John Prine peeled back the mysteries of ordinariness for Chicago fans

Categories: Chicago Tribune



APR 01, 2020 | 5:59 PM

Two days after the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series title in 108 years, baseball fans were still crowding streets in the Loop, still screaming, still crying, and still chanting about a victory seen as a miracle for a legendary Chicago institution.

From many stories above, in his room at the Palmer House, another Chicago institution watched the throngs of people through his window on that 2016 autumn day.

“What a week to be home,” said John Prine, wearing a black T-shirt and pants, his hands cradling a cup of coffee. He recalled sitting in Wrigley Field the previous season and hearing the unofficial team anthem written by Steve Goodman, his closest friend from his earliest days in Chicago, blast from the speakers.

“I had forgotten that everybody stands and sings the song, ‘Go Cubs Go.’ It gives me goosebumps on top of goosebumps to hear that,” he said.

At his show at the Chicago Theatre the next night, Prine made his entrance to Goodman’s song.

“Damn, it’s good to be home,” he told the audience.

The relationship between the songwriter and Chicago is, put simplest, a two-way love affair. So when news hit last weekend that Prine, 73, was stricken with COVID-19 and in critical condition, it created a storm of online grief. His fans, both famous and not, started posting tributes, memories and videos of them performing his songs in their living rooms. On Tuesday, Stephen Colbert interrupted his late-night show to air a duet he recorded with Prine in 2016. “One of the happiest moments I’ve had on my show,” Colbert said.

(On Twitter on Monday, Prine’s wife posted that Prine’s condition was now “stable.”)

His influence as a beacon for musicians of multiple generations is evident in his thick songbook, combed through by musicians as diverse as Southern soul singer Swamp Dogg, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.

But for Chicagoans, Prine and his songs represent something more relatable: An approach that uses plain-spoken language to peel back the mysteries of ordinariness. The key is understatement — minimal details and those generous spaces in the music and between the verses.

The 1971 debut album that put him on the map was written in an apartment on 19th Street in Melrose Park that he shared with his high school sweetheart. Many of its characters could have populated those streets: A Vietnam veteran turned heroin junkie, an elderly couple abandoned by their children, a convict eating Christmas dinner behind bars, a wife caught in a small town and a loveless marriage who yearns to run away with the rodeo.

Strip out the music, and it’s not far from the oral histories in “Division Street: America” by Studs Terkel.

Bob Dylan once famously described Prine’s songs as “pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree,” also descriptive of other Midwestern writers such as Carl Sandburg or Mark Twain who understood this region not as forgettable flyover country, but a place of unadorned beauty, absurd humor and resolute individualism. Prine, who relocated to Nashville in 1980, agreed.

“I don’t feel I could write songs about being a Southerner. I still got that Midwestern mentality. That’s where I go back as a touchstone with my writing,” he said that morning at the Palmer House.

He also came of age in a postwar Chicago that today is largely unrecognizable in its affluence and homogeneity. The saloons and clubs in Old Town and Lincoln Park where he plied his trade are now luxury boutiques and upscale restaurants. Where condo towers now stand once were the factories that employed both the people in his songs and those who came to hear him, including his father Bill Prine, a tool and die maker for 35 years at American Can Co.

Prine’s grandfather moved his family from Kentucky to Maywood in 1924 looking for work as a carpenter and he found it in spades, including one job raising buildings for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The factories that created the collar suburbs — companies such as American Can, Western Electric, and Illinois Bell — brought with them blue collar jobs that attracted people of all races and ethnicities. Prine told this writer in 1999 how he considered Maywood as “a melting pot” where people of all backgrounds could make a good living and raise families.

He briefly took guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Armitage Avenue location, but his real training was at the Earl of Old Town, a Wells Street pub that required its stable of musicians to play weeklong blocks of marathon sets that spanned seven hours, plus a matinee on Sunday afternoons. Besides endurance, the Earl, among other Chicago folk clubs of its day, also forced musicians to get comfortable winning over a crowd, no matter how rowdy. The experience, said Prine, was “a great way to cut your chops.”

Unlike Greenwich Village folk singers responding to the Vietnam conflict, such as Phil Ochs or Pete Seeger, Prine didn’t aim to rally crowds with big gestures in those days. Instead, his sense of social commentary felt more personal, as if designed for the front stoop, not the public square. “Sam Stone,” a song about a returning veteran ravaged by war, remains so powerful because it channels every argument about the derangement of armed conflict into a single person. “I thought one day that song will be one more Vietnam song,” he said. “But if I did a show and didn’t sing that, people would think I was a traitor. The song doesn’t wear on me.”

In recent years Prine has had the luxury of earning icon status in his lifetime, racking up awards and recognition from the music industry, up-and-coming artists and peers. All of it has seemed to energize him more. Last June, his most recent time performing in this area, he stopped by Val’s Halla, a record shop in Oak Park, to talk with fans and sign records. Owner Val Camilletti, another Chicago-area icon, recently had died, and Prine heard her shop was struggling.

On that sunny afternoon he told stories of growing up nearby. And like a true Chicagoan, he said he missed hot dogs, pizza and Italian beef sandwiches from Johnnie’s Beef on North Avenue.

The appearance was similar to the time he returned to the auditorium at Proviso East High School in Maywood, his alma mater, to play shows that raised money for local community groups. Onstage he talked about his old job on North Avenue scrubbing parking lots, the Madison Street restaurant where a girlfriend dumped him, the intersection at 20th and Division streets in Melrose Park where he witnessed a car wreck or that mail route in nearby Westchester where he delivered Reader’s Digests and thought up songs.

Then he sang them: “Donald and Lydia,” “Hello In There,” “Lake Marie,” “Fish and Whistle” and other deceptively simple songs from the neighborhood.

“I bet you had no idea those songs came from here,” he said.

Play us an encore, John. Chicago is on its feet for you.

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