We lost another great one. John Prine died this week at the age of 73, from complications from COVID-19. He leaves a big hole.
Growing up, he told me, “I loved having buddies and I loved time alone.” But when he became a father, he told me, “It brought my feet right to the ground. It just made me feel so much more comfortable in the world.”
And when I asked him about the song off his latest album...When I Get to Heaven, he told me , it wasn’t about dying, It started as a little song he’d sing to himself when he was making a cocktail at happy hour...and he’d start thinking about cigarettes, which he’d long-ago quit after bouts with cancer.
He told me: “I thought, where can I smoke a cigarette? And I thought, heaven. There couldn’t be any cancer in heaven. Why would people want to go there if there was cancer?”
Let’s listen back together to that episode, and we send our condolences to his family, his many friends, and all the people who have found meaning and comfort in his music.
JOHN PRINE: I get people to actually stop me on the street now going, “Who are you? Don’t I know you?" I mean, they don’t say, “Hey, you’re John Prine!” They want me to tell them who I am.
ANNA SALE: What do you say?
JP: I go, “No!”
JP: No, I’m not him.
JP: This is, “Death, Sex and Money.”
AS: The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
….and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
John Prine is 71 years old and right now, having the best album sales of his career, His new record is called The Tree of Forgiveness...We talked in New York just as it was coming out.
JP: Last night we ate at a really swanky restaurant here in New York City. And I’m a meat and potatoes guy, but they served me with something that looked like a baby hedgehog, with liverwurst inside of it. But it was pretty darn good and pretty expensive too.
MUSIC - Knocking on Your Screen Door
I ain't got nobody
Hangin' round my doorstep
Ain't got no loose change
Just a hangin' round my jeans
John’s been in the music business for 47 years. He’s never taken more than a year off from touring and when we talked he was getting ready for a big sold-out show in New York.
JP: I just had a knee replacement, exactly six weeks ago.
JP: I threw my cane away three days ago. And I’m going to play Radio City on Friday night, and hopefully dance off the stage.
John is renowned for the way he can put together a song. Bob Dylan called him one of his favorite songwriters, Johnny Cash said he was a source of inspiration.
I’ve loved John Prine a long time....I sang his songs around campfires when I was growing up in West Virginia.
MUSIC - PARADISE
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born.
This song is called Paradise off his first album, from 1971.
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
John’s parents were from western Kentucky, but he grew up in a suburb of Chicago.That’s where he started out playing open mics...Kris Kristofferson heard him and helped him get a record deal. But until then, he was making money delivering mail.
JP: I was a mailman out there, braving the elements, between bees, wasps and dogs. I mean, it was jungle out there. It drove me to songwriting.
AS: And going back to 1971 when your first album came out, it’s after you had this incredible breakthrough, success through the 70s....what was that time like?
JP: It was just a flash. It all was airports and sound checks and meeting people that felt really close to you because of your—that was a tough one for me to get over. People felt really close to me because of my song lyrics. And I’d always go, “Wait a second, who are you?”
MUSIC- Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
You come home late and you come home early
You come on big when you're feeling small
You come home straight and you come home curly
Sometimes you don't come home at all
JP: It was like, I was writing about things private to me and dear to me. And to have people know me before they shook my hand was odd to me. I had to kind of get over that. And people, they were being sincere. They were introduced to me through my records, and in quite a few situations, people would pass my songs over—a lot of people got to know my songs through a good friend, or through their mother or father, who’d introduce it to them. Some people tell me that the car trip they would take with their parents were the only time they felt like a family, and I would be the soundtrack. And that’s pretty neat. It’s better to get known for your music that way then somebody taking the advertisements over the radio for you.
AS: When you started your record company—
AS: Why did you do that?
JP: It was partly because I moved to Nashville, and I really had nothing against the people at the major labels. They were frustrated trying to market me, and I was frustrated from them being frustrated. I just figured I’m going to start my own label and just service people that come to see me. That’s all I was trying to do. At first it was by mail order. People sent in checks before I wrote the songs. They said, “I don’t care what your next record’s called, here’s $15, send it to me.” And the record was paid for before I went into a studio. That’s unheard of.
AS: Who taught you how to manage your money?
JP: Nobody, apparently! I mean, if I write a song that I think is great? I spend the money then! I may not record the song for five years! You know, everything I spend—ask my wife—I mean, everything that I spend is my imaginary bank. You know, they let me have an account. I call it my Scrooge McDuck account— I picture myself just climbing in the vault and rolling around in the money. But it’s all money that doesn’t have to pay for any bills or—it lets me have my own little world, you know? Otherwise I spend money like crazy. I mean, on nothing.
MUSIC - BOUNDLESS LOVE
Sometimes my ol' heart is like a washing machine
It bounces around 'til my soul comes clean
And when I'm clean and hung out to dry
I'm gonna make you laugh until you cry
One thing John loves to buy: classic cars. He spends a lot of time behind the wheel...
