“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 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.
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.
Tributes to John Prine from Bob’s readers. These comments are unedited for grammar or content.
Re: John Prine
I fortunately have PR represented and worked with a bevy of musical artists but no one made me think and see things differently than John Prine. I was brought in to work John’s Grammy-winning “Missing Years” album and at first, I thought it would be a good campaign but it turned out to be so much more.
John would come into New York – he might be playing The Beacon – and we would go to set interviews. I learned a lot from John. I learned life lessons. For example, we passed a down-and-out guy on the street asking for a dollar. Being streetwise New York area guy, I warned John, the guy is probably a hustler. John said, “George, what the F— is a dollar nowadays? 50 cents?” I reached in my pocket and gave the guy a dollar. That lesson changed me for the better.
There are other things John would comment about like how he could not sign with another record company. He did not like being owned or how labels recouped everything. The artist was on the hook for everything. It was not for him and therefore, he started Oh Boy Records based in Nashville.
But here is a little known fact about John Prine. He was performing at The Beacon and I went to look for him backstage. He wasn’t in his dressing room and I found him in the back hallways pacing and smoking a cigarette. I asked John if he was OK and he confided in me he gets stage fright every time he performs live. I was taken back. Here is a consummate performer – songwriter – a guy with worldly knowledge – great humor – poise and he has stage fright still. He told me he’d be OK but not until he stepped up to the mike on the Beacon stage. The kind of honesty John passed on (in song and in person) speaks of an artist I realize was a gift not only in my life, but all our lives.
Re: John Prine
Losing John has hit all of us so terribly hard.
We all loved the songs very much.
But if you had the luck to know John, you loved him even more.
John and Stevie taught me how much songs can mean.
Here’s a link with lyrics to one of the most powerful songs John ever wrote.
And on this day, at this time, one of his saddest.
We recorded this at Chicago Recording in 1978.
John on Elec. Gtr, and Stevie Goodman, Producer and creator of this perfect arrangement.
“Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)”
My heart’s in the ice house…”
Re: John Prine
I remember one time in the late nineties I was living in San Diego and John was on tour and was set to play in San Diego that night. The show was sold out and I didn’t have tickets. As luck would have it I got a call from John’s manager Al Bunetta. I’d gotten to know Al when I’d stop in Nashville to play a show or do a co-write with someone. Al was an old school manager who knew everyone. He’d always come to my shows and give me advice. He even had me over to his house for lunch. He knew I was a huge Prine fan (who wasn’t?) and he always told me cool stories about John. So anyways, he called me up and asked me if I was in town. I said yes. Then he said “Listen, John’s playing a show tonight and he needs to go to The Disney Store to get his kids some presents. Can you pick him up at his hotel and drive him to a place called Horton Plaza and take him to The Disney Store?”
“Can I? Yes! For sure. No problem.” I was trying not to act too excited but I couldn’t help myself. I was gobsmacked. All of a sudden I sounded like Rainman and I said “Of course I’m an excellent driver. “
Al laughed. He knew I loved John and he knew I’d be willing and able.
So I cleaned out my VW van and brought my waxy surfboards inside my Windansea apartment. There was sand and swim trunks and broken guitar strings and newspapers, CDs and books. I cleaned it as best as I could but I only had an hour to get it ready. I drove down to The US Grant Hotel and left my flashers on and ran inside and there he was in the lobby. John freaking Prine. We shook hands and chatted for a bit and then hopped on my van and we went to the mall. I tried not to gush too much and mostly remained silent and let him do the talking. I just listened. I didn’t even tell him I was a singer songwriter. Never mentioned it! When we got to The Disney Store we looked at toys together. And clothes. And more toys. And the John said “I need to call my wife Fiona. I can’t remember if I’ve already gotten em this toy. They always remember and I’ll look like a fool if I repeat the same gift.” He gave me that goofy sideways smile.
He eventually settled on the right gifts and we hopped back in my van and I dropped him off at his hotel. He asked me if was going to the show and I said I didn’t have tickets. He wrote down my name and said “Now you do. They’ll be two tickets for you at will call.”
The seats were front row. I cried that night. I’m crying this morning. We’re all crying.
Re: John Prine
From: Andrew Loog Oldham
I had seen my mother for what I knew would be the last time.
in a hospital in Oxford, dementia etc. the town that Inspector Morse used to drive around in that Jag.
I raced back to London, saw no speed limit signs , so I raced, got 9 speeding tickets 5 months later in Bogota.
walked down Park Lane coz I needed to feel good, and wanted to walk the hood that it had made no difference to my mother I had ended up in.
she always wanted to know when I would get a regular job…
walked into the Mini showroom, mulled around , looking for something for the Mini Cooper wife Esther had back in Bogota.
an American started chatting with me; I didn’t mind.
