I’ve been thinking a lot about John Prine.
A lot of us have been thinking about John Prine, who recently died of complications due COVID-19. There’s part of me that gets angry when I think about his passing, and the passing of everyone who has died of this awful, tragic virus. I can’t help to think that more could have been done to prevent the virus from spreading with such speed and ferocity.
There is another part of me though, a bigger part of me, that is just deeply appreciative of the life that John Prine had, the music he was able to share with us. At 73 years old, Prine had already survived two bouts of cancer, and still toured and recorded regularly.
John Prine’s masterpiece “Angel from Montgomery” has already been featured on 1Perfect Song. Unbelievably, this song was on his very first album. A indication of the amazing career that was to follow.
This time, I want to look at what would become John Prine’s final album, and a perfect capstone to a career filled with sincere reflection and honest, beautifully told stories. The very last song on his very last album, “When I Get to Heaven” is about his death. The song is also a joyous, buoyant celebration of his life. The song, with a wry wink and a smile, also lays out his plans for the afterlife.
We first hear a gentle flourish of the harp, probably what Prine anticipates he will hear when arriving at the fabled Pearly Gates of heaven, and then a single strum of an acoustic guitar, his signature instrument. The first verse is spoken. Prine sounds every bit like the old man he is.
“When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?”
There is a fine tradition of musicians saying goodbye in their music. Sometimes the artist knows their time is short, and they are very purposefully saying farewell in a song (“Keep me in Your Heart While” by Warren Zevon). Other times, a musician is taken unexpectedly. They are gone too soon and too young, and the last music they recorded sometimes, surprisingly, serves as the perfect farewell (“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke).
John Prine did not know that The Tree of Forgiveness, released in 2018 would be his last album, but maybe he did. He had gotten old, and though he had survived lung cancer and then throat cancer, and then this year a hip replacement, the battles must have been debilitating. He seems to be enjoying this moment in time. He seems to be enjoying the exercise of wondering what comes next.
He digs deep and growls out the next word, the first words sung, and then the band kicks in behind him for the chorus, and all of a sudden the song sounds like a wild, raucous celebration.
“And then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town.”
Odds are good that someone who has suffered through both lung and throat cancer has smoked at one time in their life, and if so, that person has probably not smoked for a long time due to cancer treatments. If there is heaven, and we can have what we want in heaven, a nine-mile long cigarette may very well be on top of the list.
At the end of the chorus, the band stops, and we just hear the acoustic guitar alone. But now we hear the quiet noise of children playing in the background. Family. His legacy. We hear John give a very brief sigh of satisfied acknowledgement before speaking out the next verse.
“Then as God as my witness, I’m gettin’ back into show business
I’m gonna open up a nightclub called “The Tree of Forgiveness”
And forgive everybody ever done me any harm
Why, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics
Buy ’em a pint of Smithwick’s and smother ’em with my charm“
Nobody writes like John Prine, and he is going to enjoy heaven. He is going to smoke, he is going to drink, and he is going to get back at those few critics who did not appreciate his artistry and song craft while he was alive. He is going to get back at them in the very best way he can. He’s gonna sit down with them and have a drink.
If there is a heaven, if there is a place we go after our time on this earth is over, we likely have developed some image of what that place will be like. Yes, we want to enjoy all those things we enjoyed while alive, but we also want to see people. Old friends and family. Parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles we have not seen in many years, in some cases since we were children. That idea alone fills up the heart with anticipation, warmth and love.
The things you can do, the people you can see, the time you will have. The celebration chorus has come to an end, and John Prine once again whispers in our ear, as only John Prine can.
“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?
And them I’m gonna go find my mom and dad, and good old brother Doug
Well I bet him and cousin Jackie are still cuttin’ up a rug
I wanna see all my mama’s sisters, ’cause that’s where all the love starts
I miss ’em all like crazy, bless their little hearts
And I always will remember these words my daddy said
He said, “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead pecker-head”
I hope to prove him wrong, that is, when I get to heaven.”
Prine remembers his dad telling him that there is no afterlife. “When you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead.” His dad may have been right, but we all hope that he is proven wrong.
I’ve been thinking a lot about John Prine, and I will miss him. I will miss his honest stories and his beautiful music. I will miss his craggy face, his comfortable voice and sense of humor. I hope he enjoys his cigarette.
There is a wonderful animation video of this song, but for me, nothing takes the place of watching Prine himself perform this song live on stage with his band.
When I Get To Heaven
Written and Performed by John Prine
Released April 13, 2018