“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
That’s Bob Dylan describing, in the way that only Dylan can, the songwriting acumen of John Prine. It may seem like a mouthful, but that description is pretty on-point when it comes the heartrending slices of life that Prine has been peddling for four decades now.
Consider one of these typical “Midwestern mindtrips,” 1978’s “Bruised Orange (Chain Of Sorrow.)” The first verse was inspired by an actual incident that Prine witnessed as a boy in Illinois. As he set out early one morning to shovel the snow from the parking lot of a local church, he came upon the scene of a freak accident where a young boy was hit by a commuter train.
The random senselessness of it all clearly stuck with Prine all those years, and he pondered how people should react to it in the chorus. The instinctive reaction to “get mad and get madder” is the wrong one, he suggests, because those downbeat feelings could envelop a person until they get “Wrapped up in a trap of your very own/Chain of sorrow.”
In the second verse, Prine switches gears to show how everyone is on a rollercoaster ride of sorts, in life and love, just as likely to bask in “the diamonds in the sidewalk” as they are to wallow in the “dirt in the gutter.” The only sure thing is that every one of those experiences is going to leave a mark: “And you carry those bruises/To remind you wherever you go.”
Prine’s deadpan delivery of the song seems to second the philosophy espoused within; he refuses to get worked up even as his world-weary drawl betrays how the lack of easy answers can wear on you. For a completely different take, check out the 2010 cover version delivered by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Using his trademark high harmonies, Vernon turns the song into a hymn to man’s futility.
Cherry-picking a single song out of John Prine’s catalog is always difficult, but the man is so consistently good that whatever you choose is almost assuredly going to be representative of his high songwriting standards. Nonetheless, “Bruised Orange (Chain Of Sorrow)” is as good a place as any to start. Whether it’s beautifully existential or existentially beautiful, it’s a fantastic piece of work either way.
“Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)”
My heart’s in the ice house come hill or come valley
Like a long ago Sunday when I walked through the alley
On a cold winter’s morning to a church house
just to shovel some snow.
I heard sirens on the train track howl naked gettin’ nuder,
An altar boy’s been hit by a local commuter
just from walking with his back turned
to the train that was coming so slow.
You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder,
throw your hands in the air, say “What does it matter?”
but it don’t do no good to get angry,
so help me I know
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own
chain of sorrow.
I been brought down to zero, pulled out and put back there.
I sat on a park bench, kissed the girl with the black hair
and my head shouted down to my heart
“You better look out below!”
Hey, it ain’t such a long drop don’t stammer don’t stutter
from the diamonds in the sidewalk to the dirt in the gutter
and you carry those bruises
to remind you wherever you go.