But it was cold, and windy at Governors Island last night, and this was no place for my idol to be playing. And close up, he was old-looking, though as Lester and me figured he could only be a few years older than either of us. The first act came on and you could see the wind whistling around his pants. He was good. But I wanted to see Prine. I slumped in my chair waiting and waiting because I’m not used to going to concerts.
And then the first act finished, and the stage lights came on for a while, and a guy went from mike to mike checking them. He didn’t say “testing, one, two, three” like they did in my day but made some odd noise in each mike, over and over. It wasn’t any language I could understand. Whaoujayforust!
And finally, there was a rustle on the stage, and a murmur in the audience, and John Prine stepped onto the stage. My memory of Prine is the album cover, from his first album and frankly, even in that shot he looks old already. And he walked back to a dark area where there were drinks and took a drink and then came out and went into his set.
What would he sound like after the throat surgery?
Well, he sounded better than I ever heard him before.
What would his energy be like?
He outplayed me. I left, or at least got on the line for the boat while he was doing the last regular song from his set: Lake Marie. And I was sorry I had gotten up, because it was so beautiful and sad. How many artists can you sit down by, and have them make you cry. I mean literally, at one point, and I don’t remember the song, I was sitting on the picnic chair, and the crowd was quiet, and Prine was doing his songs soooo slow. Tempo was like a man rising from the grave with a bad back, and sore feet.
You might call his set languorous. And it was just so slow, and so sad, and I couldn’t remember ever hearing him do his own songs at this tempo, and I felt like crying and did.
It’s because his songs are mostly about the insanity of life; of war; of love; of all the things that are so important to us that we just screw up, over and over again. What could be more pathetic.
He had perfect control over his breathing, and the low voice, and how songs built up to crescendos and died down until they just seemed to peter out.
Governors Island at the end of summer was no place for John Prine. He should be up in the place where they give medals, and make great people happy, sort of like the Wizard of Oz ending. He doesn’t write about artists… he’s from a place in Kentucky I guess… he sings about his grandfather smoking camels and hitting nails into planks, as if he’s making his own coffin, and the genius of Prine is that unlike Dylan – Prine writes about people with genuine empathy. Feeling their anguish. How much of his own torment comes through in his stories, how much is really about the character, I don’t know, but the whole thing, mixed up and as I told Lester on the way back on the boat – segues that don’t make sense when you first hear them – and then do and if I had had something to drink or an illegal influence – I think I would’ve just sat there and cried and never left and they’d have to pick me up and put me back on the boat to come back to Manhattan.
That’s how good he is.
Prine with Lead Guitarist I
with guitarist II
Oh, it was a three man setup. Lead guitar, Prine, and a bass player. There were a few moments, when they were just jamming that I really enjoyed. I’ll go back later and look up names of the first act guy and the guitarist and bass… but they don’t matter right now to me…
Shooting from where I was – near impossible. Everything you see was with the 70 – 300mm at 3200 ASA and yes it has IS, and no, there was no problem bringing it in. You’d have to be some sort of total idiot to be stopped. I had the 30mm Sigma on the 500D, and the 30-700mm in my jacket pocket. All that pre-concert worrying about not being able to bring the camera in was for naught. I had decided that if I couldn’t bring the camera, I’d wait outside and listen to the concert. And it was a good thing because besides Prine, I had the New York Skyline with the 9-11 beam thing to shoot, and perfect clouds and other stuff that was good.
Telling a Story
We were standing… standing by peaceful waters (Lake Marie)
Thank you everybody! Thank you so much! You’ve made me feel very welcome here.
Thank you John. You made me feel things that were dormant for a very long time. It was a great night that I will remember.
A few footnotes: He was born on October 10th, 1946; first album released, 1971 (and somehow I bought it).
“If he’s this good this young,” wrote Rolling Stone in 1971, “time should be on his side.” Truer words have rarely been written. Some four decades since his remarkable debut, Prine has stayed at the top of his game, both as a performer and songwriter. Recently honored at the Library of Congress, he has been elevated from the annals of songwriters into the realm of bonafide American treasures. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser introduced him at the Library of Congress by likening him to Raymond Carver for making “monuments of ordinary lives.” But the greatest testaments to his lasting legacy are the songs themselves. Unlike so many which belong only to the time in which they emerged, his, like the old trees in “Hello In There,” seem to just grow stronger with the passing years. – from the blurb for the concert
Todd Snider did the opening set. Sort of a mixture of Prine and Dylan and Guthrie (with the talking songs) and really not bad at all; and very musical, and fun to listen to as far as guitar picking goes – but I was as I say waiting for Prine. Frankly – one song, that he said he wrote while waiting behind another car in a drivethrough, was hysterical and absolutely right on in terms of understanding people. But I would like to have cut his set in half, though that’s just my impatience.