Behind The Song: John Prine’s “Illegal Smile”

When listening to the classic John Prine tune “Illegal Smile” it’s hard not to wonder what the reaction to the song—especially its lyrics—would be if the track had come out today, in 2021. When the song hit the airwaves in 1971, people lapped it up like kittens and milk. But today, to say: Relax, stop overreacting, I’m just having some good clean fun! might engender online mobs the likes never seen before.

Yet, no matter, the song lives on today as beloved as when it came out—thankfully! Perhaps in part because it offers that sense of freedom, that sense of autonomy and sovereignty that many may feel deprived of today in an era when online minions are ready at anyone’s behest. But we digress…

Prine, who is recognized today as one of America’s great songwriters, released “Illegal Smile” in October of 1971 on his self-titled debut album on Atlantic Records. The LP peaked at No. 154 on the Billboard Top 200 in 1972. It had a resurgence in 2020 after Prine passed away from COVID-19 complications, peaking at No. 55. (The Illinois-born Prine was 73 years old.)

For all intents and purposes, this song was Prine’s introduction to the world. The first song from his first album that anyone would hear.

The story of the debut album goes like this: Atlantic’s famous executive, Jerry Wexler, who coined the term “Rhythm & Blues” and was responsible for helping to break acts like the Allman Brothers and Aretha Franklin, signed Prine to a record deal after Wexler saw Prine perform at a Kris Kristofferson show.

Heading into recording the album, Prine said in the Great Days: The John Prine Anthology liner notes, “I was terrified. I went straight from playing by myself, still learning how to sing, to playing with Elvis Presley‘s rhythm section.”

In the same liner note essay, Prine talks about how, specifically, “Illegal Smile” has long been considered an anthem for pot smokers. But it wasn’t written with that intent, he says. It was more written as a result of his unique way of merely witnessing the world.

He notes: the meaning of the song was “not about smokin’ dope. It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I had this view of the world where I can find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at. But it was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn’t want to stop every time I played it and make a disclaimer.”

For the 3:10 song, which opens side one of the 13-track LP, Prine begins with a bright strummed acoustic guitar. It’s a simple, but effectively human. Then the first lyric comes in, When I woke up this morning, things were lookin’ bad… Prine continues:

When I woke up this morning, things were lookin’ bad
Seem like total silence was the only friend I had
Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down, and won
And it was twelve o’clock before I realized
I was havin’ no fun

Ah, but fortunately I have the key to escape reality
And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile
It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while
Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone
No, I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun

Last time I checked my bankroll
It was gettin’ thin
Sometimes it seems like the bottom
Is the only place I’ve been
I chased a rainbow down a one-way street dead end
And all my friends turned out to be insurance salesmen

With the glinting guitar and Prine’s bouncy, delightful voice, we are introduced to his spirit and his crucible all at once. He’s plucky; likely a genius. Yet, he’s down and out. He’s of the people—fearful of the men in blue, even. But he’s also a keen-eyed, grinning person who can also show us about ourselves. Truly, if magic exists, it existed in Prine and in his ability to offer this precise insight into the world.

Even though he’s not with us today, we still just may see him some night with an illegal smile, leaning against a gate. And we hope he’s enjoying himself at least one last time.

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