John Prine – Sweet RevengeAtlantic, 1973
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
About a month ago I became the record person at Half Price Books St. Louis Park. I’d done a little bit of record pricing/grading/throwing away (seriously, I’d go out on a limb and say at least 50-60% of what we get is moldy/musty/dusty/fucking sickeningly gross and allergic reaction causing) so I wasn’t I didn’t make like a fish out of water and I spent the last month getting REALLY into pricing records. The whole process was almost therapeutic—a welcome reprieve sequestered in the basement away from the psychosis of the perpetually busy sales floor. Quite frankly, it’s a blast. There’s something incredibly satisfying about pulling a $100 record out of a pile of crap. On the other side of that, there’s me, a recovering record buyer faced with temptation on a daily basis. HOWEVER, in that last month I dug out two John Prine records (this and his eponymous debut) which I no doubt would have missed out on had I not been running the section. The copy of Sweet Revenge I dug up has a ratty sleeve and a handful of scratches and I got it for practically free. Which is great. Since I didn’t know if it would actually play.
But it plays! And though the sleeve is pretty fucked up, it features maybe my new favorite album cover of all time. I can’t explain why this image of Prine reclining in a convertible, denim clad with his cowboy boots propped up, aviator shades and half a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. He looks like Jeff Tweedy, and I’m sure Jeff Tweedy is aware of that. The back cover is the inverse of the front—Prine reclined, boots up, staring out at the ocean. There’s a real timelessness to it, which really melds with the timelessness of his songs. There’s a little bit more of a sneer to Sweet Revenge than his self-titled debut (the only other album of his I own and have listened to all the way through) and the politics are absent. But the humor is there, and a dark cynicism that is just brilliant. The title track (with it’s devastatingly great opening line “I got kicked off of Noah’s ark/ I turn my cheek to unkind remarks.”) lives up to the album cover. The swagger, the non-chalant badassery. The clever wise-ass at work. As a man who has strived every single day of his life to subdue wiseassery, Prine is an inspiration to me. Maybe I should stop holding it in (although at work I have to, especially today when some woman couldn’t find books about angels and got all sassafras when I couldn’t leave the register to point to the shelf with the angel books and said “Well I guess I just won’t buy anything at your store” and I SO wanted to say “You know being rude ain’t no way to get into heaven, ma’am” in a southern drawl). Or maybe I should just keep my mouth shut and enjoy Prine’s razor sharp wit and get through life a lot easier.
Other winners here are the heartbreaking “woman done up and left me” number “Blue Umbrella” (“Just give me one good reason/ And I promise I won’t ask you anymore/ Just give me one extra season/ So I can figure out the other four”) and the silly and insightful live cut “Dear Abby” that plays out as a series of letters the he famed advice columnist (“Dear Abby, Dear Abby… My fountain pen leaks/ My wife hollers at me/ And my kids are all freaks/ Every side I get up on/ Is the wrong side of the bed/ If it weren’t so expensive/ I’d wish I were dead/ Signed Unhappy”). “Mexican Home” and “Onomatopoeia” are surefire hits and the penultimate track “A Good Time” is a quiet tune I hadn’t heard on Great Days or the tribute album Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows. It’s one of those perfect little songs that just shows up at the door all day and you embrace it like a long lost brother. I feel like everyone has songs like that, that’s why everyone loves music. There’s so much of it, and there’s so much of it you haven’t heard that’s just out there, floating around, waiting to crawl into your ears and then your brain and then your heart. That is incredibly sentimental, a cloying assessment of loving music, but that’s the sort of thing a good song’ll make you feel. Lines like “And you know that I could have me a million more friends/ And all I’d have to lose is my point of view” just kind of resonate to the point of rattling.
