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Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello” – Hello in There, John Prine
3.36am. Wake up. Check my phone. Bad mistake. There’s always news on it. And too often lately it’s been of the bad, sad and sometimes terrible kind. I put an overnight note via Messenger from a long-time friend in New Zealand in the last category.
It was a link to a Guardian story. The headline read ‘John Prine, US folk and country songwriter, dies aged 73 due to Covid-19 complications’. The legendary (and that much over-stated term is right on the money here) had been hospitalised on 26 March, laying in intensive care for 13 days before passing in a Tennessee hospital.
Many of you won’t know John Prine. If you don’t, maybe play a few of his songs today while you are working away in your home offices. Maybe start with Hello in There, a song about human isolation (in this case about old people) that seems particularly apposite right now.
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”
John Prine wrote and sang many great songs. “In his humble, hilarious way, Prine was one of America’s greatest songwriters,” wrote Rolling Stone in a superb tribute yesterday. He is adored by the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash (RIP), Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez (who sung a deeply moving version of Hello in There on Facebook last week in an emotional plea that John would somehow pull through).
One of my favourites is the beautiful, melancholy Summer’s End, a song of intense yearning with beautiful harmonies from Brandi Carlisle (music of ‘pure tears’ as Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Bernstein put it).
The moon and stars hang out in bars just talking
I still love that picture of us walking
Just like that old house we thought was haunted
Summer’s end came faster than we wanted
Come on home
Come on home
No you don’t have to be alone
Come on home
I could list so many more. The magnificent 1971 anti-war song Sam Stone, which tells the tale of a heroin-addicted veteran, most notably through the unforgettable refrain, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes”.
Or Jesus, the Missing Years; only Prine could fill in the long documentation gap in Jesus’s life (from 12 to 29) with a surreal contemporisation like this:
It was raining. It was cold
West Bethlehem was no place for a twelve year old
So he packed his bags and he headed out
To find out what the world’s about
He went to France. He went to Spain
He found love. He found pain.
He discovered the Beatles
And he recorded with the Stones
Once he even opened up a three-way package
In Southern California for old George Jones
Or Angel from Montgomery, one of his most popular songs, covered famously by Bonnie Raitt, which tells the story of a middle-aged woman who feels like she’s descending inexorably into old age. As John Prine lay fighting for his life in hospital, the song inspired the beautiful cartoon below.
John Prine was a tough man. He twice fought and beat cancer – first up, squamous cell cancer in 1998, which required surgery to remove a piece of his neck and sever some nerves in his tongue. It took a year of recuperation and speech therapy before he could perform again. In 2013 he lost his left lung to cancer. The New York Times relates how a therapist put him through an unusual workout to build stamina: making him run up and down his house stairs, grab his guitar while still out of breath and sing two songs. Six months later, he was touring again.
I saw John Prine several times in my life, most recently in London back in 2017. He always made me laugh. And then he made me cry. He was a big man by now, blown out by all that medical treatment, not in the best of health. But he played something like 25 songs for well over two hours. After the show, I saw him being led out a side door and collapse into a waiting car, lay back slumped in his seat, beyond exhaustion. Spent. A big man with an even bigger heart. Gone now. Gone to spend some time with the Angel of Montgomery. Hello in there John, hello.