After 'Sam Stone', one of the very few songs from the time that addresses the Vietnam war, 'Paradise' is perhaps Prine's best-known composition, but outside of a lot of bars in America it's not exactly a household tune. Twenty-three years and 13 albums on from his recording debut, it's still hard to find John Prine on the map, geographically or musically.
After an apprenticeship as a Chicago mailman, he gave that up to sing full-time in bars. One night Kris Kristofferson turned up, was impressed, pulled some strings and soon had him recording his first album for Atlantic in New York.
With the release of John Prine in 1971, the initial instinct was to locate him next to Bob Dylan. 'It started out as 'Hey, here's another kid from the Midwest who writes brilliant songs and he can't sing, so he must be the new Bob Dylan',' says Prine. 'But it carried a bit too far and it became a backlash thing. So I started getting, like, 'Who does this kid think he is, the new Bob Dylan?' '
But unlike Dylan, Prine's work just gets better and better. His most recent album, his first for five years, has been easily his most successful. It is called The Missing Years - not his own but Jesus's. The title song tracks the movements of the Son of God during the years of his life that the New Testament doesn't account for: in Prine's Apocrypha, he visits Rome, marries an Irish bride, sees Rebel Without A Cause and sings with the Stones. Like many a Prine song, it has a catchy melodic hook and lyrics that mesh an easy wit, a surreal imagination and a melancholy turn of phrase in a compact narrative.
Unlike Dylan, Prine is an engaging and expansive conversationalist. 'I saw Bob last year and he was asking me about 'Jesus - The Missing Years' and he said, 'Do you think he went to London?' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Do you think he went to London?' I said, 'Hell no, who'd go to London except to change planes?' And he just looked at his shoes. He's Mr Mysterioso, you know. You never know whether Bob's kidding, totally serious or just asleep.'
A veteran of two divorces and two terminated record deals, Prine's life has not been an uninterrupted success, but so what? His best times, he implies, are yet to come. 'Hell,' he says, 'if I'm this good at 46 they can push me out there in a wheelchair at 65. I might be 50 before I get my rock'n'roll thing together.'
As a teenager he got his folk thing together. 'I was into Elvis; I wasn't a big folk music fan. My brother was, so he taught me how to play Carter Family songs, and it was opening a whole new world to me, and I started writing immediately. There were songs that I really liked and when I bought the hit parade the words weren't as interesting. So I wrote words that were actually more interesting, where there were more vowel sounds, like Chuck Berry songs - a syllable for every musical beat. I was just full of words. I didn't have no message, I wasn't trying to get anything across, I was trying to fill an eight-by-ten piece of paper with interesting sounds. If you do get a point to make then that's the hook, and that's the part where you'd just be pointing in somebody's chest to see if they're going to come after you or not.'
Like all the best folkies, Prine flowers in intimate, live performance. He and watering holes seem to make a good match. 'The more I sing the thirstier people get; I can sell a lot of liquor when I sing. Maybe they're trying to clear my throat: they hear this gargle with my throat and go, 'Wow, I could sure use a beer'.'
He would have happily stuck around on the local circuit but a recording career beckoned - 'Hell, I had the perfect job: a thousand bucks a week, no tax, cash in hand; slept till four in the afternoon, stayed up all night, every bar I went to they had folk music and I had free beers' - but the dollars 25,000 recording contract tabled by Atlantic was irresistible. Now he reckons it came too soon. 'I wasn't really sure I wanted to make a record right then. I wanted to feel my way around.' Excellent reviews did not translate into sales, Atlantic dropped him after four albums, Asylum after three, leaving Prine with an unabashed disdain for major labels.
In 1982 he founded his own label, Oh Boy, and put out his own work. First came 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus', a red, vinyl Christmas single. 'We just did that so when they called up to go, 'What's John up to? Why hasn't he come down to RCA or Sony to talk to us?' I'd go, 'Because I have a record company and that's my new Christmas single.' Like, 'I know how to make records too.' There's something about a lot of the people at the record companies that I don't want to be in the same elevator with. I don't need to do that stuff to make my music.'
In fact the Christmas single meant more than that. With his shabby get- up, working man's moustache and creased-up, lived-in face, Prine hardly looks the type but this winter he's releasing an album of Christmas songs. 'I think it's going to be my best record yet. I love Christmas. I think the world gets a little bit more like it ought to be.' He has not dismantled his Christmas tree for four-and-a-half years. 'Every day of the year I get up out of bed and I plug my tree in and then I got a globe that lights up. I turn the tree on and then I turn the world on and then I go and make my tea or my coffee.'
In spring comes another album, provisionally titled As You Like It, followed by a tour on which, unprecedentedly, fly swatters will be sold as merchandise ('I think the fly swatters will be a big item'). Prine has got through in the vast majority of his hundreds and hundreds of shows without back-up, but he is currently piecing together a band 'that can drop back and forth to being plugged or unplugged, like a drummer that can play bass as well if I don't want any drums on a song'. Surely he's asked Paul McCartney? 'Yeah, but he won't eat meat, and all my guys have to eat meat cos we're right on the same bus together. And besides, I don't want Linda taggin' along.'
A singer less seduced by fame you could not wish to meet. Tammy Wynette, who once had a hit with one of his songs, is staying in the same swanky Knightsbridge hotel but he hasn't sought her out. He's never even met her. The suggestion that he might regret not being in the major league of international superstardom is rebuffed. 'I certainly don't want to do places where they have sporting events. Who wants to do that? When you go into the dressing room you smell jocks. That's success?'
John Prine plays at the Clapham Grand tomorrow night. 'Aimless Love', 'German Afternoons', 'John Prine Live' and 'The Missing Years' are available on This Way Up.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content