John Prine … When I Get To Heaven
Instead of writing my five hundred or thousand words as I should, I’ve been listening to John Prine. Today, the cruelty of this Stephen King novel we’ve all been living became real for me. I don’t mean to make light of the tragedy of thousands of deaths, but so far, these have mostly been deaths in the abstract. My family, my friends—as far as I know—are all okay.
Then John Prine was taken.
Some thirty-five years ago, on a road trip from Spokane, Washington to Jackpot, Nevada, a friend introduced me to Steve Goodman and John Prine. Of course, I’d heard their songs, but I’d never listened carefully to their body of work. On that drive, my friend gave me one of the most valuable gifts I will ever receive.
By then, Steve Goodman was already gone. He died of leukemia on September 20, 1984, at the age of 35—only a few weeks before his beloved Chicago Cubs made their first post-season appearance since 1945. He’d agreed to sing the national anthem at one of the playoff games, but knew he wouldn’t be able to make it. He asked Jimmy Buffet to fill in for him.
John Prine and Steve Goodman were both Chicago guys. They were close friends and fed off each other. They often performed together. John said they used to call each other regardless of the hour when they’d written a new song and sing it over the telephone. “I remember Stevie calling me up in the middle of the night from some motel and saying, ‘I got one.’”
When John came home from the army, he was a Chicago mailman, and wrote songs in his head on his mail route. He was at an open-mic club called The 5th Peg , listening to other singers and offering criticism when someone said, “Well, then why don’t you get up there and try it.”
John sang—Sam Stone, Paradise and Hello In There. The audience, he said, just sat in silence when he was done. Humbled, we walked off the stage and was leaving when the club owner approached him.
“I’d like to hire you,” the owner said.
John looked at him and said, “To do what?”
One reason I think music is so powerful is because it connects us to our past. So many of John’s songs made me laugh when things were bad, enriched me when things were good. Some of those songs provide crystal clear memories of times and places and events. I have specified in my will that I want Please Don’t Bury Me sung at my funeral.
Please don’t bury me down in the cold, cold ground.
I’d rather have ‘em cut me up and pass me all around.
Throw my brain in a hurricane and the blind can have my eyes.
The deaf can take both of my ears if they don’t mind the size.
Give my feet to the footloose, the careless fancy free,
Give my knees to the needy, don’t pull that stuff on me.
Hand me down my walkin’ cane, it’s a sin to tell a lie.
Send my mouth way down south and kiss my ass goodbye.
I’ve often wondered how much we lose when a creative genius dies before his time?
What would Buddy Holly have given us if he’d live beyond the age of twenty-two? What else would Steve Goodman have written? I remember hearing and interview in which John said he thought all songs were just out there in the ether, waiting for someone to come along and hear them and write them down. He said when you hear one, you can’t let it get away, because someone else will get it.
He was being self-effacing about his genius.
Please do me and yourself a favor. Sometime today, go to YouTube and listen to these five songs.
1. In Spite of Ourselves
2. Sam Stone
3. Lonesome Friends of Science
4. Hello in There
5. When I Get to Heaven
I’m not so sure about heaven, but if there is one, I hope all the things John mentions in this song are waiting for him there, including the kazoos. I hope he and Steve Goodman sing a duet on Souvenirs and My Old Man and Donald and Lydia.
In one of the many tributes appearing about him today he was called “the Mark Twain of folk/country music.” Certainly, a flattering comparison. But I’m not sure he needs to be compared to anyone.
He was John Prine.