It’s hard to say goodbye to John Prine. When the news came through that he had been hospitalised with Covid-19, of course you feared the worst but there was also part of you that said: ‘this is John Prine – he’ll be just fine’. John, you told yourself, had survived two lots of cancer and come back to gift us one of his greatest records, The Tree of Forgiveness in 2018. Surely he’d be back again.
Maybe I had another (selfish) reason to will John through this. I never got to see him live and, darn, I was so close. I had tickets to see him last September at the Festival Hall in Edinburgh but John had to cancel to prioritise some medical treatment. No problem – of course I wanted John to be well and before I knew it the gig was rescheduled for February this year. Even better, I was super quick off the mark so I snagged seats that would have seen me a few feet away from John – a few feet from John Prine! But it wasn’t to be – John sadly had to postpone once more for health reasons and now there isn’t going to be any third time lucky.
I’m not going to try and give you a rundown of John’s career and impact on the world of music. If you want one of those, let me point you to one of the best music writers around, Ann Powers. I just wanted to say a few words about how I came to love John’s music, and subsequently John the man.
In the late 80s and early 90s I was a huge devotee of Nanci Griffith, an artist who was once big enough to sell out the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle (I was there!) but has now rather faded from public view. Her early records are just things of simple beauty: authentic, romantic and full of great stories. Those qualities can be found in abundance on 1993’s Other Voices / Other Rooms, but this time she didn’t write any of the songs. Among the covers I heard – for the first time – John Prine’s Speed of the Sound of Loneliness and I was just immediately hooked.
Speed of the Sound… remains, to this day, my favourite John Prine song although I now love a whole lot more of his work, having travelled back in time to his 1971 debut and forward all the way until The Tree of Forgiveness. I’m ever thankful to Nanci Griffith for bringing this song and its songwriter into my world. Here she is giving it her own sweet take:
I can’t quite make out the little phrase she inserts at the end but it sounds like ‘where you goin’ hun?’. Almost like she’s talking to John right now. He might be going to heaven, I guess, depending on your perspective on such things.
Many people have already pointed out the bittersweet irony of John finishing what now turns out to be his last album with a song called When I Get to Heaven. Well, I’m an atheist to my bones but John’s idea of heaven sounds pretty swell to me. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll finally get to go see him play at his great nightclub in the sky, sipping on a ‘cocktail, vodka and ginger ale’. For now, though, I’ll make do with his brilliant records and I’ll leave you with him walking through Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.
Good night, John Boy.
This post’s soundtrack: