Even the stories about John Prine’s self-proclaimed “bachelor years” are warm.
It was a period in the mid-’80s when he was getting out of bed at 3:30 p.m. before hanging around with Townes Van Zandt at Brown’s Diner in Nashville. There were plenty of vodka ginger ales from a place Prine called Chandler’s — which was actually Melrose Billiards, just two miles from Brown’s — and a recent Rolling Stone article that says quaaludes and cocaine were “rampant” when Hank Williams and Merle Haggard used to stop by Prine’s place to play cards on a Formica table. But even then, Prine, now 71 years old, was weary of marijuana that could’ve been laced with God-knows-what.
“[Smoking hash] was kinda like buying a train ticket,” David Ferguson, Prine’s engineer, said in that RS piece. “You run a straight train ride and you know what town you were getting off at. With some of the weed going around, you [didn’t] know where you’re goin’.”
So, in lieu of actual drug use and other debauched behavior that comes with staying up until the sun rises, you get tales about the time an aquarium heater shorted out, killing one of Prine’s prized goldfish. He stored it in the freezer and eventually had it taxidermied. Funny stuff, and not enough of the silliness makes it into Prine’s new book, Beyond Words, but what is inside the nearly 200-page, full-color, large-format treasure (released in April via Prine’s own Oh Boy Records) more than makes up for it.
There are scores of photos from Prine’s own collection. His hair — much darker and longer than the buzzed style he sports these days — is in various states of fluffiness, and Prine has a joke for nearly every one of those states. Handwritten notes and song sketches are scanned onto full pages so vividly that you can almost see the pressure with which Prine was pushing his blue and black pens. The wrinkles, water and stains of time on old legal pads and scratch pieces of paper are almost tangible. Old 45s, various lost promo photos, personal Polaroids, marked-up newspaper clippings and even scripts from Prine’s attempts at radio journalism are all accompanied by detailed recollections written by the man Bob Dylan once called a writer of “pure Proustian existentialism.”
But still, at its core, Beyond Words is a songbook. There are 65 songs, from various stages of Prine’s 46-year career, including such standards as “Angel in Montgomery” and “Hello In There.” The chords don’t always reflect the way songs sound on the original records, but they are an accurate representation of Prine’s current playing style, which will be front and center for Bay area fans on December 15 when he performs at Ruth Eckerd Hall with Amanda Shires. It’s Prine’s last tour date before the new year, and presumably his last local stop before the release of a forthcoming album of new music.
Details on Prine’s first batch of original music in 13 years are scarce, but you’ve got to feel like he’ll preview some of it at this sorta hometown show. Prine — who mostly rests his head in Nashville and summers in his wife Fiona’s hometown of Galway, Ireland — has a home in Gulfport, making him another one of the Florida authors CL highlights in our Books Issue.
Joe Nuzzo carries copies of Prine’s new book in his Treasure Island surf shop, but he first met the songwriter in the ’80s. Nuzzo was living at Tierra Verde Marina Resort on a 46-foot sailboat named Three-Quarter Time on the day he spotted Prine and longtime manager Al Bunetta walking the docks the morning after a show.
“I told them to take their cowboy boots off and go sailing, and they did,” Nuzzo, 75, told CL when asked about the encounter.
Prine has been a positive influence on Nuzzo’s life ever since.
The 50th anniversary of Nuzzo’s Suncoast Surf Shop featured an impromptu set from Prine, where he was flanked by his own college-aged son, Tommy. Prine had a show in Norfolk, Virginia the night before, but he found a way to be down in Florida to surprise his old friend Joe.
“If he loves you, he’ll do anything for you,” Nuzzo said of Prine. “I’ve met a lot of people, but the sincerity, the honesty — there is nobody better than Mr. Prine.”
That warmth is also what makes flipping through Beyond Words a little bit draining emotionally.
The book is dedicated to Bunetta, who managed Prine for more than 40 years before succumbing to cancer at the age of 72. Together, the pair blazed a career path rooted in integrity and doing the right thing regardless of what someone was willing to pay you. Those standards, combined with Bunetta and Prine’s D.I.Y. ethos, are a huge reason why Prine’s popularity has never really flickered after so many years. Bunetta — along with late songwriter Steve Goodman — was among Prine’s closest friends.
Two pictures of the the pair listening carefully to Prine’s sophomore LP Diamonds In The Rough is a snapshot of a time when it only cost $6,800 to cut a record at New York’s Atlantic Studio (“including beer,” Prine writes). To critics, Diamonds never lived up to his 1971 debut, but the songs that would pour out of Prine in the years to come would cement his status as one of America’s most important lyrical wordsmiths.
The love Prine has for Bunetta and his family is all over Beyond Words. It’s wide open in those photos, but it’s also cloaked in the memories Prine shares throughout the book.
Life, love and the losses we take aren’t always easy to understand, but this debut book from Prine is proof that he’ll always have a song to help us figure out just how we feel.