Behind the Songs of John Prine
Lydia Hutchinson | October 10, 2016
“I guess I always loved to write, but I never had anything to really encourage it. I never thought I could be a journalist or novelist or anything, I just had a wild imagination and songwriting gave me enough rope to run with it.”
From that imagination has sprung some of the most beloved characters, familiar scenarios, and quotable lyrics of any writer, placing John Prine in a league of his own. From his spine-chilling imagery of the Vietnam Vet “Sam Stone,” to the bittersweet recognizable characters of “Donald and Lydia,” to the sing-along “blow up your TV” chorus in “Spanish Pipedream,” Prine is a songwriter loved by his peers and idolized by his fans.
John Prine was born the third of four children on October 10, 1946, and grew up in a Chicago suburb. His parents were natives of Western Kentucky, and his father emigrated to Chicago to escape the drudgery of the coal mines. But John spent many summers of his childhood with relatives in the Appalachian coal-mining town of Paradise, where the culture, music, values, and blue-collar struggles all played a part in developing Prine’s imagination and insightful view of the world. And it was here that the groundwork was laid for his lyrical gems to come.
Prine wrote his first songs when he was fourteen after his brother taught him a few chords on the guitar. He played mostly for himself, his family, and “to impress girls,” but never really took it seriously. After graduating from high school in 1964, he worked for two years with the postal service and was drafted by the Army and sent to Germany. There he spent ‘66 and ‘67 as head of the motor pool, and drug his guitar around with him to entertain the guys in the barracks. After his Army days were over, however, Prine went back to delivering mail – all the while writing songs as he walked his beat.
Prine’s life and profession changed in 1970 when, after a few beers, some friends talked him into getting up at an open-mike night at a Chicago club called The Fifth Peg. After that, events began to happen to lead John down the path of becoming a professional singer-songwriter. He met and become close friends with Steve Goodman, who at the time had a hit out for Arlo Guthrie with “City of New Orleans,” and it was Goodman who played one of Prine’s songs for Kris Kristofferson, bowled him over, got the attention of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, and thus began the Cinderella story of John Prine.
To celebrate John’s birthday today we take a look at the stories behind a few of his most loved songs. Happy, happy birthday, John, and thanks for all the music and smiles you’ve given us!
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 send 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.
Spanish Pipe Dream
I wrote this when I started performing. I thought the first song of the show should be up and bouncy. I can only play 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 girls forgetting to take the pill, but sunk pretty low after that 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.
There’s 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 that 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 don’t 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 daddy’s 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 dad’s arm. I think I invented the character of Sam Stone as a story line just to get around to that chorus.
Hello In There
I 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
I’ve always had an affinity for old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I delivered to a Baptist old peoples home where we’d 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 don’t think I’ve done a show without singing “Hello in There.” Nothing in it wears on me.
When I was first performing at the Fifth Peg in Chicago, I thought I should have a new song every week so that people wouldn’t hear the same songs they heard last week. I wrote this song in my ‘65 Malibu on my way to the club on a Thursday night.
I have to confess, the song was not about smokin’ dope. It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I had this view of the world where I can find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at. But it 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 camera pan in, real psychedelic-like, on the plant. On top of that, I got fine by the musician’s union for not taking any money to do the show.
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 in the army in Germany, my father sent me a newspaper article telling me how the coal company had bought the place out.
It was a real Disney-looking town. It sat on the river, had to general stores, and there was one black man in town, Bubby Short. He looked like Uncle Remus and hung out with my Granddaddy Ham, my mom’s dad, all day fishing for catfish. Then the bulldozers 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 call the kids to dinner, trying to picture the person in my mind. I had Donald quick; Lydia was the tough one.
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 them like, “Let’s see your membership card!”
—by Lydia Hutchinson
From Performing Songwriter Issue 12 and Issue 46
Category: In Case You Haven't Heard
The other day I was watching TV and it occurred to me that I’ve become a prude. The show in question was innocuous enough, nothing shocking—just an episode of “Hottie Leaders,” featuring computer simulations of what various female world leaders would look like naked and in the throes of orgasm—but somehow, between that and the Pizza Hut commercial where Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson engage in some “girl-on-girl” action in a vast field of pizza sauce, something snapped. I know what the problem is: I’m old. I came of age in a simpler sexual time.
Back in those ancient, prelapsarian days, “girl-on-girl” hadn’t even been invented yet. At that time, “girl-on-guy” had only recently been discovered. I remember my parents and their neighbors standing in the yard with a pair of crude human figures made of wood, trying to work out the details. Sometimes a couple would get all worked up and forget where things were supposed to go, and the husband would have to call a friend—only phones were new, too, so sometimes you’d go over to visit a pal from school and there’d be his dad, just standing there naked, phone in hand, totally flummoxed. Women could get pregnant from merely watching a kiss in a movie! Girls, or at least the “good girls,” would go to movies blindfolded. I remember once, in fourth grade, I had to get engaged to a girl whose coat I’d brushed up against in the cloakroom. Those were simpler times, but, in some ways, I think, better times.
