He was a sweet, quirky guy who sang about everyday people and invented East St. Paul.
John Prine recorded a song in 1978 called “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone” in which a traveling circus boy, bundled up in corduroy, left “the jungles of East St. Paul” for Illinois.
“I figured there wasn’t one when I wrote it,” he told me of East St. Paul in ’78. “I found out later that I was right. That’s great. I’m a foot and a half off center – per usual.”
Prine, who died Tuesday of COVID-19 at age 73, had the keen observational powers of a veteran journalist, the subtle wit of a prose humorist and the kind of songwriting skills that justify his being mentioned in the same sentence with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon as the Great American Songwriters.
Prine’s Twin Cities debut was actually his first proper concert, after gigging at clubs and coffeehouses of Chicago. He came here in February 1972 to the old Guthrie Theater along with two other new singer-songwriters from the Windy City, Steve Goodman and Bonnie Koloc.
Goodman was a small guy with bright eyes and an eager-to-please manner. He was a storyteller with a quick sense of humor, a middle-class suburban kid who’d joined a fraternity at college.
Prine was a small guy with a sly grin and a hairdo waiting to be dubbed a mullet. He was a former mail carrier from a working-class suburb who’d served in the Army.
That night, Prine sang a tune called “Illegal Smile,” the cleverest song about being stoned that you’d ever want to hear.
He sang “Sam Stone,” about a soldier who'd returned from the war overseas addicted to drugs or as Prine put it “there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”
He sang “Hello in There,” about the loneliness of old people, ending poignantly with “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.’"
Witnessing such a range of emotions in one set, the Guthrie audience was taken with Prine, who was taken with the Twin Cities. In ’73, he came back to the Guthrie with Bonnie Raitt, another rising singer-songwriter.
In that 1978 interview, Prine told me he grew fond of Minneapolis-St. Paul. He said he wrote “Sabu” “more or less in honor of the Twin Cities.”
Even though he later moved to Nashville and released albums at erratic intervals, Prine continued to perform regularly at various Twin Cities venues over the years.
He was so comfortable here that in 2012 he sent his road manager ahead to the Minnesota Zoo and opted to drive himself from the hotel. Prine got lost and arrived late, which mattered because the zoo has a curfew. So his tardiness forced him to curtail his usual long-winded stories and clever one-liners -- but not the quality of his performance.
In concert, Prine’s stories were as charming and rewarding as his songs. Like the one he told in June 2019 at Northrop about singer Leon Redbone, his former touring partner who had died the day before.
After one of their concerts, to see if he could catch the eccentric Redbone out of character, Prine knocked on the young vaudevillian’s hotel door at 3 a.m. Redbone answered immediately, wearing his familiar sunglasses, Panama hat, white shirt and less familiar boxer shorts and socks with garters. Prine was instantly invited in and asked what he’d like to drink.
“Cognac,” he recalled. Without missing a beat, Redbone pulled out a bottle of Christmas VSOP and two snifters.
At Northrop, as Prine was reliving that late night, you could sense that he was chuckling inside remembering his old pal, the kind of vivid character who could inhabit one of Prine’s classic songs.
In 2017, I interviewed Prine again, this time by email because he endeavored to preserve his voice, which had been ravaged by two bouts of cancer. Prine being Prine, he chose which questions to answer and which to skip (like the ones about "Angel from Montgomery," which Raitt had made famous).
Of course, I asked him again about East St. Paul (“Hmm, poetic license? I make up songs. I’m a songwriter”).
I also asked him where his love of words came from (“The only subject I liked in school was English — the only thing I was really any good at”).
And where his humor came from.
“There’s very little about life that I don’t find in some way humorous or at least kind of goofy. There’s surely enough around us to be pissed at, but I’m just not that guy.”