I’m getting kind of goofy about how good John Prine’s songs are. They’ve been here this whole goddamn time and all I had to do was put the pieces together. I’m feeling incredibly sentimental, something about the music you listen to throughout your life being like a journey that mirrors the one you’re on. One you can look back at later on down the road. Your record collection is like a scrapbook or a photo album, a cumulative answer to the tired old question “What kind of music do you like?” I look back at when I was a kid, when my brain was just primordial stew, and the music I fell in love with when I was old enough to fall in love with music (it was oldies, from the fantastic KC radio station Oldies 95 which sadly only plays 50s and 60s pop songs on Sunday nights these days). And then there was a 8-10 year stretch where I just listened to what my friends listened to, or what was perceived to be cool. I embrace having once legitimately enjoyed the musical stylings of Limp Bizkit and Korn and Linkin Park and Slipknot though now I realize that was never something I would be able to really enjoy on a personal level. It was like the stupid Russell-Crowe-in-Gladiator haircut with the frosted tips that I had at one point in my early teens. Yet to disown the fact that I liked those bands—to pretend I always had great taste—would be somewhat similar of a Nazi officer fleeing to South America and pretending the whole “personification of pure evil” thing had never happened. I’m not saying that there is anything objectively wrong with those bands I listened to in junior high (well, except maybe Limp Bizkit, which is the most embarrassing of them all but it doesn’t really bother me because I know everyone I grew up with that also attained fine musical taste feels the same way) they were just mistakes I had to make until I somehow found the little inlet that led to punk rock (Blink-182, another band that you could easily lump in with the Korns and Linkin Parks of the world but I wholly appreciate their function as a gateway drug to pop-punk and I still find pretty much everything preceding Take Off Your Pants and Jacket to be really enjoyable, even the really terrible gross songs) and then indie rock and then pretentious indie rock and then somehow John Prine is here. When I was 16 I couldn’t have predicted I’d be listening to some old dude from the 70s and really, truly loving the music ten years down the line. I was going to be punk rock forever! To be fair, I was also going to be Straight Edge for life (I think I had two Minor Threat patches on my black hoodie) and I’m literally brewing five gallons of beer as I type this so you can see how THAT turned out.
I feel sorry for kids nowadays who just get handed a copy of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea with their cool haircuts and cool jeans and good taste once they turn 13. It’s the Internet’s fault, and honestly, I’m mostly just jealous. Why couldn’t the popular music have been cool and interesting when Greg Achey and I were spending our early teens drinking obscene amounts of rootbeer and playing hours and hours of NHL Hitz to the soundtrack of Orgy’s cover of “Blue Monday” ON REPEAT. I used to get annoyed but now I feel like it’s the same shit and while I feel like I’ve got more of a claim on the good stuff compared to these 14 year olds with better taste than they have any right to have, they’ll have the same sort of identity crises we all had in our teens and it’ll all work out in the end. And really, they’re the lucky ones because they never had a point where they thought Nickelback was good. Everything that was cool is now uncool, but the timeless cool stuff kind of just stays cool forever I suppose. Which is why I wish I had a Vlogbrothers-sized soapbox to stand on so I could disseminate John Prine mix CDs to the youth of America so they don’t think he’s just some lame old dude. Actually, Bon Iver probably already did that with Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, and good on him for that yes indeed. As long as these kids aren’t just giving up after picking up the latest Arcade Fire album (are they still cool or is it all about glitch-house whatever now with the Skrillex and the Crystal Castles? Good lord I now realize how out of touch I am with everything) and hear that and want to listen to every single cool thing they can get their hands on. To mine the influences of their favorite artists and mine THEIR favorite influences and follow that dark spiral down into the heart of oblivion. Or into a music director’s office at a college radio station where halfway through their tenure they realize they’re totally out of touch with what it means to love music and that reassessment is necessary otherwise the dark hand may never relent its icy, tastemaking grip. The point is, there’s just so much good shit out there that if you’re really trying to discover music you really have to go out of your way to have bad taste in music (assuming you factor in the fact that people who listen to Top 40 and actively enjoy Taylor Swift and Katy Perry and the like aren’t really claiming to have good taste in music in the first place and probably have bigger fish to fry). One of my big regrets in life was how big of an asshole I got once I started working my way up at KJHK. I had tunnelvision because in my mind, the station was in a state of crisis and needed to return to where it was when I started. And I was really shitty to some DJs whose taste I judged as “unfit for music staff” instead of trying to shepherd them into the Promised Land. Those were dark times. But then again, I was 22 and heartbroken and just an unpleasant person to be around and I feel like I should say “that’s no excuse” but it’s mostly the excuse. But I was a snob. I still am pretty much a snob but less now about other people’s tastes and I feel really guilty ripping into bands that make music I hate so I think that’s some sort of progress. Then again, it’s not like I don’t relish ripping into a truly insipid an horrible album, it’s just that I save that stuff for my wife when we’re listening to the radio on trips back to Kansas. She’s my sin eater. My sin eater who cranks the Taylor Swift song when it comes on so she doesn’t have to listen to me bitch about it and then starts singing along.