I'll Have a Blizzard with a Topping of Basic American Decency
[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
At one point on his beautiful new album Fair and Square, John Prine finds himself in the north woods under a blue Canadian moon, looking at a lake. He's "wondering just exactly how much they think a man can take" and taking refuge from the modern bullshit parade because, "Lord, this world will make you crazy as a loon." For similar reasons, I've absconded to the Dairy Queen in Richfield, Minnesota, to listen to Prine's first collection of new songs in nine years.
Here, in my hard-plastic bunker-booth in the back, there are no commercials, DJs, or song-shuffling skittishness--just me, my headphones, and the various grouchy Minnesotans waddling into the Dilly Bar franchise that sits off the raceway of 75th Street and South Lyndale Avenue. It is sandwiched between a Thai restaurant that sports an empty marquee, and a pawn/gun shop where fathers bring sons to ogle the fishing poles, the erotic Glocks, and signs that say "gun of the week" and "please keep your hands out of your pockets when you're in this store."
There is no drive-thru at this franchise, which means you have to actually get out of your car to go in and see the DQ corporate posters that advertise a hot new confection made with "Columbian [sic] coffee." Once inside, you grunt at the counter teens and they grunt back, and the environment curdles every face upon impact, as if we're all ashamed that this is where we've decided to meet for a meal, for God's sake. The whole thing reflects a kind of deadness, the same way that the budding concrete pillboxes and strip malls across the street represent what Bruce Springsteen called "a meanness in this world."
Fair and Square is about true love, obsessive love, great sex, pining, old love, lost love, and home. There is also something eerily fast-food-nation about it, something that Super Size Me and the Wendy's finger fable only hinted at. Yet it's difficult to imagine anyone in here discovering these songs--not the hip-hop kids, or the Toby Keith heads, or the hardened, beleaguered single moms, or the cranky post-Little League dads whose craggy faces suggest that they realize their kids' futures are fast slipping out of their control. But then, I don't listen to Toby Keith.
Still, whether they know it or not, each of these characters is baked into every note and lyric of Fair and Square. No surprise there, for Prine is, after all, the 58-year-old throat-cancer survivor/ex-mailman/Army man who sang such cranky media missives as "Blow Up Your TV" and "Stop Hollerin' at Me"; jokey social commentaries such as "Big Old Goofy World," and "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore"; and to-the-bone human explorations such as "Sam Stone," "Hello in There," "Souvenirs," and "Angel From Montgomery."
All of which is what led U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, in an honorary February event at the Library of Congress, to call Prine a "genuine poet of the American people," with an "ability to capture our times." This was even before Fair and Square, which captures our times better than anything else out there at the moment. It's plain to hear that Prine adheres to what another poet, James Merrill, once said: "You hardly ever need to state your feelings. The point is to feel and keep the eyes open. Then what you feel is expressed, is mimed back at you by the scene."
Maybe that's why it feels less like you're listening to Prine and more like you're singing with him. His voice is more wise than weary. He is not holding a protest sign, or throwing a tantrum about freedom of speech, or yammering about the enemy. He is not concerned with being "right." He picks his guitar the way a man might pet his dog.
"Some Humans Ain't Human" is the song that's getting all the publicity, for the spoken line, "Have you ever noticed/When you're feeling really good/There's always a pigeon/That'll come shit on your hood/Or you're feeling your freedom/And the world's off your back/Then some cowboy from Texas goes and starts his own war in Iraq." But the entire record (include a stunning reading of Blaze Foley's timely "Clay Pigeons") is rife with a quiet anger and a found, uneasy, calm. Though he may feel assaulted by the events going on around him, Prine does his best to weather them. He goes to the lake, goes for a walk, looks at the birds, loves his women, worries about his mortality, and yearns for the simplicity of his hometown.
You can imagine him going to Anywheresville for an ice cream cone. Say, the one in Richfield, where, if the weather's warm, you can sit outside. It's not very relaxing or summery or romantic, because the sole scenery is that of a busy thoroughfare and freeway entrance. Drivers whiz past by the thousands, racing to get the fuck somewhere else.
A cop car is stationed in the pawnshop parking lot, and a chain-link fence separates it from the DQ. A father blows a straw wrapper into his young daughter's face, which makes her cry, then laugh. A young grandmother and her preteen granddaughter feed each other spoonfuls of butterscotch. The boys in the gun shop dig through a basket of used leather holsters. John Prine sings, "Come on baby, gimme a kiss that'll last all week."
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction published Thursday, May 12, 2005:
In Jim Walsh's column on John Prine, the song "Sam Stone" was mistakenly identified as "Sam Spade." And the sentence, "(Prine) worries about his morality" should have been "(Prine) worries about his mortality." The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.
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