Saying Goodbye to John Prine
The Dr Frank Weakly Reader for Good Friday, 4.10.2020
Hello my friends, and welcome to another Weakly Reader, wherein I recap, index, illustrate, and elaborate on the week past, thereby generating a document that may be more easily searched in future should I ever want to find the “content” in this social-media ravaged world of ours. I do it mostly for myself, but as always you can read along if you like. There’s a lot of stuff you probably missed, plus a bunch of songs and pictures, and a little thing about how much I love John Prine and his songs (below.)
So now, on to the stuff.
— John Prine: a few years back, in response to a twitter question that went:
“songwriters, what’s the lyric you are so bummed not to have written”
I glibly slapped up the first thing that popped into my head:
Bang when the pistol / crash when the window / ouch went the son of a gun. Onamatapoeia, I don’t wanna see ya speaking in a foreign tongue…
I do love that lyric, and that song, and I’m sure anyone who knows me as a songwriter would have no trouble imagining why I’d be drawn to that sort of thing, that glib clever kind of wry word-play stuff. And that’s why I thought of it. It’s the kind of thing I might (try to) write.
If you know me at all, you know I love gimmicky conceits whose songs come with an unexpected core of “heart,” and no one on this earth did those better than John Prine. I’ve even been known to cover this one on occasion, though it’s been awhile:
He had a facility with words and could be a kind of hillybilly Noel Coward at times, and I dearly love those moments. He could also do that more traditional singer-songwritery wistful, plainspoken, personal-window-on-social-problems-of-the-heartland type of song (e.g. “Paradise”); as well as genuinely moving, if often quite quirky, love songs too. And of course, character studies and oddball narratives. He did a lot of very different things very well. But all that skill and craftsmanship stuff isn’t exactly why he’s so well-known and well-loved, nor is it what makes his songs so great and so important, not at the heart of it anyway. Some of his greatest, most powerful songs have lyrics that are so simple, so plain and understated, that they’re almost not even there. Yet they manage to subsume the listener in feeling. How it works so well and so profoundly is genuinely mysterious.
Just quoting lyrics, as I did above, might work with some writers, but it doesn’t for John Prine. He was so much more than the sum of his parts and the words typed out just don’t get across all the hovering, ineffable contingencies that are brought to bear to make the songs as powerful as they are. They, the songs, are like living entities that take up residence in your soul, or at least have done in mine, and how and why they manage to do it seems beyond rational explication. The wry, goofy, often surreal sentiments and dry just-regular-folks observations are framed with a delicate, almost fragile simplicity, and yet with an abundance of bald-faced sentiment that most writers couldn’t pull off and would probably be embarrassed to try. And you have no doubt that however far the absurdity goes, he’s absolutely sincere. And when he smiles at his own jokes that maybe aren’t even quite jokes (something you see when he performs and also something you can hear in his voice on recordings) the sense of being “in on it” and a partner in the conceit is just irresistible. Over and over again you wind up taken aback by his vulnerability, and in turn taken aback by your own.
Many of these songs bring me to tears, even just thinking of them or their titles alone can make me a little misty. The other day just saying some titles aloud had me literally bawling — which used to happen even before he got sick and died. I can’t explain it. I just can’t. To conjure so much with so little is true sorcery.
I loved John Prine. More than anyone else I never met, I felt like I knew him. Songs forge that kind of delusional intimacy, but this was off the charts. He was my friend, I kind of thought, or his songs were my friends anyway. They must be really really good songs or I must really really be a sap or a lunatic. Or all of the above.
I thought he was going to make it, too, against all odds, because it took so long for the news finally to arrive, and in the covid-19 pattern as I’ve observed it it’s usually a much quicker decline from when you first hear about it. I typed “pray for John” on my dumb little posts and also I literally did pray for real.
But he didn’t make it. Unlike many elderly artists who have left their working days far behind, he was still very actively writing and releasing songs. I wish I could hear the songs he would have written after coming out of this, if he had. It’s kind of hard to believe there won’t be any more John Prine songs, to be honest. But I’m grateful we still have the ones we have, and thankfully there are a lot of them.
Rest in peace, my sort of friend. I’ll miss you, but I hope and trust you’re rocking and rolling in heaven as planned.
MTX SOLVES THE CLUES
— MTX BACKUP: diving back into getting back on the horse, digging for sounds.
— “I haven’t recorded many guitar solos in the past twenty years but I did one today”: something I posted from the studio while we were recording King Dork Approximately the Album. The solo in question is that from “Cinthya with a Y” and it’s a good one, if I say so myself.
— Still doing Mtx forever on Youtube, 1 x 1. Here’s “I Believe in You”:
— And: I once knew the source of this iconic LA punk image but I’ve forgotten it now. But of course our man Klode has adapted it for our use.
— Mapping the rock and roll genome: I’m impressed with Band to Band dot com, an attempt to construct a family tree of all bands and records and their inter-relation with each other. It’s a work in progress, but it’s off to a good start. As far my band goes, I noted a persistent internet error that I’ve noted before, the Ruzicka factor.
