This letter first appeared April 8, 2020 in the Boston Globe §§
I did not know him well, not as well as I would wish. We worked together on a few occasions, ran into each other at a couple of gatherings. I knew him mainly, as did most of us, through his work, his songs.
He had me from “Angel from Montgomery.” Damn, that song was so strong, so true, it took your breath away. This in spite of the fact that there’s a guy singing, “I am an old woman, named after my mother. . .” It took about a tenth of a second to get over the, “Wait! He’s not an old woman!” bit and get swept away by the power of the story, get drawn into the picture he was painting. (Also, there was the part that it never seemed to even occur to him that he was not, in fact, an old woman, he understood and occupied that character so fully and empathetically.)
And then there were all the other shining gems that made us love him, the sideways, sometimes upside-down takes on life that had us smiling and singing along. Ways of looking at things that were new to the world but were expressed so forcefully and engagingly that you could not turn away — there was no choice in the matter, you had to love him.
No movie-star looks, no soaring tenor or dazzling guitar licks. He didn’t need them. He saw truths that had never occurred to us before, and offered them up in a brand-new, loving way that could not be denied.
Goodbye, John Prine. I am sadder than I have been in a long, long time.
Why is it that all our viruses and bacteria make us sick and miserable? I know, of course, that at any given moment we each happily coexist with some 5 pounds of benign bacteria who are either helping us out or just along for the ride. But my question is: why hasn’t good old Mother Nature come up with a bug that makes us feel good with no downside? It would be very adaptive, as they say in biological circles. Everybody would want to catch that infection; that particular bacterium would be very much in demand, a superstar among single-celled organisms.
Now, individually these little one-celled or no-celled organisms (or whatever describes a virus, which isn’t even technically alive) aren’t very smart because, you see, they have no brains. But collectively they can be fiendishly clever, outsmarting entire pharmaceutical conglomerates staffed with geniuses. Phalanxes of doctors are helpless battling with these little demons, who are way too small to even see. Now, I know they don’t subscribe to my newsletter and most of them can’t even read (the bacteria, not the doctors), so I’m jut putting this idea out there, hoping that it might somehow get through:It could be argued, of course, that yeast already occupy that niche and have us working for them simply by providing bread and alcohol—a simpler but arguably more cost-effective version of the bread and circuses that the Roman emperors employed to keep the masses in line. But I still think there is room for a bacterium delirium that would simply make us feel better instead of worse. Making us sick would seem like a really dumb survival strategy—the unwelcome houseguest gambit. If you want to be invited to stick around you bring presents and make yourself useful. But most of these little buggers bring garbage and make unreasonable demands.
Mother Nature, if you’re listening, I think a feel-good bug would be a big hit, and I’d like you to send me some as soon as they’re ready.