“I am an old woman, named after my mother… Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery… To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”
The words of John Prine, taken by the coronavirus April 7 way before we were ready to let him go. He had just won a lifetime Grammy.
Dylan called his songs “pure Proustian existentialism.” For Springsteen, he was “A true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.” Why did he write the song “Angel from Montgomery,” made popular by Bonnie Raitt, from a woman’s perspective? “Only because nobody told me you weren’t supposed to,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017.
Back when I first heard him it was the inflection point between the group-sound ‘60s and the singer-songwriter ‘70s. On a weekday evening in summer I would make the long walk from our apartment on the hinge of New York’s Spanish Harlem down to Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. I had struck up a weird friendship with the door guy at the Bitter End, a bare-bones live music venue whose stage backdrop was a brick wall, and whose “green room” backstage left much to be desired, so I always got in and I could usually worm a close seat.
On this particular Thursday night in 1970 I had no idea who the performer on the small marquis was. John Prine meant nothing to me, but I had walked six miles, so check it out. As I settled in my seat, I turned on my pocket cassette recorder in case the guy was any good. I liked to be able to hear the shows again in the leisure of my room and try to sing along. Made me feel better was all.
Prine stepped onto the little stage, clad in a jean jacket like early Dylan, voice some kind of midwestern cranky with a twangy thing going on underneath. He lit into a song that burned down the room, “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven any more, they’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war…”
Protest singer, I thought. Indeed, he would soon be labeled a “new Dylan” as the press sought to pigeonhole him and sate the public need for a counter-culture spokesman in the years of Dylan’s disappearance in Woodstock where he and the Band worked up what came to be called “The Basement Tapes.”
Springsteen was another “new Dylan.” But Prine only needed another song to upend my first impression. “Old people just grow lonesome waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello’.” His empathy for others shone through every song, alongside the humor and bite. Every time I thought I had him nailed, he wriggled out of my labeling brackets.
By now I was praying the tape was rolling—sometimes the little machine worked and other times its batteries yelled ”uncle.” I wanted to hear every song again and again. Just when it seemed it couldn’t get any better, Prine brought out a friend of his, a charming small guy with a grin from ear to ear by the name of Steve Goodman. Never heard of him either. Goodman launched into a plaintive number, “I wish I was an Opry star or had me a Ph.D., I wish I had the common sense to be satisfied with me…” He was the yin to Prine’s yang. A ball of molten talent.
I wandered back to the green room between set -- there was always an early and late set at that venue -- and made the acquaintance of these two talented characters. They were nice as nice could be to a kid who had nothing to offer them but appreciation. Prine handed me his guitar pick, which I’ve saved to this day. Many’s the time I heard them play after that, and they never let me down. Only later did a learn the price they had each paid to get there.
Prine had been a mailman, composing songs in his head on his route in Chicago. Goodman had already been diagnosed with the leukemia to which he would finally succumb long before his time. No wonder he played every performance as if it were his last. One time at the Cellar Down in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown I could have sworn his energy levitated him off of the stage. I still say it did. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. They were brothers from another mother, reinventing America’s songbook with a pinch of this and that.
It broke my heart when Goodman died, and now the mindless replicant virus has taken his good brother. With boldface names and without, the scourge cuts a Sherman’s March through our friends and loved ones near and far. R.I.P. John Prine, we’ll meet again beneath the green, green grass of home.
Dalton Delan is a writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. Follow him at Twitter@UnspinRoom. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.