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

Drinking the Water of DMB: A Reflection on Being a Fan

Geeks come in many forms. Sometimes they play video games, sometimes they’re mathletes, and sometimes they stay up late at night reading message boards and commenting on threads as setlists are updated from their heartthrob band.

I was an Ant. For the uninformed, an Ant is a loyal follower of DMB. Ants gather on antsmarching.org to discuss everything from tailgating to guitar selections to Dave’s wine label. But to understand why I was an Ant you must first understand my high school graduation present.

I had grown up listening to the band and in high school I declared that if I “died tomorrow” my biggest regret in life would be having never attended a Dave show. I had no idea what was in store…

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My graduation party was held in my family’s small brown barn in southern Maine. My two older sisters surprised me with a very large box. Upon opening it, I found a smaller box, and inside that box was a smaller box, and so on, until finally I held in my hands an envelope. The envelope contained tickets to a DMB show in Mansfield, Massachusetts that summer. I was shocked and ecstatic as any 18 year-old would be.

Before the Massachusetts concert, however, my sisters pulled a second surprise on me—a remarkable, over-the-top surprise (I have pretty amazing sisters). We were on vacation in Chicago. We got on a train. I was told we were going shopping. Then I noticed there were people on the train who had Dave shirts on. I thought, hey, these people are cool. Little by little, clues started to emerge right in front of my eyes but I was oblivious. I had no idea we were headed to a DMB show until my sister finally placed the tickets in my hands as we got off the train and approached the stadium.

I could probably write a book about my memories from different DMB shows—if I remembered them all—the idiosyncrasies that happen for each venue, each night, each group of people present. I’ve pushed our car out of the mud at the site of Woodstock; I’ve hugged Boyd Tinsley; I’ve seen Willie Nelson as an opener at Fenway Park. But what I value the most, above any specific anecdote, is the pure happiness that I have felt when anticipating a concert or dancing barefoot on the grass or hearing a favorite or rare song.

What is this fascination with falling in love with bands? What is it about the obsessive nature that takes hold—be it for a Beatle, the Dead, or Dave? It’s optimism. It’s hope. It’s youthful ambition and idealization. It’s believing that each show will bring not only new experiences, new friends, new songs…but that each show will somehow shape our identities. The live experience presses upon us in a way that no studio-produced album can.

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Throughout all of college I attended shows every summer. I took road trips and camped out and even went as far as writing a math paper about the probability and statistics of guessing DMB setlists (I got an A). But after college I found myself swept away into other experiences—I traveled and picked up jobs and attended graduate school and found I couldn’t commit to summer shows. I also faded away from my identity as an Ant online, ceasing to check in on a regular basis.

As I explored more of the country and progressed further into my 20s I started to learn firsthand more about the kinds of things the band sings about—love, loss, freedom, pain. I met people outside of my bubble. I challenged myself and the world challenged me back.

So now here I am—a person who holds a full-time salaried “grown up” job. In three weeks I will see DMB for the first time since 2010. It will be my 12th concert. I’ve been digging out my paraphernalia and I’ve found myself “coming back” to the band. I’m being sucked into this wonderful world of youthful hope, except this time it’s paired with the insight that can only come with time spent and miles traveled.

Is it a little silly? Sure. Is it meaningful? Of course. We all go through a natural ebb and flow of interests and obsessions. If we didn’t, well, we’d be lacking a very essential ingredient to what makes life so damn rewarding and worth living: passion.

My dormant antsmarching.org profile still lives on. It’s been a little lonely but like any old friend, it’s good to catch up and reminisce. For those who understand where I’m coming from, my handle is emmalovesdmb. It’s true; I do.

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