Rock swirls and moss green
Surrounds chatter and cell phones –
Someone’s missed the point.
Rock swirls and moss green
Surrounds chatter and cell phones –
Someone’s missed the point.
Those who know, know. But those who really know, know John Prine.
And plenty do. The 71-year-old songwriter is touring the U.S. this summer and the cheapest ticket to his Portland show is a handy $107.
Which is as it should be, of course. Prine’s songbook rivals some of far bigger stars – there are few writers who could go toe-to-toe with Springsteen or Young or Petty, song-for-song.
And yet, there’s a feeling that this musician and his songs should and could have been on the same FM playlists as the above named. But, perhaps because of his country arrangements, or wordy (in an intelligent, not a verbose, way) lyrics, or inability to write a song a simple song about a car, a girl, or a hometown, without attaching a razor-sharp edge, he never made it that far.
Not that it matters to those who know. After a battle with cancer in 1998, Prine’s fans have spent the last two decades simply happy that he’s around and touring – and the fact that he’s releasing albums is a bonus.
On the latter note, he’s just released his 20-somethingth album, “The Tree of Forgiveness” (named after a defunct restaurant near Greystones, this Irishman was interested to learn). A quick listen indicates it’s more of the same prime Prine, with a little more mortality thrown this time.
The album is what brings him to Portland this September but – for most of those with tickets for his show – it’s the early songs that will fill the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
His first batch of albums produced an array of Americana (he’s the true owner of that belabored moniker) classics: “Sam Stone”, “Hello In There”, “Angel From Montgomery”, “Souvenirs”, “The Great Compromise”, “The Late John Garfield Blues”. And on, and on.
Today though, I’m listening to his ‘let’s all be decent to each other’ classic, “Everybody”. It’s a song that contains the perfect Prinesian couplet, which when heard to music sums up all the ironic, melodic talent of the man.
“I bumped into the Savior And He said ‘pardon me’.
I said ‘Jesus you look tired’. He said ‘Jesus, so do you’…”
Grey and wet and cabin feverish – in my memory all the rainy afternoons of my childhood holidays merge into one.
Waking on a wet Saturday morning, usually at a grandmother’s house, we would wait and hope, through breakfast and the drizzly morning, over lunch and on into the afternoon, that the rain would stop. By 3pm, after hours of books and board games, and more than a bit dispirited, we would be dragged from the fireplace and out for a spin in my dad’s car.
If we were lucky, the deluge or drizzle would stop. But often it did not, and so another July weekend would be lost to the vagaries of the Irish weather.
The advent of the internet, and a longer concentration span, and my sheer bloody mindedness nowadays when it comes to getting outside and getting soaked, means that a rainy Saturday isn’t the complete write-off it once was.
After moving from one rainy city (Dublin – 29 inches per annum) to another (Portland, Oregon – 36 inches), I’ve finally got used to rain. It’s only taken 40 years.
Just as well, as my wife and I woke to hail, rain, thunder, lightning, and 55mph gusting winds last Saturday. We were visiting our friends’ beach house in Manzanita, Oregon, a very fine property located all of 200 meters from the (very loud and very windswept) Pacific Ocean.
We were away from home. There were no chores to be done, no emails to be checked, or calls placed. My phone was turned off. For the first time in years, I experienced a rainy Saturday on vacation.
What did we do? Well, the same thing I did with my family 30 years ago. We had breakfast, chatted, ate some more, read a bit, watched the fireplace, and read a little more. And ate a bit more. And then we bundled into the car and headed out to the village for a damp stroll.
Plus ça change, as the French say. And pass the sauvignon blanc. The only difference between a rain-soaked Saturday in 2018 and one in 1988 as the occasional adult refreshment, which eased us into the afternoon and, truth be told, into the early evening as well.
How wonderful it was, to sit and sip and chat and attempt another two pages of the ‘Nighttown’ chapter, and then nibble and sip and chat some more. On occasion, I’d even forget the raging tumult flinging torrents of water on the windows. Until the next thunderclap.
