It displeases me greatly when a musician whom I admire refuses to grant an interview request. You can almost feel them grinning with smug satisfaction and self-importance from thousands of miles away, gloating over their status and control, as neutered manservants fan them with banana-tree leaves and hand-feed them delicately sliced morsels of raw, exotic mollusks. I've been frustrated professionally and disappointed personally over the years by the failure of apparently salt-of-the-earth-type artists ranging from Lyle Lovett to Van Morrison to Etta James to take 15 minutes of their precious celebrity time to pick up a phone and allow me the privilege of granting them free publicity to be accompanied by a few (hopefully) insightful observations.
Fave anecdote: several years ago, a couple of weeks removed from Christmas, Waylon Jennings' personal secretary called me the day before a scheduled discussion to cancel our appointment, curtly informing me in a shrill hayseed twang that the bossman had decided not to speak with any lowly media-whore types over the holiday season [I paraphrase here]. Along with a fat payday, I lost my composure on this unfortunate Lurleen, I admit, and the next day she called to declare, "Mr. Seigal, Waylon wants me to tell you that he thinks you're an asshole" [here, I do not paraphrase]. Gently as possible, I explained to the tender woman that I found it ironic and quite possibly even tragic that a man whose image was based on being a badass outlaw cowboy felt compelled to put his secretary up to the dirty deed of abusing me by proxy with an unoriginal rectal epithet. This resulted in a flailing but mercifully failed attempt by the now-outraged Jennings junta to get me canned from my gig. Following much back-and-forth jousting, the Jennings camp finally capitulated. As a gesture of truce and goodwill, I was mailed a Waylon boxed set and a "sorry for the misunderstanding" note from Lurleen, apparently a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin' man. However, Waylon and his meticulously groomed beard never did speak to me directly (mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be douche bags). Sorry, Waylon, I loved your music, I'm sorry that you're dead and all, but your comportment during that incident still has to be classified as less than manly.
I recount this information in my own singular, pouting fashion as a preface to the sad news that veteran singer/songwriter John Prine, who appears Friday night at the Cerritos Center, will not speak to me or, apparently, any other lowly reporter, despite a regular-fella persona that's akin to Michael Moore perusing the used-necktie rack at a thrift store. I was told by a publicist that I'd be mailed a press kit including a video of Prine being interviewed in-depth by John Hiatt, which seemed a disappointing but at least potentially interesting consolation prize. The packet turned out to contain a commercially available DVD manufactured for uncritical fans who would never ask questions such as, "John, did you make a conscious, cynical attempt from the outset of your career to sound as much as humanly possible like Bob Dylan?" Or, "John, are you aware that your right eyebrow appears to be roughly one-third furrier than your left?" Lacking answers to such queries, I have determined to spare you, gentle readers, the details proffered on this common product, and I must pause to wonder if John Prine hasn't been indulging in Micronesian abalone gently bathed in a star fruit remoulade.
So here, then, is my take on John Prine, uncolored by any light he might have shed on the subject of himself:
• He sounds an awful lot like Bob Dylan and has funny-looking eyebrows.
• He has released two five-star, all-time-classic albums over the course of his career; the self-titled 1971 debut and 1991's The Missing Years. Being 20 years removed from one another doesn't detract from their excellence; few artists release even one album as fine in their lifetime.
• For a guy coming from the often-rigid folkie tradition, Prine has at times been a noble progressive, freaking out clenched-sphincter traditionalists with Sun studio-recorded rockabilly; Steve Cropper-produced R&B; and loud, raucous country-rock efforts. These were not his best albums by any means, but give Prine credit for audacity.
• At his best, Prine is among America's finest living storytellers, with a cinematic sense of timing; a dry, Twain-esque wit; and a bard's gift for metaphor. My fave Prine image comes from the song "Paradise," a sad, yearning portrait of fading rustic glory on which he sings of a place "where the air smells like snakes" in a tone that sounds like dry leaves blowing down a dusty country road. I already knew what snakes smelled like, but I didn't even realize this until Prine made me consider it.
• Prine is about as punk rock as Ben or Jerry, so it's revealing to consider that he was a prime architect of the DIY ethic as well as perhaps its most successful champion. Prine formed Oh Boy Records way back in 1984, a time when even the most renegade rockers were still lining up to suck off the corporate teat, and he even managed to snag a Grammy for an early self-release (The Missing Years). Today, Oh Boy is home base for such heavy company as Kris Kristofferson, Riders In the Sky and Todd Snider, as well as in the business of releasing thoughtfully complied anthologies of artists as diverse as Roy Acuff, Joe Tex and Roger Miller.
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Despite these positives, I've never looked forward to the latest Prine release with the same trembling enthusiasm I reserve for such singer/songwriters as Lovett, Randy Newman, Judy Henske or Warren Zevon, whose recent death still pisses me off. Prine's low-key, gone-fishin' approach lacks the stunning originality and manic vision of the abovementioned, even as he has avoided the soporific tendencies of many talented but wimpy/banal brethren; he suffers not from James Taylor-itis. At least that's my take: I asked a singer/songwriter friend of much renown for her take on why Prine fails to generate much in the way of electricity, and she relayed her belief that Prine, for all his admirable and prodigious skill, lacks passion and charisma. She also felt that Prine is a dude-centric phenomenon: "He makes music for depressed guys to listen to while they're sitting around by themselves in their apartments."
Also, the formerly prolific Prine seems to be afflicted with a rather nasty dose of writer's block. His last few albums have been interesting exercises in water-treadage–a collection of duets with female singers (including Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Iris DeMent); re-workings of early material that Oh Boy Records didn't own the master recordings of; a concert CD–but it has been eight long years since the release of an album of all-new material. A bout with throat cancer in the late '90s surely mustn't have been conducive to productivity, but Prine has since thankfully recovered, and his voice has suffered no lasting damage, judging by his two post-cancer efforts. He's due for another statement on the order of The Missing Years, which one hopes and suspects he still has in him.
In summation: Dylanations aside, I respect John Prine, I'm tickled by his eyebrows, I enjoy his songs despite the fact that I live neither alone nor in an apartment, yet I'm deeply wounded by the fact that he thinks he's too good to speak to me. But at least he didn't put one of his employees up to calling me an asshole on the telephone.
John Prine performs at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (562) 916-8501. Fri., 8 p.m. $25-$55. ALL AGES.