John Prine marked the years for me. I started seeing him in concert when I was 15 or 16 and never stopped. Less of a special event, Robin and I saw him so often that his concerts became a sort of “date night” for us. When we grew too old for date nights, we dragged our kids to his concerts. Later, when the kids were grown and gone and the dogs had all died, we brought our nostalgia to his shows and held it in our laps.
Even though I’ve practiced the art of storytelling for decades, and at times made a decent living at it, I was much older than you’d think when I began to contemplate and understand the process of creativity, of the relationship between story and audience, of dramatic and emotional journeys, of character and catharsis and destiny. And of telling the truth.
As much as I studied and appreciated William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Naguib Mahfouz (and the list goes on), it is never lost on me how much I learned from John Prine.
When I was still a teenager, he taught me that you could make people laugh and you could make people cry. Sometimes with the same punch line, so that your insides didn’t know what the hell was going on. And it was okay. You could feel anger, love, empathy, confusion, compassion, distance, and, ultimately, human connection no matter how messy it can be. Even all at the same time.
These were complexities our fathers and professors and priests and coaches – men of “The Greatest Generation” (a moniker I take issue with; wait’ll you see what our kids are going to battle through and accomplish) – didn’t understand, could not teach, and often forbade. John Prine defied their ignorance and fear of emotion, of empathy. He cracked my ribs wide open to reveal a desperate and desirous heart when he sang, “I got so much love that I cannot hide.”
Now he’s gone. He’ll mark the years for me in a different way. Our nostalgia can no longer sit with us in lawn chairs at the Oregon Zoo or uncomfortably hard chairs at The Greek Theater or with whisky bottles rolling around our feet at the venerated Guthrie.
His voice remains, even if we don’t push “play”. He once said that after 72 years, his voice had become a friend, stopped being an enemy. Wouldn’t that be lovely? For all of us. Reminding us not to hide our love.
My father romanticized a man’s dying words. Unfortunately, his were not so memorable – not in the way he intended, at least. Obviously I wasn’t present when John Prine died, but I’m convinced his final words – because, if nothing else, he always told the truth – were sung: “Awww, Baby! We gotta go now.”