Now that I’ve been away from the paper for 15 years, I can freely admit to all those irate fans who wrote letters to the editor over the years — I did make a lot of misjudgments during my 35 years as pop music critic of the Los Angeles Times.
John Prine, who died from COVID-19 complications on Tuesday at age 73, was never one of them.
From his debut album in 1971, Prine was one of the greatest songwriters America has ever produced, someone who embraced the underdog sensibilities and poetic grace of his chief influences: Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.
John’s debut album arrived at an opportune time for me.
I had only been the paper’s pop music critic for two months when my review of Elton John’s U.S. club debut at the Troubadour in the summer of 1970 helped launch him to superstardom, a point noted in the film “Rocketman.” I went from being just one of the crowd at the Troubadour, where the best new singer-songwriters were showcased every Tuesday night, to someone perceived by the music industry to possess magical powers to jump-start careers.
Mostly, the Elton review gave me enormous credibility, and I wanted to protect it; I wanted readers to trust me. So, I set such high standards for new acts that it took 15 months before I found another new artist whom I felt deserved equal endorsement: John Prine.
Kris Kristofferson, whom I had championed at The Times before Elton, heard the 25-year-old in a Chicago club and believed so much in him that he had Atlantic Records send me an advance copy of Prine’s debut album.
I started listening to the LP around midnight and listened over and over until around 4 a.m. I was enthralled by the empathy, commentary, wit and even humility in his songs. John wasn’t much at coming up with new melodies, but the words were magnetizing. The songs soon felt like old friends that you wanted to share with your real friends. You didn’t just listen to a John Prine song, you wrapped yourself in it like a favorite jacket.
In a front-page Sunday Calendar review, I called the folk-country album an instant classic and freely placed him in the company of Dylan, Williams and many of our other greatest songwriters.
As it happened, John didn’t become a superstar in the commercial sense. The debut album, “John Prine,” never even reached the Top 100 of the pop charts and the only substantial airplay any of those 13 early songs received was via cover versions by Bette Midler (“Hello in There”) and Bonnie Raitt (“Angel From Montgomery”). John’s biggest obstacle was a ragged voice that sounded too country for pop radio and too pop for country radio.
There was soon so much acclaim for Prine in the music community and press that he was widely hailed as the “new Bob Dylan” — the same way Bruce Springsteen would be a few years later. When the three artists met backstage at a Dylan show, Dylan wisecracked about how strange it felt having one new Bob Dylan on his left and another on his right. But Dylan was one of John’s biggest boosters. He once described him as “pure Proust existentialism.”
Within the creative community, in fact, John did become a superstar — acclaimed over the years by John Lennon, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman, Merle Haggard, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Emmylou Harris and, to complete the circle, Elton John and Bernie Taupin. More recently, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Conor Oberst and Margo Price are among the dozens of top-level artists who have toured or recorded with him. John twice won a Grammy for best folk album and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy. His body of work is an American treasure.
Here are my 10 favorite John Prine songs.
“Sam Stone” (1971)
John, who was born in the Chicago suburb of Maywood in 1946, was drafted in the late 1960s and spent two years in an Army motor pool in Germany. Returning home, he was a postal delivery man and he would often write songs on his route. This song, about a soldier who gets addicted to heroin to ease the pain from wounds suffered during the Vietnam War, describes the soldier and his family’s subsequent suffering. It is one of Prine’s masterpieces. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.”
“Hello in There” (1971)
Rather than focus on youth or rebellion like most rock-edged songwriters in the 1970s, Prine employed a much wider human canvas. He had a special affinity for neglected old people. “Ya know that old trees just grow stronger / And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day / Old people just grow lonesome / Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.'"
“Far From Me” (1971)
I’ve never heard a songwriter address the painful, early cracks in a relationship with the understated intimacy of this song from John’s first album. The lyrics feel effortless and perfect. “Why we used to laugh together / And we’d dance to any old song / Well, ya know, she still laughs with me / But she waits just a second too long.”
John’s parents were from Kentucky coal country and he said he wrote this song for his dad to prove he could really be a songwriter. The inspiration came from a newspaper article his dad sent him about a coal company coming in and wiping out the small town of Paradise. “And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County / Down by the Green River where Paradise lay / Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking / Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
While still playing Chicago clubs, John felt he needed a new song every week so that people wouldn’t have to hear only the same songs they heard the previous week. He wrote it in his ’65 Malibu on his way to the club one night. I’ve listened to it probably more than any of John’s hundreds of songs, always marveling at that tie between broken hearts and dirty windows. Who else could have thought of that to express emotional breakdown? “Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see / That’s why last night and this morning always seem the same to me.”
“Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard” (1975)
Instead of old people, John gives us a portrait of young women he saw on a summer tour who were so desperate for emotional fulfillment that they tried on new identities and lifestyles. The title alone conveys the anxious pursuit. One of John’s greatest moments. “Selling bibles at the airport / Buying Quaaludes on the phone / Hey, you talk about a paper route / She’s a shut-in without a home.”
“That’s the Way the World Goes ’Round” (1978)
Prine writes with an entertainer’s feel for his audience, which is why he often enjoys looking at life’s dramas in a lighthearted but still illuminating way. “That’s the way that the world goes ’round / You’re up one day and the next you’re down / It’s half an inch of water / and you think you’re gonna drown.”
“Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” (1986)
A tale of a marriage breakup with such overpowering, rapid-fire force that it is painful to listen to it, much less imagine what it felt like going through it. One of John’s more personal reflections. “How can a love that’ll last forever / Get left so far behind”
“Lake Marie” (1995)
A dark-as-night story about death, myth and fate that is too interwoven to let you pull out any verse that adequately conveys the song’s depth and purpose. Bob Dylan has called it his favorite Prine song (though he has also frequently lauded “Sam Stone” as his favorite).
“When I Get to Heaven” (2018)
It’s wonderful that John’s writing has continued to touch us for so long, including this good-natured commentary from his latest collection of new songs. “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?”