When Musicians Die

Beyond his wit, writing chops and endearing voice, it was John Prine’s attention to loneliness that I’ve always found most captivating.

We all know that middle-aged woman whose husband has nothing to say; we can hear those flies buzzing around her kitchen. We’ve seen the veteran with a hole in his arm, trying to ease his pain with drugs. We’ve ached for the elders, the narrator and Loretta, whose kids are grown and gone.

Although I’d always heard some of his songs, I began listening to his music in earnest when I moved across the country after college and served as a backcountry trail crew worker in Idaho and Montana through AmeriCorps.

This was before smartphones (which wouldn’t have mattered anyways, as we didn’t have cell service), but I did have enough battery on my iPod to listen to a few songs each night in my tent before going to bed. I had to conserve that battery and spread it out over nine days.

When you are in a very remote place in the world and you have to damp down the campfire and say goodnight to the few other people who are also in that remote place in order to crawl into a small, personal tent, it can be pretty lonely.

As coyotes howled, wolves prowled, bats swooped overhead and the moon cast shadows across my polyester dome, I took comfort in a few minutes of Prine’s voice.

It was a reward for sledgehammering rocks and sawing logs in the hot sun all day. When he crooned about how it was gonna be a “long Monday sittin’ all alone on a mountain by a river that has no end” I nodded my head, even though I didn’t at the time have anyone who would “give me a kiss that’ll last all week.”

Two summers later, I was living in Portland, Oregon. By then, I did have a boyfriend but he lived 3,000 miles away in Maine. One warm night I walked to the bus stop, rode into Pioneer Courthouse Square, and caught the MAX Light Rail to the Oregon Zoo. I walked past monkeys and penguins and bears and there was John Prine, singing on a modest stage, calm as ever.

The flip side of loneliness, of course, is connection. In writing about silences and solitude, sadness and sorrow, Prine opened up all our hearts to the possibilities of connection—authentic relationships—encouraging us to imagine what could happen if only we were gentler, more understanding, more receptive to one another.

When a musician dies, many of us immediately send texts, fire off emails and post song lyrics on social media. We hunt for YouTube URLs—often clips from when the musician had sung about the afterlife.

We recall concert experiences and the first time we heard certain songs, reminisce about the feeling of holding their album or CD or iPod playlist in our hands. We share these sentiments almost out of desperation, pleading with others to see how much this person meant to us.

Look. Here’s proof. This person I never knew firsthand—he mattered to me, influenced me. He’s gone.

I felt this way when LeRoi Moore, the saxophonist for Dave Matthews Band, died after an ATV accident. I felt this way when Tom Petty floated off “into the great wide open.” I again was overcome with emotion this week with the passing of John Prine due to complications from COVID-19.

I can’t help but think of what kind of song Prine would write about the coronavirus. After all, this was a man who chose to point out all of life’s absurdities. He wasn’t afraid of contradictions; he embraced them.

It’s eerily poetic that someone known for an acute understanding of loneliness eventually succumbed to a virus that has quite literally separated the entire globe.

Still, I keep coming back to that summer night in Oregon when his raspy voice, aged by cancer, echoed out to the crocodiles and tigers, to salmon and bald eagles, to elephants and insects, goats and polar bears throughout the zoo.

During that one little performance he reached across continents and across species in such a genuine, yet goofy way.

As stay-at-home orders sweep across America because of COVID-19, everyone wants to know: when will life return back to normal?

Normal.

What is normal? It’s too vague of a word. Look at Prine’s lyrics and you will find characters who are flawed and downtrodden, searching for happiness or ignoring its possibility.

Some characters lament about their problems to Dear Abby, some watch as their love turns to shadows on the banks of Old Lake Marie.

An adoring, chain-smoking grandpa wears suits to dinner and hammers nails in planks. A woman with “the mind of a child and a body peaking over the hill” just might be “the oldest baby in the world.”

A “whacked-out weirdo” sniffs undies.

Prine saw the isolation in abnormality, but the beauty in it, too. The characters who find love are unapologetic about their oddness.

When musicians die, the easy part is celebrating their lives—sharing their music, singing their lyrics, imitating their songs with covers and re-mixes. The harder part is incorporating their messages into one’s life. Facing your feelings. Deciding to change.

If we want to honor Prine’s legacy we should be mindful that loneliness will continue to persist even once the quarantines are lifted if we don’t reach out to fill all those metaphorical spaces between us, which he worked so tirelessly to expose.

Only then, after weathering tumultuous storms, will we be able to find our own special rainbows to sit on.

“In spite of ourselves.”


Photo and video clip by Emma Joyce | June 22, 2013