Down On The Beach, the Sandman Sleeps: Sweet Dreams, John Prine

John Prine stepped over the monitor at the Carefree Theater on Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, looked down, winked, said, “Hi, Holly!” and proceeded to laugh.

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He was power-strumming “Lulu Walls,” and he was fired up. Something about that song got him bashing hard, a noted contrast to the ruminative sketches of the human condition that had pulled me to him as a barely teenager.

Having just taken a full-time job at the Palm Beach Post, my interview for the Miami Herald hadn’t run. He hated interviews, I’d been told, but we’d ended up talking a couple hours about life, old school Nashville, listening to WSM-AM, Midwestern values and Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train. He had a big sense of humor about being “John Prine,” an object of obsession for enough to keep his lifestyle afloat, but not exactly a household name. 

After the show in that old movie theater, we sat on a couch, where he made the pitch for A Tribute to Steve Goodman, a Chicago-folkie-grounded tribute to his best friend, who’d died. Willie Nelson had just had a No. 1 with “City of New Orleans” to help make sure the three Goodman girls got their college education paid for; Prine was doing his part to maintain the legacy of his running buddy.

That was the thing about John: he was never really in it for himself. Over the years, he’d be in all kinds of places, doing all kinds of things, but mostly, he liked to stand back and grin, watching people and taking in all that joy.

Wasn’t long before John got a great idea. His younger manager was an overly serious, somewhat awkward type. Maybe he’d play a little cupid, do what had to be done. Our first date could’ve been funded by John’s American Express card, except I wanted to go to Krystal. “Keep her,” he advised when he heard where we’d had dinner.

And so, barely much more than a kid, I started spending so much time on the road with the dark headed songwriter, Garry Fish, his Sancho Panza tour manager, and Dan Einstein, my soon-to-be third ex-fiancee, Fish joked, “We saw you more than our wives those years.”

It was Wolf Trap in the spring when the heat soaked through John’s jacket and left him in a clinging soggy tank top. You could literally wring the night air out.

There to write the bio for German Afternoons, I was standing in the wings, watching the zealous fans pressing into the stage, reaching up for him like the masses in “Tommy.” I was terrified. Turning to Fish, I half-squeaked, “Do something! They’re going to hurt him.”

“Hurt him? They love him,” came the response. “Look…”

John Prine at his Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony June 2019 (Photo credit: Estelle Massry Photography)

They did. The sold out crowd rocked gently as they leaned over the front the stage, singing the songs softly when it was a ballad like “Sam Stone” or “Hello In There,” more raucous for “Blow Up Your TV” or “Illegal Smile.” It was a revival, but also a moment to reconnect with who they were. That was the magic: who you were, as you are. Enough, plenty, seen for the cracks and broken places and loved almost more for them.

Still, John wasn’t pious. He’d take over the Bridal Suite at the Peabody Hotel and have three and four-day poker parties, breaking only to have cocktails and watch the ducks march in the lobby. One night, flown in from L.A. on a record company junket, I turned up super-late, thinking they’d still be rocking, only to be met by a sleepy-eyed Prine in striped pajamas, hair akimbo, just shaking his head. Scanning my companions, he chuckled, admonishing, “Choose wisely” as he shut the door.

When I got fired from The Palm Beach Post – accused of being on the take from Southern Pacific and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as sleeping with Sam Kinison – John decided Dan and I needed to go to Europe. Passport packed, we embarked on a whirlwind tour of folk festivals across England and Belgium; touring the country in a vintage Daimler, we took in the countryside, realized how loneliness, emotional scars, alienation and indignation wrapped in humor were universal. 

It was a magical trip, except for the part where my eyes wouldn’t stop leaking.

Standing in baggage claim in Belgium, John first brought chocolate only to receive more tears; then flowers and more tears; finally, a little stewardess doll, and yes, even more tears. The tour was renamed the Pack, Unpack & Cry Tour.

But that was John: he’d never get mad.  He knew none of what was said was true – “My God,” he teased, “the alimony alone, they couldn’t have afforded you!” – but he hated seeing the pain.

Whatever it took, he was my Huckleberry.
And I wasn’t alone. 

There was nothing like being charged with taking John to Dan Tana’s for dinner. Old Hollywood kind of hang, white linen pasta and all sorts of characters hanging around. Tucked into the elbow of Santa Monica Boulevard, he loved the thick darkness that almost swallowed the candlelight whole. Laughing, we’d talk about records, gossip about people we knew, sometimes wait for Dan to get off work. Occasionally run into someone he knew. 

