No Strangers

 We’re counting now.

We’ll see these five-, six- and seven-figure numbers on our TV screen, right over the left shoulder of some TV anchor, and those numbers tell us how many people have been taken down by the killer virus that has invaded our world.

The last time many of us saw something like this was the late ‘60s.

That, we all know, was a long time ago.

Back then, in our three-channel universe, anchors like Walter Cronkite would mention the number of people killed in a war fought in jungles halfway around the world.

I barely remember it. I was no more than six. What I do remember are simply blurs of memory, of sitting in our family’s wood-paneled den, huddled on our brown plaid couch, watching a newscast – probably across from my father, the retired sergeant major – and seeing grainy footage of soldiers in some far-off jungle.

Then came the talk of numbers.

I always wondered who they were and what they did. I remember that, too. Barely.

Still, it felt so far away to me. What is happening now does not.

Those numbers on the TV screen aren’t spoken like they were a half-century ago. Those numbers are just there on the screen, ominous reminders of what we face. They represent someone’s husband, wife, mother, father, neighbor, cousin or a beloved assistant principal students knew simply by his nickname.

So many. Let’s break it down. The numbers are:

  • Worldwide: 1.9 million confirmed cases; 453,289 recovered; 119,686 deaths.
  • U.S.: 587,337 confirmed cases; 44,207 recovered; 23,649 deaths.
  • North Carolina: 4,916 confirmed cases; 86 deaths.

That what it looks like as of this morning. All hit by what 45 calls the “invisible enemy:” C-19, or COVID-19, the deadly illness caused by the coronavirus that has caused a global pandemic and shut down the world.

Those numbers all have a name, a story, a life.

My professional crew at High Point University know that. We lost one of our key security guys, the 30-year Coast Guard veteran who stepped onstage during staff meetings and told us how we as a university are prepared for any kind of weather crisis.

His name was Harry. I didn’t know him. My office friends did. That loss hit them hard. Harry represents the 10th person to die here in Guilford County from C-19.

When our global pandemic subsides, I feel we’ll all know a Harry. Because of C-19, there will be no strangers. There will be a someone we know far beyond any number we see on a TV screen.

It’ll be someone we love, respect, admire and miss.

Right now, that someone for me is a former mailman, a self-described “Chicago kid.”

In third grade, when his teacher in his hometown of Maywood, Illinois, asked him about his origins – you know, where you’re from, who are your people kind of thing – he stood in front of his entire class and exclaimed, “Pure Kentuckian. Last of a dyin’ breed!”

He got that from his dad, a Kentucky native and a tool-and-die maker who carried a union card. His dad loved Hank Williams Sr. He drank beer by the quart and listened to country music after work on Chicago’s WJJD. His son sat right there beside him drinking orange pop.

I didn’t know this son of a country-loving machinist. But I sure felt like I did.

I saw him perform three times, most recently in November. There were no pyrotechnics, no elaborate light show. When he spoke, he sounded like he had marbles in his mouth, and when he sang, he had a voice that was more of a solemn croak than a dulcet baritone.

Yet, the songs he sang were downright beautiful. He wrote these taut slice-of-tough-life tunes full of poetic turns of phrase. Those efficient phrases always made me sit up straight, grab the liner notes from a CD, pore over them like scripture and holler, “Yeah!”

He wrote songs about everyday people I recognized. His lyrics did make me laugh. Yes, they did. But they also made me contemplate something more meaningful than where I sat in a darkened auditorium hearing him play, surrounded by his crowd.

But his crowd was my crowd, and that musician, he was a part of us.

That musician was John Prine. He died a week ago today due to complications caused by C-19. He was 73.

Prine-5

 

Sally used to play with her hula hoops
Now she tells her problems to therapy groups
Grampa’s on the front lawn staring at a rake
Wondering if his marriage was a terrible mistake
I’m sitting on the front steps drinking orange crush
Wondering if it’s possible if I could still blush
Uh huh Oh yeah
 

–  “Sins of Memphisto”

 

Bull City

The first thing we saw when we entered Bull City Burger.

