Last week, the world mourned the loss of John Prine, who died at age 73 from complications of COVID-19. Since then, a number of musicians and fans alike have been flooding social media with tributes and heartfelt remarks on the late Americana legend.
On Monday (April 13), Elvis Costello penned a touching essay in honor of Prine, who he discovered “via an Atlantic Record single plucked out of a discount bin of 45rpm records on the counter of Rushworth and Dreaper in Liverpool.”
“It was a copy of ‘Sam Stone’ backed by ‘Illegal Smile’, which in two short songs showed me everything that I would come to appreciate in John’s writing,” Costello wrote. “On the A-side, a song of incredible empathy, an unflinching account of an addicted veteran and the impact of his torment on his family, all written with the authority of a man who had served in the army, while the b-side, was a good-humoured celebration of forbidden pleasures.”
Costello noted Prine’s “initial self-titled album,” which featured songs “hat no one else was writing, filled with details that only Prine’s eye or ear caught; the arcane radio, the damaged and the destitute. The songs were filled with what sounded like sound advice from a friend in a crowded bar or a voice in the margins, but never one that was self-pitying or self-regarding.”
A memory Costello shared was a Prine performance in Wisconsin, where “there was a brass band playing and maybe an accordion or perhaps John simply summoned them up with his words,” he explained. “I remember he danced a little, very joyfully and that surprised me as I remembered the way I imagined him when I first listened to his records.”
“Perhaps he too was hunched over a guitar, trying to puzzle out how to pull beauty from so few chords or in need of an audience that allowed for the hushed dynamic of the songs. It was a wonderful surprise that he could also be the charming showman, possessed of some surprisingly nimble footwork.”
He also remembered a time in 2009 when he interviewed the late songwriter for an installment of the Spectacle series. “Truthfully, I could have talked to John all evening about the implications and the writing of this one incredible, panoramic song but of course much of our conversation had to be put aside by the editor in order to accommodate the other guests.”
“Perhaps some future archivist may stumble upon the footage years from now and recognize it to be a chat between one of the great songwriters of the 20th and 21st Century, talking to a man in glasses with a clipboard,” he lightheartedly reflected.
On COVID-19, Costello pondered: “When I consider the moment in which I am writing, I wish we could hear the song John might have written about an exhausted nurse quarantined in her own attic away from her three frightened children or an ode to the fruit picker who puts the strawberry on our Sunday tart or the delivery driver or shelf filler who makes sure there is food to purchase for someone to put on the family table, because these seem like scenarios or portraits that might be found in his catalogue.”
“Perhaps it was his resilience that makes accepting John’s passing more difficult. He had repeatedly shown such strength and courage in overcoming the challenges of illness,” Costello wrote later in the piece. “He was so loved by Fiona and his family and all of his friends, admirers and listeners that it was easy to believe that he would be returned to us; to laugh as he read all of those many quotations from his lyrics that acquaintances, strangers and his longest-lived pals have been sharing in these last days. They tell us that a world with John Prine in it has been much better than the poorer one in which we now dwell.”
Costello ended with remembering “an irreplaceable evening with [Fiona] and John, last September.”
“It was a delightful supper of laughter and stories, with songs cited and memories marked, closing only as the glass of a slowly smoldering vintage jukebox filled with smoke and John had to disconnect it and crack open a window, breaking the spell into a gentle goodnight.”
Read the full tribute below.