July 14, 1972, Toronto Island, Canada. There were close to 3000 freaks milling around eight scattered stages under a blue steamy sky. A truckload of us had driven down from our commune 90 miles north to partake in the Mariposa Folk Festival. It promised to be quite an affair with the likes of Taj Mahal, Kris Kristoferson, Bonnie Rait, Bucka White, and even Neal Young. It was a musical motherlode to be sure, but for us the main object of this uncommon southern trek was just one guy, His name was John Prine.
John was new on the scene. 25 years old, only one namesake album, But, what an album. It’s like he’d been waiting off stage a for hundred years and then decided it was time to deliver the heavy load he had been carrying, straight and true
Even though he was set up on one of the smaller stages, the crowd was overflowing and uncharacteristically boisterous for a folk event. But the moment he started playing it was like we were all in a little room making quiet respectful space for this little guy and his rough magic. It was just him and his D18 delivering one 3 chord depth charge after another—every line either a gut punch or a belly laugh, sweet and spare and devastating. I think he did most of that first album, Paradise, Angel from Montgomery, Your Flag decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore, and, of course the tune that had compelled me to drop everything just hear him sing it, firsthand, Sam Stone. I bet had listened to Sam Stone 50 times, and, just like that afternoon on the island, it always left me stunned. I confess that it left me frustrated too, because I knew I would never write a song that good.
When he finished, he quietly thanked everyone and slipped of the stage. As people began to peel away, I noticed a diminutive figure near the back of the crowd wearing a kind of serape and a big floppy hat. He stood out because he was moving fast against the flow. It only took me a moment to realize that what had been a pretty sleepy gathering was about to change in a hurry. Within 30 seconds, it seemed that everyone else on the island was moving in the same direction trying to catch a glimpse of the face beneath that ridiculous hat.
I’ll have to admit, it was a little scary, part Gandhi, part Beatles, and I remember thinking, “Jez, it’s a tiny island and there’s absolutely nowhere to go.” The object of all this frenzy must have known this was a possibility because a minute or two later the crowd was crammed up against a breakwater watching the man in the serape and a couple of nervous handlers motoring away through the harbor toward the mainland.
Needless to say, it was an odd and very un-folk festival-like moment, that thankfully gave way to an incredible evening of music and dancing. I suppose it was inevitable that the next day’s newspaper got it all wrong when they focused on the brief mob scene that had ensued. The real story was, was of course, the guy on the stage, which, was why Bobby Zimmerman had abandoned his legendary seclusion to show up ---to hear and pay his respects to the only guy out there who could hold a candle to him.
I cursed and cried when my goddamned phone delivered the news that the plague had taken him. But then I thought, well maybe the truth-teller John Prine had decided he’d had enough of the posturing and lies and obfuscation we’ve all been subjected to lately. So, he just decided to slip off the island to catch a breath of fresh air. Take care John. You will be missed.