I hadn’t said a word since Oxford.
eventually when he knew from where I’d come he said,
” what you need is some music ; I have an act playing on a bill in Hammersmith tonight ”
it went against all my DNA to do what I was told, but I did…
The American who chatted me up was Al Bunetta , and the act was John Prine ….
Al was right, and I’m still thanking him for that night…
Re: John Prine
There is not a soul on this earth who knew John Prine who didn’t pray/vibe/wish for his recovery, and that’s why it is easy to understand why we can feel so powerless.
Robert Ellis Orrall
Re: John Prine
John and I have been friends for over 40 years, when Al Bunetta brought both John and Steve Goodman to our town for a concert at Dooley’s in Tempe. We all became best friends after that, and never left each other’s minds.
To recount the shows, the nights, the drives, the dinners, the booze, etc., is something for another time. I do know I did more shows with John over the years than any one act, better than 200 at last count. Back in the day, many were with Bonnie, Arlo too. I will write longer about him later, when my eyes and head clear, which I just can’t do right now out of pure grief that he deserves from me. He knows how sad we all are, he loved people and he loved that people loved him. He had a great life, he did good. Then this. FUCK.
The reason I did so many shows was the hang was the best with John. We worked and played together very well. Al was a super manager for the guys, and when he left us 5 years John and Fiona carried on with the great path they were on together, which made me so happy. He continued and thrived after the world’s longest set up for a great career. People finally really came around and finally GOT John!
The funny stuff that would come out around the shows, as well as in the shows, was always magic. He and Fiona and his brother Billy are family, along with the traveling crew with him, especially Mitch and Chris Drosin,
They broke the mold, there will never be another Handsome Johnny. I will always love John Prine. After all he gave to the world, he deserved a better exit. He deserved to be with his wife. He didn’t deserve to die alone. How did this happen? How do we live in a place where we were so unprepared for this, even when they knew it was coming? No one wants to see this happen, but we need strong, intelligent people looking after us. We just can’t wish this thing away, as much as I have tried over the last few weeks, especially knowing John and Fiona got it. And now my friend is gone, and I feel helpless.
Re: John Prine
I did not know him well, not as well as I would wish. We worked together on a few occasions, ran into each other at a couple of gatherings. I knew him mainly, as did most of us, through his work, his songs.
He had me from “Angel From Montgomery.” Damn! That song was so strong, so true it took your breath away. This in spite of the fact that there’s a guy singing, “I am an old woman, named after my mother….” It took about a tenth of a second to get over the, “Wait! He’s not an old woman …” bit and get swept away by the power of the story, get drawn into the picture he was painting. (Also, there was the part that it never seemed to even occur to him that he was not, in fact, an old woman, he understood and occupied that character so fully and empathetically.)
And then there were all the other shining gems that made us love him, the sideways, sometimes upside-down takes on life that had us smiling and singing along. Ways of looking at things that were new to the world but were expressed so forcefuly and engagingly that you could not turn away — there was no choice in the matter, you had to love him. No movie-star looks, no soaring tenor or dazzling guitar licks. He didn’t need them. He saw truths that had never before occurred to us, and offered them up in a brand-new, loving way that could not be denied.
Goodbye, John Prine. I am sadder than I have been in a long, long time.
Re: John Prine
A sad day and I remember when I worked radio in the 80s at KUOR Radio in Redlands, California (now gone). I did a folk show and Jazz show during the day and then a metal show in the evening. John Prine’s then manager use to listen to the folk music show which i did, among other shows. His manager would right me and tell me he appreciated my support of John’s music. But one day, I had finished a show and I got a call and it was John Prine who was at that time touring in California and was resting in Redlands had heard me play two songs from Aimless Love album from 1984 on KUOR and he thank me and we chatted a bit and he was truly a sweet person. A fun memory, as that summer I landed in Sweden and my new life began. Thank you John Prine for the great music and those sweet and sometimes funny songs. So today I am genuinely sad and ask that all of you out there to be careful and be safe. I really don’t want to lose more friends and family or more heroes to this horrible virus. RIP John and fly up and join that heavenly jam!
And this duet song about writing a song with John Prine and Chip Taylor (who wrote Wild Thing and Angel In the Morning) is a great story song – two old friends trying to write a song. https://open.spotify.com/track/4AsaU0dSwo05WUXwUpqMxC?si=GnjrHdyNR1-n2DhueM7hUw
Just read Chris Stein’s post to you and heard also that Hal Wilner has passed. He was a visionary. A sad day for sure
John Jackson Cloud
Re: John Prine
I was a student at Miami University (Oxford, OH) when I bought John Prine’s first album. I wasn’t sure how Randy, my hard rocking roommate, would react to John’s music. But “Illegal Smile” followed by “Spanish Pipedream” (She was a level headed dancer on the road to alcohol, and I was just a soldier, on my way to Montreal), and Sam Stone, showed that John was unique. A bluegrass protest singer/songwriter in the early 1970s.