You never knew who, only realize when you saw legs that weren’t attached to a waiter at the edge of your table. It was that thing he had that pulled people to him. Twice I looked up, and – oh, crap! – it’s Bob Dylan, who would sit down, and just start talking. All very normal, except of course it wasn’t, and it was

Part of what made John so precious was his ability to love all without bias. People were good or not his kind. When Dan and I were getting to the end, we made the trip to Dublin for a merging of musical worlds TV taping called “Sessions.” Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Marty Stuart, the O’Kanes, Rosie Flores, Flaco Jimenez and Guy Clark were part of the American contingent – and it was a week of entirely too much everything.

Dan had promised not to work, and immediately forgot the promise. To make it up to me, I was asked if I wanted to visit Windmill Studios with John. 

Prine being friends with Cowboy Jack Clement had entre with U2’s people. Windmill was their studio. I said, “Yes, of course,” and got to be there when John saw Fiona for the first time.

It’s funny how life works. John was trying to coax back Rachel Peer, his then-wife who’d taken off and had surfaced in Dublin, actually playing bass for his taping. I hated the idea. The pretty dark-haired studio manager with the great laugh seemed to be so much more right. Two nights later in the deepest hours, I spied them tucked into a banquette at the bar holding hands.

Dan and I wouldn’t make it, but John and Fiona somehow managed to transcend an ocean, the road and his idiosyncratic life. 

But in the inbetween, there are so many Polaroids of still life with John. Tracking up in the hills above Sunset with Howie Epstein, pushing himself to really deliver a record that pressed into the rock undertow, scraped away the hurt of a busted marriage and opened up the scared hope of new love. The Missing Years was amazing in the generosity of “All The Best,” that hung like so many little white lights across a brutal tableau of being crushed, the humanity consuming fame of “Picture Show,” the jaunty new love shuffle of “I Want To Be With You Always.”

The first run-in after the break-up at Roseland during the annual CMJ Convention.

Having run down to the windy hall for soundcheck to make sure I could get in to see him open for Johnny Cash, the stagehands hadn’t known what to make of me; but didn’t want to make a mistake and leave some kid out in the cold. When John got there, they pointed to make sure he knew me, and when he came over, it was another gentle admonishment. “There were more Holly Gleason sightings than Elvis sightings during CMA Week, and you never called,” he said, looking me dead in the eye. “And I just want to remind you: I was your friend first. Without me, Dan would’ve never been able…”

I was red in the face. Hot, embarrassed, devastated. Even then, he couldn’t hold my feet to the fire. Putting his hand under my chin, he smiled, “Never ever come back to Nashville and not call.”

Kind of like “Summer’s End.” That lulling chorus, “Come on home… come on home…” It’s an invitation, and a prayer; it’s a lullaby and a meditation on having a place in the world where you just are. Welcome, safe, at ease, protected, loved.

It was a world that could expand as needed. Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings wasn’t just a snappy title. He knew how to bring people in, wrap his arms around them, see what was beautiful about their spirit, and it was never the big stuff, either.

I can see him, another crazy late night during a three day stand at the CoachHouse in San Juan, Capistrano. A massive table surrounded by people, Harry Dean Stanton in a sombrero crooning Mexican folk songs, as the assembled drank tequila and reveled in the moment. And there was John with that Cheshire grin, smiling at the euphoria bubbling around him instead of eating his enchiladas.

I can see him at a ‘40s feeling local hall outside Sarasota, Florida, surrounded by the people he loved. Music, food, streamers for his 60thbirthday. When the band wound down, and the Brothers Prine had played “Paradise,” leading us through the final number, we adjourned to a pier. Standing there, in a cloud of friendship and love, fireworks lit up the sky as John and Fiona embraced. 

I can see him, walking down the narrow stairs at some old British theater ahead of me. He’s got some stuff bundled up in his arms, cowboy boots poking up, a bottle of Aqua Velva sticking out of the one boot shafts. It was such a classic moment of manliness, unforced, just real.

I can see him, walking up to me at Baja Burrito with hs tray, asking me if it would be okay to set down and have a late lunch with him. “Of course, silly,” I said. “It’s always good to see you. Any time, any place, anywhere.”