It was Friday, Nov. 1, when I sidled up to the U-shaped bar at Bull City Burger for two more pitchers of beer.

That’s when I met him.

He was in his mid-60s, I imagine. He was stout, maybe 6-feet-3, barrel-chested with a broad face and hands as big as dinner plates. He wore a long-sleeve flannel shirt, cuffs rolled up to his elbows, and his jeans were hitched up right at his waist, Barney Fife-style. He had queued up to the bar to grab a pitcher of beer just like me.

I stood behind him – really, he seemed to loom over me — and as we waited, he turned completely around. It was like his head was on a swivel. He surveyed the crowd in Bull City Burger, and then, he looked at me and smiled big. I gave him the tight nod, the guy nod, the stay-cool nod of “How you doin’?”

He smiled some more.

“What’s up with this guy?” I thought.

I found out with his first question.

“You come to see John Prine?”

Yes, I told him.

“Me and my buddies came up from South Carolina,” he told me. “We see him every chance we get, you know. Who’d you come with?”

I jabbed my thumb toward a long table a half dozen steps behind me, to my crew sitting shoulder to shoulder eating burgers before the show.

Yes, I say, I came with friends.

Six of us. All middle-aged, all fathers and husbands, all fugitives away from family on a Friday night.

We belong to something we call HH, our text acronym for Happy Hour. Every Friday afternoon after work, at least a dozen of us used to gather before C-19 at The Corner, the intersection of Walker and Elam.

We’d park ourselves at GSO’s Sticks & Stones, drink beer and talk about lots of nothin’.

On this particular Friday, six of us climbed into a minivan and headed an hour east to Durham to see Prine and listen to lots of somethin’.

At least, that’s what I told the tall South Carolinian in the waist-high jeans.

“We came up from Greenville,” he told me. “We never miss Prine when he comes anywhere close. Enjoy the show. He always puts on a great one, doesn’t he?”

He does.

US

Some of our HH John Prine crew at DPAC with, left to right, Steve Eury, Tim Brown, me and Bob Strack. Not pictured are Richard Wells and Chris Reisdorf.

 

I first caught Prine live in February 1997 at a sold-out show at GSO’s grand hall of room, the Carolina Theater. That’s when I first saw his tribe together all in one place — men and women, mostly white, mostly middle-aged, all of whom see his music as crucial to the soundtrack to their life’s adventures.

For them, Prine’s songs are as familiar to them as their own signature.

Three years later, I saw Prine again. This time, I channeled my inner Parke Puterbaugh and reviewed his show at GSO’s War Memorial Auditorium for my old professional playground, the News & Record, GSO’s daily paper.

His tribe came. I saw them all around me, that Friday night in September 2000. They came to sing his songs out loud and holler song titles from everywhere in the auditorium, asking him to play them RIGHT THEN.

One time, when several fans started yelling over one another in the back, a lopsided smile spread across Prine’s face.

“I’m working my way toward it,” he told them.

Prine made War Memorial feel as comfortable as a dive bar on a Friday night.

Loved that.

I ended my review this way:

You could tell with every song he played. He would strum the first notes of a particular song – say, “Sam Stone” or “Sins of Memphisto” – and applause immediately rippled through the 2,400-seat auditorium.

But the night’s most intoxicating moment was “Angel of Montgomery,” his song made famous by Bonnie Raitt. Prine stood at the microphone, looking preacher-solemn in his black suit, and sang about lost love in Alabama. Meanwhile, his guitarist, Jason Wilburn, played slide guitar that seemed almost ghostly inside the small auditorium.

No one said a word. When they finished, the crowd gave them a standing ovation.

The whole night, Prine fed off the crowd’s enthusiasm. By his two-song encore, he stood at the stage’s edge and looked like John Wayne as he swaggered by the monitors.

At first, he played his guitar. Then, he started shaking hands. The whole time, he couldn’t stop smiling.

