stairs of his house. Then, still gasping for breath, grab his guitar and sing two songs.

It worked.

I can’t count how many times in my life I’ve reached for my guitar in a moment of melancholy, or in a roomful of merriment, and pounded out one of his countless melodies.

I can still see my parents jigging to the flag decal song in the mid-1970s. Prine aimed the piece – “Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for” – squarely at the country’s “silent majority” while the Vietnam War raged in 1968. His inspiration: the little flag decals that appeared one month inside the copies of Reader’s Digest he delivered on his mail route.

I remember the night in college when one of my roommates returned from an extended stay in western Kentucky, accompanied by a new girlfriend. Her name was Jessie, and she not only knew of John Prine but harmonized with me word-for-word the bittersweet “Paradise” about the obliteration of Prine’s ancestral Kentucky homeland by open-pit coal mines. Her eyes closed as she sang, Jessie understood the lyrics – “Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land” – better than I ever could.

Upon hearing two weeks ago that Prine, 73, had been hospitalized with COVID-19, I thought back on his past struggles and figured the guy’s tough as nails, he’ll get through this too and go on to write and sing about it, helping the rest of us fathom the sheer tragedy of it all. But like so many other victims of this horrible pandemic, it was the fact that Prine endured cancer not once but twice that left him more vulnerable, less able to push through it, stuck in a dilemma he couldn’t write his way out of.

So now, he leaves us his treasure trove of music, a timeless collection that will live on long after the novel coronavirus that claimed him is vanquished.

And as I finish writing this, I feel that old familiar need to pick up my guitar. The first tune will be “When I Get to Heaven,” from Prine’s 2018 album “Tree of Forgiveness.” It starts like this:

“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”

Rest in peace, John Prine. Your flag decal may not get you into heaven, but your music most certainly will.


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