[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
Hoopla wasn't much in evidence last week when John Prine copped his Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but then folk music in general hasn't lately headed Technorati's top searches list. Nonetheless, it was heartening to see a great songwriter get his props. While the album, Fair and Square, is no masterpiece (my review, to quote an old Prine lyric, would be: "pretty good, not bad, I can't complain") it's full of the sardonic tunesmith's trademark pithy humor and heart, and includes one of the most painfully funny political folk songs in recent memory, Some Humans Ain't Human, with its mordant verse:
Have you ever noticed / When you're feeling really good / There's always a pigeon / That'll come shit on your hood / Or you're feeling your freedom / And the world's off your back / Some cowboy from Texas / Starts his own war in Iraq...
At any rate, hearing of Prine's win -- a testament to the idea that some of us may indeed be getting better (or at least remaining just as good) as we get older -- set my nostalgic mind wending back, back to mine and his youth, when I had the... somewhat conflicted pleasure of spending a few minutes with the man...
John Prine may still not be a household name, but he's been a songwriter's god since the release of his first album, in 1971 -- a collection of gem-like musical short story character portraits that were hilarious and heartbreaking in a dark-end-of-the-bar kind of way (and inspired cover versions by artists as disparate as Johnny Cash and Bette Midler*).
Back then I was among the many fledgling writers to sit up, take notice and steal from him what I could. So I was excited to hear from my friend Ann Purtill, then head of A&R at Elektra Records, that she had met Prine and had gotten shnockered with him. I pressed Ann for details, and one thing that made an impression on me was her reportage about one aspect of his writing method.
According to Ann, Prine said that he'd created a sort of loosely-connected fictional family out of the characters in his songs. In his world, the Vietnam War veteran Sam Stone was maybe the grandson of the farm widow who sings Angel From Montgomery, who was related to the lovers in Donald and Lydia. I loved the notion of this, which only upped the Winesburg, Ohio aura of that first record -- I could envision Prine's characters crossing paths at the local convenience store, their various personal tragi-comedies masked behind casual "how's it goin'?"s.
In 1973 I did some recording with Carly Simon in L.A., and when I went with her to see Prine play at the Troubadour, I was among the access-happy folk backstage after the show. When I found myself seated next to him on a dressing room bench, I gave regards from Ann Purtill, whom he apparently remembered fondly.
Prine had a voice like gravel and an amiable face with a hangover squint in his eyes. He was a drinker in those days, and not the most forthcoming in that moment, but the fact that he was smiling emboldened me. "Ann was telling me," I said, "about how the characters in your songs were related to each other -- like a family?"
John's smile evaporated. He looked directly at me for the first time. "I don't write about my family," he said.
"No, no," I hastened to explain. "Not your family. The people in your songs. You know, like Sam Stone-- "
He was in dark-browed scowl mode now. "Who told you that?"
"You were telling Ann? About how you thought of some of the characters in your songs as being related...?"
He stared at the floor for a long moment. It was hard to tell if he was merely trying to get his mind around what I'd said, or trying to choose the best way to tell me to fuck off. "You sayin' something about my family?" was what he finally came out with.
Prine was defensively shifting his weight on the bench now, looking like he was ready to hurt me. I muttered a "never mind" and "pleased to meet you" and slipped off to another corner of the dressing room. There were photos taken there that night of John and Carly, but without any Periphery Man in the frame.
In an alternate universe, John Prine would've understood me fine and we would've talked all night and a great friendship between gifted peers would've been born, with me commemorating our meet by writing a song about Sam Stone's mother (wearing army boots), maybe later writing the libretto for the musical Prine-burg, Illinois.
In this world, I'm left with the knowledge that some writing borders should not be broached, glad that I escaped this particular celebrity encounter without a black eye for an autograph.
*You can find Carly's cover of Angel From Montgomery here on her box set (entitled Clouds in My Coffee) with yours truly playing piano.
(c) 2006 Billy Mernit all rights reserved.