Just for the record: Oh boy, it’s heaven and angels for ‘new ...

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Just for the record: Oh boy, it’s heaven and angels for ‘new Dylan’

John Prine succumbs to Covid-19, Universal releases Cat Stevens’s first two albums and Edikanfo could tour

Andrew Donaldson
John Prine.
covid casualty John Prine.
Image: Ron Baker Wikipedia Commons

Another column, another Covid-19 casualty, this time John Prine, a singer-songwriter whose often witty songs offered a sly but heartfelt insight into his middle American roots.

The musician, who died on April 7, never had any hits of his own, but his songs were recorded by a long list of well-respected artists, many of them no slouch when it came to writing their own material. Among them were Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Bette Midler, Dwight Yoakam, George Strait and Kris Kristofferson, who was instrumental in launching his career. 

After a two-year stint in the US Army, Prine settled in Chicago, where he worked as a postman by day and slowly earned a reputation as a songwriter on the folk music circuit at night. Kristofferson was among those who recognised his talent and invited him to play a few songs at one if his New York shows, where he was spotted by an Atlantic Records executive who offered him a recording contract the next day.

Prine’s self-titled debut was released in 1971.

It was a revelation upon its release, a mixture of deceptively simple folk, rock and country tunes that are now considered standards: Paradise, Far From Me, Illegal Smile, Hello In There, Sam Stone, Donald and Lydia, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore and Angel From Montgomery.

Bonnie Raitt and John Prime at the 18th Americana Honors and Awards ceremony in 2019.

With their easy vocal delivery and wry singing style, they did much to earn Prine the now greatly derided “New Dylan” label that has been attached to any number of singer-songwriters new on the scene.

The cover of John Prine's eponymous album.
WRY SONGS The cover of John Prine's eponymous album.
Image: Supplied

Prine didn’t think much of the label and nor did he think there was any great need for a new Dylan, seeing the old Dylan was still around. He did, however, get to hang out with Dylan just before the release of that debut album. In 2018, he told The Oxford American magazine that he’d gone with Kristofferson to Carly Simon’s New York apartment, when Dylan unexpectedly turned up. After an hour or so, a guitar was passed around and guests started singing songs. After Dylan sang George Jackson, a tribute to the slain Black Panther leader he had recorded earlier in the week, Prine began singing Far From Me.

“And around the second chorus,” Prine said, “Bob starts singing along. I almost fell off my seat. My record’s not out for another two months. Turns out [Atlantic boss] Jerry Wexler had sent him an advance copy. Bob knew the words already! The entire time that first meeting, I felt like I was in a dream. Except for Kris I had never met anybody whose records I owned.” 

Then another guest turned to Dylan and said: “Hey Bob, there’s some people back in Chicago that think John Prine sounds like you. What do you think?” Dylan looked at him, and then turned to Prine. “The first time I heard your record,” he said, “I thought you’d swallowed a Jew’s harp.” Prine thought this hilarious.

Dylan was more effusive after his death. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” he said in a statement. “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about Sam Stone, the soldier junkie daddy, and Donald and Lydia, where people make love from 10 miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”

John Prine (Atlantic) is sadly out of print and the album now trades at a hefty price among collectors. Hopefully it will be reissued soon. Prine’s follow-up albums reveal that the debut was no fluke and that, as a songwriter, he had plenty more where that came from. Recommended albums here include Sweet Revenge and Bruised Orange. But any of Prine’s albums for Atlantic are worth hanging onto.

In 1980, he formed his own label, Oh Boy Records, and continued to release a string of well-received albums. The big breakthrough came with 1991’s Grammy-winning The Missing Years (Oh Boy), which featured guest appearances from Bruce Springsteen, Raitt and, on the album’s single, Picture Show, Tom Petty. The album was Prine’s biggest commercial success, selling 250,000 copies.

'Picture Show' by John Prine, featuring Tom Petty, from the album 'The Missing Years'.

It was released on vinyl in 2013 and then again in 2017.

