John Prine beat cancer twice, but he couldn’t fight off the coronavirus and the pneumonia it brought with it. He was seventy-three.
I have a bad habit of not discovering the work of some of my favourite artists until long after they’re gone. It’s happened with Nick Drake, Laura Nyro, Tim Buckley, and too many others to mention. I got lucky with John Prine and had the chance to appreciate him while he was still here.
For a long time I knew his name without knowing his music. I didn’t know anything about him. All I had to go on was his amiable, weathered face with its mop of hair that looked like it just fell out of bed along with the rest of him. One day I saw this pop up on my YouTube sidebar and thought, “Why not?” I clicked on it. Within a few minutes I’d become a fan.
John could make you laugh one minute and rip your heart out the next. A blessed few writers have that gift. I think it comes from a deep reservoir of empathy and an understanding of human nature in all its awful and wonderful contradictions. Harry Nilsson had it. Randy Newman and Lyle Lovett have it. Rickie Lee Jones has it. Tom Waits too. Springsteen has it, sometimes, when he feels like dusting it off. Not many others do.
John had it right from the start. He released his debut album in 1971. Some of the songs on it: “Sam Stone”. “Angel from Montgomery”. “Paradise”. “Hello in There”. “Six O’Clock News”. “Donald and Lydia”. “Far from Me”.
How you can write songs like that, full of the weight of living, when you’re only twenty-four years old is beyond me. The words only grew more resonant as he and his voice grew older. You could say he aged into the songs he wrote as a young man.
If there’s some comfort to take from something like this, it’s the knowledge that he’s probably somewhere smoking a nine-mile-long cigarette right now, grinning with abandon. Trying to write your own epitaph is a fool’s errand most of the time, but you’d be hard-pressed to write one for John Prine that’s any better than the last song on the last album he made.