I can see him at another CMJ, years later, standing on the stairs in his black top coat and jeans. He’s ready to go, and can’t figure out where I’ve gotten off to. I’d been talking to a new guy friends from Cleveland had turned me onto, who’d recorded his first album at their studio. The guy wasn’t much impressed with me, but when Trent Reznor saw John waving me to come on, he almost fell out of his chair. “You know him?” “He’s like my uncle…”

I can see him, in that kitchen on Lindawood, with the not quite yellow wallpaper with the pineapples, candlesticks lining either side of a small table-sized bowling alley, laughing and rolling strikes. When the people started leaving, he showed me a perfect vintage Wurlitzer jukebox, stocked with the best classic singles. 

“You know how I got this?” he asked. “Stevie.” 

Then he started telling a tale about touring in the South, AM car radios and old school hillbilly stations. The two friends got so high on the classic country by the time they hit New York, they decided to write the perfect country song. Only they did it trading lines in Sharpie on the wall of the fancy hotel they were staying in.

When the boozy haze cleared, John told his friend if he’d take the fall, he could have the song. The jukebox was his publishing money. Every time I’d hear David Allen Coe kick off the redneck national anthem of “You don’t have to call me darlin, darlin’…,” I’d smile at the secrets I know. Sometimes I’d look at John and he’d wink.

I can’t remember the day many years later Dan Einstein called. “I don’t want you to hear this from someone else. John has cancer.”

My heart stopped. “Don’t worry. We have the best people at MD Anderson. They’re on it. John’s on it.”

“I’ll pray.” 

Somehow I knew. Having finally found Fiona, having two darling sons – Irish twins born 10 months apart, plus young Jody Whelan, Fiona’s little boy – and an even larger family in Ireland to love, he would fight with everything he had. Scrappy Chicago mailman, former Army mechanic, son of a ward healer. My money was on John: things were going his way; he wasn’t going anywhere soon.

I would get updates; I would do laps on my rosary. I would squeeze my eyes shut, and beg God not to take him. And God heard me.

One day Dan showed up at my house, rang the bell. “Come on out, let’s talk.”

My heart sank. 

“John’s made a record. Duets with country girl singers. He wants you to do the press.”

“Al will never go for it.” Al Bunetta didn’t believe in publicists, John was a critics’ darling.

“John’s already taken care of it.”

And so after a career of Patty Loveless, Rodney Crowell, Lee Ann Womack, Asleep at the Wheel, Tim McGraw, Emmylou Harris’ Spyboy and Matraca Berg’s Sunday Morning To Saturday Night, we dug in for In Spite of Ourselves, an album of deep vintage country with one new original sing with Iris Dement known for the line, “I caught him once, he was sniffin’ my undies.”

It was, for the most part, heaven. When I asked John, “Why a record of duets instead of your own songs?,” his eyes sparkled. He told a central truth: “I like singing with girls. I can sing with me any time.”

He did TV. He did interviews. He did too many interviews. He got mad at me.

“I feel like a piece of meat,” he barked on the New York sidewalk as early crush of rush hour people parted like the Red Sea around us. “I don’t like it.”

“But it’s good! People are going to know this record is out…”

“No, I feel like meat. MEAT! Do you get it?”

“Yes,” I said emphatically, knowing the USA Today photographer was set up in the bar of the Edison Hotel, waiting to get the picture for the cover story that was booked. I needed to break the momentum, and I needed to get John back into the cocktail lounge.

“I get it. You feel like meat, like you’re being pimped, and you know what? You’re right! You… are… right. But you know,” I paused for some tension, “I may be a whore, but I’m your whore.”

Black Irish rising, my voice kept getting louder. His eyes kept getting wider. When I dropped the coup de grace, he couldn’t believe I went there. Busting out laughing, he grabbed me in a hug, and went, “Good Lord.”

We were in McSorley’s in no time, the shooter snapping and popping the flash as the bartender poured John a cocktail. It was quick work, happy hour was coming on. We all had places to be, and I had calls to return.

It wasn’t long ‘til I got a call. “We’re downtown in an Indian restaurant. We’re gonna go see Willie at the Bottomline. C’mon out, Cinderella, and have some fun. You work too much.”

They ordered some Tikka Masala, waited while I ate – and off we went. The Bottomline with John is probably a lot like the Vatican with the Pope. We watched Shelby Lynn, went out to Willie’s bus, where I was once again gently admonished, “Whatever you do, don’t smoke Willie’s weed.”

