One day when I was reading The Stranger, I noticed that living musical legend, John Prine would be playing the Paramount Theatre in Seattle on April 17. I instantly wondered if Monster Fresh founder/editor, Dead C could take a swing for me and get me into this show. So, I called him up and gave him a few lines, reminding him what a huge Johnny fan I was and all that hogwash, and then asked, “Hey dude, do you think you hook this up for me?” From my understanding, this show had some outside promotion and was a little tricky but, thanks to some extremely gracious assistance from the Seattle Theatre Group, my friend Megan and I were provided with a pair of seats, in the exclusive Paramount Club lounge no less.
To give you a little background on my fascination with Prine, we must travel back in time to Olympia, Washington and Crazy Leland’s Mormon Mansion on Biscay RD, about a mile away from The Evergreen State College. I was getting pretty wasted in the kitchen and staring into a huge tropical fish tank that was built into the wall. It was Bond movie type shit, except that it was financed with the trust fund money of a wingnut with an addiction to weed and comic books. I must admit that the fish never looked so pretty (I believe that I was probably on mushrooms at the time). Friend and fellow Monster Fresh contributor, MEMES had suggested that we go into his room to jam some records. I figured that it sounded like a good idea, so I grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge and moved on. When we reached his room, the first thing that he asked me was if I wanted to smoke some glass. I declined, both because I was already high and drunk and because, after growing up in the suburb of Kent, I was perfectly aware of what that shit can do to your teeth. I’m pretty sure that 99 percent of people would have immediately left the room at that point. In fact, I might have even been one of them, if it wasn’t for MEMES‘ next comment, which went something like this, “Hey bitch, you wanna hear my favorite Country music?” I had to know what a glass-smoking hippie with a drum n’ bass obsession could possibly know about country, so I stayed. He put on Prine‘s self-titled debut and the first song that he played was “Paradise“. I thought to myself, “Wow! This is a great song.” Next I heard “Sam Stone“, a track that would both change the way that I view Country music and music in general. It has honestly established a formula with which I would judge lyrics by any artist from then on out, whether it be country, rock n roll, soul, blues, singer/songwriter etc. If you have never heard “Sam Stone“, you should probably stop reading this right now and Youtube that song of a bitch (or simply view it in this pop-up box HERE). It’s a great piece of work; similar to Oliver Stone‘s Born on the Fourth of July, except that Prine‘s version involves a wife and kids and more drugs.
We arrived at the show in time to see the opening act, Dan Reeder, who is a standard American Redneck character, but one that has been living in Germany for the past ten years or so. He is a truly light-hearted and funny entertainer. Part of his act consisted of having a group of city-slicker cowboy types to sing, “I got all the fucking work I need“, for about 6 minutes straight. This is not an exaggeration, that was seriously all that they sang, and he even made sure to include some wise cracks about George W. Bush. I’m sure that knowing that he was in the most liberal fucking strong-hold in the nation helped, but I wonder what he says when he performs in other places, like Texas. I wonder if he’s like, “Fuck this country going to shit. Gays wanna get married, and they want us to pay for their health care! I mean, shit… I just want a guy who loves the Country the way I do. Someone like the former Governor of this state. Someone like former President George W. Bush!” Honestly, I doubt it, because Dan‘s routine was pretty effective and he actually seemed like a really stand up guy. I guess that I always wonder if musicians do that shit because I would. Hey, I just wanna be accepted… but I digress. Reeder was a very solid opener, as well as a capable song writer. Above all of the songs in his set, my favorite was the one that he closed with. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of it, but do remember that it was about death and that he finished on a high note.
It would be another 30 minutes before Johnny came on, so we headed down to the Paramount Club and I got a couple of Gin and Juices. “Two ice cubes please.” The drinks were stiff and the free appetizers were wonderful. The private club was filled with older couples that looked at Megan and I as if we were from Mars. I was dressed like somewhat of a biker at the time, wearing a patched denim vest, cuffed 501 jeans, and a T-shirt for the black metal group Von that read “Satanic Blood Angel“. Basically, I didn’t looked like I belonged in a private club with a much older and distinguished crowd, if you can grasp the visual there. Still, everyone was really nice and I got the feelings that the employees may have loved that I was in there pounding drinks at the bar, as if I was Billy the Kid or something. There was the sense as if we were a couple of real outlaws, taking over one of those really classy two horse towns, bleeding the land dry and running off with the kids’ lunch money. It made me feel unwelcome and I liked that. We were alerted that Prine was going be on in five, so I took one more drink and then headed back to my seat.
