I learn by going where I have to go.
08 April 2020
In a time of epidemic and crashing economic systems and human's unkindnesses to humans, I think the thing I read today that made me feel the worst was that the news that singer-songwriter John Prine has died, aged 73.
I am not sad because John Prine didn't lead a full life. I think he did.
I'm sad because John Prine occupied a special place in my heart and my memory, and because he wrote and sang beautiful music, and the world needs more of that, not less.
In July of 1995, I was young. I was in college, I felt good, it was the mid-90s and women were allowed to wear the grunge look and still be considered desirable women. Life was good. Of course, at the same time, it also wasn't. In July of 1995 I was beyond depressed. I thought I was majoring in the wrong thing in college (I was) and that nobody I had a crush on would ever date me (they would, but I couldn't know that then), and that I was fat (I wasn't) and a loser (the jury's still out) and I was in the wrong college at the wrong time and why didn't I feel better? About that time I had taken a light semester of courses, with an eye to dropping out, and was working full-time at a CD store (when such things still existed) for minimum wage, which was, at that time, something like $4.50 per hour. Actually I think I was better off than my co-workers; I got a quarter extra per hour for being a full-timer.
But the job had perks, no doubt about it. First of all was the world's most relaxed dress code, which has always been the most important consideration to me when taking a job. Secondly, I worked with nice (although crazy) people, and we all had different musical tastes, so in one eight-hour shift you went from punk to country to rap to whatever Americana I was into at the time, and beyond. You also sometimes got free concert tickets, and backstage passes. In July of 1995 I got free tickets and a backstage pass to meet John Prine at his show in town.
I had no idea who John Prine was. I went because the opening act was The Subdudes, and I loved The Subdudes. I also went because I had two free tickets, and this way I could ask my friend Joe to go along with me, because he was perpetually low on cash and was always up for free entertainment. I was also in love with Joe. Joe was emphatically not in love with me. It was frustrating to be in love with Joe, because I loved his laugh and for some reason he found me funny and when we were together we laughed all the time. If you can make me laugh, I'm basically in love with you. Didn't it work that way for guys, I wondered?
Over the next ten years or so I would learn, no, it doesn't work that way for guys. But that's the subject for a whole other book of maudlin essays.
Anyway. I loved Joe and still harbored sad desperate hopes that someday, when he was laughing at something hilarious I said, he would suddenly realize he actually was in love with me. So off we went to see the Subdudes and John Prine.
The Subdudes were great, and Joe totally enjoyed that part of the concert, which made me happy. We almost left before John Prine even played, but then I remembered, hey, I had a backstage pass, I kinda wanted to hear what he was about and go backstage afterwards. So we stayed. And here's what I learned: John Prine was the King of Awesome.
John Prine has a voice like nobody else, and although I'd never heard him before, and of course I don't remember the songs he played, I still remember how I felt at that concert. I even forgot about Joe sitting next to me. I sank into the music that I'd never heard before and I just totally, totally enjoyed the showmanship and skill of John Prine and his band. I loved every song. I remember feeling both totally awake and totally still in a way that I rarely am. If I am awake, I am moving. My mind is moving, my hands are moving, my feet are moving, something. Antsy is my primary state of being.
But for the entire time John Prine played I was still. I listened. The world was still while I listened. And then, when he was done playing, I dragged Joe backstage with me and I got to meet John Prine. Of course he had to say hello to a lot of other people who had backstage passes, and I don't remember that I even talked (I think I was still in a transcendent state where speech would have seemed superfluous). I do remember that he was completely gracious, and he was not exactly a big smiler, but he seemed very kind. He signed my backstage pass.
When I was young I had the habit of tucking ticket stubs and other ephemera into my CD booklets.* So, although I have not listened to it for a long time, I just went downstairs to the CD archives and found my lone John Prine CD. Tucked in the booklet is my ticket, and that backstage pass, and it says, "Thank you. John Prine."
I don't know where Joe ended up. I can still remember his laugh, and I laugh thinking about it, and I laugh thinking about Joe and knowing what I know now, and understanding why he didn't love me back and how he was right about that, no way in hell would that have ever worked. And I'm no longer young, and the world is upside down, and a great singer is dead.
But once, long ago, I took a chance and did something new, and even if it didn't substantively change my life, it gave me a lovely feeling and a memory and an appreciation for going to see something even when I didn't really know why I was going. Or, as Theodore Roethke would say: "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go."
Thank you, John Prine.
*Another reason to miss CDs.