John Prine’s Final Statement in Song: “I Remember Everything”

His final recording is pure Prine: funny, tender and true

John Prine, “I Remember Everything,” his final recording.

The Prine Family and their label, Oh Boy Records, has released what was John Prine’s final recording. It’s a song he wrote with his pal Pat McLaughlin called “I Remember Everything.”

It got shared with the world during the live-streamed tribute to John called “Picture Show: A Tribute to John Prine” on June 11, 2020. Produced by Dave Cobb, it was recorded in John’s living room, just the man and that great two-finger finger-picking style he’s used through the decades. And it’s beautiful. It’s pure and essential John Prine. In under three minutes and no words wasted, he brings it all. It’s an admission of truth – that he was one of those rare humans who collected always the souvenirs of each passing day, never abandoning the memories many don’t keep.

But being Prine, there’s more to it. These are not random memories or irrelevant ones. Nor are they memories of the darker passages of life, of the wreckage left in the wake. They are the memories of a gentle songwriter with a big heart, one who never lost his childlike wonder and sense of the world’s rightness. They aren’t memories of regret; they are memories of the cherished, simple things – every blade of grass – and the precious moments, such as when he first met his true love, and she smiled back at his smile.

Yet it’s also pure Prine in that he brings the full dimensional span of being human to this brief song. Though the title boasts that he remembers everything, in the same song he admits that there are some memories that he actively avoids: “Careful not to let the past go sneaking up on me.” He remembers no one else’s faults or weakness, only his own. He remembers all those nights playing on an out-of-tune guitar.

He ends the final verse with an admission that is pure Prine, giving just enough so that we fill in the whole picture ourselves. “Sometimes a little tenderness was the best that I could do.” What remains unspoken, and why, comes across. Remembering everything can be a curse. Better to focus on the good ones.

The lyric exemplifies the songwriting wisdom he shared in his interview with this magazine: if you start a song with pictures, and set the scene physically, the listener will be open to poetic, complex language. But if you start with abstractions, they will be lost.

Yet never did he suggest avoiding the poetry all together, but it’s poetry of real life always, never disconnected from the world we knew. In “Hello In There” we see into the apartment in the city before he shows us those old trees growing taller and rivers growing wilder. Here he wraps up the song with a complex but beautiful, perfectly rhymed metaphor. It is great song craft, but, of course, much more. Craft alone, without heart, only goes so far. John imbued everything he wrote with heart. “I remember everything/Things I can’t forget/Swimming pools of butterflies/That slipped right through the net.”

Swimming pools of butterflies! Even in this poetic symbol for all the opportunities he missed, he delivers this physical symbol we all can see. A swimming pool of butterflies. It’s an image that connects with the sad sense of time forever passing he’s evoked since he was a young man in his first songs such as “Hello In There” (“and it’s been years since the kids have grown”) and “Souvenirs” (and it took me years to get those souvenirs…”) to the beautiful “Summer’s End” on that last album.

Though he’d often joke that he was a lazy songwriter, more excited always by an invitation to go get a hot dog than the idea of writing a new song, he sure left us an amazing songbook.

So hey John – I hope you know it’s okay you went and got those hot-dogs. You wrote way more great songs than most humans ever, and songs no one else could ever have written. Had you written only one of these, it would have been great. But what you left us is so much greater. You earned every hot dog. Thank you.

“I Remember Everything”

By John Prine and Pat McLaughlin

I’ve been down this road before
I remember every tree
Every single blade of grass
Holds a special place for me
And I remember every town
And every hotel room
And every song I ever sang
On a guitar out of tune

I remember everything
Things I can’t forget
The way you turned and smiled on me
On the night that we first met
And I remember every night
Your ocean eyes of blue
How I miss you in the morning light
Like roses miss the dew

I’ve been down this road before
Alone as I can be
Careful not to let my past
Go sneaking up on me
Got no future in my happiness
Though, regrets are very few
Sometimes a little tenderness
Was the best that I could do

I remember everything
Things I can’t forget
Swimming pools of butterflies
That slipped right through the net
And I remember every night
Your ocean eyes of blue
How I miss you in the morning light
Like roses miss the dew
How I miss you in the morning light
Like roses miss the dew

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