The John Prine song you need to hear just now is “We Are the Lonely.” It’s not the best song off Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings — that would probably be the hauntingly death-filled narrative “Lake Marie” — but it’s the one that, with atypically forward electric guitars, offers a suddenly prescient-seeming anthem about, well, social distancing. “We are the lonely/ All together,” Prine and his band chant in the song’s boisterous chorus, “All together/ We’re all alone.” It’s a chorus, if not exactly an energy, befitting both our current fretful days sheltering in place and the punishing experience of losing a voice as distinctive and big-hearted as Prine’s to a global pandemic already weighing us down with anxiety and grief.
The album also features—and this is not a small thing—the most arresting cover art of any Prine album: not another photograph of Prine posing somewhere in dusty jeans, but a painting by the late cartoonist John Callahan depicting a rural scene. In the lower left foreground of the image, an overall-ed devil greets an angel on the front porch of a country shack, while on the right, a succession of crudely drawn yellow dogs ascend on wings into the distant blue sky over three green hills dotted with headstones.
I learned about John Prine’s passing last week just a few hours after my wife Katy and I took our dog Sam to the veterinary hospital to be euthanized. Like many vets, ours would ordinarily make a house call to perform such grimly sensitive work. But as distressed families all over the world have learned these past few weeks, comforting deathbed intimacy is a further casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. So instead of saying goodbye to Sam on the backyard grass where he loved to romp and roll, we had to settle for a cramped and cold office in the veterinary clinic.
If I believed in such things, I’d think that the near-simultaneous passing of Sam, the dog of my heart, and John Prine, my favorite musical artist, was more than just coincidence, that it means something. The last song on Prine’s last album is an exultant track called “When I Get to Heaven.” Wouldn’t it be something if he and Sam were together there, hiking the woods? I can’t quite believe that, though I have no doubt they’d get along.
I only saw John Prine play live once: in 1995, right after the release of Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings, at Clowes Hall on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. I was working full-time as a stock-boy at Banana Republic while trying to earn a terminal Master’s degree in hopes of compensating for my underperformance as a first-generation undergraduate. I spent my days heaping and unpacking boxes, extracting pants and shirts from plastic wrappers one after another, sorting, sizing, stacking, the monotony made tolerable by blaring whatever CD I cared to play on the boombox. And most of the time, hemmed in by shelves bulging with khaki pants and merino wool sweaters, I cared to play Prine’s two-disc anthology, released in 1993, called Great Days.
I’d first learned about John Prine’s music in college. On Friday nights in the summertime, Katy and I and a few friends liked to go see a local acoustic duo called Twopenny Hangover play at a bar in our hometown of Lafayette. Their repertoire featured Prine’s hilarious “Dear Abby” and they’d even written a playful song of their own called “The Date,” about a potential relationship that goes wrong because the girl can’t stand Prine’s nasally voice. A couple years later, John Mellencamp cast Prine in a small role in his lovely, quiet film Falling from Grace, an endorsement that seemed to me, a typical Mellencamp-loving Hoosier kid who knew little about musical lineages, to carry the weight of a canonization.
People tend to associate John Prine with sadness and sorrow, with wrenching emotional power. Many of his most famous songs— “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Souvenirs”— are both beautiful and notoriously agonizing. He wrote, for example, what is arguably the greatest, and most devastating, couplet in the history of American music: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, where all the money goes,” he sings in “Sam Stone,” his bracing portrait of a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran, “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” Every John Prine fan has at least one song that just guts them. Katy can barely get through the version of “Angel from Montgomery” Prine sings with Bonnie Raitt. For me, it’s “Souvenirs.” As I recall, he played that wistful rejection of wistfulness two-thirds of the way through his set in ’95 and it left me in tears through the rest of the show.
But I’d have made for one shoddy stockboy weeping dolefully all day. Luckily, that’s not really what it was like for me keeping company with John Prine box after box, shirt after shirt. No, for me the music of John Prine has always been about sociability, conviviality, friendship, falling further in love with Katy. Truth is, what the music of John Prine brings to you along with all that heartache and woe is an extraordinarily warmhearted gregariousness, an expansive, and often droll, general affection for the quotidian lives of others that Prine somehow manages to inhabit.
