I don’t know about you, but I’ve been paying closer attention to musicians’ birthdays lately. I’ll see a tweet or Instagram post about whatever legend was born that day, think about whether I have a record of theirs to spin, and if I do, I’ll host my own little social distancing celebration that way. Santana’s is today! Herbie Hancock’s (April 12) was fun; I made sure to spin my two favorite albums of his: Maiden Voyage and Mwandishi. The other day I gave Live at El Matador a spin to mark Bola Sete’s birthday (July 16) after seeing a video — posted to social media by the the Dust-to-Digital reissue label — of the Brazilian guitarist performing alongside jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. If you’re not already following Dust-to-Digital, I recommend doing so highly. Best birthday party on the Internet, as far as I’m concerned.
I have to admit that, before the whole coronavirus shitstorm started, posts marking musicians’ birthdays mainly registered as eye-roll-worthy — an excuse for opportunistic vinyl collectors to show off. (Probably says as much about me as it does about them.) Lately it’s been a way to add definition to days that feel uncomfortably similar to the ones that preceded them, like mile markers on a flat stretch of road where the horizon is the only thing worth looking at.
Deaths are the grim and unavoidable other side of this coin. So many deaths. Ellis Marsalis. Bill Withers. McCoy Tyner. Emitt Rhodes just yesterday. Too many to list. You see the news, sigh, check whether it was COVID-related, curse the virus either way, curse our pathetic president, wash your hands for 20 seconds, then play something by the deceased to join the fractured observance already in progress online. That last part could also feel performative before the quarantine started. Now? Grief is so plentiful and valid — the rules on how to process it seem to have shifted.
I’m still really sad about John Prine. In the days following his passing, I read beautifully written postscripts and kind remembrances penned by the people close to him. I watched the touching and star-studded “Picture Show” streaming remembrance. I listened to the albums of his that I had on the shelf, and picked up one that I didn’t — a copy of the hard-to-find The Missing Years that became available online via Nashville record store Grimey’s. I’ve also made a handful of pilgrimages to the new tribute outside Black Hand Coffee Company on Patterson Avenue, created by the brilliant Richmond-based street artist Nils Westergard and pictured above. (Westergard met and photographed Prine last November in preparation for painting a mural in Chicago. If you’re a customer of Prine’s Oh Boy Records label, you may have gotten a postcard version of Westergard’s tribute in the mail. I rushed to the little library that serves as the tribute’s canvas when Westergard posted to Instagram about dropping a few copies inside, but they were gone by the time I got there.)
I’ve cried at a handful of points along this virtual funeral parade (looking at you, Brandi Carlile), and each time that happened, I wondered whether it makes sense to shed tears over the death of someone I didn’t know personally. Someone whose physical location I shared only once — his November, 2017 show at Altria Theater. He’s not family, and I’m extremely lucky in that my family members have dodged the virus, as far as we know. But Prine isn’t separate from my family, either. Alongside the Band and Allen Toussaint, he’s one of the foundational musical reference points on which my father-in-law and I built the great relationship we have today. Our interests overlap and diverge in a zillion other ways — we’ll never see eye-to-eye on Bob Dylan, that’s for sure — but we both hold the Singing Mailman in the highest esteem. We’ve also bonded over Prine’s good friend Steve Goodman; I remember picking up a copy of Tribute To Steve Goodman at a record store in Colorado and immediately looking forward to showing it off the next time the in-laws came to Richmond. How many other families and friendships are glued together in this way? Just as the people in a John Prine song feel exceptionally real, a mutual appreciation for Prine is the stuff of genuine, lasting connection. If you know someone likes John Prine, there’s a really good chance they’re worth knowing.
When listing my life’s happiest moments — kids being born, getting married, really good sandwiches — I’d have to mention that 2017 show at the Altria Theater. It’s not just that I saw some of the greatest songs ever committed to verse-chorus form performed by the person who wrote them, though that certainly was a thrill. I remember particularly enjoying “Lake Marie,” and getting a kick out of seeing this old man dance around the stage despite having been to hell and back, health-wise. What I remember most, though, is how I felt sitting next to my wife that night. It was as if something had encircled the two of us and started glowing — a profound goodness that didn’t come from the stage, exactly, but that grew from inside us as a result of being in that room, in that moment, in Prine’s presence, together. I’ll never forget it. By writing uncommonly disarming, incisive songs, John Prine drilled way, way down, through the stuff we typically worry about, through the many rotten and rocky layers of this life, so far down that he tapped into the wellspring of humanity that connects us. And being at the Altria Theater that night was like dipping our hands right in and taking a sip. I’m so glad my wife and I were able to share that experience. I believe it brought us closer.
I’ll never know what it was like to share a stage with John Prine, or to call him a friend. And I can’t begin to imagine how hard it would be to have that taken away — after having gone swimming in something other people feel fortunate to have sipped from. Still, I’m sad. So many of us are these days, and for so many reasons. It’s hard to know where to put all that sadness. It sloshes around, bubbles over, crashes into other people’s overflow, and turns into anger when we’re not careful. That’s one thing Prine knew how to help with: He could take something ugly — loneliness, despair, addiction, jingoism — and turn it into art that, in addition to being beautiful, was useful. He boiled suffering down to a pocket-sized truth you could carry around with you, in case you ever found yourself in need of it. The nugget I find myself reaching for most often these days is from “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)”:
You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder
Throw your hands in the air, say ‘What does it matter?’
But it don’t do no good to get angry
So help me, I know
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
Wrapped up in a trap of your very own
Chain of sorrow
These lines have become a mantra — a way to hit the brakes when I feel my sadness metastasizing. I say them when I think about what we’re going to do about sending our daughter to school in the fall, and when I think about how John Prine would probably still be with us if we didn’t have a con man in the Oval Office. Maybe these lines will help you when you’re feeling frustrated and helpless. I gave my father-in-law’s old copy of Bruised Orange a spin while I was writing this and found a number of other spots to be helpful, as well. (“That’s the Way the World Goes Round” resonated in some new ways.)
I won’t go so far as to say John Prine will cure all that ails you, or that there’s nothing worth getting angry about. But if we’re going to make it to the other side of 2020, we’re going to need reminders that deep down, beneath the mess that’s been made of this country, we’re all connected. John Prine may be gone, but that river is still down there, flowing as strong as ever, and always will be. Now it’s up to us to drill down there.