 

I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

– “Angel From Montgomery”

 

Prine-4

On that first Friday in November at the Durham Performing Arts Center, Prine played “Angel from Montgomery,” and the same thing happened. The room became as quiet as a church.

We sat halfway up in DPAC’s second level, all along one row. It was my first concert at the DPAC, and I couldn’t get over how red the whole room was. Like Valentine’s Day red. But what I heard about the room was true. The seats were good; acoustics were great; the company was better.

This concert trip was prompted by our HH friend, Tim Brown.

He had never seen Prine perform, and he bought all of us tickets. I about coughed up a lung when Tim told me saw the cost – north of $70. In 1997 at the Carolina, Prine’s tickets were $24.50.

Still, I agreed to go.  I saw it as an out-of-town adventure to discover a good time with like-minded friends.

And of course, seeing Prine sealed the deal.

We drank good beer and played old-school pinball in a dungeon of a bar. We confabbed with a sea of Prine fans that Tim called “the other gray beards,” and we sat in a balcony of a nice-sounding room of red for a night of music.

I admit, I did the old-guy thing. I nodded off several times during singer-songwriter Ben Dickey, Prine’s opening act. Chris Reisdorf, my HH friend seated beside me, poked me several times to get me to stay awake.

I guess, I’m not as geared for vampire life as I once was.

But I didn’t nod off during Prine’s part of the show. Couldn’t. I came to see him, and I wasn’t disappointed. None of us were. We were back with Prine’s tribe, our tribe, and we watched that machinist’s son from Chicago, that “pure Kentuckian,” tell stories and sing for nearly two hours.

And we watched him dance.

Yes, dance.

When Prine ended his show with “Lake Marie,” his wife, Fiona, came onstage. They danced around the microphone stand, they danced around his guitar, and they danced right off the stage as his band played on

I hadn’t seen THAT before. None of us had. We talked about it all the way back to GSO.

“Man, did you see him dance?” Tim asked us from the front seat. “That was so cool.”

It was. But why the dance?

We all found out last week. But first, we got the news. It came from Tim in a text Tuesday night. I saw it before daybreak Wednesday morning.

“We lost John Prine,” he wrote. “Sorry about that. Glad we saw him.”

The text messages came in a flood. The one-word responses needed no explanation.

“Shit.”

“Damn.”

“Can’t believe we just saw him,” Chris wrote. “This news really sucks.”

“Glad we did see him,” Tim wrote. “What a happy good guy. He had so much fun playing for us as we did watching him play. You could tell it.”

Indeed.

DPAC

A shot from our DPAC spot that Friday night in November.

 

Music can strike us deep and hold us like a hug from someone we love.

You can feel that same kind of emotional connection with a painting or a poem, a novel or a play. The creativity we see, read and hear soon become a memory we hold close when close is something we need when life begins to fray.

Like now.

So, when a creator of something like that leaves us, we mourn as if we’ve lost a mother or a father, a sister or a son.

Today, with C-19 seemingly picking off people at random like a sniper on a roof, that sense of loss feels even deeper.

You ache for those lost years, those missing years. So, you hold on for dear life those memories that mean something.

Like with Prine.

Pinball

Old guys playing old-school pinball

I’ll remember that Friday night in November. We drove east away from the setting sun to listen, laugh, play old-school pinball, drink good beer and see a bunch of guys walk around downtown who looked a lot … like … us.

Except they were sharper dressers.

It was like a “Seinfeld” episode really.

But no matter how they dressed or how they looked, we all were part of the same tribe. We came to understand our world a little better through the prism of Prine.

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”

–       Hello In There

Ask any fan, and they all came upon Prine differently. But they do remember that one moment. It’s because of how poignant that musical discovery was and how important that find came to be.

Tim Brown

Steve Eury & Tim Brown

Take Tim Brown, the instigator of our November trip. He grew up in eastern North Carolina in Rocky Mount, a city beside the Tar River, borne from sweat and soil. Tim discovered Prine in church.

That’s right, in church.

A Baptist church, of all places.

