Lost a Friend: In Search of John Prine

“When you read about somebody special, who has met an untimely end,
Although you didn’t even know them personally, feels like you’ve lost a friend.”
– Gilbert O’Sullivan.

Like many, I am profoundly saddened by the untimely and cruel passing of John Prine. It really does feel like I’ve lost a close friend, but those who have loved the man and his music will likely feel, as I do, that we really did know him. Truth is, I’ve been missing him for a long time already; in fact, it seems like I’ve been searching for him for decades.

July 24, 1992. I had a prior engagement for the date Prine announced a gig at Seapoint Ballroom in my native Galway. I’d narrowly missed out on seeing him in his hometown, Chicago, just the year before. Then, I’d walked into a downtown Sam Goody record store and been in awe of the display of Prine and his buddy, Steve Goodman prominent in the “local artists” section with posters revealing that he had played in town that very week. The temptation to cancel my plans when he came to Galway was great, but I went ahead and got married anyway.

A couple of summers later I stood at the crowded rear of a Galway bar when the crowd suddenly fell silent as an obscured tourist delivered an amazing rendition of Hello in There. You could hear a pin drop.

Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more
She sits and stares through the back door screen
And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen

Afterwards, the crowd now dwindled, I asked the barman who the guy was that did the John Prine songs. “Yeah, that was his name. Is he famous?” By then, Prine was an established part-time Galway resident and over the years – visiting home from Belgium – there was more than one occasion when I’d miss an impromptu session by a day or two. In Green’s Bar, Kinvara – a place he wryly observed as “a drinking town with a fishing problem” – I missed him by a matter of hours.

The years went by like sweet little days
With babies crying, pork chops and beaujolais

I did finally get to see Prine in concert in Brussels in 1996 and 2000, and at the Galway Arts Festival a few years later. Still, however, John Prine continued to be elusive. I so looked forward to seeing him again in Antwerp, last August, but a health advisory from his doctors led to a postponement. With that concert rescheduled to just over a month ago, I also added a trip to see him at Usher Hall in Edinburgh. Both of those were postponed due to a hip injury sustained during the European tour. I found myself in Edinburgh with an unused ticket – missing years again – as concerns about the Coronavirus escalated. The cruelty of his loss to that disease is particularly hard to take for a man who had battled through ill health and won, so many times. I’ll still be missing him when the 2021 rescheduled dates – now sadly cancelled – roll around.

John Prine was never famous. He was much more than that. He was a star. A genuine one. A gifted, literary writer, his hallmark humility is what set him apart. In a world that can be self-centred and arrogant, to have had so much talent and humility in equal measure was extraordinary. He was proud of the huge recognition he achieved in recent years, but you could also see that the praise embarrassed him just a bit. Losing him at this strange time to an illness that ironically gives us glimpses of a better world is Proustian Prine at its best. Let’s hope we learn from it.

His powers of observation will never be equaled.

I saw a hundred thousand blackbirds
Just flying thru the sky
And they seemed to form a teardrop
From a black haired angel’s eye
That tear fell all around me
And it washed my sins away
Now everything is cool
Everything’s okay

I am sad the search has ended so abruptly. We’ve lost a friend.

John Prine – 10 Essentials

John Prine: October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020