On September 7, 1978, music critic Jay Cocks changed my life. Writing for Rolling Stone magazine, he reviewed a new album, Bruised Orange, by singer-songwriter John Prine. Although Prine had already made a mark on the musical landscape with his tunes, "Sam Stone," "Hello In There" and "Paradise," I had missed that introduction, because my young ears were tuned instead to FM radio.
In his review, Cocks said that Bruised Orange was "about getting lost, and being in love, and staying in a world of fixed fates. No matter when you play it, Bruised Orange carries the chill of Midwest autumn." His words resonated with me. So sorry for the pun, but they struck a chord. I was boy from the Midwest, not far from Prine's hometown of Maywood, Illinois and a bar on Chicago's Armitage Avenue where he first performed his songs on open mic nights.
Without a clue as to what I'd find in its vinyl grooves, I drove to our uptown record store in Kenosha, WI, parked my $3.99 on the counter, and headed home to drop the needle onto Bruised Orange's first track, Fish and Whistle.
I don't know if it helps to have grown up in the Roman Catholic church and served as an altar boy, like John Prine, in order to appreciate Bruised Orange as more than just another fine effort by one of the great singer-songwriters of all time. It can't hurt, though. It can't also hurt to think that God has a great sense of humor, or he would never have made the basset hound, and I like to think he would gleefully tap his Almighty muddy boots to the chorus of Fish and Whistle.
Father forgive us for what we must do.
You forgive us, we'll forgive you,
we'll forgive each other 'til we both turn blue
and we'll whistle and go fishin' in Heaven.
Catholic grade school would have been a lot more fun if the nuns had let us sing this one at daily Mass.
Fish and Whistle calls to mind another great tune about America's sport of leisure, The Fishin' Hole, which is better known as the TV theme from the Andy Griffith Show. More than a decade ago, Prine met Griffith in Hollywood, where they would both act in a Billy Bob Thornton movie. "I thought that was the pinnacle of my career," Prine said of this encounter.
Bruised Orange takes listeners on a journey through its ten songs, from funny little ditties about divorce . . .
Hey there she goes.
Well I thought she'd never leave,
. . . to tunes about carrying on with the toughest girl in town. There appears to be some serious Kama Sutra going on between these two.
I got rug burns on my elbows.
She's got 'em on her knees,
Yeah, I'm goin' steady
with Iron Ore Betty
and she's goin' steady
. . . to songs about surviving, no matter what life throws at you. In the record's title track, Prine describes an accident he witnessed as a boy on a winter's morning in Maywood.
An altar boy's been hit by a local commuter
just from walking with his back turned
to the train that was coming so slow.
In an interview for Blue Railroad, Prine told Paul Zollo, They were taking him away in bushel baskets.
Prine then reflects on tragedy, both this specific one and others, large and small, that we may encounter at some time in our lives. How do we go on? Do we live out our days in despair and frustration? To these questions, Prine offers this insight.
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own
chain of sorrow.
As I write this article, actor Robin Williams has recently taken his own life, and I reflect on one of my favorite of his films, What Dreams May Come, whose title comes from Hamlet's soliloquy:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.
In this motion picture, William's character has died, preceded by the deaths of his two children. His widow is unable to deal with the immense pain of these tragedies and chooses not to be. As in Dante's Inferno, suicides in this film spend eternity in hell, yet God does not place them there. They cast themselves into the fiery pit of despair.
Death is a voice they can no longer shut from their ears. It seduces them and breaks them upon the rocks. As the novelist Milan Kundera has written, What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of emptiness below us which tempts and lures us. It is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.
Prine concludes the song, Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow), hinting that we may never recover from heartbreak, but we may weave it into our lives. He sings:
You carry those bruises to remind you wherever you go.
There's an intimacy to Prine's work, as if you're his guest of one on a front porch bungalow with autumn moving in. His words can make you weep or they can bring you joy. While my daughter was growing up, I must have sang Prine's song, Grandpa Was A Carpenter, to her a thousand times before bedtime. Tunes like that one and many of the songs on Bruised Orange compel you to sing along, particularly That's The Way That The World Goes 'Round.
Pull up a kitchen chair as John picks out this tune, just for you and a few good friends. Feel free to join in at the chorus.
Bruised Orange was produced by Steve Goodman and features a great band, particularly Sam Bush and Jethro Burns on mandolin, Howard Levy on piano, Corky Siegel on harmonica, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Jackson Browne on backing vocals, and Jim Rothermel on woodwinds. Rothermel makes Prine's songs soar from the penny whistle he employs during Fish and Whistle to clarinet on Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone.
In his lifetime, Rothermel performed on over 100 records by many well-known artists, including Van Morrison and Boz Scaggs. In 1978, journalist Joel McNally quipped that Rothermel seems to play every reed instrument in the history of air.
John Prine's songs seem like they've always been with us. They evoke memories, give us a laugh or bring a tear. They are cousins to the Stephen Foster songbook. While Fish and Whistle reminds me of the theme from the Andy Griffith show, these songs also share an uncanny resemblance to High Hopes, the Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn collaboration that Frank Sinatra and Doris Day made famous, but also warmed many hearts and ears on the Captain Kangaroo show.
The final track on Bruised Orange is The Hobo Song. With a plaintive call from Corky Siegel's harmonica, Prine pays tribute to the men who rode the rails, while speaking to the wanderer in all of us. As Prine's voice drops away near the end of this tune, a chorus takes over, singing softly and seemingly far, far away.
The Hobo Song is Prine's contribution to the canon of lonesome melodies, which includes Remember Me by the Hayloft Sweethearts, Lulu Belle & Scotty, a tune to which it bears a family resemblance.
Since he first picked up the guitar at age 14, John Prine has grown to become a treasure of American folk song. The music he's penned will be sung on the stage, across the kitchen table and around the campfire by many generations ahead. Visit John Prine's website HERE and don't forget to stop by the John Prine fan site HERE. You can find John Prine recordings on his own label, Oh Boy Records, and work by many other outstanding musicians there.
See you next time on 2FL.
Well done, son of a gun,
hot dog bun,
Attila The Hun,
my sister . . .
is a nun! *
|* Words by John Prine, "Illegal Smile."|