It was the early ‘70s, Tim was a teenager, and a guy Tim knew went to Vietnam as a soldier and came back a folk singer. The singing soldier played “Hello In There,” Prine’s musical take on old age. He sang it at Tim’s church on a Sunday night.

Tim, as he says in his laid-back, Rocky Mount drawl, “ate it up.” He bought Prine’s first album. That’s all it took.

Chris Reisdorf found Prine in late ‘70s, thanks to his music-loving dad. His dad would be reading the Sunday paper, listening to his vinyl collection of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot and Prine. Chris would be right there.

Shelley and Chris-1

Chris & Shelley at North Carolina’s LEAF Festival

Chris and his wife, Shelley, are now music festival nomads. They’ll travel hundreds of miles, going from state to state to catch music. Wherever they land, whether it’s in Colorado or West Virginia, Chris will hear some band or some musician play Prine.

It’ll be “Angel from Montgomery” or “Paradise,” Prine’s ode to his dad’s Kentucky roots and how strip-mining destroyed that homeland. Just so many Prine covers. It all helped Chris become reacquainted with the music he heard long ago on a Sunday in his hometown of Lexington, Ohio, a tiny village in the bull’s eye of his home state.

His dad still lives there, in the very same house where Chris first discovered Prine.

When Chris turned 50 a few years ago, he picked up the guitar, and he started playing Prine. Three-chord tunes written in ¾ time. The music, he found, was simple enough; the words he hummed in his head, were complex and mine-deep.

Chris-2

Chris & his guitar. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Reisdorf.

So, when he read Tim’s text Tuesday night, he thought of how his oldest son, Matthew, reacted two years ago when his favorite — hip-hop artist Mac Miller — died of an accidental drug overdose at age 26.

Maybe, Chris thought, John Prine was his Mac Miller.

On Prine’s death, Chris wrote:

I had been tracking his health on social media the days leading up to the news of his passing and wasn’t shocked when I had heard, but it definitely hit me hard. 

“Can’t really say why it hit me like it did.  Maybe it was that we had all recently seen him live and that memory of the evening came flooding back (friends together, stories and laughs) or just seeing the outpouring of love from other musicians and people he impacted all at once. 

“I remember when Mac Miller died, and Matthew was really upset, and I felt for him but didn’t relate to it … as Mac Miller’s music or influence wasn’t part of my life.  I guess maybe John’s songs and stories were more a part of my fabric than I thought.”

Prine was part of Tim’s fabric, too.

He wrote:

I just hated to see this guy go. I just loved listening to his evolution of his thoughts as he got older and closer to the inevitable. He survived the two cancers and to get COVID-19 while doing what he loved to do (a tour in Europe) just really sucked.

“Listening to some of his interviews and especially seeing him live, I saw that this guy really seemed to love playing for us more than we loved him playing for us.

He is a happy, positive, not afraid of honesty and finds the humor in honesty kind of guy.”

But why do we mourn his death so?

Chris has an idea.

Not sure who said it so I don’t want to take away or do a disservice to someone else’s quote, but I had heard it said something like:  Music is the one thing that can transport you to a moment in your lifetime like no other vehicle. 

“Hear a song from your childhood and you are immediately there, sometimes it’s not the song that makes it emotional it’s the people and things that come to mind when you hear it.”

True.

Prine-1

In a 2016 interview on “WTF” with podcaster and comedian Marc Maron, Prine talked about what Tim saw and what many of us felt in every Prine song we heard.

“I call my outlook on the world ‘Optimistic Pessimism,’” Prine said. “Admit that there is a problem, this is the problem, give the characters names and then say it just like the blues. And you just state it. If there is a humorist aspect, that enters into it, too, as it does in daily life.

“People don’t walk around all the time with their head down. It gets so bad it gets funny. I mean, you can cry only so long before you start laughing about it.”

But where did those songs come from, like “Angel from Montgomery” and “Sam Stone,” Prine’s story song about a Vietnam veteran addicted to heroin?

He and Maron talked about that, too, in a fascinating back and forth.

