But we saw John Prine himself only once, in 2002. He played the big 2,000-seat theater on the UW-Green Bay campus. Our seats were on the main floor, but we were quite a ways back.
It was a good show, and it was great to see him, but I kinda felt like I had to share him with too many people. For a good 25 years before that night, it had always been just me and Prine hanging out in my living room with his records.
When it’s my time and I’ve gone, I hope they play a John Prine song so folks can smile. This song. The advance directive John Prine wrote way back in 1973.
“Please Don’t Bury Me,” John Prine, from “Sweet Revenge,” 1973. Still my favorite John Prine record.
When my dad died almost three years ago, the funeral director asked me whether I wanted my dad’s watch. First, I thought, no. Dad never went anywhere without his watch. Then, I decided, yes. The funeral director handed me a small drawstring pouch with the watch inside.
The other night, John Prine put me at ease about that decision.
Embedded in one of the stories I read that night was the last song on his last record, “When I Get To Heaven,” from “The Tree Of Forgiveness,” which came out in 2018. I hadn’t heard it before, but it was as if it was me and Prine were hanging out in my living room again. Psst. Hey, buddy …
Yeah when I get to heaven / I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm
What are you gonna do with time / After you’ve bought the farm?
Couldn’t help but smile. John Prine had given me his blessing.
See, you don’t need that watch, Dad. One of the grandkids, or one of their kids, might like to have it someday. You know you’d like that.
Our premise, revisited: Since we last gathered here a month ago, we’ve lost even more music greats. Keith Emerson, Sir George Martin and Gayle McCormick, the lead singer of Smith, even Clare MacIntyre-Ross, the woman who inspired the Harry Chapin’s classic song “Taxi.”
Time, then — well past time, really — to appreciate four music greats who are still with us. These are my four. Yours may be different. We started with the eldest, Chuck Berry. We then paid homage to Little Richard. We continue with …
The legend: Jerry Lee Lewis.
Still performing? Apparently so. There are no dates listed on his website, but his last gig was about six weeks ago in Mississippi. I’ve never seen him play live.
What we must acknowledge but won’t dwell on: The Killer has gone through a whole lot of unsavory business. A scandalous marriage to a cousin who likely was 13 when they were wed in December 1957. Six other wives. Allegations of domestic abuse. Substance abuse. Arrested outside Graceland in November 1976, drunk and waving a gun. Jeebus.
Where I came in: Hm. Not really sure about this, either. Perhaps when he covered “Chantilly Lace” in 1972, or perhaps when “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” crossed over from country radio in 1973. It wasn’t until 1989 that I bought my first Jerry Lee record, the “Milestones” greatest-hits comp released on Rhino Records to coincide with the release of “Great Balls of Fire,” the film in which Dennis Quaid played Jerry Lee.
Appreciate the greatness: I have always loved piano pounders, and Jerry Lee stands with Little Richard as perhaps the greatest of them all. Jerry Lee’s late ’50s hit singles are among the cornerstones of rock ‘n’ roll. That said, here are some other tunes I dig.
“Live from the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium and the WVOK Shower of Stars, the one, the only, Jerry Lee Lewis!”
They recorded this on July 18, 1964, a Saturday night. (The liner notes incorrectly say July 1.) To hear this astonishing side, Jerry Lee clearly brought the greatest live show on Earth to town that night. In a mere 15 minutes, the Killer rips through covers of tunes by Little Richard, Charlie Rich, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles.
“Well, I’d like to do one for ya now. Ah, hope you enjoy this one. Um, pretty good tune that, uh, has done quite well for a, a lot of artists. But I’m think I’m gonna give it a little treatment here that, that it deserrrrves. I’m gonna throw the old, real, true, down-to-earth, go-gettin’ rock-and-roll beat into this one now. Boy, if you can’t shake it, you better set down because this is one you can really shake it bahyyyy!”
At which point, Jerry Lee and his Memphis Beats tear into …
“Roll Over Beethoven,” Jerry Lee Lewis, from “Jerry Lee Lewis: By Request,” 1966. It’s out of print. Recorded live at Panther Hall ballroom in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Shotgun Man,” Jerry Lee Lewis, from “Soul My Way,” 1967. It’s out of print, but is available on this double CD with “The Return of Rock” LP from 1965.
After turning to country music with some success, Jerry Lee returned to rock with mixed success on some interesting records on the Mercury label in the early ’70s. Here are a couple more rip-roaring covers.
They drove 75 miles just to spend two or three hours digging through all the vinyl at the Green Bay Record Convention on Saturday. A dad and his son.
The son — who seemed to be 13, maybe 14, so probably a seventh- or eighth-grader — carried a red canvas bag. By noon, it was full of his finds.
