I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but the popular singers I care about feel closer to me than some people in my family. I’ve never met Bruce Springsteen, for instance, but his music speaks to me like letters from the hard-traveled big brother I never had. And then there’s John Prine. I did meet him, once upon a time, forty years ago. He was on the road traveling light with a crew that just fit the big 8-top table at the back of the little restaurant where I worked as a waiter, the Café Sbisa in New Orleans. I later learned that he’d been dropped by his record label, had launched his own (Oh Boy), and was driving himself around the South playing at clubs.
I’m not a musician, but I had his first two albums and could sing every song on them by heart (still can, pretty much). I’m not a singer either, but Mr. Prine wrote in a talky register that pretty much anybody can manage, and the way his plain-spoken lyrics matched up with his country-like tunes seemed to reach directly into my chest and out again, which I guess is what heart-spoken means. You try it. Sing along with “Hello in There” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVhA01J0Zsg) from his first album, and when you get to the line, “We lost Davey in the Korean War/still don’t know what for/don’t matter anymore,” feel that sinking jab behind your rib cage. (All the obituaries today focus mostly on those first two albums, fully-formed masterpieces created by a 24-year old mailman, but he never lost that magic. Join in “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZn8bBBUsLY) from his last album, you’ll see.)
Mr. Prine and his crew were dressed in jeans and t-shirts, all scruffy-haired and rangy. He sat at the head of the table with a view of the whole restaurant and the front door. It was late lunch time midweek, we were slow, and I was the only waiter on. The Café Sbisa, a tourist trap now, was the hippest restaurant in New Orleans at the time, the first to try grilling fish instead of swathing it in butter sauce, back then a radical idea. Rock and movie stars were regulars, and I was well used to their finger snapping entitlement. One reason I remember Mr. Prine’s visit is that he didn’t behave like that. He was down to earth and kind, exactly as he sounds on his records. Seemed relaxed, listened to his crew, ordered grilled redfish and said he enjoyed it. I tried not to stare or hover, but at the end of lunch, after he’d paid his bill (I didn’t want him to think I was angling for a tip), I thanked him for his music and said it meant a lot to me. He asked me which one I liked the best and I dared a brief anecdote about my cousin Ronnie, a guitarist who liked to sing a sweet version of “Paradise” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-SKCWXoryU) for his girlfriend’s father on a back porch in rural Virginia.
Mr. Prine nodded and pulled two passes for his show at Ol’ Man Rivers out of his pocket. I still have those tickets in one of my boxes in the attic, because I didn’t get to see him play that night. The club was way up and on the other side of the river, and I didn’t have a car at the time. I have always regretted not splurging on a cab that night, because he’s one of the titans I never got to see play live. When he went into the hospital last week, and then into intensive care, I feared that at age 73, a two-time cancer survivor, he wouldn’t make it out. So I’ve lost my chance.
I think I have ten of his albums. My Top Three include John Prine, that debut masterpiece, Fair and Square (2005) (which includes a funny cautionary tale Safety Joe (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEPcG1KjoY8) that my sons and I used to sing on our vacation travels when they were small), and In Person & Onstage (2010), a live album that clearly shows me what I missed in never seeing him play. It feels today like I’ve lost a brother or a dear friend. Maybe that’s just a music fan’s sadness, or maybe this passing of a famous person dregs up feelings for people I’ve known well and loved and lost. So maybe playing his music now will speak for all of them. I don’t know. I just know that there was this singer-songwriter who spoke for the average joe, who understood our confusion, our worries, and our joys, and wrote these short stories you can sing that are better than anything I’ve found between the covers of books. Judging by all the obituaries, he wasn’t faking it. You always hope that’s true in your musical heroes. That nice guy who sat in a little restaurant in New Orleans in 1980 enjoying the afternoon, listening to his crew’s woes, tolerating my fan’s babble, and giving me passes to his show, it appears that’s who he was.
It’s been a busy week in music heaven. While I mulched the garden on Saturday, my earbuds played Bill Withers and then Fountains of Wayne. Making spaghetti sauce last night, I tuned into WWOZ on our HomePod and listened to a live performance of the Ellis Marsalis Quartet recorded back when I lived in New Orleans, a show I might even have attended. And now Mr. Prine. The song I’m playing right now is another from Fair and Square. It’s called “Some Humans Ain’t Human” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ho-EzrsE2U), and it references the President who started the Iraq War. But it seems even more applicable to the one whose negligence may have killed not just Mr. Prine but so many thousands of us, with more to come. He’d have found that poetically ironic. I hope right now he’s smoking that 9-mile long cigarette his very last song “When I Get to Heaven” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKPDFQRmG_M) promised, and shaking hands with all the waiters and roadies and old folks and other homely angels he seemed always to understand so well.