Back in mid-March, when the world was just beginning to shut down as the seriousness of the coronavirus took hold, I started hearing John Prine’s “Hello In There” in my head. I posted a clip of Prine performing the song in 2001 on my Facebook page, but not because I had any premonition of bad tidings for the great American songwriter who died Tuesday.
Prine’s song was on my mind as we first began to brace for COVID-19 because experts were telling us that those most in danger were the elderly and infirm, and people suffering from underlying conditions who just wouldn’t be strong enough to fight off the virus.
And when I think of songs that see the world through the eyes of the forgotten or discounted, I first think of Prine, and particularly, “Hello In There.”
I spent a lot of time in recent years hanging out in the assisted-living facility where my mother lived before she died last January, and I frequently felt like Prine was the good conscience on my shoulder, singing “Hello in There” in my ear.
“You know that old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers grow wilder everyday / Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.' "
It’s the most affecting song of cross-generational empathy that I know, made all the more remarkable because it was included on Prine’s debut album, which came out in 1971 when he was just 24.
And then came Prine’s death from coronavirus complications, at age 73, which hit me hard — because he wrote a lot of songs that I love.
That includes pretty much every song on 1972’s depressed, hilarious, and underrated Diamonds in the Rough, along with the title-track duet with Iris DeMent on 1999′s In Spite of Ourselves, and “Summer’s End” from 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness.
All of them made me laugh and think and feel, pretty much every time I heard them. And that of course is what the music that each of loves most does for us all, and why it can feel like such a personal loss when we lose the people who help give our lives meaning.
Prine’s death came amid a soul-crushing onslaught of musicians lost to this plague — Fountains of Wayne songwriter Adam Schlesinger, at 52; Philadelphia-born producer Hal Willner, at 64; and North Philly raised trumpeter Wallace Roney, at 59; plus the non-corona deaths of “Ain’t No Sunshine” soul singer Bill Withers, at 81; and rapper and model Chynna, only 25.
What terrible times these are.
I’ve written before about music deaths that have come in bunches. The terrible year 2016 opened with David Bowie’s death, and also saw the loss of Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, and Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. Tom Petty died in 2017, Aretha Franklin the next year.
Many musicians live hard lives, always on the road, without health insurance. Heartbreaking accidental drug overdoses like the ones that took Prince and Chynna are tragically not all that uncommon. Cancer, which claimed Sun Ra Arkestra sax player Danny Ray Thompson in March, will continue to take its toll among musicians, as it does in all circles.
Of course, much of the pop music that continues to be the soundtrack of our lives dates back to the 1960s. The people who made it — many of whom continue to tour, when touring is possible — can’t live forever.
News of non-coronavirus deaths at the end of a life well-lived, like Withers’, scare us a little less. We’re relieved that our heroes died in their own time rather than being taken by this virus that threatens us all.
But that doesn’t make his death any easier to take, especially now that his 1972 hit “Lean On Me” is more resonant then ever, with our need for somebody to lean on stymied by an inability to physically do so.
Like Prine, Withers made music of uncommon humanity, and also wrote songs that crossed generational lines, like “Grandma’s Hands.” Questlove called him “the last African American Everyman. He’s the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
For music lovers to lose figures as significant and much-loved as Withers and Prine within a week of one another seems grossly unfair. It’s a good reason to shake your fist at the heavens in rage, even if you know it will do no good, and fear the worst is yet to come.
At least the music that the departed artists made remains. Each gut punch of bad news is accompanied by fans filling up social media feeds with tributes, reminding each other how music shapes and connects us.
In the midst of grief, a simple pop song like the Fountains of Wayne’s “Hey Julie,” with its repeated mantra “I’d never make it through without you around,” can be life-sustaining.