Prine: “When I wrote those songs, I was trying to explain things to myself more so than finding an audience for that. I thought it was a hobby for me. I didn’t think this was something you could make a living out of. “

Maron: “And surprise.”

Prine: “Yeah.”

Maron: “And the other thing that is amazing about those songs and your particular songcraft is there is a simplicity to it,but the turns of phrase are so fucking good. You deliver the first line of the couplet and ‘What’s gonna happen and Oooooo, Yeah!’

“And it’s so tight and so economic. And I know you hear that about your poetry and about your songwriting a lot. But when you sit with a song, how much word math do you do?”

Prine: “When you got a good one, I can hardly write fast enough. I feel like a court stenographer. I’m taking the song down and putting my name on it, but I was the first one to hear it. It comes in all tied up in a bow.”

Maron: “The whole thing.”

Prine: “Yeah, it’s there. And there are other ones you have to work on, and I don’t like it when it appears that you have done too much work on it because it shows to me – especially with repeated performances – when you really had to work and patch and glue things.”

Maron:  “But don’t you think you’re the only one who knows that?”

Prine: “Probably.”

Maron-Prine

Sam Stone was alone
When he popped his last balloon,
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair.
Well, he played his last request,
While the room smelled just like death,
With an overdose hovering in the air.
But life had lost it’s fun,
There was nothing to be done,
But trade his house that he bought on the GI bill,
For a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.

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.

–       “Sam Stone”

 

Now, to Prine and his dance.

I found why in a tribute singer-songwriter Jason Isbell wrote last week in the NYTimes.

gettyimages-610469544

Jason Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires

A few years ago, my wife, Amanda Shires, was touring in Scandinavia with John Prine, and when they arrived in Sweden, she saw him write “songwriter” on his customs form as his occupation. “When did you decide that it was OK to write ‘songwriter’ on these forms?” she asked him. “Today,” he told her. “I usually put dancer.”

John Prine was not a dancer. He was a songwriter and one of the best that ever lived, but he did love to dance. He danced around his house in Nashville with his wife, Fiona, danced in the driver’s seat of his beloved Cadillac and danced offstage every night, twirling an imaginary pocket watch.

About Prine’s marriage, his third, Isbell added this:

There was more to John’s life than music. John and Fiona Prine had a beautiful relationship, loving and balanced and kind. Fiona understood John better than anyone else. After Amanda and I were married, Amanda started asking all the couples we knew, “What’s the secret to staying together?” John and Fiona gave the same answer, and it was the best one we’ve heard so far: Stay vulnerable. John remained vulnerable in love and in his work. He never played it safe.

When I was a baby, my 17-year-old mother would lay me on a quilt on the floor of our trailer in Alabama and play John Prine albums on the stereo. Forty years later, my daughter would call him Uncle John as he bounced her on his knee. My wife and I would sing his songs with him in old theaters or sometimes in his living room. In the summer, we’d all eat hot dogs with our feet dangling in his swimming pool. Now he’s gone and my heart is broken.

This week, John Prine danced off this stage and onto the next one, and I like to think he’s somewhere sharing a song and a cocktail with all the friends he outlived. 

Rest in peace, John Prine. You are loved.

Isbell & Prine

All the snow has turned to water
Christmas days have come and gone
Broken toys and faded colors
Are all that’s left to linger on
I hate graveyards and old pawn shops
For they always bring me tears
I can’t forgive the way they rob me
Of my childhood souvenirs

— Souvenirs

I put something on FB the day after Prine’s death, and I got a revealing response from my friend and neighbor, Steve Scott. He lives three doors down from us Rowes.

“I’ve never been sadder or more choked up over the loss of a musician than the loss of this one,” he wrote. “A giant, a genius, and someone who so beautifully spoke the language of the common man.

“Thank God his music lives on, though it will be hard to hear it for a long time knowing he’s gone. RIP, John Prine. We loved you.”

So, like with Tim, like with Chris, I sent Steve an email and asked him about the why behind his response.