John Prine's 'The Missing Years' album.
DYLANESQUE John Prine's 'The Missing Years' album.
Image: Supplied

In 1998, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, with the cancer forming on the right side of his neck. At the time he was working on an album of country standards with his “favourite” female singers, which he completed after surgery. In Spite of Ourselves (Oh Boy), released in 1999, was a collection of well-chosen covers (and one original), with contributions from Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Connie Smith, Melba Montgomery, Dolores Keane, Fiona Prine and Iris DeMent. Though a covers album, it ranks as one of Prine’s best, a scrapbook of classic songs interpreted by some of the genre’s best female vocalists. It was issued on vinyl in 2016 and reissued last year.

Released in 1999, John Prine's 'In Spite of Ourselves' was a collection of well-chosen covers.
TAKE A LISTEN Released in 1999, John Prine's 'In Spite of Ourselves' was a collection of well-chosen covers.
Image: Supplied

In 2016 Prine released a follow-up to In Spite of Ourselves, another classic covers set titled For Better, Or Worse (Oh Boy), which featured contributions from Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, Susan Tedeschi, Lee Ann Womack, Kathy Mattea and DeMent. This time, Prine’s weaknesses as a singer were evident. He was nearly 70 when he recorded the album and a recent brush with lung cancer, as well as the earlier cancer in the neck, were taking their toll. But he spun out his limitations to their best advantage, coming across as an old rascal with these songs, while his female partners gave their all.

John Prine's 'For Better, or Worse'.
JUST FOR LAUGHS John Prine's 'For Better, or Worse'.
Image: Supplied

Prine returned to the studio in 2018 to record The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy), his first set of original songs since 2005. The album, which included guest appearances from Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, was a critical and commercial success, rising to number five on the Top 200 US album charts, number two on the country album charts and number one on the folk album charts. 

'The Tree of Forgiveness' was released in 2018.
LAst song 'The Tree of Forgiveness' was released in 2018.
Image: Supplied

It was Prine’s last album. Upon its release, critic Mark Deming wrote: “The man looking out from the cover of The Tree of Forgiveness is 71 years old and just a bit worse for wear. He clearly has his wits about him, but he probably has little use for wasting time or needless effort. He’s been around the block a few times, and has some stories to tell if you’re willing to sit down and listen.” 

THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION

Last month, Universal Music reissued the first two Cat Stevens albums, Matthew & Son and New Masters, on 180g vinyl with fully restored artwork after some tweaking of the original master tapes at Abbey Road Studios in London. While they do provide some insight into the humble origins of one of the UK’s best singer-songwriters, these LPs are probably of interest only to the most committed of fans. 

True, there were initial chart successes. The title track of the 1967 debut, Matthew & Son (Deram), was a hit single and earned Stevens teen pop-idol status. To capitalise on his success, New Masters (Deram) was rush-released the same year. While this album featured The First Cut is the Deepest, his best-known song from this period and a huge hit for young soul singer PP Arnold, New Masters was a musically uneven, unhappy record and it was clear Stevens was bitterly disappointed with the sculpted, “Carnaby Street” pop direction his producer, Mike Hurst, wanted him to follow, and was hankering for something more artistically “honest” from his career.

Then, in early 1968, Stevens contracted tuberculosis, which effectively ended his career as a teen idol. He was bedridden for a year and during his convalescence wrote about 40 of the introspective folkish tunes with which he relaunched his career. After hawking around demo tapes, he was signed to Island Records, which in 1970 and 1971 released in succession the three best albums in his catalogue, Mona Bone Jakon, Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser & The Firecat.

Cat Stevens's 'Mono Bone Jakon' is one of the three best albums in his catalogue.
FOLK SINGING Cat Stevens's 'Mono Bone Jakon' is one of the three best albums in his catalogue.
Image: Supplied

The first of these, Mona Bone Jakon, opened with his first single for Island, Lady D’Arbanville, a madrigal-influenced song about his former girlfriend, the teenage model and actress Patti D’Arbanville.

The two met at a party near the end of the singer’s recuperation and dated over the course of the next year. The affair petered out with D’Arbanville unwilling to commit to a serious relationship at the expense of her burgeoning international career. She was on assignment in the US when she first heard the song.

