My dad used to play John Prine's "Spanish Pipedream" in the car — especially if we were on backroads on a perfect summer day that warranted eschewing the AC in favor of rolled-down windows — and loudly sing along. He loved the final verse most — We blew up our TV, threw away our paper / Went to the country, built us a home / Had a lot of children, fed ‘em on peaches / They all found Jesus on their own — always singing that one extra loud, extra bad. I’d cover my ears, scream that he wasn’t funny, that he was obnoxious, that it wasn’t fair that he controlled the music, and ask how many times have we heard THAT song because GOD, couldn’t he at least choose something else to antagonize us with? Often, if I protested enough, he’d grin and start the song all over again as soon as it was over. There were few things I fucking hated more.
I think about death all the time, about our inevitable mortality and the panic and dread that it fills me with. Thinking about death is often thinking about the hypothetical, though — about the concept of death and not actual, real life death itself. But in this moment where death seems to be hanging low around us, an impenetrable fog so thick we can reach out and touch it, I feel like all the thinking my brain has done about the inevitable has been for nothing. When John Prine died on Tuesday of complications from COVID-19 first reported last week, I realized that I am vastly unprepared to grieve creative titans like Prine at the scale and velocity I fear this virus will call for. I need a little time to catch my breath. Asking for that feels like a luxury none of us have anymore.
John Prine's catalog is rife with songs about our mortality, yes, but they're not all sad. So many of them, like "Spanish Pipedream”, are songs about making the most of the scant number of days we do get, a winking eye acknowledging that the grand sum of which is unknown, and we burn through them quicker than we think.
It’s funny how you can forget memories until something shakes them loose and they fall out like a dusty book on a high shelf tumbling to the floor when a door slams. I hadn’t thought about those car rides much until today; they feel like an eternity ago. An ironic twist in the plot is that so much of the music I love now was first heard as a little kid in the backseat of my parents' cars, complaining incessantly about how much I couldn’t stand it. The same John Prine I loathed as a child I was supposed to see in concert with Emmylou Harris in Philadelphia this June with my parents. Their tastes have shifted over the years such that we still don’t have a lot of music in common, but when my dad asked if I’d be interested in tickets, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
I don't know the precise moment at which things turned, when I listened to a John Prine song and thought "oh wait, I GET it." I haven’t listened to “Spanish Pipedream” in years. There are far many more of his songs I love — “Hello In There”, “Jesus, The Missing Years”, “Lake Marie”, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”, “Clay Pigeons”, “Angel From Montgomery” (I know everyone says that one but there’s a reason — anyone who doesn’t is a monster) to name a few. But today, I’m listening to it on repeat, alone in my room, windows open, singing along.