John Prine is a country/folk man with nice (if fairly generic) music and wonderful lyrics who makes me doubt my own generation’s ability to be anything other than callow, self-interested balls of dick. Before I annoy myself too much, let me say now that the conclusion is that I don’t hate my generation, I just hate the representatives of such in popular media. We aren’t apathetic selfoids; at least my friends aren’t, but looking at how we show ourselves we completely are. I get it that every generation thinks that “kids these days” are weak, selfish feedbags and therefore young, weak, selfish feedbaggery is the easiest path to mainstream success, but is there really nobody who can balance the trials of youth with having a fucking soul and make a living from it?
Here’s most of the topics John Prine addresses in first five songs of the first album of his recorded career: drug legalization, escaping to a simpler life, lonely old people, abandoned war veterans, addiction, nostalgia, and strip mining. He does this while achieving the tone of a worldly, wise, fifty year-old former hippie. But don’t take that to mean that the lyrics are tossed off liberal koans. Not even once. Instead, his takes on difficult subjects fit a great deal of sadness and complex emotions into a few lines that, combined with his matter of fact speak singing (as if he just happened to write the saddest song about a veteran ever), are also consistently amusing and charming. The amount of charisma is staggering, and Prine’s only twenty-five years old. Christ, even his disillusioned Christianity is poignant! Here’s a line or two from each of the aforementioned songs:
“When I woke up this morning / Things were lookin’ bad / Seemed like total silence / Was the only friend I had / Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down / And won / And it was twelve O’Clock before I realized I was havin’ no fun / But fortunately / I have the key to escape reality”
“We blew up our TV / Threw away our paper / Went to the country / Built us a home / Had a lot of children / Fed ’em on peaches / They all found Jesus on their own”
“Me and Loretta don’t talk much anymore / She sits and stares through the back door screen / And all the news just repeats itself / Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen / Someday I’ll go and call up Rudy / We worked together at the factory / But what could I say if he asks what’s new? / ‘Nothing, what’s with you?’ / Nothing much to do”
“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose / Little pitchers have big ears / Don’t stop to count the years / Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios”
“Sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River / To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill / Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols / But empty pop bottles was all we would kill”
He’s such a good guy that he doesn’t even shoot snakes! Yes indeed, John Prine manages to sound like both the cool uncle and a super swell guy that you want to drink beer and talk baseball with. Or maybe you don’t talk baseball; ecological devastation, then. The comparisons with Dylan are easy to make because both emphasize lyrics over music and both don’t try too hard to sing, but they’re as different as Blur and Oasis. Dylan is urban and artsy and and way too cool for you. Prine is too talented for you, sure, but he sounds folksy and genuine and straight-forward.
The point for JP is empathy. Empathy! Write it on Daniel Tosh’s forehead in Lena Dunham’s period blood. Unlike too many kids these days the point here is anything other than inward-looking drama. Everything here is about something else or a purpose greater than oneself. And I don’t mean religion, this is tangible stuff. Not one but two songs about sad old people? I’d call my grandparents if they were alive! A love song for a fat girl and a distant private? Shades of modern long distance relationships! Nearly every song here is either a take on a new topic or a new take on an old one. Supporting veterans is nothing new, but these were the times of Vietnam, and soldiers were on the public’s mind. There are certainly a bunch of lesser songs (mostly in the second half), but even then Prine’s lyrical prowess is such that he can eviscerate the all of organized religion in one line. Then, a song later, he’ll satire the fuck out of war hawks and include the lines “Jesus don’t like killing / No matter what the reasons for / And your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.”
It’s a rare album that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. This is one of them. The tunes are so memorable that they’re classics (I’ve had an impromptu singalong in Halifax, a wacky bar experience in New York, and many afternoons of trying with Girlfriend), but they’re never cloying or pretentious. Got to love the self-titled debut.
As for my generation, I have to cop out and suggest that we wait on passing judgement until we see what we’ve done in twenty years. Even then it’ll be a tough call, because right now our political and economic systems are run by our elders, and will be for some time as they steadily refuse to retire for complicated reasons. The boomers were sure proud of themselves when they were hippies, but the 70s were failure and the 80s smelled of Thatcher’s cunt and Patrick Bateman’s everything. For now young people, at least the urban ones, are at least decent representatives of humanity to judgemental aliens. I don’t know if that’ll keep up. But if there’s many new John Prines out there, they’re either repressed by boomers or hiding or products of my imagination.