Heartbreaker #2: Six O'Clock News by John Prine, best heard on John Prine Live.
I first heard John Prine when he played the mainstage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in the early 90s. I knew of him thanks to some former roommates, who enjoyed his slanted take on things, and frequently played a worn-out "Best Of" cassette. Once a month, our room of fellas would phone up this houseful of girls we knew, and we'd take turns hosting a supper for each other. The customary habit was to dust off this Prine tape and slap it in the little stereo. Then, when the girls would enter the room, they could smirk or roll their eyes and say, "John Prine, huh?"
So you could say he was regarded with something approaching frat-boy humour. And to be fair to John, this best-of tape contributed in no small way to this misperception: he was suspiciously verbose during the live tracks, and prone to guffawing at his own jokes, which gave a song like Illegal Smile a dangerous air of authenticity. So, yes: the tape was played in my presence. But the first time I heard John Prine was at the Folk Festival, six years later.
He was the last of a stellar line-up that night. I was lying back and staring at the night sky (as Folk Festival attendees are wont to do) when he finally came onstage. He strummed a bit, then travis-picked an intro to his first song. I can't remember what it was, but when he started singing, I sat bolt upright. His voice had undergone an incredible change since he'd recorded the tape from my college days. I did a little math -- those songs were probably 20 years old by now. The drunken jester I'd expected to see had been replaced by a straight-forward performer with undeniable presence.
I can't recall the songlist from that night, but in my memory it hews closely to the songlist on John Prine Live. Six O'Clock News was close to the beginning of the concert, and when he sang the final verse, I was crying. It's a song about incest, confusion, misplaced desire and trying in vain to play the rotten hand that's been dealt you. In the space of two minutes, the listener is thrown into the song's tragic heart, with a girl, a father, Jimmy, and a town trying to make sense of it all.