“John, I don’t smoke pot.”

“Well, people get excited around Willie.”

Watching the two masters visit, I was silent. The love and respect, the courtesy and grace with both men was astounding. They laughed some, talked about Kristofferson a little. Then it was time for Willie to hit the stage.

Getting off the bus, John whistled low. “Wow,” he said. “I’ve never seen you that quiet ever.”

The little details never escaped him, moments cracked open and revealed the tiniest truths that only he saw. It was incredible to watch the way he painted what everyone else missed.

Dan called me last weekend. “I don’t want you hearing this from anyone but me. It’s bad. He’s been intubated. With all the cancer that hit his lungs, this is a beast.”

I started to cry. When I was a kid, a baby rock critic working so hard at getting it right, John figured out how to help me get to the other side. I grew up on the road, traveling the world as part of his ragtag bunch of gypsies. I got Al Bunetta to admit he was wrong about publicists after we blew up In Spite of Ourselves, or maybe Fair & Square.

None of that really matters right now. As a stray, there are very few people who see all the way into your heart, who love the wild, the fierce and the formidable – who delight in your intellect, celebrate your wins and share their best moments with you.
John had done that for me my entire adult life, not because he liked how I held the mirror for him, nor because I could swim laps in songs like “Storm Windows,” “Unwed Fathers,” “You Got Gold,” “Christmas In Prison,” “Long Monday.” Just because was plenty.

At the end of The Tree of Forgiveness, the droll “When I Get To Heaven” opens with John talking his way through his first moments with God. It’s a jolly ole number that’s part Dixieland, part whimsy and 100% pure fun. Listening to him revel through the high-spirited folly – singing of kissing a pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl, smoking a cigarette that’s 9 miles long and getting a vodka and ginger ale – it’s exactly what you’d expect.

Turning sweetly serious, he confesses, “I’m gonna go find my mom and dad/ I wanna see all my mommas sisters/ cause that’s where all the love starts/I miss’em all like crazy, bless their little hearts…”

It’s so dear, so small town kid returning to the roost. And that little kid who’d shoot with his pistol, but empty pop bottles was all he would kill, that little boy also rears his head, confessing, “And I always will remember, what my father said, ‘Buddy when you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead…I hope to prove him wrong, that is when I get to heaven”

Hearing John romping it up, heaven seems like a ball. Then again, John made everywhere a ball. Chewing that gum, stomping while he strummed, easing into hypocrisy with a level gaze and a few funny bon mots that left you nowhere to turn.

Dan didn’t call tonight. I got a text from an editor at HITS. All it said was, “Sorry,” and I started to cry. Funny how even in the carnage, in the many people who’re being taken from this earth, somehow it just didn’t seem like John would be one of the ones called home.
All those songs, all those stories, all those faces to okay for. Each and every one so very precious. Whether you ever shook his hand, shared a meal or just marveled from the cheap seats, he knew you were there – and he touched you in a way you didn’t even know you could feel.

I can see him now. My 17-year old cocker spaniel, my little child, had died, and I couldn’t get on a plane to Pittsburgh where I had work. Washed out, I ended up in DC where he and Steve Earle were sharing a sold out bill. Standing in the wings a couple decades later, the lights defused an almost halo around him as he exhaled those songs everyone knew by heart – and then after everyone was gone, I went down to say good-night.

He took me in, considered my pain, gave me a hug that said he knew. It was that simple, but it was that complete. Heading into the parking lot, he called after us, “You drive careful… You’ve got things to do, and you’re very precious cargo.”

That’s what I want to tell the angels right now. The ones from Montgomery, and California, Wolf Trap and the Ohio Theater, the Memphis/Muscle Shoals deep south contingent, the Austin and other Lone Star angels, as well as anyone who thinks they can fly.

I can close my eyes, see John in a single spotlight, half-braying, “Down on the beach, the sand man sleeps/ Time don’t fly, it bounds and leaps/ and a country band who plays for keeps/play it so slow, singing, ‘Don’t let your baby down…’”

Whoever you are, wherever you are, pay heed. Today’s country bands don’t play for keeps, but John Prine comes from a place where those things are incontrovertible. All you have to do is close your eyes, wrap your arms around your soul and listen.

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Behind the Song: John Prine, “When I Get To Heaven”