JOHN PRINE RETURNED to Fairbanks for the third time in the past two decades
and his fans filled every seat in Hering Auditorium for what may have been
his strongest performance here yet.
He set the tone for the evening of story and song when he said, "I've been away for quite a while from Fairbanks." A second later a bit of trouble with a guitar led him to add, "My guitar has been away even longer."
Prine's self-deprecating humor and his ability to tell a good story, no matter if he's talking or singing, have always set him apart. After Prine played without a break for two hours and 15 minutes, he received two standing ovations Friday night.
When Prine released his first album 31 years ago, a Rolling Stone reviewer said, "If he's this good this young, time should be on his side." Prine's strength is that he writes about ordinary events in an extraordinary way. My brother Kevin in Cincinnati, who introduced me to John Prine's music in 1972, puts it this way, "He gives voice to something you didn't know was there but now that he's told you, you will never forget it."
Prine has a lot of miles on him, but in a strange way he seems better suited to many of his classic songs today than he was three decades ago. Of the couple of dozen songs he played Friday, nine of them came from that remarkable first record, which tells me that time is on his side. He's no longer the fresh-faced kid sitting on a bale of straw who graced that early album cover, but his eloquent songs are more powerful today when delivered by a 56-year-old with a lifetime of experience behind him and a voice as smooth as sandpaper. He won a Grammy for "The Missing Years" in 1991 and remains a first-rate wordsmith.
Prine had several bottles of water on the stage and he drank before and after every song and not just because of the climate. After he came down with neck cancer in 1997, doctors had to remove his saliva glands, so his mouth gets as dry as his sense of humor.
The Fairbanks audience did not consist entirely of people who know his songs, which was apparent when there was a smattering of laughter at the references to the fat girl in the beginning of "Donald and Lydia," a tender song about dreams and loneliness. But most of the audience, at the concert arranged by Trudy Heffernan of Acoustic Adventures, knew that song as well as all of the others, with the possible exception of one song he has yet to record that he wrote while recuperating from hip replacement surgery. Prine joked that his new titanium hip is supposed to last up to 30 years, which is longer than he will last. "I hope the family enjoys it," he said of the titanium joint.
The audience sang along heartily to "Illegal Smile," a tune that Prine insists was written about his propensity to laugh to himself at things that other people don't find funny. He did update the lyrics on that one. The original included a reference to Judge Julius Hoffman, who handled the Chicago 7 trial. In the song's revised litany of bad things that can happen to a guy, he said, "I went to court and the judge's name was Ashcroft."
In one of his asides to the audience, Prine said there are stories about lots of his songs and sometimes the stories are better than the songs. He said there are three stories about "Fish and Whistle" and he decided to tell the middle one. In 1966, Prine and three of his buddies were drafted on the same day. They passed the physical and were given aptitude tests "so we could be all we wanted to be." Prine said he never looked at the questions, but wrote down random answers on the multiple-choice form. The results came back that he was a "mechanical genius," which is how he was placed in charge of a motorpool with construction equipment. He said the only good thing was that the huge nuts on the bulldozers and cranes were easy to spot in the maintenance manuals. "I remember one morning we had an inspection and we had one too many bulldozers. That's just as bad as being one short, so we buried it," he said.
Prine told stories about his mother and father and some of his friends, including Steve Goodman and Iris DeMent. His mom died a little more than a month ago and he told a story about her favorite of his many songs. It's a song on Prine's second album that has been as closely associated with Goodman, who died of leukemia in 1984, as Prine. "Steve had a way of playing guitar on this song that it would sound like it was my guitar and therefore it would make it sound like I could play," Prine said. "It was also my mother's favorite song. "I was working at this little club in Chicago called the Fifth Peg, just one night a week. I was delivering mail during the day. I didn't know if they were going to throw me out of the club or not. I had been singing there for about four weeks in a row and I was driving down to the club," he said. He thought to himself that many of the same people might be in attendance and he would probably need a new song to go with his earliest songs, "Hello in There," "Sam Stone," "Paradise" and others. Prine said he had the melody to the new song in his head, but his guitar was in the trunk of his car. "I had myself convinced by the time I got to the club that the melody that I'd come up with had about 15 different jazz chords in it." "Soon as I got there I took my Martin and went to the men's room and I played this song and it was with the same three chords I always play," he said. After that introduction, he launched into "Souvenirs," playing the chords of G, C and D.
The chorus is a good keepsake: "Memories, they can't be boughten. They can't be won at carnivals for free. Well it took me years, to get those souvenirs. And I don't know how they slipped away from me."
Dermot Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 459-7530.