Prine had an astonishing gift for registering what the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart calls “ordinary affects.” Her description of what it’s like to dwell in such everyday scenes, the “things that happen,” provides, almost uncannily, a gloss on Prine’s body of work:
“the watching and waiting for an event to unfold, the details of scenes, the strange or predictable progression in which one thing leads to another, the still life that gives pause, the resonance that lingers, the lines along which signs rush and form relays, the layering of immanent experience, the dreams of rest or redemption or revenge.”
Prine could step back and engage in political critique. But he was generally less a social analyst than a sensitive recorder of the everyday textures and rhythms of what Stewart calls “heterogeneous and noncoherent singularities.” These seemed to provide Prine with an inexhaustible source of endearments. Even his songs about personal disappointment evince an abiding kindness: “I got so much love that I cannot hide,” Prine sings in “All the Best.” Who writes a breakup song of such munificence, such tenderness? Aside from, say, Whitman at his best, or Melville in Moby-Dick, I can think of only one other comparison for such radically generous companionability.
Recent research into canine behavior suggests that dogs love promiscuously. Newspaper reports last year presented these findings as a disappointment, as though it constituted a blow to humans, who would prefer (as humans do) to believe their bonds with dogs are unique, a special form of interspecies attachment. New evidence, however, reveals that a dog will love almost anything; a horse, a goat, a bird. There’s a Youtube video I’ve seen shared on social media of a dog that looks a lot like our Sam lying patiently on the ground while an owl pokes and pecks at her face. One gets the feeling that dog simply recognizes and respects the fact that owls just gotta owl.
If I’m being honest, I was not infrequently that owl to Sam, lavishing upon him at times a little too much affection, hugs and kisses that he tolerated with a kind of patient resignation. But Sam just as often attached himself to me. He was the sort of dog that would stay constantly at your heels, not satisfied to simply keep you in sight. I stepped on him, tripped over him, sent him sliding and scrambling on the slippery wood floors when I turned around abruptly. Even near the end, when the pain from osteosarcoma made it difficult for him to get up off the couch, or to walk, he’d still try to follow me from room to room.
Katy found and gave Sam to me, to us, as a gift when I earned tenure. He was in one of those prison programs, where they rescue dogs from kill shelters and send them to live with incarcerated men or women, who train them. Twelve weeks in the Coldwater Correctional Facility in Michigan. When we adopted Sam, his prison trainers, Ken and Omar, wrote us letters. They said they call him Samuel Jenkins. They said he knows how to sit and stay. They said he likes to stay close to his people at all times. I’m glad to have shared Sam with those strangers, glad that Sam enriched their daily lives as he did ours, and thus linked us together in some insufficient way. He must have looked at them with those same soulful, beseeching eyes as he did me. With the exception of Katy, I’ve never loved anything quite as much as that guileless way Sam would gaze into my eyes. It always seemed to say something like:
Do you like me?
Well, I hope you do
Cause if you like me
Then I think I’m gonna have to like you too
Those lyrics are from a track off Lost Dogs called “Day is Done,” a song that’s nearly perfect in its straightforward simplicity. But it’s also wise. It’s a song that knows, that expresses, the truth that we all want to be liked, and the deeper truth, maybe, that we all want to like.
We could do worse than to remember that in these exhausting times, when, from certain quarters, there is such a dearth of truth, when there is so very much not to like, when we’re all stuck at home, worried that someone we care about—an elderly parent, a sibling, a friend, maybe a stranger stocking grocery store shelves—will wind up in a crowded hospital like John Prine did. But then I also wonder if maybe we’re not stuck. Because the truth is I like being at home with Katy and—formerly now, alas—with Sam. And I think that’s why I’ve always loved John Prine, because maybe we really are more all together when we’re all alone.
Jeffrey Insko loves all dogs.