Johnny opened up with “Spanish Pipe Dream“, which was so great that it actually started my heart pounding. I looked over at Megan and said, “This is going to be an amazing show” and she looked back at me as if my statement was so obvious that I was an idiot for even feeling the need to say it out loud. By the second song in, I had already began to cry. He played “Six O’ Clock News” and, afterward, Prine offered up an amusing insight into his music by saying something like, “It took me awhile to realize that I was killing off the protagonist in all my early songs. I guess I was going to the drama, but it sure makes it hard to write a sequel.” I believe that “Picture Show” was next; also amazing. I’m not exactly sure what order the setlist was in, but here’s what I believe he played: “Aimless love“, “Souvenirs“, which also brought a tear or two, “Grandpa was a Carpenter“, and “Fish and Whistle“. After that, I’m pretty sure it was “Glory of True Love” and then “Christmas in Prison.” His backing band left the stage so that Johnny could play “Sins of Memphisto” solo, which is such a magical song to listen to. I wish that I could explain to you how this show made me feel, but there are really no words to describe it. Everything that he played was in perfect order and it was like Heaven’s jukebox had opened up just wide enough and long enough for a few of us to sneak in.
“Bruised Orange” was next and some of the lyrics in the that song are just mind-blowing. For example, “I heard sirens on the train tracks howl naked getting nuder, an altar boy’s hit by a local commuter, just from walking with his back turned to the train that was coming so slow“. Wrap your mind around that one. Or how about…
“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!‘”
It’s amazing stuff, written and delivered flawlessly. The next song was “Please Don’t Bury Me“, followed up by “Donald and Lydia” and then “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round.” Then came “Sam Stone“, which is obviously one of my favorites. As Johnny began playing it, his band returned slowly to join in and back him up. Prine‘s accompanying guitarist, Jason Wilber had been displaying amazing guitar work and solos throughout the entire show, and for this track it was no different. During the ending of “Sam Stone” Wilber laid down the perfect solo line to finish it off . The next in the set was the up-tempo rock song, “Bear Creek“. Then they played a few more rock n’ roll-style tracks that I wasn’t familiar with, before going into “I aint hurting nobody“, a bluesy number that’s pretty good, but not exactly life changing.
The songwriting legend performed “Dear Abby” next, with which he added a hilarious story that consisted of Abigail Van Buren contacting Prine‘s manager to request a ticket for an old show that he played in Kansas City. Apparently, John had thought that it would be a good idea and, when he got to the point in that show where he was about to play the song, he had called out, “Abby, where are ya?! I ain’t doing this song unless I know you’re here!” After some time had passed and she was nowhere to be found, Prine followed that up by asking, “Where is she, does she ever come out?” John then told us that some guy from way back in the rafters had stood up and yelled the response, “She only comes out on groundhogs day!” sending the rest of the crowd into laughter.
Prine followed up that song and story by playing “Hello in There” and then “Lake Marie“. I wasn’t familiar with “Lake Marie” before the show, but I felt that, out of the songs that he’s written in recent years, it was definitely the strongest one that I’ve heard. It was arranged beautifully and in a way that formed sonic landscapes of multiple shapes and colors. It contains portions with swirling harmonies, and sections which incorporate a solid story-telling aspect. The show closer was “Paradise.” For this song, Dan Reeder returned to the stage to sing and Prine even let guitar player, Jason Wilber take a verse. In all, I would say that John Prine probably put on one of the best shows that I have ever seen. Everything was done to perfection from the song selection to the timing. If you ever want the chance to see an old-timer/ living legend who is still in their prime, your best bet would be to catch a performance from Johnny yourself. I have made the mistake of trying to see many of the other “great ones” later in their careers and none of them were able to hold a candle anywhere near John Prine.