John Prine died on April 7th, 2020.
1. The opening verse of “Illegal Smile,” the first track on John Prine’s self-titled 1971 debut album, establishes one of the songwriter’s enduring themes: loneliness. A morning of oatmeal and silence is no fun. He must “escape reality,” an escape that is associated with a smile and the transition from verse to chorus. The change from reality to its escape into an “illegal smile” is also a change in time signature from verse, a humdrum 4/4, to chorus, a languorous 3/4, sweetened by a steel guitar.
2. A solider meets a dancer in a bar. The dancer tells the soldier how to live: she tells him to escape the reality defined by the TV and the newspaper. The proposed alternative involves nature, self-reliance, and God. A home in the country (that you build yourself), a garden (that you plant yourself), and peaches, sweet peaches – that’s the dream. Upon this foundation you can seek Jesus “on your own,” the dancer tells the soldier, her proposal enlivened by pedal-steel. She continues dancing, singing her song “all night long.” They leave together that night, and the rest is history: peaches in the country, no breaking news, and children who found faith “on their own.”
3. Late in life, Loretta and her husband are lonely together, their “hollow ancient eyes” haunting anyone who passes them on the street. The song wants you to say hello. Their children are grown and out of the house; one, Davy, died in Korea, fighting for a cause incomprehensible to his parents. The stasis is suffocating, despairing. The chorus hits hard with an unexpected borrowed chord as the song tries to naturalize the married couples’ narrative: old trees grow stronger, old rivers grow wilder, but old people – and on “people,” the song’s return from nature to the human, we also return to and repeat the chord progression that comprises the second half of the verse. Loretta and her husband know this repetition too well. “All the news just repeats itself.”
4. Sam Stone was wounded both physically and psychologically in Vietnam. He returns home to his family; by the end of the song he is alone, succumbing to an opioid addiction. The drugs have left him broke and untethered from reality. The shift in point of view for the chorus is as jarring as is the juxtaposition of addiction and the loss of faith. From the third-person verse, we are now, suddenly, seeing things from Sam’s kid’s perspective, or perhaps his wife’s, as either might refer to him as “daddy” in context: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes / And Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” Addiction-fueled poverty (soon the kids are “wearing other people’s clothes”) is so devastating that the foundational premise of Christianity, salvation, is questioned by Sam’s family.
5. Paradise is a place, a memory, and a metaphor. Prine traveled there as a kid with his family. But the place he remembers is gone, a ghost town, a paradise we cannot return to because of the violence of time and history. The song contrasts the accidental nonviolence of the young Prine clan – they shot at snakes but only hit empty bottles – to the visceral ecological violence of Mr. Peabody’s Coal Company, who “tortures” and “strips” Paradise, ultimately “forsaking” the land. The song knows it will forever exist as a counter-narrative to the official version of the story, which is that the destruction of Paradise by mining is the “progress of man.”
6. “Pretty good, not bad, they can’t complain / Cause actually all them gods is just about the same.”
7. The “dirty little war” in Vietnam claimed along with Sam Stone’s life enough casualties to “overcrowd” heaven. This tragic scene is leveled against a kind of often-unreflective patriotism represented by a flag decal or lapel pin, whose espousers are under the impression that such displays – the decal, the lapel pin – are tickets through the pearly gates. Prine reminds these folks that “Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reason’s for,” alluding most likely to the Sermon on the Mount and the incompatibility of such clear moral imperative against violence with supporting, through a decal, a war in which millions of humans were killed. The humor in the song is dark, scathing; the upbeat country arrangement runs in tension with the catastrophe of the subject matter. The man whose bank gave him the decals (as a Christmas Club promotion – another perversion of Jesus’ teachings is included by Prine here) ends up dead, blinded by the superficial patriotism he practiced and the flag decals with which he papered over his windshield.
8. He knows that Cathy is moving on even though she has not told him yet. Thus he idles in that interstice, reading Cathy’s words and actions – her request to change the radio station; her laugh that come one beat late – and notices a June bug, seeing himself in its flight from “the warmth it once knew.” He will be leaving the warmth of Cathy’s love. Outside, the chorus tells us, “the sky is black and still now” as befits his feelings, the darkness and stillness covering what at other times is beauty figured as the singing of angels. Consolation is knowledge, knowledge dramatized by the image toggle between “old broken bottles” and “diamond rings”: what is truly a broken bottle, his relationship with Cathy, appeared for a while like a diamond ring, a symbol of an engagement. “Ain’t it funny.”
9. A lonely “old woman” nurses unfulfilled dreams, unfulfilled desires. The organ in the arrangement reads church -- reads hope? Reads power. She is lonely despite having an old man around: much like Loretta and her spouse, these two do not converse anymore and their life is one of stasis. She needs “something to hold on to” because you can feel her passion in the song’s arrangement, the lead guitars like kindling underneath the rhythm section’s withholding. Her plea for escape is specific: a transformation, then flight. Where? Anywhere, just from Montgomery.
10. The Quiet Man does not talk much. Beneath the quiet exterior a lot is going on. Prine’s conceit is that the interior emerges not in “talk” but in song, and that song is our access to beauty and to ourselves.
11. Donald and Lydia are quiet in this way. The song’s title, “Donald and Lydia,” sets the expectation that they are a couple who are quiet and lonely while together (like Loretta and her man; like the old woman in Montgomery) but Prine tell us two stories that do not converge – Donald and Lydia live only inside their own heads, hiding their love in their hearts – except in the frame of the song, which closes with the paradox of their making love “from ten miles away.”
12. Both Wanda’s son James Lewis, aka Jimmy, and her son’s father are “strangers” to her throughout. Wanda polishes the chrome, changes the diapers, and displays the knick-knacks. Jimmy’s estrangement grows, deepens, despite outward signs of normalcy, such as running and laughing with other kids. The disjunction between this and Jimmy’s internal life, represnted by his diary in the song, could not have been known to anyone. Jimmy dies. Who is speaking the song’s refrain? Is it Wanda asking Jimmy to keep close for one more night, knowing her son is in trouble but unable articulate it any other way? “Come on, baby, spend the night with me.”
13. “So goodbye nonbeliever / Don’t you know that I hate to leave here / So long babe, I got the flashback blues.”
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