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John Prine, Singing Mailman and Bad Boy

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By way of Kate, this note from The Writer’s Almanac: John Prine‘s birthday was Saturday (he turned 64). The almanac contains an anecdote I’d never heard before about how a well-known Chicago movie critic discovered him:

“[Prine] got a job working at the post office in his hometown, and he started playing in coffee shops, but no one paid any attention to him. Then one day, the film critic Roget Ebert went to see a movie that he didn’t like very much, so he walked out of the theater early and headed down the street to get a beer instead. He happened to go to the bar where Prine was playing as background music. And so instead of writing a movie review that week, Ebert wrote a review called “Singing Mailman Delivers the Message,” and suddenly John Prine had a full house every time he played.”

Which is a great story. In fact, here’s the transcript of a long and wonderful live interview Prine gave in which he recounts Ebert’s appearance. But as luck would have it, someone from a music rag called No Depression came along and checked some “facts” and came up with a tale that’s a little different than the one above:

“Movie critic Roger Ebert, who also did some music writing back then, was among the first to call attention to Prine after catching him in October 1970. Legend (with help from Prine) has rewritten the details a bit: Ebert didn’t walk out on a movie to get some popcorn and overhear people talking about this guy from Maywood singing and so headed over to the Fifth Peg. He had heard about Prine — and, he conjectured recently, probably had seen him — before. And the headline over Ebert’s column in the Sun-Times wasn’t the Variety-worthy ‘Singing Mailman Delivers the Message,’ but rather the awkward ‘Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words.’

” ‘He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight,’ wrote Ebert. ‘He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.’ ”

I was hoping to find the original Sun-Times article online, but this is as close as I got. The writing reminds me a lot of Mike Royko’s. Anyway, happy birthday, John Prine, from Berkeley. And in honor of the occasion, here’s the lyrics from “Bad Boy.” It contains one of my all-time favorite lines: “I never thought that now would ever catch up with then.”

I been a bad boy

I been long gone

I been out there

I never phone home

I never gave you not one little clue where I’d been

I’ve been a bad boy again.

I got a way of

Fallin’ in love

With angels that don’t shove

You into thinkin’ that you are committing a sin

I’ve been a bad boy again.
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again

And all the trouble that I’m in

Makes me a bad boy again


I’ve been a bad boy again

Now I’ve been a bad boy again

And all the trouble that I’m in

Makes me a bad boy again

I must have walked ’round

In a real fog

I was your best friend

Now I’m a real dog

I never thought that now

Would ever catch up with then

I’ve been a bad boy again.
I’ve been a bad boy

I sung a wrong song

I took a left turn

I stayed too long

As you were thinkin’ that I wasn’t

Just like all other men

I’ve been a bad boy again.

I’ve been a bad boy again

Now I’ve been a bad boy again

And all the trouble that I’m in

Makes me a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again

Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in

Makes me a bad boy again

That’s copyright John Prine. Used without permission, but in an honest, non-commercial spirit.

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