Could I do it every weekend? The 10-year-old me from 1988 would probably give you a short, sharp answer to that – which I’d agree with today. But once in a soggy blue moon? Let it rain.
Every morning: gray and speed and signal lights and merging.
Hundreds of cars entering the tunnel every minute.
Thousands of stories, worries, illnesses, joys, and fears –
Speeding through a hillside at 60 miles per hour.
Most of us doing it to earn enough to
Do it all again tomorrow.
I was never a serious runner. At least, I was never as serious as club runners, or marathon runners, or even friends of mine, who are both marathon and club runners (and have the times to prove it).
Instead I am a slogger. At my peak, and the peak of my cartilage, I was managing about 60k a week, running home from Dublin city center to our Raheny apartment five days a week. I never monitored my times, I just ground it out, day in, day out, along the Clontarf Road. In the years before that, I’d do the same around the Phoenix Park.
Then the injuries started. The plantar fasciitis first, followed by the diagnosis of hallux limitus, which became hallux rigidus, all of which I’ve blogged about previously. I kept running, but ran less and moved my workouts to a stationary bike. It wasn’t the same, but at least I could read and listen to music.
As time passed, the runs lessened and the bike work increased. By the start of this year I was shuffling through 5-10k a week, and feeling a long way off the pavement-pounder that I used to be.
This wasn’t helped by a visit to a podiatrist last year, who confirmed my worst fear – that the arthritis in my left big toe needed surgery and the sooner, the better. This has yet to happen, and managing the pain was the single reason for the fall off in my running.
Until last month. On a whim I joined a group of Nike colleagues who’d signed up to run the 5k Shamrock Run in downtown Portland. This mean training, and training meant a return to running. Over the course of February I moved from 5k to 30k, pushing my time down and spending a lot of rest time with an ice pack.
Last Sunday I ran the 5k, pulling in a not-bad time (despite the strollers – baby and human). It was enjoyable on the day, but the prep was even more so. For the first time in a couple of years, I’d accessed that clean, good feeling that – despite the foot pain and the burning chest and the rain and the traffic – reminded me of why I’d often ran 50k a week without blinking.
Over the years I’ve hiked, swum, walked, and cycled, but nothing matches the sweat-soaked, mind-clearing experience that comes of stepping out the front door and going for it. Even if my times aren’t anywhere near the old days.
What’s more, my foot’s holding up. For now.
What’s makes up an emigrant’s St Patrick’s Day?
Wearing green? Hitting the Irish bar(s)? Calling home? Listening to the Six Nations? Or none of the above?
It’s probably the latter for me. The most Irish thing I’ll do today is have a glass of Jameson this afternoon. The most Irish-American thing I’ll do this weekend is the Shamrock Run, a 5k in downtown Portland tomorrow morning, which attracts thousands of participants, many clad in kelly green (one of the 40 shades I’d never heard of until I moved here).
But Portland isn’t Boston or New York or even San Francisco. On a run today I spotted, in the early morning murk, a single tricolor hanging outside a house on NE 33rd Street. Yesterday a couple of colleagues wore green (as did I).
But that is the extent of St Patrick’s Day, for me. I’m tempted to pop into the local Irish bar, which is making the most of the weekend, but it looks like rain, and it’s chilly, and I’ll have to walk the dog later, so I’m not sure.
Not that this represents much change from when I used to live in Dublin. As a journalist, I worked every St Patrick’s Day, negotiating the alcohol-fueled mess of Talbot Street and the DART to get home at the end of the day. I’d wade through thousands of pictures of parades, but never bothered going to one.
Living abroad, I feel more Irish in certain moments than on certain days. A particular light in the evening will remind me of the sky over St Anne’s Park in Raheny, or a damp, clear morning will bring to mind stepping out of my dad’s house on a spring weekend. A Planxty song or a Patrick Kavanagh line or an Irish accent in the coffee shop – all of these prompt a certain small twinge, a reminder of my Irishness.
