John Prine

How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say

They couldn’t figure out how to make Bonnie Raitt a success. She had a cult audience, and Warner Brothers believed in her, but she never cut that one track that crossed over, that became a pop staple.

So they had her work with Jerry Ragavoy.

Ragavoy had written songs for Janis Joplin, but he was not seen as a rocker and he was past his prime, but when you’re floundering your choices are diminished and Warner Brothers probably felt Jerry could bring out the blues mama in Raitt.

But that’s not what happened.

“Streetlights” is a curio in Raitt’s career. It’s soft, it lacks edge, it doesn’t evidence the essence of Bonnie Raitt, the raw element that touches your heart. It’s closer to Ragavoy’s work with Dionne Warwick than it is with the rest of Raitt’s catalog.

But I bought it anyway. That’s what you did when you were a fan. And I committed it to cassette, and driving cross-country with it in the Blaupunkt, I know it by heart.

Now the truth is, “Streetlights” opens with the definitive take of Joni Mitchell’s “That Song About the Midway.” It supersedes at that time the unknown original from “Clouds,” even though Mitchell had broken through earlier in the year with “Court & Spark,” most people did not go that far back with the Canadian songstress.

But “That Song About the Midway” is still not a public standard.

After that came “Rainy Day Man.” A cover of James Taylor’s classic from his initial Apple album. But Raitt’s take was superfluous, it did not add anything to the original.

But then came “Angel From Montgomery.”

Despite all the hosannas about FM radio in the late sixties and early seventies, we learned about records from magazines. Most notably “Rolling Stone,” but there were others, like “Fusion” and “Crawdaddy” and… If you were a fan, and there were many of us, you hoovered up this information, you lived for music, it was the most important element of your life, and you were always looking for satiation, that next hit.

And supposedly it was going to be John Prine. He was all over the magazines, he was nowhere on the radio.

And without a radio hit, Prine remained a cult item. Actually, he remained a cult item for his entire career. But it’s funny, cult can supersede major success if you hang in there and do it right.

The first album contained “Sam Stone,” which was what Prine was famous for at that point, if you considered him to be famous at all.

But the track that was most well-known from the debut was Bette Midler’s cover of “Hello in There” from her 1972 debut “The Divine Miss M.” The hit was “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” but this album sold and sold and people knew it front to back, which means they were also familiar with Buzzy Linhart and Moogy Klingman’s song “Friends”…both of them are gone now.

But after the debut, Prine’s notoriety, his “fame,” the attention he got, seemed to go in the wrong direction, you knew who he was, but most people did not. He had fans who purchased his records, but only fans purchased his records and went to see him live.

Eventually Prine switched labels from Atlantic to Asylum, he worked with his old cohort Steve Goodman, but “Bruised Orange” did not live up to its commercial expectations. It was everywhere in print, I purchased it, but after its initial launch, that’s the last you heard of it.

Eventually, after three LPs with the definitive singer-songwriter label, Prine took off on his own, with his Oh Boy Records, partnering with his manager the also deceased Al Bunetta and their buddy Dan Einstein.

It worked.

It shouldn’t have. This was long before the indie label craze of the nineties, this was long before the internet, this was when an indie label was death, because even if you had success you could not get paid.

Meanwhile, as the eighties plowed on, Bonnie Raitt was nowhere. she got dropped from Warner Brothers, she was drinking and overweight, she seemed to be emulating her blues heroes.

Al Bunetta called me up in those years, prior to ’89, he subscribed to my newsletter, he was friendly, convivial, outgoing, he had all the qualities of a great salesman, which was why he was successful. And in one long conversation, Al told me that he’d told Bonnie to come to Oh Boy, that’s where she belonged, where she could be herself and do what she wanted.

She didn’t.

And then David Berman and Joe Smith hopped from the Warner organization to Capitol and signed Bonnie Raitt and paired her with Don Was and the rest is history. Well, not at first, but then “Nick of Time” won all those Grammys and after all those years, Bonnie Raitt was a household name.

