Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Singing With a Heart at Least as Big as Avery Fisher Hall

A depressing thing happened at John Prine's concert in Avery Fisher Hall last month. It wasn't a great concert, but that wasn't the problem--Prine is not yet the kind of magnetic performer who guarantees greatness every time out. A guitarist of his limited facility always has trouble drawing in his audience musically without the help of sidemen, and that night his voice, which can sound monotonous at its healthiest, happened to be unusually hoarse. The purpose of the evening was merely to increase the natural attraction between an admiring audience and an engaging songwriter, and the means was simple proximity.

That purpose was accomplished almost automatically--Prine is every bit as likeable on stage as his records make him seem, and his lyrics bear up under repetition. I was enjoying "Pretty Good," my favorite song from the first album, when Prine came to the part about the Arabian rabbi feeding Quaker Oats to the priest: "Pretty good/Not bad/They can't complain/'Cause actually, all them gods are just about the same."

As far as I'm concerned, that's an admirable sentiment admirably expressed. At Avery Fisher Hall, it was also admirably delivered. And almost immediately, a good smattering of earnest young disestablishmentarians expressed their admiration by applauding. The trouble was that they obviously weren't just applauding the line--they were applauding their own wise agreement, as if wisdom were a matter of the correct opinions. I cringed, involuntarily remembering how long I had defended the Vietnam War in reaction against the sanctimoniousness of those who attacked it. Why do good guys have to make such a thing out of being good? How many unfanatics out in the great world beyond Avery Fisher Hall ignore John Prine because his fans are so smug?

Needless to say, most singer-songwriters would give their rhyming dictionaries for such worries. Prine's core audience loves him for the best reasons--he is some kind of genius. His fellow workers may regard his preoccupation with human suffering as gauche or passe, but it's plain that the man has a gift. He seems incapable of uttering a cliche. It is possible to find fault with his music--one critic complains indignantly that 16 out of 19 Prine songs take G tuning--but artistically its simplicity is essential, underlining Prine's commitment to the commonplace. For even though he is eloquent, he is never abstruse and only rarely obscure. This seems to escape many of his admirers.

Like any original artist, Prine is hard to pigeonhole. That's probably why he is so often described as (1) surrealistic and/or (2) political, when in fact his passionate literalness is matched only by his esthetic detachment. Sometimes, his narratives require inferential leaps, and he does have a penchant for the tall song but he never intentionally creates a dream-like atmosphere. He does exhibit compassion, and he does believe that social circumstances affect individual lives, but since he doesn't hint at a program or even protest against constituted authority, he can hardly be called political.

I think of Prine as a realist. His surrealism is simple density--where others generalize, he finds the right word or objet or snatch of behavior, so that the resulting scenes seem unnaturally vivid. And his politics is elementary analysis--he understands emotionally as well as intellectually that the world does not begin and end with him, and he incorporates that understanding into his work. Both common enough artistic virtues, his density and analysis were enough to win him an instant audience in the less-than-virtuous world of popular songwriting.

Prine's success, while moderate so far, has been rapid--his first album appeared about two years ago, remarkably soon after Kris Kristofferson discovered him in a Chicago bar. This is encouraging--it means that there is an audience that not only wants art but recognizes it when it comes along. Unfortunately, that first album offered more art than was necessary. A few of the songs were so highly crafted that their workmanship distracted from their subjects; others were so sharply pointed that they were obvious. "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes," the most famous line from the song about the Vietnam junkie that is often cited as that album's best, seems to me gratuitous and bathetic. I much prefer something on the order of: "Well ya know, she still laughs with me/But she waits just a second too long."

The second album, Diamonds in the Rough, while not as rich as the first, was freer and easier, more confidently sung. It prepared for the third, Sweet Revenge, a seamless masterpiece which may win some of that bigger audience that buys good songs instead of good art. Success has been good for Prine; he is no less realistic these days, but he's a lot funnier. The tendency of singer-songwriters to embrace themselves as their lives are circumscribed by the performing go-round doesn't really hurt Prine. Sweet Revenge includes a classic romp about the music business, "Onomatopeia," but it also creates a lonely convict who remembers his sweetheart because he's got nothing more interesting to remember: "Her heart is as big/As this whole goddamn jail/And she's sweeter than saccharine/At a drugstore sale."

Prine seems to have a heart at least as big as Avery Fisher Hall, and his ego is just big enough. The confidence he has gained in his voice has imbued it with the kind of authority that is a more-than-adequate replacement for musicality. He is the kind of artist whose audience can only get bigger. It is not too much to hope that eventually he will teach them to congratulate themselves only when they have earned the congratulations as certainly as John Prine himself.

N'day, Jan. 20, 1974