The crowd around the campfire had dwindled from twenty or so to about six, but the darkness—and the weed—made it hard to count the faces. The guitar passed from hand to hand, each person taking a turn barking out some song in a voice equally off-key and earnest. (I probably played something by Neutral Milk Hotel.) It was 2005, and I was 17 years old: I had just graduated high school, my last year spent getting high, reading whatever of Daniel Quinn’s bibliography I could obtain from the public library, and going on multiple-hour-long walks to parts of Huntington, West Virginia I’d never seen. And in the summer after commencement (which, naturally, I did not attend) I had hopped in a van with two of my best friends and drove to the southern part of the state to learn how to become environmental activists.
My interest was sincere. I was baptised into political consciousness somewhere between the collapse of the World Trade Center and the invasion of Iraq, and after watching the night-vision footage of cruise missiles falling on Baghdad, I took to sewing homemade patches on my jackets displaying messages like “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER,” “NO BLOOD FOR OIL,” and “MARXIST.” (I barely understood the Communist Manifesto, but I believed it was right.) A native West Virginian friend of mine (I’d been transplanted there after my freshman year) had introduced me to the horrors of strip mining, and we gradually transformed ourselves into anarcho-environmentalists by way of Crimethinc. literature, Earth First! documentaries, and—maybe most influentially—Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The suffocating drudgery of both the classroom and my home life had intensified my adolescent sense of urgency to do something, to march bravely out into the world and stop the evil that was so clearly winning in the cosmic struggle between light and dark. Like all young men, I wanted to be a hero.
Thus I had no patience for the strategy of slow and measured engagement insisted upon by the nonprofits running the activist training camp. Somewhere between the “De-Escalation Workshop” and the lecture on “anti-oppression” my friends and I checked out, retreating to an abandoned print shop to smoke joints and shoot the shit. And, of course, to play guitar. I was inaugurated into the cult of “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s recording of it having appeared one year prior. Someone played Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” But deep into the night—with the stars glittering overhead and the THC buzzing in our heads—someone started strumming a D-chord in the style of a waltz, and something in the air changed. A reverent hush settled over the circle. But after a few bars, a wiry voice broke through: “When I was a child, my family would travel…”
Some songs are good; some songs are great. And some—often by virtue of something beyond its composition or recording—arrive as revelations, striking the hearer like a lightning bolt and sinking irrevocably into the soul. To describe “Paradise” as “a song I love” comes nowhere near to grasping the dimensions of its importance: for several years of my early twenties spent hitchhiking and riding freight trains between anti-globalization protests and environmental campouts, “Paradise” served as an anthem, a rallying cry, a source of solace and peace. It was part of the air my friends and I breathed, something necessary for life. One of the most meaningful friendships of my life was solidified by singing it over and over during a 12-hour drive from Minnesota to West Virginia; it was on my lips during countless solitary walks down highways and stretches of train track. Though we never became the heroes we dreamed of, “Paradise” nonetheless served as our Iliad, standing as a constant, fixed source of our values, hopes, and longings. Like Homer with the Achaeans, John Prine spoke us into being.
I know how silly this all sounds. But when you’re a small-town teenager with a penchant for romance and a lousy education, your reference points are going to seem strange and perhaps arbitrary. Before I learned that John Prine was a living, contemporary country artist still touring and recording albums, I’d assumed him to be something like the Bard: a legendary old folk singer who walked the earth in a time when men were stronger and taller and the gods could still be heard singing from the mountaintops. But as the image of Prine the hero faded, my awe of his quite mortal capacities for perception and empathy increased. Across the 13 songs of his debut album—recorded when he was just 23 years old—Prine examines the souls of a heroin-addicted Vietnam veteran, a nostalgic middle-aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage, a retired factory worker gone autobiographical, of lonely young people longing to connect but falling repeatedly into solipsism. Each song is its own universe: Bob Dylan famously called the album “pure Proustian existentialism,” but Prine’s capacity for seeing from within the subjectivity of nearly a dozen fully-formed yet fully imagined figures has more in common with Fernando Pessoa.
And now he’s gone. (God willing, he is now resting in the true Paradise.) But with Prine’s passing, no era has come to a close, since Prine was never a representation of anything beyond himself. He commanded respect from high places, but not a single imitator: he was inimitable, with a keenness of vision surpassing that of most novelists wedded to a dark, but ultimately humane, comic sensibility. There will never be another like him. Maybe now we can recognize him as the legend I had once dreamed him to be.