Elvis Costello shared a lengthy and moving tribute to John Prine that expounded on his great admiration for the late singer-songwriter and featured several memories of the time they spent together — onstage and off.
Costello opened by discussing how Prine’s music sparked a friendship between Costello and the playwright Alan Bleasdale, and used that as a jumping-off point to recall how he discovered Prine’s music in the first place — picking out a 45 rpm single of “Sam Stone” and “Illegal Smile” from the bargain bin at a music store in Liverpool. Those songs, Costello said, “showed me everything that I would come to appreciate in John’s writing.”
He continued: “On the A side [‘Sam Stone’], 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 [‘Illegal Smile’] was a good-humored celebration of forbidden pleasures.”
Both songs appeared on Prine’s self-titled debut album, which Costello praised effusively. “These were songs that no one else was writing, filled with details that only Prine’s eye or ear caught; the arcane radio, the damaged and the destitute,” Costello said. “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.”
Elsewhere in the piece, Costello ruminated on the similarities and differences between Prine and Costello’s other songwriting heroes, Randy Newman and Bob Dylan. He recalled the illuminating moment he saw Prine play live for the first time, as well as the shows they played together during the 2002 charity tour A Concert for a Landmine Free World, and the Prine interview he conducted for his old TV show, Spectacle (“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,” Costello cracked).
In one of the most poignant passages, Costello wondered what kind of art Prine would have made out of the current coronavirus crisis (Prine died from complications related to COVID-19). While Costello noted that many listeners are eager to hear songwriters “lampoon hucksterism” or “loudly sound the alarm,” he said Prine would have crafted far more intimate stories — “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 catalog.”
At the end of his tribute, Costello spoke about joining Prine, his wife Fiona, the writer Tom Piazza, and songwriter Joe Henry for dinner 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. If that sounds like something John might have made up, then I guess I may have finally learned my lesson.”