CHICAGO — When Angelo Varias was on the road with John Prine, as a drummer in his late 1970s backup band, it was a good vibe, Varias remembered, a bunch of Chicago guys and a bandleader “who was probably the easiest-going, but nicest and most supportive band person I’ve worked with.”
But then the tour would land someplace like L.A. and Varias and bandmates would see their compatriot in a new light as people like Kris Kristofferson and Phil Spector came backstage at the Roxy to pay their respects.
“When we’d enter a room and there’d be somebody like Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd) there and he’d be on his knees in front of John telling him how great he was,” Varias said, “it was really a revelation to us that this guy was something special.”
Prine, who grew up in Maywood and composed some of his earliest and best-known songs while walking a west suburban postal route, died at age 73 Tuesday in a Nashville hospital, one of the thousands of Americans felled in the coronavirus pandemic.
Tributes from fellow songwriting greats poured in. Bruce Springsteen recalled that “John and I were ‘New Dylans’ together in the early 70s” and called him “a true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.”
Old Town School of Folk Music, where Prine learned guitar in the 60s, planned a virtual sing- and play-a-long Wednesday night to his debut album.
Attempts to capture his life felt so rich yet, necessarily, left so much out. And a whole lot of people Tuesday night pulled some of Prine’s large catalog of studio and live records out of their album collection or typed his name into Spotify to conduct a private memorial service in the most fitting way possible.
Ten essential Prine songs are recommended at the end of this piece, but, you know, you could pick 25 others and not be wrong. You could pick any 10 of the 13 tracks on that self-titled, 1971 debut album and not be wrong.
Varias first connected with Prine through a mutual friend, the late songwriter Steve Goodman. Goodman, who, circa 1976 or ‘77, put together a “Rolling Blunder” tour of Chicago folk scene regulars, a spoof on Bob Dylan’s big Rolling Thunder tour.
“There were, like, 11 people in the van playing a few places in the Midwest,” he said. “John was one of many.”
Out of that, Varias joined the band backing Prine for his 1978 LP “Bruised Orange,” and the band on their own would play around Chicago in the early 1980s as the Famous Potatoes.
Prine loved to perform his music, the drummer recalled, even the songs he’d played thousands of times, even after his great, final album, 2018’s “The Tree of Forgiveness,” when the singer had to take oxygen before going on stage and couldn’t play more than two nights in a row.
Varias has a few favorites of his own from the Prine catalog. “There were certain songs that emotionally got me every time,” he said. “When we played ‘Bruised Orange,’ that always got me. We played ‘Mexican Home’ — it was a ballad, but we played it as a big, blistering song with a lot of anger. We used it as a closer. It would go on 10 or 12 minutes.
“And ‘That’s the Way the World Goes Round.’ You looked out, the whole audience was smiling and happy and singing. It was a uniform feeling. He was like Mr. Rogers singing that song.”
Here, then, with help from a guy who should know, and with the implicit blessings of Roger Waters, Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Springsteen, are 10 essential John Prine songs:
“That’s the Way the World Goes Round” (1978): Five albums in to a major-label music career, this was Prine’s response, he said, to cynicism in himself and others. It’s a jaunty acknowledgement that life is going to bounce you around a bit, “you’re up one day, and the next you’re down.” But even amid the song’s comic sunniness, Prine tosses off an unforgettable simile: Stuck in ice in a bathtub, his narrator is “naked as the eyes of a clown.”
“Angel from Montgomery” (1971): Covered by Bonnie Raitt and countless others, taught to guitar beginners at places like the Old Town School, “Angel” is a near-miracle of perspective and precise, intangible imagery. It elevates the yearning and regret of an old woman in a lonely marriage into a spiritual quest, and it was written by a single guy in his early 20s.
“Summer’s End” (2018): “The moon and stars hang out in bars just talking / I still love that picture of us walking.” Another Prine tune that sounds like it’s always been there, it also sounds like a summary of a life, and of a career, with its chorus repeating “Come on home” and its acknowledgment that “Summer’s end came faster than we wanted.”
“Lake Marie” (1995): Half-spoken, half sung, somewhere between mystical poetry and gritty realism, telling of Native Americans naming a lake and the narrator falling in love beside it, “Lake Marie” is surely too odd a concoction to work. Ha! It’s among the Prine tunes Bob Dylan cited in naming him a favorite songwriter. And it was the first thing I wanted to hear on news of the singer’s passing, because of its peculiar, visionary alchemy and the way Prine sings repeatedly of “standing by peaceful waters.”
“Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” (1978): One of Prine’s more Dylanesque tunes and the title track of his 1978, Steve Goodman-produced LP, this is the sadder take on the “That’s the Way” sentiments. “A heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bittter / You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there.”
“Jesus, The Missing Years” (1991): The title track, sort of, to the first of a what would be a string of superb “comeback” albums, it’s a sort of hallucinogenic talking blues and a typically wry take on what the lord and savior was up to during a largely unchronicled period of his life. A lot happened, including recording with the Stones and opening for George Jones.
“Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” (1986): Prine in a country vein, this might be his most eloquent, straightforward broken-heart song. “How can a love that’ll last forever / Get left so far behind.”
“Hello In There” (1971): Another gem from the debut record, which is pretty much all gems, this drew attention — and endures — for its empathetic portrait of an older couple, kids moved away or lost in the war, unseen by the broader society. Again, he wrote it in his early 20s.
“Mexican Home” (1973): Angelo Varias described it as a passionate barnburner in those late ‘70s concerts, but on record its a heartfelt ballad, a mediation on mortality occasioned by Prine’s father dying while sitting on the family front porch.
“Paradise” (1971): Another instant classic fueled by Prine’s memories of family trips back to Kentucky, where his parents were from. Its lyrics overlay the remembrance of rural simplicity with a sophisticated rant against what the coal company did to his ancestral hometown.
“In Spite of Ourselves” (1999): The only song of Prine’s on the album of that title, it’s a sheer delight to hear performed. He and Iris DeMent trade funny, earthy, deeply lived-in verses about their long and (mostly) happy life together in testament to the intimacy of marriage.
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