Seeing John Prine the other night on Governor’s Island with Stereophile's Stephen Mejias was a fairly profound experience, owing to Prine’s strange, elegiac tone. It may be that he wasn’t down with the venue (a windy island at night) or that he was simply tired (he looked it), but almost everything he sung, even the fun ones like, “Please Don’t Bury Me,” had an odd sadness clinging to it. I tried not to think about how Prine beat cancer back in 1998. The first time I saw him backstage after the cancer had been cut and radiated out of his throat, he cracked a smile and chirped, “Well Robert, this is what happens when you start smoking when you’re 14. What did I expect?” Thankfully his voice and his irascible disposition returned undiminished by the illness. He’s lost some tissue in his neck and his voice did indeed get a little growlier, but overall he was extremely lucky. I prefer to ascribe his lonely tone last Friday to the fact that he’s been singing some of those songs for 40 years and just decided to give them a different emotional bent in New York. Truly though I have never seen a Prine show that wasn’t laced with jokes, spot on wisecracks and sly references to the current world history. And never have I heard one of his signature songs “Donald and Lydia,” done so beautifully, its chorus lines turned into a near prayer: “But dreaming just comes natural Like the first breath from a baby, Like sunshine feeding daisies, Like the love hidden deep in your heart.”
This encounter with one of my favorite artists in all the genres and all the gin joints in the world, set me into a frenzy of Prine album listening over the rest of the weekend and continuing until today. Because two of Prine’s first three records were such monster songwriting collections, John Prine (1970) and Sweet Revenge (1973), his later work gets short shrift. For a different side of this master craftsman, check out the three albums he made for Asylum: Bruised Orange(1978), Pink Cadillac(1979) and Storm Windows(1980). They all show Prine in his mid-Thirties, one who’s past his initial batch of songwriting ideas and over the burst of success that came with those first records, and is digging in and fashioning a career. His lyrics get ever more accomplished the more you listen. And Pink Cadillac which was made in Memphis, is a weird change of recording venues that didn’t quite work, but remains interesting nonetheless.