With 'Tea For The Tillerman' and 'Teaser & The Firecat', Stevens reconciled his philosophical interests with his musical instincts.
TREE PARTY With 'Tea For The Tillerman' and 'Teaser & The Firecat', Stevens reconciled his philosophical interests with his musical instincts.
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“I just have to be by myself for a while to do what I want to do,” she later commented. “It’s good to be alone sometimes. Look, Steven [the singer’s given name is Steven Georgiou] wrote that song when I left for New York. I left for a month, it wasn’t the end of the world was it? But he wrote this whole song about ‘Lady D’Arbanville, why do you sleep so still?’ It’s about me dead. So while I was in New York, for him it was like I was lying in a coffin ... he wrote that because he missed me, because he was down ... It’s a sad song. I cried when I heard it, because that’s when I knew it was over for good.”

Mona Bone Jakon was dominated by images of death and consumption — understandable, given that the TB had nearly killed Stevens — but it was also about survival and hope. The songs set the template for what could be described as bedsit-rock. They were simple, folk and blues outings, but with an earnest interiority and world-weariness seldom found in pop. With the two follow-ups, Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser & The Firecat, Stevens successfully reconciled his philosophical interests with his musical instincts.

Cat Stevens converted to Islam in December 1977, ending the second stage of his career.
SIDEWALK SONGS Cat Stevens converted to Islam in December 1977, ending the second stage of his career.
Image: Supplied

With the latter, he experimented with a certain exoticism, like singing in Greek and introducing bouzoukis into the mix, that come to the fore in later “experimental” work, but overall the love songs continued to find their mark in their simple and plaintive forms. Listening to these records again, it’s not hard to imagine the armies of teenage girls, alone in their bedrooms, lost in heartache and yearning.

On a less romantic note, Stevens explained, in a 1972 interview, that the title of that first album in this trilogy, “Mona Bone Jakon, is another name for my penis. It’s the name I give it. It’s not some sort of secret vocabulary, it’s just something I made up.” Other successful releases followed, but none of them matched the simple charm of these three. Stevens converted to Islam in December 1977, changing his name to Yusuf Islam, thus ending the second stage of his career.

VITAL REISSUE DEPT

If at first you fail, why not fail again? And so it was in December 1981, when a young Ghanaian air force officer, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, staged his second military coup in just more than two years. With his first, in 1979, he unseated a government led by ageing generals, had them shot and reinstalled a civilian government. However, he didn’t like the way that turned out, and so had a second bash at it, and Ghana returned to military rule, with Rawlings and his military junta holding the reins of power.

Democracy wasn’t the only victim of this putsch. The lockdown that came with it also snuffed out the career of a promising Afro-funk outfit, Edikanfo. The group had just recorded its debut album, The Pace Setters (Editions EG), an exuberant collection of tight, horn-driven West African high life fused with western dance floor grooves. All things considered, the future looked very rosy for the eight musicians.

Edikanfo's 'The Pace Setters' is being reissued.
COMEBACK Edikanfo's 'The Pace Setters' is being reissued.
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The album was produced by Brian Eno, who really didn’t have much to do in the studio other than press the recording button. But the Eno imprimatur was the cherry on top of what seemed a very exciting cake. At the time, Eno was riding a wave of critical acclaim after his work with Talking Heads for their Remain in Light (Sire) album and his prescient transglobal mash-up collaboration with David Byrne, My Life in The Bush of Ghosts (Sire).

Such was the anticipation surrounding The Pace Setters album that the Ghanaian authorities, eager to promote the country’s culture abroad, had agreed to underwrite Edikanfo’s first European tour. All that changed with the coup. The junta withdrew all funding for such activity and the tour was abruptly scrapped. What’s more, the curfews imposed by Rawlings killed the country’s once-thriving live music scene and the group had no alternative but to break up, its members emigrating to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Four decades on, and Glitterbeat, a German world music record label, is to reissue The Pace Setters next month in a new edition with liner notes by Eno. Interest in reissue has resulted in the surviving members of Edikanfo reuniting in the studio to record a follow-up album and it’s reported that the cancelled tour is being rescheduled, too.

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