On Sunday August 16, 1977, I drove my 1976 Honda Civic east on Kingston Road past Woodbine Avenue with no memory now what I may have been thinking about. I was listening to the radio.
A news flash came on –they didn’t call it ‘breaking’ back then. I don’t know what they called it but they said that Elvis Presley had died at the age of 42. I turned left on Brookside and stopped the car. I looked around and thought that some part of the world had come to an end.
Just a few weeks earlier I had been shopping at Canadian Tire and was able to buy two tape cassettes they called 8-tracks of the ‘King’ singing his greatest hits. The 8-tracks were in a bin where the last chance sales items were kept. Each cost $1.95.
Many had thought that Elvis was washed up and had ceased to be relevant to the music scene. In a way they were right.
But Elvis’s career turned around mightily in death not so much because his music changed in any way but because he was a reference point in our lives. If you wanted the reference point to remain intact, you found a way to play the music of the King.
It was a double blow for a number of reasons.
Both were reference points for me just as Elvis was 43 years earlier. Reference points are reserved for the most important among us.
As a University Student at York University, I lived with John Prine in my head and as an aspiring amateur ‘campground level’ guitarist, I learned all the songs I was capable of playing. I won’t go through an inventory of his lyrics as they will be known well to most fans.
But his haunting lines like: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” so exactly captures the sadness of addiction that it is hard not to see John Prine as a poet laureate to a generation of young people who lived during the end of the war in Viet Nam.
Pat Capponi was of the same generation of both John Prine and I and she chronicled the same truths in prose that Prine put to song.
Here is an offering from a blog that Pat asked me to put on my website in 2012:
“We kept the secrets we were warned to keep. Because we knew we were to blame.
Because no one would believe us.
Some were driven mad by all those secrets. Some medicated the pain with crack or heroin.
Women desperate for rescue, from themselves, from the streets, found themselves with men who continued the abuse, whose fists punished, whose feet kicked ribs and head.
We felt we’d brought that on ourselves, we were stupid, we were trapped, nobody had warned us about the endless cycle of violence that starts the moment someone trusted betrays that trust.
Left to ourselves, never having justice or vengeance, never hearing, you were wronged, we stagger on, from corner to corner, man to man, agency to agency, just another anonymous face in the line-up, for a meal, a coffee, a winter coat.
No safety, no hope, no self-love, no expectations other than the sameness of days.”
John Prine and Pat Capponi both wrote eloquently about despair and I am happy to let you know in this short piece, that Pat was a big fan of John Prine.
In later years, when a number of us decided to get together in the heady days of Ontario’s first poverty reduction strategy, people who were able at least to ‘carry a tune across a room’ as the saying goes, were invited to dust off their instruments and bring them along.
Pat and I always arrived early and it was at one of those early get togethers that Pat said:
“Hey, do you know any John Prine?”
I responded by starting the opening chords to “Hello in There” and Pat sat back with a deep smile. She wasn’t a singer but she sang all the words. Any line I forgot she knew.
These were the great memories of a generation. As Prine sang:
“Memories they can’t be boughten, they can’t be won at carnivals for free”
Pat Capponi and John Prine arrived about the same time and left a day apart.
And whether they actually met or not, I didn’t ask but it doesn’t matter. They knew each other well.