I wasn’t an only child, but I often felt like one. I was four when my older brother Phil left for college and seven when my brother Andrew did the same. I was a pale freckle-faced kid who was late to hit puberty and my growing spurt, which was unfortunate for someone with my last name. I was a good athlete surrounded by bigger, stronger kids, and a smart kid surrounded by brilliant minds. Today, I have an excellent relationship with my parents, but in my teenage years I wasn’t doing too much right, and I felt like they didn’t give me credit even when I was.
Luckily, my brother Andrew was back from college by then and he had a job and his own apartment. It was a sanctuary where I could go and find someone who was always supportive and always on my side. If I hadn’t had that in my life, I don’t know how I would have turned out. It was Andrew who turned me to the joys of music, and he spent his time at university accumulating an excellent record collection. That’s how we spent most of our time when he wasn’t sacrificing his body in the backyard blocking my breaking balls.
A lot of that music is tied up in all those warm memories. It’s all part of my salvation, and it’s become more poignant since Andrew passed away in October 2015. Of all the artists he introduced me to, none evokes these feelings more than John Prine. I can’t think of John Prine without thinking of Andrew, and I can think of Andrew without thinking of John Prine. At the time, I think I almost saw them as extensions of each other, as if one couldn’t be understood without the other. I suspect he felt that way, too.
I’ve been fortunate in life that every woman I’ve even been with either already loved John Prine when I met her or instantly became a superfan once I introduced him. You can’t get me either, if you don’t get Prine’s music.
He continued to write great songs and make excellent records long past my teenage years, and I probably like his later stuff even more than the stuff from 1970’s that we were listening to back then. At first, I just got a kick out of his quirky sense of humor and love for turns of phrase. My favorites included Dear Abby, That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round, and Please Don’t Bury Me. As I matured a bit, I came to really appreciate the more serious themes in classics like Sam Stone and Hello in There. It was ultimately Prine’s moral compass and worldview that bound me to him for life.
Someone once asked Bob Dylan to name a songwriter he enjoyed, and he mentioned Prine’s song Donald and Lydia and praised its lyrics up and down. It’s a song about two pretty unattractive people who can’t be physically together but have lurid sexual fantasies about each other. The point wasn’t to arouse some prurient interest in the listener, but to humanize people no matter their appearance. That’s the kind of thing my brother Andrew taught me, and introducing me to Prine was one of the ways he accomplished this.
Since Andrew died, I’ve kept Prine’s music constantly in my presence. It isn’t always easy to listen to those old songs since I never know when something will catch in my throat. But it’s been the most effective way for me to connect with my brother and to remember his spirit. And it’s been vital for getting me through.
John Prine died on Tuesday in Nashville at the age of 73. He had survived a couple of bouts of cancer, but he couldn’t survive Covid-19. When Donald Trump was elected, I comforted myself that Andrew hadn’t lived to see the day. It would have crushed him far worse than it crushed me, because he was always more of advocate for the working men and women that put Trump in office than I was. He passed that along through Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen and John Prine. I got those values third-hand.
Now that I am mourning Prine, I find myself wishing he’d lived to see Trump defeated. I feel this way in part because Trump is in opposition to everything Prine stood for. But I also feel this way because I believe there’s a chance that Prine might still be with us if it weren’t for Trump’s terrible bungling of the pandemic.
I’m going to give you one song that I think really exemplifies what Prine was all about. It’s called The Oldest Baby in the World and it’s about a woman who is a little past her prime, and a man who loves her anyway.
If you are unfamiliar with Prine’s work, I hope you give him a chance. He’s not done sharing his gift.