JP: I like to drive down the interstates, drive down an old road. It’s pretty slow, but you get to see more.
AS: Drive by yourself?
JP: Yeah. I probably write more songs with a steering wheel in my hand than a guitar. It kind of helps me to think, driving down the road. It helps to have distractions sometimes.
AS: Do you feel like at this point in your life and in your career, that you need to engineer alone time? Like, to make that so you have that time for yourself?
JP: Well I didn’t think so, but my wife Fiona, who’s managing me now, and our son Jody who’s running our record label came up to me last year, and said real solemn, like they said, “John, it’s time to make a record.” Because they knew I’d been writing all along. And they put me in a hotel suite for a week with 10 boxes of unfinished lyrics, three guitars and a ukulele. Fiona knew that I operate better in a hotel room than I do at home. At home, I just look for ways to get out of it, doing things. In hotel rooms I have some sort of—there’s something going on. I’m ready to do a show or something. So they left me to it. And I would knock around during the day and go get a hot dog. And at nighttime I’d start writing about three in the morning, order room service up, have a party by myself and end up with a couple songs every day.
Turned on the TV
Looked out the window
And then pulled down the shades
And I came to
My mind could not be made
AS: What’d that look like, having a party by yourself? Were you sitting at the desk?
JP: I spread the papers all over the suite. Everywhere you went there was an empty box with papers out. I just grab songs and pull them together. Some of them fit and some of them didn’t.
MUSIC - Ordinary Blue
I hear a lot of empty spaces
I see a big hole in you
I feel an outline that traces
An imaginary path back to you
This ain't no ordinary blue
John met his wife Fiona when he was in his early 40s and twice divorced. She was living in Ireland, and they were long distance for five years until she moved over to Nashville with her son Jody...whom John adopted.
JP: It wasn’t long after that that we started having babies. And then it was my idea. I thought, geez, I better buy a ring for this girl! You know? Or otherwise people will start looking down on me. Especially with the second—we had the first baby, Jack, and Jack was born December of '94. Second baby was born in October of '95. People looked at me like, you can’t, don’t you have something else to do? Leave that woman alone!
AS: (laughs) You were apart for a long while.
JP: We were, yeah, we were.
AS: Before you met your wife Fiona, did you think you were going to be a Dad?
JP: Well I didn’t plan on it. And I got to say, when I became a father the very first time, I had no idea that—how much I’d been flying around all my life. Just literally. It brought my feet right to the ground, when I saw that baby boy in the hospital. It just made me feel so much more comfortable in the world. I always felt really odd in the world. Like being a Dad just did something for me. Just brought me down and made me feel like I was just like everybody else. It was something I was striving for, actually for years. I didn’t want to be an oddball. I’d see people that seemed to be normal, and I thought, boy, that’s a good thing. But, I, that’s how I ended up making my living, being Mr. Oddball. I mean, I get these thoughts and stuff, and I like to make them into songs. They might sound odd at the time, but then people connect to them throughout their life. And it turns out I’m doing something that may resemble something solid.
AS: When you say you felt like your feet came on the ground, was it because you had a sense of belonging in this family, or was it like a very clear purpose? Of helping keep this little baby alive?
JP: It was a purpose—I was a Dad. I was something, you know?
Coming up…John talks about going through treatment for cancer, twice. Sam Phillips...the producing legend who launched Elvis’ career…is the one who originally set up him with his oncologist.
JP: He goes, “This is how you get there, and you need to go there. And if you don’t, I will come to Nashville, Tennessee, and kick your ass every inch of the way.” And I said, “Yes, Mr. Phillips.” You know, Sam Phillips tells you where to go, you better go. (27:30)
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
John Prine has a prominent scar on his neck, from surgery for stage three cancer. He was diagnosed the year he turned 50, just after his two young boys were born.
JP: You know, so it was boom, boom, boom. Three things happened like that. And my wife had to, Fiona had her hands full with the kids and all of a sudden we had to go off to Texas and do all this radiation and surgery and everything. It was pretty scary.
AS: Did you think at that time that you might die?
JP: You know what? I didn’t. Something told me that I wasn’t. So I didn’t feel that way, I didn’t feel like the deck was against me. I quit smoking, because the doctor said, he said, “I can’t tell you it has anything to do with this present cancer, but...” I smoked a pack a day for 35 years. He said, “Wouldn’t it be a good time to quit?” And I said, “You’re right.” So I did. I still miss them though, I miss cigarettes like crazy.
AS: Was covering your medical bills a worry for you?
JP: Not really. I never worry about money anyway. I just don’t. I don’t worry about money and I don’t run to catch airplanes. Something interesting that happened. A good friend of mine in Nashville, a songwriter named Roger Cook. He comes to me with a song, “I just want to dance with you.” And I jumped on it, and I said, “I know how to write that.” So I filled in all the lines, and I recorded it, and no one else recorded it. 10 years go by. George Strait records it. It goes up to the Number 1 same week I’m in the hospital.
