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Hard Way to Go

Photo: Prine in 1975. Tom Hill/WireImage

Like a lot of folks since the news came in, I’ve been listening again to John Prine. Among his fans, though, I suspect I was the only one to be reminded of a class in Paris with the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, a few days after Christian Metz—the film theorist—passed. I remember that day Deleuze addressed the matter simply and purely: “We should return to his work.” That’s all we can do, but we can at least do that.

John Prine’s death anytime would have broke the dams for most of us, but in today’s waters it’s hard not to hear—and feel—more than an undercurrent of outrage. After all, the guy beat cancer twice. And now this? Against the global drumbeat that now daily numbers the fallen, what does it take for any single death to matter? A death that isn’t ours, isn’t one of ours? If you know Prine, you know the answer already. All it takes is an artist to capture their story, then the audience will hear it.

As for those stories Prine captured, well, we’ve certainly heard plenty about the so-called white working class during the past three years. We also know that any such divisions—any racialized parsing of workers, the poor, the homeless, the undocumented, the non-binary, and other marginalized people—is foundational in the history of this country and key if you want to keep such inequalities in place. Divide and conquer.

Rather than go that route, I’ll spend a paragraph or three parsing two Prine tunes, hoping to say something about why they knock me flat. I will note, for starters, that the opening image of his “Late John Garfield Blues” takes us in a direction directly opposed to the oligarchs:

Black faces pressed against the glass
Where rain has pressed its weight
Wind-blown scarves in top-down cars
All share one Western trait

Two cinematic images: the first of poverty and want, black folk kept out in the cold; the second of riches and celebrity, a distant, conspicuous display of splendor. The point, though, as we learn at the end of every stanza, is their shared effect on the speaker: “Probably don’t know they give me / These late John Garfield blues”.

The next two verses, as much as any I know, show the inimitable craft of this master songwriter. Even Townes Van Zandt, who lived them, couldn’t have written the following lines. “Midnight fell on Franklin Street / And the lamppost bulbs were broke” – and, yes, it had to be Franklin Street, still found in every US city, even if we stopped producing Franklins just about the time Prine cut his first record. “For the life of me”—the singer tells us, and we’re meant to take that literally—“I could not see, but I heard a brand new joke”. Some truths you simply can’t see, though you do occasionally hear them.

“Two men were standing on a bridge,
One jumped and screamed, ‘You lose,’
And just left the odd man holding
Those late John Garfield blues.”

Here the repetition of stock joke formulae is crucial: “Did you hear the one about the two men standing on a bridge?” The leverage it moves on, though—and the lever that moves us—is the line that’s missing, the one we have to fill in: “Betcha won’t jump. . .”

No one jokes about suicide, even when they do, so the gut punch delivered here is certainly not Marquess of Queensbury. Maybe, as the saying goes, you had to be there—close enough to utter one of those lines, or close enough to hear them. That’s the thing, though, every Prine song starts from the inside, then works its way out.

Which brings me to his masterpiece, a song that, too often these days, it’s assumed he shouldn’t have been able to write. And yet, at last count on Wikipedia, a song that’s been recorded more than thirty times, with at least half of the vocalists women (including, of course, the singer that made it famous, Bonnie Raitt). A contemporary notion has it that writers must have lived an experience in order to write about it. This song’s famous first line—“I am an old woman, named after my mother”—already puts that to the lie. Maybe you just need to have lived.

Grounded in the pre-Friedan period of his youth, “Angel from Montgomery,” no less than his white boy Garfield blues, doesn’t hesitate a minute. Anyone who doesn’t feel the punch in its first stanza must be dead already: “If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire / This old house would have burnt down a long time ago”. When we gaze out on the world—a volcano, a raging river, Niagara Falls—and see power that surpasses understanding, we call it sublime. What’s the word for when we sense similar power within, with nothing in our world to match it? Feminism, perhaps.

This time, an interior does me in:

“There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear ‘em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say”

Today, of course, the world is upside down. As I write these words, mourning a songwriter I taught my father to love, I have immense privilege: I get to sit in my kitchen, listening to the flies. For the foreseeable future, I’m spending my days at home, still earning my paycheck, and rarely venturing out from behind that great wall of class that separates more than a few of us from the many who have no such luck. Today it’s the ones who don’t go to work who must speak up—those who don’t have to risk their lives in a world where basic daily activities are life-threatening, because the world itself has become a coal mine, with all its canaries dead.

Today it’s people like me who ought to have something to say. And what needs saying is that our rights—food, shelter, care—are universal rights. Any civilization that separates a class of the privileged from others who can’t protect themselves, who won’t be cared for, who are simply being left to die is no civilization at all. It’s barbarism, and we must make it stop.

But I’m not expecting any angels, just the devil. Time to put him back in his hole.


JIM HICKS is the Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.

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