Bad news: Gene's not ready for Prine time
WASHINGTON -- Have you ever wished you could be someone like me, an internationally revered hotshot journalist who can get his phone calls returned from anyone, no matter how famous they are? That way, if, say, you had any question about any song you'd ever heard -- if you were sure you understood its deepest meaning but you couldn't convince your idiot friends you were right -- you could just call the artist and ask him or her directly?
Think about it: Any time you wanted, you could re-create that moment in "Annie Hall" where Alvy Singer silences a blowhard who was pontificating about Marshall McLuhan ... by pulling McLuhan himself out from behind a prop. McLuhan informs the pompous jerk:
"You know nothing of my work."
Well, as it happens, I am me, which is how I found myself on the phone the other day with John Prine, one of America's greatest songwriters.
I was calling John to claim my Marshall McLuhan moment. It involved his evocative 1971 ballad "Sam Stone," which is the saddest rock song ever written.
Now I know what you are thinking. You are thinking: That's not the saddest rock song ever written. "Mah Girl Done Left Me for a Circus Geek" is the saddest song -- or whatever song is your personally biggest tear-jerker. Fine. I am sure there are contenders. But just for the record, "Sam Stone," which is a song about a man who returns from Vietnam with an addiction to morphine, has a refrain that begins like this:
"There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin', I suppose ... "
So give me no guff, OK?
Anyway, here I am on the phone with John Prine. I reached him in New Zealand, where he was traveling. First off, I ask him if he agrees with my central thesis, that this is the most depressing rock song ever written. "I could probably think of more depressing songs," he said, "but mostly they're so depressing because of how bad they are."
So far so good! Now to the nitty-gritty:
Me: One of my favorite lines is, "Sam Stone was alone / when he popped his last balloon / Climbin' walls while sittin' in a chair."
Over the years I have written about this line, which I consider deep and rich and brilliantly concise, expressing the man's excruciating frustration at his plight while, simultaneously, suggesting something that you do not otherwise directly say: that Sam is in a wheelchair, yet another physical casualty of a dreadful war.
When I recently mentioned this to friends, they actually contended I was wrong, that there is no such implication. I told them I would call you and if I was wrong, I would gnaw off one of my pinkie fingers.
John: You told them that?
John: You're gonna have to get out some Worcestershire sauce and pepper.
John: He was in a chair. People sit in chairs.
Me: Okay, wait (yes, I am actually about to attempt to convince John Prine he is wrong about his own song) , what about popping the balloon? As a Viet vet yourself, surely you recall that this was a term for accidentally overfilling a urine bag until it burst.
John: I totally hope you didn't bet the other pinkie.
Me: Oh no.
John: I meant a balloon. Like at a kid's birthday party. Last balloon, the end of Sam's joy. Also, I was drafted in '67, but I never went to Vietnam. They gave us an aptitude test, and it came out I was a mechanical genius, so they sent me to Germany to work on heavy equipment, even though I didn't know one end of a monkey wrench from the other. I spent the war drinking German beer.
So that's it, readers. My Marshall McLuhan moment!
Join me next week when I get Carly Simon to admit "You're So Vain" was actually about Rodney Dangerfield.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.
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