I went to a record store and found John Prine’s first album when I was 15, a couple of days after hearing a redheaded girl singing “Hello in There” at a party where a lot of underage drinking was going on. Some guy played the piano, she had a great voice, and can still hear the way she delivered the killer line, “We lost Davy in the Korean War. I still don’t know for. Don’t matter anymore.” As if she was 50 years old instead of 15. I gasped at the sudden clarity and hard truth of it – a common reaction to John Prine lyrics, I would learn.
That song made a lot of us kids realize there was an old person inside, biding their time, just waiting to come out. Mine is writing this now, with my burning eyes.
I have that girl – wherever she is and whatever her name was – to thank for inclining my trajectory toward my lifelong mentor. I have John to thank for saving my life and sanity time and again in the years before diagnosed atypical depression and Prozac, when I was just another moody kid who thought about the Big Issues too much, with no perspective to draw any meaningful conclusions. That job fell to John, who explained the human condition for me and the other moody kids who grew up into slightly less moody, better medicated old men and women, waiting for someone to say “Hello in there. Hello.”
I am certain that I have a better understanding and more forgiveness in me than I would have had I not gone to that long-ago party. And I am certain I wouldn’t be suffering such a strong sense of loss at the death of a man I never got closer to than an orchestra seat while he played his guitar onstage, his right arm circling, fingers flying, picking out just the right notes from the distinctive, instinctive, three or four chords that rang through quiet bars and theaters where he performed.
I would not be as funny. I appropriated his humor, a hard thing not to do when you listened to his tunes the way I did: repeatedly, with headphones on, ignoring all else. I wouldn’t write as well. I studied his lyrics to try to learn how to hook words together to make them say more than they were designed to.
John’s been gone a little more than a week, now, taken by the God damned coronavirus. I haven’t been listening to any of his tunes yet, because I’m already self-quarantined against the foul pestilence alone in the apartment. I’m trying to keep busy, and I know listening to all those old songs would make me wind up on the floor watching the shadows cross the ceiling.
But I have been singing the words I can’t forget as they popped into my head. I whisper them softly, like a monk saying his rosary. Call me a John Prine Christian who trusts completely without any pretense of knowing it all, without faith or even full belief. Just trusting the Word of John, my own beloved apostle, taking comfort in the knowledge that he’s drinking vodka and ginger ale and still smoking on that cigarette that’s nine miles long.