You pays your dues...
From Chicago mail office to Harrods shoe department: it's been an education. Jasper Rees goes on the PR stump with John Prine
Friday 29 September 1995
This is as close as you'll get to a modern rock star. Prine has never been a willing player in standard industry practices; he even founded his own record company so he could call himself president. He's in the odd position of being not only his own boss, but his own client, too. He's here because he's told himself to get his ass over to London, England, and promote the new product. When he drops into Harrods one lunchbreak to promote family harmony, he doesn't mind at all if a witness tags along.
A Dylanologist would get a book out of this. A Prinologist gets a couple of paragraphs. When Prine first surfaced in Chicago in the late Sixties, he was hailed as the next croaker with a conscience from the Midwest. Atlantic signed him up and squeezed the albums out of him. After 25 years singing his own bitter-sweet, ever so slightly wacky compositions, the pace of his career has slackened agreeably. Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings on Oh Boy Records, for instance, took over two years to make - a period mostly consisting of well-earned rests.
His schedule in London calls for a degree of acceleration, but nothing to cause even mild perspiring. Monday, it's off to VH-1 in Camden, the grown-up arm of MTV, to record an interview with Robert Sandall. The itinerary says "Please bring guitar" - as if Prine would go anywhere without it. Sandall, in a white suit and no socks, asks him what it was like being a mailman in Chicago in the Sixties. Prine describes the knock-on effects of having a big hit with his last album. "The dressing rooms keep getting better and better," he says. One day, they'll be fit for a president. They get their pound of flesh at VH-1. For the left-field country series, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way", Prine introduces a bunch of songs, mostly by his Nashville neighbours, that will go out over four weeks. To make it look like the anecdotes weren't all done on the same afternoon, he customises his appearance between takes by rolling up his sleeves, or even changing his shirt.
After that, there's a short Mojo interview, conveniently conducted on the premises by a VH-1 employee. "Actually it wasn't very short," says Prine. He prefers radio interviews, "because you've got your guitar with you". So thank God it's Tuesday, which finds him in Studio 1a at GLR in Marylebone, on Johnny Walker's show. "Please bring guitar," advises the itinerary. Walker, like Sandall, is a fairly typical Prine interviewer: middle-aged, middle-length hair, knows his way round the biog. He asks him what it was like being a mailman in Chicago.
The session is recorded to play later in the week on Richard Wootton's Friday night country show, for whom he'll be standing in. GLR, the BBC's London station, is an important staging post on the promotional round. "It's not a huge audience," explains Wootton, who also happens to be Prine's publicist, "but they really listen." The same cannot be said for Radio 1, where the audience is not small but its attention span is often said to be.
After the session at Harrods (in which, Prinologists will want to be told, their man could have composed a song in the time it took to buy his wife a pair of red shoes and matching handbag), Prine moves on to record a slot for Britain's most popular station. His interviewer, in a studio off the top end of Ladbroke Grove, is Johnnie Walker.
If Prine hadn't already known Walker socially, he certainly would by now, especially as the disc jockey's private studio is so small it gives its occupants no option but intimacy. Sinead O'Connor recently stomped out when Walker asked her if she'd ever get round to singing about the joys of life. Prine, it's safe to predict, will not be emulating her.
Success, he explains to his old pal, means that "the dressing rooms get better and better". He's staring at the only unoccupied square inch of carpet when he says it. Midway through "He Forgot That It Was Sunday", the president announces "there's an accordion s'posed to be playing right here, but I can't do two things at once".
On Wednesday, Prine puts his feet up at the hotel and talks about himself for several hours. There is one face-to-face interview, with Country Music International magazine, followed by phone calls from around the country. The itinerary makes no mention of a guitar. The old pro gets down to it anyway. "I'll talk to anyone that's got the price of a record," he says. The chances of one of them not asking about life as a Chicago mailman are infinitesimally small. "I'm not saying they don't have good questions, it's just that when you been doing it as long as I have, you've heard the good questions. You're lucky to take a reporter to the ladies' shoe section at Harrods."
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