Nick Hornby is one of my favourite writers. “Fever Pitch” and “High Fidelity” are two of my favourite books. He wrote a book called “31 Songs” in which he wrote about his favourite songs. There were 31 of them. Dipping into this book again, I realise that these ramblings of mine are a very pale imitation of what Nick Hornby was doing in 2003. Oh well.
One of the songs he writes about is “Can You Please Crawl Out Of Your Window” by Bob Dylan. An excellent choice. The chapter on this is really good. It starts with him saying that he’s not really a big Bob Dylan fan. He’s got “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde” obviously because they are classics. He’s got some of the other classics, people have bought him some, he’s got no recollection of buying some of them and it transpires he’s got 20 Bob Dylan records. He knows that whilst some people would call him a fanatic for owning so many, he doesn’t really regard himself as a true fan.
John Prine died on 7th April. He had been diagnosed with neck cancer in 1997 and was lung cancer in 2013. Covid-19 was one illness too many. I was extremely sad to read the news but I was never a fan. Although, when I looked today, I find that I have 5 CDs by him. Seeing as he released 18 studio records and 5 live records, that is a small number. Two of those CDs form this compilation which was released in 1993. I had forgotten that I bought this, but today I am very grateful, as it means I can listen to some of his beautiful songs.
Currently “Paradise” is playing. It was released on John’s first eponymous record in 1971. Paradise was a real place in Kentucky. In the sleeve notes, John wrote that “It was a real Disney-looking town. It sat on the river, had two general stores.” In the song, John sings “Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel/And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land/Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken/
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” John Prine got saddled with the “New Bob Dylan” tag that was also applied to Loudon Wainwright III, Steve Forbert, Steve Goodman and even Bruce Springsteen. So it seems a bit harsh to point out that this is a similar story line to “North Country Blues” from “The Times They Are A’Changing”. Both songs are excellent.
Another song that might draw Bob Dylan comparisons is “Sam Stone”, also on his first album. Like “John Brown” by Dylan, it deals with a soldier returning home from war. However, the John Prine song is more sophisticated and rather than being a simple protest song, John is digging deep into the impact of war on the young men drafted into action, in particular how they cope after returning home. The song ends with “But life had lost its fun/There was nothing to be done/But trade his house that he bought on the GI bill/For a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.”
Richard Williams has always been one of my favourite music writers ever since he wrote the review of “Astral Weeks” in Melody Maker in 1968. He has a great blog called “The Blue Moment”. Here is part of his blog on April 8th: “To be honest, I never followed John Prine’s career closely, but he did provide me with one electrifying moment. It’s on Bonnie Raitt’s live recording of his great “Angel From Montgomery” Raitt has set the scene when the guy who wrote the song comes in to sing the second verse. His voice is a dried-out husk. “When I was a young girl, I had me a cowboy / Weren’t much to look at, just a free ramblin’ man / But that was a long time, and no matter how I try / The years just flow by, like a broken-down dam.” Does something to me, anyway. Every time. You might feel the same.”
John wrote this about “Angel From Montgomery”: “I had this really vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater with soap in her hands. She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything. She just wanted an angel to come to take her away from all this.” Wikipedia lists 31 people who have covered this song. That would be 31 songs I guess. No wonder, it’s very moving.
I first heard “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” on “Other Voices, Other Rooms” by Nanci Griffith on which John and Nanci sing together as a duet. In the sleeve notes, John writes that he was inspired to write the song by looking at a picture of an astronaut’s face all contorted by G-force. “I was thinking of somebody’s heart being pulled apart by G-force”
“It’s A Big Old Goofy World” is introduced by John on this anthology as a song he was inspired to write after reading a bunch of similies. He said that the original title of the song was “When The World Was As Flat As A Pancake, Mona Lisa Was As Happy As A Clam.” In the song he uses the following similies: work like a dog – quiet as a mouse – eats like a horse – smokes like a chimney – drinks like a fish – sing like an angel – eat like a bird -lie like a rug – happy as a clam – clear as a bell – wise as an owl – stubborn as a mule. It’s utterly charming.
Two other songs by John Prine that I love are “Lake Marie” from “Lost Dogs And Mixed Blessings” and the title track from “In Spite Of Ourselves” sung with Iris DeMent. These were recorded after this anthology was released.
In the obituary he wrote for the Guardian, Robin Denselow wrote: “Musically, his style veered between folk and country, with a dash of country-rock and rockabilly thrown in, but lyrically he was far harder to define. He wrote about the problems of everyday life, about loneliness, the elderly, victims of war and those abandoned by the American dream, but did so with a blend of poignancy, anger and sudden bursts of humour.”