Same deal with violence. I remember how stunned we all were when the Cain-and-Abel thing happened. What, what? we kept saying. He bludgeoned his brother? With a rock? I remember the first time a severed limb was shown on TV. People were running out of their houses screaming. And it was just a fake leg, in a cartoon! Imagine how horrified those screaming people would be now, when, for example, you can log on to the “Evidence of Evil” Web site and they’ll send you a boxful of bloody prosthetics, which you can reassemble into a crack-addicted whore, who will then emit some clues through her computerized voice box—and when you think you know who murdered her you enter the name of the killer on the Web site and, if you’re right, you’ll get to see a short clip of her making love with her killer moments before he hacks her to bits while she has a flashback of her mother beating her with a chair leg.
I mean, O.K., there was violence when I was a kid, sure, but nobody really talked about it. If you got strangled and dismembered, you just got up the next day whistling a happy tune and went down and did some riveting for the war effort. As for computer simulations, sorry, all we had was sketchpads and pencils. If we wanted to see what various female world leaders looked like naked in the throes of orgasm, we had to use a little thing called the imagination. Plus, all the world leaders were men back then, and, believe me, once you’ve drawn Richard Nixon naked and in the throes of orgasm you never have quite the same interest in using your imagination again, and every time you even see a pencil you get a little puky and have to sit down.
Whenever I talk to young people—like some of the teen-agers in my neighborhood, or this one toddler, Maxie, or even a couple of fetuses I run into occasionally—I say to them: Trust me, guys, enjoy your youth, because the level of sex and violence is going to continue to escalate, and, by the time you’re my age, the world of your youth will seem like a distant, innocent paradise. The teen-agers and the toddler, Maxie, sometimes they seem to get it, but the fetuses—well, you know fetuses, they’re arrogant. To them, it’s always going to be a soft gentle ride in a warm comfortable space. And I’m, like, O.K., smart guy, call me in nine months and we’ll talk. Or I will! You’ll just be lying there pink and newborn, with a terrified look on your face, apologizing to me with those little shocked eyes.
Things just keep getting worse. Why, I suspect that, in forty years, when I’m eighty-seven, I’ll look back at the present level of sex and violence and go: Ha! Ho-ho! You called that sex and violence? That was nothing. That was Puritanism and pacifism compared to now! But then I’ll have to go, because it will be Stripper Night at the old folks’ home, and I’ll have to find my costume and my back brace, but on the way there I’ll be killed by a mysterious old-folks’-home invader, who actually works for Fox and is committing and filming my murder for later broadcast on “When Codgers on Their Way to Strip Look Terrified.”
Same with music, though, right? I used to love music, back when it had melody and chords and lyrics. But now it has no melody and no chords, just thwack-thwacking, and they even seem to be cutting back on the thwack-thwacking, so now it’s sometimes just thwa, and, as far as lyrics, do you consider these lyrics?
Hump my hump,
My stumpy lumpy hump!
Hump my dump, you lumpy slumpy dump!
I’ll dump your hump, and then just hump your dump,
You lumpy frumply clump.
I’m sorry. To me? Those are not lyrics. In my day, lyrics were used to express real emotion, like the emotion of being totally stoned and trying to talk this totally stoned chick into sleeping with you in the name of love, which lasted forever, if only you held on to your dreams.
These kids today, I don’t know what they believe. I mean, I don’t even know what I believe anymore, but what I do not believe is that watching Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson roll around in pizza sauce is helping our youth as they go forth and try to figure out what they believe! Scientific evidence suggests that even the fetuses inside of mothers watching that commercial are getting (1) dumber and (2) little baby boners. I do not go for that. I think that when a fetus is in the womb it should just be floating around with its undersized arrogant head empty and its little nascent penis just, you know, inactive. We grow these kids up too fast, and, next thing you know, out come the Indian and the Chinese fetuses, and they start taking away the jobs of our homeland fetuses, and why? Because these foreign fetuses aren’t jaded. They’re innocent like I was, like my whole generation was, when we were fetuses, back in those long-forgotten idyllic days when American fetuses walked the earth like happy unsoiled giants, doing algebra and reading the classics.
And yet I don’t like the fact that I’ve become a prude. Life expectancies being what they are, I may be only halfway through my life, and who wants to live out half one’s life as a prude? Not me. I want to live out about one-tenth of my life as a prude, that last tenth, when I’m inert and confused and immobile anyway. So I’ve decided to start prude-proofing myself via a series of daily micro-immersions in sex and violence. Last week, for example, I sat on my couch looking at a bra for over an hour. Then I forced myself to watch a video of a duck being hit by a car. Then I tried listening to the sound of the duck on the video being hit by the car, while looking at the bra. Next, I turned up the sound, while looking at a slightly sexier bra. Then I watched the duck being hit while I ran my hand over the bra. Then I had my wife put on the bra, which was a very effective technique, because as I tried to run my hand over the bra my wife nailed me with an ashtray just as the duck was hit by the car—one of the best micro-immersions in sex and violence a guy could ask for.
And tonight is my biggest depruding test yet: I am going to, while hitting myself with a brick and begging my wife to walk by in her bra, watch an episode of “Dream Yer Final Dream!,” on which a contestant selected from a field of more than five thousand applicants will be granted his Final Dream, which, in this case, is to be beaten nearly to death with a tire iron so that Carmen Electra can come in naked and give him a lap dance in the last moments of his life.
I have high hopes. I know I can do this. If I succeed, our whole culture will once again be open to me. And who knows? I may even go see a movie. ♦