I’m not someone who generally mourns the death of famous people, no matter how great their talents or accomplishments. The reason for that is simple: I never knew them personally, so there’s no deep emotional connection.
But every so often, the passing of someone I never met really hits home. It actually pierces the armor that surrounds my heart.
That was the case with the recent death of the singer songwriter John Prine, due to complications of the coronavirus.
And whenever I react this way, I always ask myself, “Why?”
I think the answer to that question lies in a story that Amy Klobuchar told during one of the presidential debates (which now seems like a million years ago).
She told the story of a man standing beside the railroad tracks as the train carrying FDR’s body passed through his town. A reporter asked the man if he knew FDR. And the man responded, “No … but he knew me.”
And I think the same could be said of me when I think of John Prine. Though we never met, somehow he seemed to know me.
Prine’s music came of age in an era of songwriting giants like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, whose music I adore. But truth be told, their music mostly stimulates my intellect.
John Prine’s music, however, touches me in a much deeper place. A place I didn’t even know existed. Call it “the core.”
And I’m guessing by the outpouring of grief to his death that I’m not alone regarding that connection. I’m just giving it voice.
I’ve dabbled a bit in writing, and I always saw my job description as “exposing the human condition in an entertaining manner.” And to my way of thinking, no singer-songwriter of my generation did it any better than Prine.
It seems like every time I hear a Prine song I check off that box in my head that reads, “Yeah. Just like life.”
The stories in his songs are without rival. But it’s the characters. Characters so familiar that you can’t help but see yourself in them, warts and all.
Characters like the lonely cashier and lonely Army private in “ Donald and Lydia.” The melancholy woman in “ Angel From Montgomery.” The drug-addicted Vietnam vet in “ Sam Stone.” The isolated old man in “ Hello in There.”
Such familiar and empathetic souls.
Once again, we can all see our own selves in those songs, and perhaps equally important, laugh at ourselves.
And in these troubling times, is there a greater legacy? Or a greater gift?
It’s been said by some that Prine was the modern day Shakespeare.
Comparing anyone to William Shakespeare is fraught with danger. But I’ll go out on a limb and argue that both those writers understood where our secret cores reside, and somehow managed to find their way inside.
Deep down, aren’t we all Hamlet or King Lear or the court jester? And aren’t we all Donald and Lydia?
Prine may be gone, but his songs live on with a timeless and universal feel that serve to remind us of our lasting commonality and our shared humanity.
And never more so than in the final verse of his masterpiece, “Hello in There.”
“So if you’re walking down the street sometime/And spot some hollow ancient eyes/Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare/As if you didn’t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”
Yeah. Just like life.
Eddie Adelman is a writer who lives in Belfast.