John Prine writes songs with a poet's eye for color and metaphor, a stand-up comedian's ear for wordplay and drop-dead timing, and a born raconteur's love of a good yarn. Anyone who has seen Prine in concert can certainly vouch for his storytelling charms. But it's no act. His banter, on and offstage, is the very stuff of which his best songs are made: straight-up, down-home spiritual philosophy; candid autobiography; gently barbed, cracker-barrel laughs: and a strong personal affinity for those people and things that are always a little out of sync, sometimes painfully so, with the rest of the world. In other words, everything "goofy," to borrow one of Prine's favorite words.
What follows here are tales that have mostly gone untold over the years - the hows, the whys, the weird adventures and dramatic real-life detours behind 41 of Prine's finest songs. For best results while reading, imagine that you're front-row center at a Prine show. Or, better yet, that he's just sitting on the bar stool next to you.
"Illegal Smile" - I have to confess, the song was not about smokin' dope. It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I've had this view of the world where I would find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at. But is was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn't want to stop every time I played it and make a disclaimer.
When I first started singing it, I went on this underground TV program, and the only stage set they had was two chairs and this fake marijuana plant. I came on and sang "Illegal Smile," and they kept having the cameras pan in, real psychedelic like, on the plant. On top of that, I got fined by the musician's union for not taking any money to do the show.
"Spanish Pipedream" - I wrote this when I started performing, I thought the first song of the show should be up and bouncy. I could only played two rhythms, fast and slow, so this was written to go with my fast, bouncy rhythm.
Originally, the chorus wasn't about blowing up your TV. It was something about the girl forgetting to take the "pill,' but it sunk pretty low after the first great verse. I sounded like Loretta Lynn singing about "The Pill." Then I got the line "blow up your TV." I used to keep a small bowl of real fine pebbles that I picked up on my mail route, and if somebody said something really stupid on TV, I'd throw some at the screen
"Hello In There" - I'd heard the John Lennon song "Across The Universe," and he had a lot of reverb on his voice. I was thinking about hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody Hello in there. That was the beginning thought, then it went to old people.
Ive always had an affinity with old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and Id deliver to a Baptist old peoples home where youd have to go room-to- room, and some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit instead of the guy delivering papers. That always stuck in my head.
It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody. I dont think Ive ever done a show without singing Hello In There. Nothing in it wears on me.
Sam Stone Theres no one person who was the basis for Sam Stone, more like three or four people, like a couple of my buddies who came back from Vietnam and some of the guys I served with in the Army. At the time, all the other Vietnam songs were basic protest songs, made up to slap each other on the back like yeah, this is the right cause. I dont remember any other songs that talked about the soldiers at all.
I came up with the chorus first and decided I really liked the part about the hole in Daddys arm. I had this picture in my mind of a little girl, Like Little Orphan Annie, shaking her head back and forth while a rainbow of money goes into her dads arm. I think I invented the character of Sam Stone as a story line just to get around to that chorus.
Paradise I wrote it for my father, mainly so he would know I was a songwriter. Paradise was a real place in Kentucky, and while I was away in the Army in Germany, my father sent me a newspaper article telling how the coal company had bought the place out. It was a real Disney-looking town. It sat on a river, had two general stores, and there was one black man in town, Bubby Short, who looked like Uncle Remus and hung out with my Granddaddy Ham, my moms dad, all day, fishing for catfish. Then the bull-dozers came in and wiped it all off the map.
When I recorded the song, I brought a tape of the record home to my dad; I had to borrow a reel-to-reel machine to play it for him. When the song came on, he went into the next room and sat in the dark while it was on. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox.
"Donald And Lydia" - I had a book with names for babies. I actually
called out names from the book, like you called the kids into dinner, trying to picture
the person in my mind. I had Donald quick; Lydia was the tough one. But I can always tell
first-time listeners at my shows when they laugh at that line "the fat girl daughter
of Virginia and Ray." The rest of the audience always turns and looks at 'em, like
"Let's see your membership card!"
"The Late John Garfield Blues" - What I was writing about was how late Sunday night going into Monday morning was always a weird period of time. Whether you were apprehensive about work or school, it was like the twilight zone. At first, the song was called "The Late Sunday, Early Monday Morning Blues." I finally decided to make it like the kind of movie that would be on TV at that hour, a John Garfield movie. It's not so much about him, the actor; I used this character to get into something else.
When Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge got together, they moved into this house on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles. They had an acetate of the record, and when they played that song, the electricity went out in the house. The next day, they found out that John Garfield used to own the place. It's a good thing it wasn't a song about John Garfield, or he'd have been turning my lights out.
"Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You" - I was going for a Hank Williams kind of song. Steve Goodman always told me that if I'd taken another couple of minutes and put a chorus to the song - there isn't any, just a tag line to every verse - that it would have been a hit country song. And I was set in my ways. Once a song was done, it was done. But Steve was probably right; he usually was.
"The Great Compromise" - The idea I had in mind was that America was this girl you used to take to the drive-in movies. And then when you went to get some popcorn, she turned around and screwed some guy in a foreign sports car. I really love America. I just don't know how to get there anymore.
"Sweet Revenge" - I'd quit my job at the post office, I had this album
out that got incredible reviews, and then this second one where the critics started to hit
me. I think it got under my skin.
"And the milkman left me a note yesterday,
Get out of this town by noon, You're coming on way too soon, and besides that,
We never like you anyway "
as quoted by Hunter S. Thompson,
Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail
That's good enough for me!
"Please Don't Bury Me" - That song was originally about this character I had in mind called Tom Brewster. He dies but he wasn't suppose to, like that scene in those old movies. The angels have to send him back, but they can't the way he is. So they send him back as a rooster. Which is why his name is Brewster. I ended up trashing that whole part and came up with this idea of the guy just giving all of his organs away, and I made a whole song out of that. It's the best organ donor campfire song I know of.