— …and your Friday morning “…Hilter…” from a Ukrainian band called the Биты (tr. “the Bats”). You may remember their Friday morning “New Girlfriend” a few weeks back.
DR FRANK IN SOUND, VISION, TEXT, & CHRISTMAS
— My sister Christine and me: ca. 1984. She found a bunch of old pics. That is really what I, and she, used to look like. It’s also really what the phone and wallpaper used to look like. What I’m saying is, I know it’s funny, but it’s real, too.
— Dr & guitar: just another pic, of me with my beloved Jason Ingrodi custom acoustic 00-DF. Hard to believe I ever got along without it.
— The Morcom Rose Garden wild urban turkeys: ran into one of them on an early AM walk and it felt like a pretty good omen.
— I am very happy. I am very sad. I have feling just like bunny. Just something else I saw out on the street.
— Dept. of bons mots:
I grew up on Paul Stanley, so sometimes I announce breakfast by saying, “people listen now, I got something to say right here. Are you listening? There were some good lookin’ girls in the living room just now askin’ if we were gonna have Rice Chex. I said no. Well then they said how about a little… Kix? I said, uh uh. And they said, well what kinda cereal we gonna have then? And I told them, I bet there’s some people in Toronto who know just what kind of cereal we gonna have: Honey! Nut! Cheerios!”
—All My Vinyl Part 1: Some writing I did about records, culled from old #vinylcollectorposts, feat. X-Ray Spex, Judee Sill, Andwellas Dream, Thin Lizzy, the Clique, Fleetwood Mac, the Dickies, the Flamin’ Groovies, Emitt Rhodes, and Jerry Reed.
(Btw, Dr Frank posts on Vinyl Collector will return! Just getting my thing together.)
— “I’m Like Yeah…” Just little old me picking out an old song on my guitar, for Odin and Spy Wednesday:
— Merry Christmas: a photo from Julie Green and the tale of how I got in trouble for doing a Christmas show in July on KALX because of an obscure Federal regulation forbidding broadcasting an incorrect date on the radio. True story.
OTHER PEOPLE’S MUSIC
— Robyn Hitchock — “Judas Sings”: one of his most beautiful songs.
— Just a really sweet song on twitter video:
— Robbie Fulks — “Fountains of Wayne Hotline”
I’ve always loved this song, a unique masterpiece, and it seemed only fitting to revisit it oh the occasion of Adam Schlesinger’s passing. Best tribute I could imagine, really.
— Roman calendar: Isidore of Seville from the Aberdeen Bestiary; Palm Sunday, illuminated; Mary of Bethany annoints Christ’s feet, German School, 15th century; Gethsemane by Giotto; Spy Wednesday, illuminated; Maundy Thursday, illuminated; del Sallaio’s Christ with the Instruments of His Passion for Good Friday
— Spicy: when a stripper calls; Elsa Martinelli; just a really nice Vargas blonde; Spring is here; Cupid’s Capers, brought to you by the National Recovery Administration; Julianne Kissinger; all the suits…
— …and finally:
IN THE NEWS
— Louis CK has a new show in comedy “special” form that you can buy and download for eight dollars from his website. Even if I weren’t a big fan (which I am) I might well have downloaded it for safe-keeping anyway, just in case it should get disappeared. (I know my paranoia in this regard still sounds a little crazy, but I trust it sounds a little less crazy than it might have a couple of years back.) Same with the Woody Allen memoir that everyone wants you not to read. You tell me something’s forbidden I want to do it, and it’s next on my reading list. Read forbidden books, watch forbidden films, sing forbidden songs, nothing is true everything is permitted… that’s what the smart, sophisticated good people used to say when I was a kid, but now they don’t say it anymore for some reason.
Anyway, I watched it and it’s great. When it was first announced, everyone on twitter seemed really mad at it — which is the thing that made me think I should hurry up and download it just in case it went away before I got around to it. And there was a lot of chatter along the lines of, so it turns out Louis CK wasn’t “cancelled” after all, he can still do a comedy special and tell jokes and such. Cancel culture clearly doesn’t exist, is the message, except it’s also a great thing, which might be something of a mind-pretzling paradox if they genuinely thought that. But of course not: they know it exists and they dig it. And in the sense that the guy is still moving and breathing, I suppose you could say the cancellation wasn’t complete or permanent. But what is often left out here is that this cancellation works the other way too. e.g.: his movie, which was really, genuinely cancelled, that is withdrawn from release and not viewable by anyone. For people like me, who’d like the opportunity to view it: we’re the ones who’ve been cancelled. I know there are a lot of people who like that just fine, who think we shouldn’t see it, or want to see it, so where’s the problem. The problem is, it shouldn’t be up to them whether or not we get to see something. Even if the film somehow does get released one day (and I heard LCK was trying to buy back the rights to it, so maybe it will) that won’t mean the cancellation didn’t happen, nor that the censorious cultural proclivity that goes by that name wasn’t there.
Anyway, I recommend the special, and not “just to show ’em.” But also, just to show ’em.
And I’m out: that’ll wrap it up for the Weakly Reader this time around. Have a good weekend. And for those who’ve made it this far down the page, here’s a gal in a hat playing a D minor on a Spanish guitar:
See you next week.