Elvis Costello performs home gig to raise money for the NHS
Credit: Ray di Pietro

Elvis Costello writes emotional tribute to John Prine

Elvis Costello has penned an emotional tribute to the late John Prine. Prine, the hugely celebrated Grammy Award-winning musician, died earlier this months at the age of 73 after contracting coronavirus.

As a whole host of musicians have taken to social media to honour the memory of Prine and, now, Costello has written a wide-ranging essay to remember him. Costello explains that he first discovered the musician “via an Atlantic Record single plucked out of a discount bin of 45rpm records on the counter of Rushworth and Dreaper in Liverpool.”

Costello continues: “It was a copy of ‘Sam Stone’ backed by ‘Illegal Smile’, which in two short songs showed me everything that I would come to appreciate in John’s writing. On the A-side, 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, was a good-humoured celebration of forbidden pleasures.”

“These two sides to John Prine’s writing and the characters in his songs put me in mind of another great favourite of mine, Randy Newman. While Randy Newman’s songs were often portraits of grotesques, rendered with the smallest but essential sliver of sympathy, Prine reached into similar darkness to pull out elusive light. While Randy Newman’s complex harmony and piano compositions were nearly impossible to imitate on the guitar, a songwriting novice could mistake John Prine’s use of simple guitar accompaniment for something one might replicate. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“If John Prine had only written his initial self-titled album, his place among America’s great songwriters would be secure. In addition to ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Illegal Smile’, one might add ‘Donald & Lydia’, ‘Hello In There’ and ‘Paradise’, unique portraits of awkward lovers, shut-ins, older people or those crushed by the wheel of industry. 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. 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.”

Costello, who is one of a number of artists to take his music to the livestream stage in order to raise money for health workers, also offered his thoughts on the current coronavirus crisis: “When I consider the moment in which I am writing, I wish we could hear the song John might have written about 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 catalogue,” he wrote.

“Perhaps it was his resilience that makes accepting John’s passing more difficult. He had repeatedly shown such strength and courage in overcoming the challenges of illness,” Costello wrote later in the piece. “He was so loved by Fiona and his family and all of his friends, admirers and listeners that it was easy to believe that he would be returned to us; to laugh as he read all of those many quotations from his lyrics that acquaintances, strangers and his longest-lived pals have been sharing in these last days. They tell us that a world with John Prine in it has been much better than the poorer one in which we now dwell.”

You can read Elvis Costello’s full essay, here.

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