John visited Wisconsin many times. He has a big following here, with a song line that always got the crowd roaring (Give my stomach to Milwaukee should they run out of beer). In 2006, while touring to promote the Fair and Square CD, we saw John and I was hoping to hear a couple of his “old” songs. He didn’t disappoint. He told us he was going to play a song that he had quit singing, but he was singing again because of current events. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get you into Heaven anymore”. Then for the encore John played the song I wanted to hear the most. “When I was a child my family would travel, down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born.” My Dad was born in Western Kentucky, and since we’d lost him less than 2 years before, I will always remember this night.
Last summer we saw John play twice, once in Appleton and then in Madison. My old roommate Randy was 1 of 6 old fans in our group watching John play. He was touring for “Tree of Forgiveness” which ends with “When I get to heaven”. “I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale. Yeah, I’m gonna to smoke a cigarette that’s 9 miles long.”
But it’s “Paradise” where he wrote his best farewell:
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
Our condolences to the whole Prine family. Thank you John for all the years of great music you gave us.
” I wanna see all my mama’s sisters, ’cause that’s where all the love starts
I miss ’em all like crazy, bless their little hearts.”
Re: John Prine
Damn now John Prine.
My dad passed yesterday at 90 from Coronavirus.
Re: John Prine & Hal Willner
“Halley’s Waitress” was the first song I played when I got the news about Adam Schlesinger- in all the writing that I’ve seen about his legacy I’m amazed that nobody’s mentioned it. I listen to it and think, “Not everybody can do something like this”… And the track, and Chris Collingwood’s vocal- it’s such a beauty..
Have you heard it?
And Hal Willner, he was a giant in his own way for sure. From behind the scenes, as a record producer, TV producer, tastemaker, and provocateur, he influenced the direction of music in a positive way. And he was a great guy.. I told him once that I used to look forward to his TV show, “Night Music”, the way I looked forward to “Shindig” when I was 12 yrs. old.
Re: Hal Willner
Hal is the first fatality from the virus who I knew personally. A true renaissance man.
Re: Hal Willner
Hal and I met on Record Store Day awhile back. The catalyst of our friendship was Tiny Tim. I think this tickled him and we became friends. For a year or more we would get together about once a month to talk strategy: how could we bring magic to the music industry. For Hal, he was working on a new television series that would highlight fantastic artists, no criteria other than they were really good. He was going to intersperse the music segments with puppet shows, like they used to do in the fifties and sixties. He would show me these crazy short films he was making with puppets and music on his ipad. I would show him the puppet shows my five year old twins were doing. We were like two guys jamming in the garage. I wanted to do the album versions of his shows and Hal agreed to curate it. It’s not going to happen now.
The last time we were in his studio, where the puppets and albums hang around and underneath his mixing board, I asked him about a photo of Lenny Bruce he had hanging above his Keith Richards puppet. He said, “That’s Lenny and his daughter.” In the photo they are embracing each other with happy smiles. Hal continued, “Richard Hell gave that to me because he owed me some money or something. I’ve always loved the photo.” I said, “I love it too. They look so happy.” He said, “Well, his daughter became an addict too so it didn’t end well.” We both sort of sat there and didn’t say anything for awhile and I thought about how I hate losing people. Especially the really cool ones. The odd ones who see things differently.
The other thing that Hal did a lot over the past six months or so was play me tracks off the upcoming T Rex album he finished. It’s pretty amazing. The Nick Cave track alone is stunning but it’s much more than even that and of course Hal made sure that the album sequencing gave it a real flow. It does. We were working on a plan for Hal to fly to different record stores and play his T Rex album for people in the stores. Hal really believed in the magic of music bringing people together.
I really wish we didn’t have to lose him. Godspeed Hal, you were one of the really cool ones.
Re: Hal Willner
I went to NYU with Hal Wilner in the wild and crazy Warhol 70’s. Hal always seemed older, wiser and so much cooler than the rest of us even though he was two years younger. He was one of those special people who never had to change with the times because he was already so much further ahead… and we haven’t even caught up with him yet. Whenever we ran into each other through life he would always make me feel like I was a member of his own very exclusive club of hip New York music cats. His warmth, astute intellect and consummate taste made him an irreplaceable treasure to whoever was lucky or worthy enough to be his friend and colleague. The world is now officially fucked and stranded without Hal Winer.