That’s when he mentioned his guitar.

Steve Scott

Steve Scott

Like Chris, he picked up guitar later in life. Steve was 65 when he did that. And like Chris, he played Prine.

When he did, he rediscovered the musician he first heard in 1971 in the days of pot and protest. Like Tim, Steve picked up Prine’s first album, listened to songs like “Illegal Smile” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” and he loved Prine’s righteous raised fist during the tumult of Vietnam.

Two years ago, Steve picked up Prine’s “Tree of Forgiveness,” Prine’s first release in 13 years. Steve wore it out. He listened to it and played songs from it, and like me and my HH crew, he went to the DPAC to see Prine perform.Steve's tix

Steve still has his ticket.

In an email, Steve wrote:

“I realized it was kind of a bucket list thing for me, and the concert did not disappoint. It was fabulous.

“Here was this old guy who had survived several bouts with cancer, doing what he loved, dropping his guitar and dancing around the stage with such joy and paying tribute to his sidemen as he went. It was a soul reinforcing experience.

“John Prine spoke to me in a way few if any other musicians had. He had a gift and he loved sharing. With every fiber of his being, clearly. After that, I almost felt like I knew him. When he died, I felt like I had lost a close friend.”

Why?

“John Prine understood what it was like to be an average citizen, a common man, in this great but flawed country. He had a deep understanding of how our personal flaws and foibles and those of our country affect our everyday life; how painful they can be, and how joyful they can be.

“He had a wry sense of humor, and I got it. His work fits in with my world view in many ways. His ability to express that so concisely, so precisely with brilliant lyrics and just simple lovely music was unparalleled.

“He will be missed, but his work can continue to inform us and inspire us. He helped us see past the bullshit to what was/is really going on; what’s important and what’s not. And I believed he lived his life that way too. He wasn’t fooled by the theater that still goes on around us.

“And he expressed it so very well.”

Steve dancing

Steve Scott dancing with his daughter, Charlotte.

John Prine has become yet another casualty of C-19, the new moral test of our time.

What number is he on that TV screen of ours? Who knows? Those numbers all hurt in so many ways.

Hate it. So, like many of us I’ll hold onto tangible things through this surreal crisis known as C-19. And one of those things will be that memory of a Friday night in the fall  where I watched Prine dance.

John Prine.

“The Dancer.”

Steve is right. That was a soul-stirring sight.

I hurt. We all hurt over Prine’s death. So many do. Consider these comments from a piece that went live Monday on Rollingstone.com.

Says Bob Dylan said, “John’s talent and sprit was a gift to the world. We were lucky to have seen and heard him.”

Say Michael D. Higgins, the president of Ireland, where Fiona grew up, called Prine “a voice of tolerance, inclusion, whimsy, and protest, [capturing] the experience of those on the margins in societies.”

Says Bruce Springsteen: “John and I were ‘New Dylans’ together in the early Seventies. He was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world.

“He wrote music of towering compassion with an almost unheard-of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives. He was a writer of great humor, funny, with wry sensitivity. It has marked him as a complete original.”

He surely was.

Prine-3

We always will have Prine’s music. And that music is him.

So him.

And so about his philosophy of life, his “Optimistic Pessimism.”

Yes, his death does suck. But as John Prine himself would say, you can cry for only so long. You have to look for something … else.

So, for me, I have to think that Prine is in a better place, that place he talked about in one of his last recorded songs, “When I Get To Heaven.”

John Prine must be there. Fiona believes that. In Rollingstone.com, she said:

“It came as the biggest surprise when I learned about how deep and yet uncomplicated John’s faith was in God and the afterlife. We always talked about how God pops up in so many of his songs. But he really did believe with no doubt that he would die, and he would be in heaven.”

So, he’s up there – wherever “there” is — forming a rock ‘n’ band, having a cocktail, opening up a forgiveness bar and smoking a helluva long cigarette.

And he’ll be dancing.

That, I think, should make all of us smile.

When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town.

– “When I Get To Heaven”

Prine kicker

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s