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Broken Hearts And Dirty Windows

Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows

I came to him kind of late. I was in a strange place, flipping around the dial in my car radio, trying to find the local jazz station, and I found him. Whiskey voiced, raspy, sounded a little like the Cookie Monster, and I stayed to the end of the tune to get his name. This is the song I heard. It’s called “Souvenirs.”

Here’s a part of it.

Broken hearts and dirty windows
Make life difficult to see.
That’s why last night and this morning
always look the same to me.

….And I hate reading old love letters
for they always bring me tears.
I can’t forget the way they robbed me,
of my sweetheart’s souvenirs.

That was about 25 years ago, when I first heard John Prine. Maybe the reason he’s not exactly a household name, (in most households) is he’s impossible to categorize. After over 45 years, folks have almost given up trying. He’s not a Dylan wannabe or someone who wants to sound like Arlo Guthrie. He’s not a lyric writer who wants to be Tom Lehrer. He sounds like no one else, except John Prine and you can find the evidence right here. He wrote this during the Vietnam War.

But your flag decal won’t get you
Into Heaven any more.
They’re already overcrowded
From your dirty little war.

Now Jesus don’t like killin’
No matter what the reason’s for,
And your flag decal won’t get you
Into Heaven any more.

Prine got some people buzzing in 1971 with his debut album, appropriately titled “John Prine.” “Twenty-four years old and he writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty,” Kristofferson wrote in the liner notes. How does a 24-year-old kid come up with lyrics like: “Ya know, that old trees just grow stronger/And old rivers grow wilder every day/Old people just grow lonesome/Waiting for someone to say/Hello in there/Hello.”

“If God’s got a favorite songwriter, I think it’s John Prine.” —Kris Kristofferson.

He’s a mass of contradictions. He’s from Chicago and he’s got a twang. (Not even from the south side.) Somebody described him as country-folk filtered through electro-acoustic rock. That’s probably as good a description as you’ll find, and for those who are organizing your music, you now know where to slot him.

You know you don’t hear too many decent organ donor songs, and with “Please Don’t Bury me,” I’d have to put this up there at the top of the list.

Please don’t bury me
Down in that cold cold ground
No, Id druther have em cut me up
And pass me all around

Throw my brain in a hurricane
And the blind can have my eyes
And the deaf can take both of my ears
If they don’t mind the size

And just when you think he’s completely demented, you hear a love song about a mismatched couple that makes you say to yourself, “How could he know?”

In spite of ourselves
We’ll end up a’sittin’ on a rainbow
Against all odds
Honey, we’re the big door prize
We’re gonna spite our noses

The great ones are storytellers. You don’t just listen to the words. You feel them. And those words have a way of hanging on. No matter how hard you try to push them out of your mind.

Who creeps into your brain around three in the morning?

This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. John,

    The second, harmony voice you hear on the above track is that of Steve Goodman. He and John were best friends until Steve died from leukemia at age 36. Steve was an astoundingly good guitarist who often broke strings because of his aggressive playing style. I once attended an outdoor concert outside of Concord, New Hampshire where Steve opened the show for Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Loudon Wainwright.

    Steve began his set with virtually no one on the mountain paying him any attention. Mid-way through his first song, he busted a string. But, instead of stopping, Steve continued the song, a capella, as he changed the song’s lyrics into instructions directed to a stage hand on where to find a replacement string. During this 5-minute process, he never stopped rhyming! As the audience began to notice that there was something odd occurring on stage, a hush descended upon the heretofore ambivalent crowd. As Steve restrung his silenced guitar, still riffing and rhyming, the disinterested crowd suddenly grew quiet and looked on with rapt attention. With the new string now in place, Steve finished the song to a thunderous standing ovation. All around me people were asking “who is this guy?”

    It’s funny that you mention Arlo Guthrie in your article, because there’s a connection. Steve once bought Arlo a beer in order to get Arlo to (reluctantly) listen to a train song Steve had composed. The song was called “The City of New Orleans”. Arlo subsequently said it was the best beer he ever had.

  2. John offers humanity to a world obsessed with its technology. Kind of sad that his best known song is his atypical “Dear Abbie,” though it does show his humor in full force.

  3. Enjoyed the story on John Prine, a favorite from way back.
    Just as Prine wrote Paradise, another musician from KY, Chris Knight, writes eloquently and realistically of life in KY. One of my favorites is Dirt.

  4. LOVE John Prine. A friend I call “the dj of my life” played some YouTube of Prine from various phases of his career. My plan is to learn every song while he is still able to give concerts.
    I’m glad to learn it was Kris Kristofferson who helped get Prine his first record deal. Kris was the first grown man I ever had a crush on… but he’s younger than my Dad who was my favorite Army helicopter pilot.
    I sure wandered off didn’t I? Outstanding storytellers have that effect on me: send my mind on rapid tangents.

  5. Dear Mr. Peterman,

    Thank you for opening my ears and soul to John Prine’s music! In addition, thank you Mr. Epstein for your eloquent post!

  6. I just recently got to know Mr. Prine. Thanks so much for introducing him to me; too late to actually witness his performances now but you can be sure that I will be trying to buy his music when and wherever I can.
    Dr. Christine Brooks

  7. You came to John Prine late. I’ve been a fan of your company for years and have just today found my way to your blog. I browsed for a while and this is the one that caught my attention. Mr. Prine left us 18 days ago. I feel a sad joy in reading and listening to the lyrics you noted being sung inside my head. He was unique. A friend introduced me to him, along with Texas writer Nanci Griffith, back in the 90s.
    I don’t know why I’m commenting really, other than to say I’m very glad you had the experience of being “heard” when you listened to his songs.

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