MUSIC - George Strait version of "I Just Want to Dance with You"
I don't want to be the kind to hesitate
Be too shy, Wait too late
JP: I come out of my first thing of radiation, got in a rent-a-car, and the radio was just on whatever dial in Houston, Texas. And like, I had just left all these people that were really sick behind me in the waiting room. Jumped in my car, and my throat was sore from the radiation. Turned on my car, George Strait’s Number 1. My song. No matter how good insurance you got, that’s a lot of bills. And that Number 1 paid for all of them. So I never had to worry one thing about.It’s a good thing I’m not worried about money.
AS: I know! It’s like—
JP: I’m just a lucky guy.
AS: That’s what I was thinking. It’s like, you don’t have to chase airplanes if George Strait is your angel who showup on the radio singing your song.
JP: That’s the only one George ever sang, but boy, he picked a good one. Yeah, a really good one.
MUSIC -John Prine version of "I Just Want to Dance with You"
I got a feeling that you have a heart like mine,
So let it show, Let it shine
Oh, if we have a chance to make one heart of two
Then I just want to dance with you
AS: After you had your surgery, your cancer surgery and your physical appearance changed, were you aware of people responding to you differently?
JP: Actually, at first it was just kids. Because kids are honest. I still to this day, I mean, kids look at the back of my neck, with adults it’s just acting like nothing happened. I just never tried to hide it or—I never looked good in a turtleneck anyway. So I didn’t want to wear one, you know? But I got used to it. Because I don’t have to look at it all day long. Other people do. But I always thought who I am is from inside of me. That’s the person I’ve lived with since I was a child. And what you’re seeing in a mirror is kind of cool, but you’re just seeing one-dimension. So it’s like I used to just comb the front of my hair. I never combed the back of it, because I’m never walking behind me. I’ve never been friends with my hair. If you look at pictures of me throughout the years, you can tell we had some kind of argument going on.
AS: There’s a battle.
JP: There is, it’s like a battle. Finally we became like, old enemies. We hung out together, like Stalin and Lenin.
MUSIC - The Lonesome Friends of Science
The lonesome friends of science say
"The world will end most any day"
Well, if it does, then that's okay
'Cause I don't live here anyway
I live down deep inside my head
Well, long ago I made my bed
I get my mail in Tennessee
My wife, my dog, and my family, uh huh.
AS: When you were diagnosed with cancer again, did it feel like I’ve done this? Or did it feel new?
JP: Oh what happened was, uh, the doctors that originally dealt with my cancer knew that somehow I was going to get lung cancer down the line. They just watched it, so I knew there was something they were watching. And by golly, it took, what, 15 years, almost 20? It was so new, the cancer was, they cut it out and they didn’t have to do any follow-up with radiation or chemo. It hadn’t spread at all. They just got it, and they were expecting it. In other words, what I’m saying is, I wasn’t that surprised. I mean, it still jolts you.
MUSIC- When I Get To Heaven
Yeah when I get to heaven, I'm gonna take that wristwatch off my arm
What are you gonna do with time after you've bought the farm?
AS: When you walked into that hotel room (31:00) that your wife and son sent you to to write songs, were you thinking about death?
JP: No, not at all. I know what you mean. “When I Get to Heaven,” was about smoking a cigarette. It wasn’t about dying. It was my little happy hour, so it would get to be five or five-thirty, and I’d be humming to myself, “Going to have a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale.” You know, and have a cigarette that’s nine miles long, because I can’t get my mind off those cigarettes. And I thought, where can I smoke a cigarette? And I thought, heaven. There couldn’t be any cancer in heaven. Why would people want to go there if there was cancer?
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
AS: So would you like sing this little song to yourself when you’re making a drink before it was a song?
JP: Yeah, you know, I’d start skipping towards the fridge to get that ice cubes, by golly. If I make as much money as I do a year, and I go to the fridge and there’s no ice cubes in there? I am pissed. I want to know who stole my ice cubes, you know? People in Europe don’t respect ice whatsoever. You’ll order a drink there and they’ll give you one, lonesome ice cube. I mean, I don’t understand why everybody--all God's children, need ice.
AS: God bless America.
JP: That’s—God bless ice cubes! And apple pie!
That’s John Prine. He died this week. He was 73 years old.
You can see a list of the new songs we included in this episode at our website: deathsexmoney.org.
Death, Sex and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Emeryville, CA. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Thanks to Stephanie Joyce for her help on this episode.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
John Prine’s last album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was his first in the Billboard Top 10. He told me he was looking forward to some more Scrooge McDuck money coming from it…
JP: I’ve already got the cars picked out, oh, I’ve got some sweet cars picked out! I don’t collect hot rods or '50s cars and—I don’t like to be one of those old guys going down the road. I just like a car, almost like a Daddy’s car, like a four-door that’s been kept really good. You know recently I saw a 62 Chrysler Imperial convertible. It looks like a flying saucer, with a red leather interior. If that ain’t sex and money, I don’t know what is.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.