"Christmas In Prison" It's about a person being somewhere like a prison, in a situation they don't want to be in. And wishing they were somewhere else. But I used all the imagery as if it were an actual prison, with the lights swinging around the yard, the food tasting bad, making guns out of wood or soap. And being a sentimental guy, I put it at Christmas.
"Dear Abby" - I was in Europe, and my first wife and I stopped in Rome for the day. I wanted a newspaper, and all they had was the International Herald Tribune, which is all the tragic news in the world crammed into six pages with no sports results and no comics. And yet here's "Dear Abby." She was the only relief in the whole paper. And that's where I wrote most of the song - in Rome, Italy, that is.
Years later, somebody took the verse about the guy whose stomach makes noises, wrote it just out of kilter enough so it didn't rhyme, and sent it to "Dear Abby." And she answered it in her column. She suggested that he seek professional help. She got loads of letters from people who knew the song and told her she'd been had.
"Blue Umbrella" -This was just a she-left-me ballad. It's the same girl I wrote "Far From Me" (on John Prine) about. I ran into her years later. She'd quit high school and married this Polish guy who had a '58 Impala. She had like four or five children, and she worked in a bowling alley as a cocktail waitress. And I just thought, "You coulda had me." Like I was a real gift, right? Still, the first time you get your heart busted, you never forgive. Especially if you're a writer.
"Common Sense" - This was my Bicentennial tribute to that other great American patriot, Tom Paine. It's a song about the American dream only existing in the hearts and minds of immigrants until they live here long enough for democracy to make them cold, cynical, and indifferent, like all us native Americans. It don't make much sense.
"Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard" That came about while traveling around Colorado with Ramblin' Jack Elliott. At that time, there were a lot of people who were leftover hippies who never made it all the way to California, as if they got to the Rockies and went, "God, I can't get over that," and just settled in. Also, I had different friends of mine who went through the '60s, from being totally straight or greasers, then turned into hippies, and then into a religious thing. So I created this character who had done all those different things.
I got the name Barbara Lewis from the R&B singer ("Hello Stranger," 1963; "Baby, I'm Yours,"1965). The rest of the name of the character just came from that same place as "Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You"- it just falls off the tongue really nicely. I often try to match a syllable for each note; I call it the Chuck Berry School of Songwriting. He's got it so dead-on that you can just read his lyric, and that would be a melody.
"Saddle In The Rain" - That's another song about friendships and relationships, and being let down. Ever since I can remember, when I was a small kid, anytime I had a friend who really let me down, it would affect me. The disappointment was always large with me. So I guess that's why that's a theme I go back to every once in a while.
I don't do it with a lot of bitterness. If I'm going to nail somebody, I like to make sure that I give them all the rope in the world, along with a speech about their better points. So they'll know I wrote it because I liked them. Like, "This is going to hurt me a lot more than it's going to hurt you."
"He Was In Heaven Before He Died" - I was writing about friendship. My father died back around when my first album came out. I was thinking about the trips we used to take down to Paradise. We'd cut through Indiana and cross the Wabash River; I wanted to make a specific reference to that.
That one started out with the picture of the rainbow of babies over a graveyard. Where do you go from there? I consider that a challenge, though, to paint myself into a corner and then get out. I figured out that what you're trying to do as a writer is go to places that aren't so comfortable, that you don't already know how to get out of.
"Fish And Whistle" - I was writing about exactly what was going on that day. There was this hole in the street right in front of my house. All these trucks would hit the hole, and the house would shake. And down the street, they built a car wash, which I liked because I always like to keep my cars clean. I took my car down there - there were no attendants, you just put your money in - and everything worked except the rinse cycle. So all the soap dried up in my car. That was the kind of day it was.
I really did scrub a parking lot on my knees ("On my very first job/I said thank you and please/They make me scrub a parking lot/Down on my knees"). My first job, when I was 12 or 13, was at Skip's Fiesta Drive-In, which was the big place for the hot rods to hang out. I worked there during the daytime and helped this old Swedish janitor with his chores. The carhops wore hula skirts, and kids would buy the cheapest thing, a cup of custard, so they could watch the carhops and stuff. And then they'd take the custard and throw it on the ground. The next day, I'd be out there on my knees with hot boiling water with ammonia, trying to scrape this custard off. I thought, "This is what it's all about, all my jobs are going to be like this."
"That's The Way That The World Goes 'Round" - It was a fairly sad song at the time I wrote it. It was only when I started playing it that I realized the song was really uplifting. Actually, I think I was kind of fed up with a lot of cynicism that I saw in people, even in myself at the time. I wanted to find a way to get back to a better world, more childlike. I immediately went back and started writing from a child's perspective. I guess I do that just to get some sort of grasp on things when they get a little too crazy.
"Bruised Orange (Chain Of Sorrow)" - I had a job at 15 working at an Episcopal Church as a janitor. I was a pew dustin', cross polishin', lawn mowin', snow shovelin' son of a gun. Early one Sunday morning, I was walking through the alley by the church to shovel snow before the congregation arrived. All that's out on the streets at that time on Sunday mornings are paperboys, altar boys and guys like me. Turns out one of the altar boys on his way to the Catholic church was walking down the train tracks. God only knows where his mind was, but a local commuter train come from behind and they had to put him in bushel baskets - what was left.
I saw a group of mothers standing near the accident, not knowing whose boys it was. When they finally identified the boy, the mother broke down, and the other mothers consoled her with a great sense of relief. This story is coupled with a shattered romance, juxtaposed with a loss of innocence: "My heart's in the ice house/Come hill or come valley."
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