Strangely, just like the title track of the album, which was about turning forty, Raitt’s audience was not the youngsters of the hit parade, but the boomers, the ones who’d been with her previously and newbies who knew her name but not her music.

And Bonnie Raitt was on a roll. “Luck of the Draw” was even better than “Nick of Time.” Raitt was always in the news, always on the road, and suddenly…

Everybody knew “Angel From Montgomery.”

It was never a single, never a radio hit. The original recorded version from “Streetlights” was superseded by her live performances, if the song got any airplay, it ended up being the live take from her 1995 double album “Road Tested.”

But the great thing about famous songs is they carry their writers along.

The fans of yesteryear followed music like sports, they memorized the credits, they knew all the players and…

They knew John Prine had written “Angel From Montgomery.”

And as a result of this, suddenly the winds were at John Prine’s back, he was a known quantity, his impact increased, his career rose, and it was all because of this one song.

Of course Prine had songs covered by other famous artists, some of them you could even call hits, but I’m not sure fans of David Allan Coe really cared who’d written his numbers.

And it wasn’t only Bonnie Raitt. Over the years other people had covered “Angel From Montgomery,” and Raitt’s success lifted all boats, suddenly “Angel From Montgomery” was part of the American fabric.

And this is strange. This is akin to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a song everybody knows that was not featured on the hit parade, but contains the essence of America more than the tracks that are.

Now “Angel From Montgomery” reaches you on the very first listen. For me it was those lines above. I come from a family that talks over one another, they have so much to say. To encounter someone who doesn’t, especially one who has been beaten down by life… But somewhere, deep down inside, what was keeping her going, was hope.

If dreams were thunder, and lightning were desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

That kernel, that inner mounting flame, if it goes out, you die.

But you wake up one day and you discover this is your life, that you’re trapped, that your dreams didn’t come true, and you’re not only frustrated, you’re angry.

Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

Deaths of despair. The U.S. no longer has the longest life expectancy. The less advantaged get worse health care, are disproportionately hooked on drugs and can’t make it on the minimum wage jobs available to them.

But they’re ignored.

Oh, you can read a story about them in the newspaper, you hear about the opioid problem, but they get little help, because they don’t count, not in the eyes of politicians nor business. Therefore, we can’t get a raise of the minimum wage but we do have billionaires.

And if you turn on the radio, everyone’s dancing, everyone’s happy, everyone’s a winner, so if you feel like a loser you stay home and lick your wounds, or bury your feelings to try and compete. Today music is a way to get rich, to expand your personal brand so you can sell perfume and do privates and become part of the glitterati.

As for songs…

Most of today’s don’t even have any melody, they’re based on beats. And pop numbers are cotton candy, they could be written by school kids, they’ve got no depth, despite the industry hyping them.

And then there’s someone like John Prine. Who was always about the songs, who never wavered, who grew by being small, by nailing the experience of the average person, struggling to get by, at least emotionally, if not monetarily.

And isn’t it funny how Prine’s music survives.

Will it be heard forty or fifty years from now?

I don’t know, but the odds are greater than those of the songs on the hit parade.

So, in America, the government is supposed to support life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s its job, to work for the people, free them and give them opportunity.

But now you’re free to be broke. And your hope is limited to the lottery. You can look through the window, but the odds of getting inside are infinitesimal.

But the media tells you the opposite. There are books convincing you that you can make it, you can be a winner. They say the problem is you, not the system.

And then there’s someone like John Prine, telling your story. That’s what you resonate with, you’re looking for understanding, someone who gets you.

So John Prine’s death is getting more ink than those of others much more famous who’ve died of Covid-19. And it’s because of the work. Prine never sold out, he was the genuine article.

And he might not have been in the mainstream, but he was always in the landscape. He even survived cancer. He seemed unkillable.

And now he’s gone.

It’s like a John Prine song. He was just going about his business, living, just like you and me, and he was blind-sided. No one could protect him. He succumbed.

And if John Prine can succumb, we can too.

We don’t feel protected. We’re not sure our lives matter.

So we turn to music to get us through.

And what resonates now…

Is the work of John Prine.

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