The kid with the red bag eagerly chatted with Steve, the friendly gent selling bowls made of old vinyl records in one of the far corners of the Eagles Club. They compared notes on all kinds of bands, but mostly vintage metal bands. They chatted for a long time, getting deep into specifics.
I eavesdropped. You recognize it when you’ve been down that road. That laser focus. That tremendous detail. That just might be an Asperger’s kid, I thought. Which is cool.
Thinking that gracious vinyl bowl seller might need a break, I started chatting up the kid with the red bag.
“So, what did you find today?”
The kid starts pulling LPs from his red bag.
“That’s a good one.”
Then he pulled out a Krokus record. Sorry, I’m not up on my Krokus.
“That’s another good one.”
Then he pulled out some more — he had about a half-dozen in all — including this record.
“Oh, that’s a good one, too.”
Then the kid dropped the bomb on me.
“It’s red vinyl,” he said.
“Oh, I gotta see that.”
The kid hands it over, and I pull out the record. Yep, rich, red vinyl.
Gotta be honest. One thought flashed through my head. You know the one. Ooooh, wish I’d found that. Never mind that I’ve had it on black vinyl since the ’70s.
Then, just as quickly, that thought passed.
Nope, it’s more fun for that kid to have that red vinyl.
I didn’t look close enough to see whether that was the original red vinyl from 1973 or last year’s reissue on red vinyl. Doesn’t really matter, and I suspect it doesn’t matter to the kid with the red bag.
As he pulled out his records, a small piece of paper floated to the floor at his feet.
“That your wish list?”
No, the kid said, they’re my notes. Indeed, as he made the rounds at the record show and chatted up dealers, he wrote down their tips on what kinds of music to check out next.
Then Dad turned up, carrying three plastic bags with a couple dozen LPs in them. Dad’s in the picture above. He’s the tall guy in the light blue cap and the adidas jacket, digging away on the left.
Dad and the kid and Steve the friendly vinyl bowl seller chatted for a while longer, again in tremendous detail. Guessing Dad might be Asperger’s, too. A lot of us in the record-digging business might be. Which, again, is cool.
Hope the kid with the red bag enjoys these J. Geils cuts as much as I did. When “Bloodshot” was released in 1973, I wasn’t much older than he is now.
“Back To Get Ya,” “Don’t Try To Hide It” and “Southside Shuffle,” J. Geils Band, all from “Bloodshot,” 1973. Also available digitally.
Not sure there are any light reads about the Vietnam War.
It’s been years since I read Michael Herr’s “Dispatches,” but I vividly remember that taking forever.
Perhaps it’s the constant reminder — then as now — that there, for the grace of the timing of my birth, go I, and how would I have handled all that. (For the record, I was too young for Vietnam. Saigon fell and the war ended seven weeks before I turned 18.)
My Christmas wish list had two books on it, one of them about Vietnam.
“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” examines how American soldiers — white, black, Latino, Native — deeply identified with music and used it to cope while serving in Vietnam in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Our Christmas tree is long gone from the living room, yet I’m still slogging through that book. Maybe it’s best read with all those songs playing in the background.
You also bog down when you come to a passage like this, the story of a soldier named Jeff Dahlstrom, who arrived in Vietnam in September 1970:
“Music played a major part in the sensory overload of Saigon, where Dahlstrom went frequently. … No surprise that Dahlstrom’s memories of the Saigon streets were stirred by the appropriately titled ‘Stoned in Saigon’ by a largely forgotten English group named Free.”
Memorial Day weekend always summons the same set of memories.
My uncles — my mother’s brothers — and my dad occasionally gathered for a guys’ getaway at the same northern Wisconsin resort on Memorial Day weekend. It seemed that it always was cold and wet, much as yesterday was. Few fish, if any, were caught.
During the summer, some of my uncles and their families reconvened at the same resort. Our family also traveled back up north to be with them. We were at the far end of that S-shaped lake, at a state forest campground. You can figure out who could afford what.
If my dad could start his small boat motor — the one notorious for running only when not in the water — we’d take our small aluminum rowboat down to the resort. More often than not, we drove.
That memory, among the first realizations of haves and have-nots, lingers to this day. As does the memory of there being nothing on the radio.
We took radios up north, but you couldn’t get anything decent. Local shopping shows. Country music. Your only hope was that the atmospheric conditions would allow you to pull in WLS out of Chicago or KAAY out of Little Rock late at night … when everything was supposed to be quiet in the Northwoods.
On Memorial Day weekend 1973, this wholly appropriate song was back on the WLS charts: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Yeah, we tried sometimes. But we just couldn’t, well, you know.
What we needed to get us through those weekends up north was this, something KAAY might have dropped on “Beaker Street” late at night.
“Superstition,” Beck, Bogert & Appice, from “Beck, Bogert & Appice,” 1973. The LP is out of print but available digitally.
This is a heavier version perhaps as envisioned by Jeff Beck, who helped Stevie Wonder write it.