But I’m not feeling any of this today. Maybe next year, until then – go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís.
“Has it changed much?”
I was asked this question more than once last week by friends I met on a visit to Dublin. I also asked it myself, given that it’s approaching two years since I moved away from the city, and the country.
After spending a couple of days walking the streets, visiting a couple of museums, some old favorite coffee shops and pubs, and just hanging out, my conclusion is simple: Dublin is fast.
The people on the pavements are fast, the cars and – even more so – the buses driving millimeters from the footpath are fast, the service is fast, the conversation is fast. Even the clouds whipping westward over the Liffey in the evening are fast.
Coming from Portland, a similar-sized city, this was an eye-opener. It led to more questions. How did I spend 20 years in Dublin moving at this pace? How was good for my shoes, or my timekeeping, or my digestion? And why have I been bumped off the pavement by two shoulder bags already this afternoon?
I’m 40, but a pretty active 40. I get as much done in a day in Portland as I did in one in Dublin. But I just seem to do it a little less hectically here.
Dubliners might pass the rush off as a symptom of a returned economic boom. But I remember the first one, and it wasn’t this busy around town.
The pace had its advantages though. Because of – or perhaps borne upon – the throngs of people I managed to knock off two museums, three bookstores, two coffee shops, a couple of restaurants and four pubs within a day or two, with plenty of time left over to gaze on at the city’s energy.
Could I do this every day, day after day, like I did in when I worked and lived in the city center, rarely venturing outside the canals for weeks at a time? Maybe. But that urge has gone – I’ll leave Dublin to the thousands and thousands of people, both younger and older than me, who still have an appetite for it.
For now, I’ll keep moving a pace or two slower, even if it means a five-minute wait for an americano or feeling duty-bound to let two cars zip merge instead of one. It’s not you, it’s me, Dublin. Right now I’m afraid I might slow you down.
Walking on New Year’s morning
and what’s changed? The sun still rises,
The pavement is the same damp concrete,
And the 8 bus creeps across Ainsworth, as it always does.
A new year? Well, the dogs go on with their doggy ways,
A car engine starts, the leaves lie in same piles, and Portland wakes
Like Portland always wakes.
Renewal, rebirth, starting anew – I don’t feel much of all that
In this morning half hour.
The clocks have not been reset. Things tick on, good, bad, indifferent.
And what’s wrong with this?
Fifty-five years ago a man sat in a diner somewhere in the United States, pulled a book from his pocket, and inscribed a short, touching note to his daughter on the first page.
As he did so, did it occur to him that a person not yet born, in another place in another century, would one day read his words? Or that the book he inscribed would travel from that counter top on a journey that would see it end up, in 2017, on the shelves of a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon?
“Anne,” the man writes, “waiting for lunch in the Olympic Grill I have been looking through this book I just bought, and it is so much your book that I have decided to give it to you, even though it isn’t Christmas or birthday or even Easter.”
He signs off with a simple, “Dad”.
Whatever became of Anne? Or her father? Were they close, a dad and daughter who knew each other well enough to know that one would enjoy the Dylan Thomas book that the other had just bought?
Or were they distant, or becoming so? Is the absence of a sign-off simply the sign of a less emotionally-open age, or a clue to their relationship?
Re-reading the note, as I stood between the shelves in Powell’s this week, I wondered how far the book had traveled. I can’t locate an Olympic Grill in Portland in 1955. Perhaps the man sat in the still extant Kelly’s Olympian, nearby in downtown Portland, or in another establishment in another part of the country.
The place is likely gone, like the man himself and, quite possibly, his daughter. But his small gesture remains, on the opening page of a crumbling $5 book that – perhaps because of the note inside – I couldn’t bring myself to buy.
“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin. I hope that I held a small piece of it that afternoon.