The Suicide of Sam Stone: Remembering All Our Fallen Soldiers

 John Prine’s song “Sam Stone” tells the story of a soldier who comes home from Vietnam, a wounded warrior.  Not only is he physically injured, he is also psychologically and spiritually consumed.

And the time that he served,  

Had shattered all his nerves,  

And left a little shrapnel in his knee.   

But the morphine eased the pain,  

And the grass grew round his brain,  

And gave him all the confidence he lacked,  

With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.

We then see the terrible impact of Sam’s wounds on his family as the chorus shifts from a third-person narrative to a plaintive first-person plea from the perspective of Sam’s child.

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,  

Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.  

Little pitchers have big ears,  

Don’t stop to count the years,  

Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.  

Mmm….

Sam’s addiction leaves him ill-equipped to face the demands as a worker and father.

Sam Stone’s welcome home  

Didn’t last too long.  

He went to work when he’d spent his last dime  

And Sammy took to stealing  

When he got that empty feeling  

For a hundred dollar habit without overtime.   

And the gold rolled through his veins  

Like a thousand railroad trains,

And eased his mind in the hours that he chose,  

While the kids ran around wearin’ other peoples’ clothes…

Ultimately, this wounded warrior chooses to end his struggle.

Sam Stone was alone  

When he popped his last balloon  

Climbing walls while sitting in a chair  

Well, he played his last request  

While the room smelled just like death  

With an overdose hovering in the air  

But life had lost its fun  

And there was nothing to be done  

But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill  

For a flag draped casket on a local heroes’ hill.

On this Memorial Day, it is important we remember all those who have given up their lives in the service of our country.  Some died (and are dying) while fighting on a military battlefield.  Some died (and are dying) fighting the effects of war in the battlefield of their mind.  My prayer for each of them, as well as for those they’ve left behind is,

“God rest your soul.”

 

Veterans Suicide Help‎   (800) 273-8255

Caregivers of Wounded Warriors SparkTeam from Torrey Shannon in Caregiver Resources

Roger Ebert on John Prine, The Singing Mailman Who Delivers

Roger Ebert. Click on the picture to check our catalog.

When John Prine was still working for the U.S. Postal Service, performing on the weekends at “The Fifth Peg” in Chicago, a certain ambitious movie critic named Roger Ebert happened to drop by the bar and listen to his set.

After the show, he quickly sat down at his typewriter and cranked out a review he called, “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words”.  You can find the review (as well as some Prine video performances) on Ebert’s blog as the post – John Prine: American Legend.

To give you just a taste, here are some snippets –

He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. 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.

He does a song called “The Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues,” for example, that says more about the last 20 years in America than any dozen adolescent acid-rock peace dirges. It’s about a guy named Sam Stone who fought in Korea and got some shrapnel in his knee.

But the morphine eased the pain, and Sam Stone came home “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.” That’s Sam Stone’s story, but the tragedy doesn’t end there. In the chorus, Prine reverses the point of view with an image of stunning power:

“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm

Where all the money goes…”

Prine’s songs are all original, and he only sings his own. They’re nothing like the work of most young composers these days, who seem to specialize in narcissistic tributes to themselves. He’s closer to Hank Williams than to Roger Williams, closer to Dylan than to Ochs. “In my songs,” he says, “I try to look through someone else’s eyes, and I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message.”

I ran across this review on Ebert’s blog (in February 22 of this year, almost 25 years after it was written).  I was inspired to respond with an allusion to another Prine song called “Spanish Pipedream” –

I first discovered John Prine on television, of all places, as I saw his PBS documentary in December of 1982. 

I responded by blowing up my TV, going out and picking up a topless lady with something up her sleeve.   We moved to the country where we eat peaches and raise children who all find Jesus on their own.

I appreciated the review, Mr. Ebert.  Keep up the good work.  Maybe someday you’ll get discovered, too, and you can quit your day job.

photo of Roger Ebert from Kendra in Illinois Authors)

Awesome Blog Content Award (or, “A John Prine Primer: An Alphabetic Soundtrack of My Life”)

abc award

I was nominated for the Awesome Blog Content (ABC) Award by djmatticus of the matticus kingdom.

The terms of acceptance are to write something relevant about myself for every letter of the alphabet and to nominate others (see bottom).  I was intrigued by the challenge.  And, as I established before, I am an awards hog.  The following is a “Prine Primer” – an alphabetical soundtrack (sorry no X, V, or Z) of my life (with links to videos).  If you’d like complete lyrics, visit the John Prine Shrine.

All the Best

I wish you love
And happiness
I guess I wish you
All the best
I wish you don’t
Do like I do
And ever fall in love with
Someone like you…

Bottomless Lake

Here’s the story of a man and his  family
And a big trip that they took
Well, I heard all about in a restaurant
And I read it in a history book
They rented a car at the Erie Canal
But the car didn’t have no brake
Said Ma to Pa “My God this car”
“Is gonna fall into the Bottomless Lake”…

Common Sense

You can’t live together
You can’t live alone
Considering the weather
Oh my, how you’ve grown
From the men in the factories
To the wild kangaroo
Like those birds of a feather
They’re gathering together
And feeling
Exactly like you…

Dear Abby

 Dear Abby, Dear Abby
My feet are too long
My hair’s falling out and my rights are all wrong
My friends they all tell me that I’ve no friends at all
Won’t you write me a letter, Won’t you give me a call
Signed Bewildered…

Everything is Cool

Everything is cool
Everything’s okay
Why just before last Christmas
My baby went away…

Far From Me

…And the sky is black and still now
On the hill where the angels sing
Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle
Looks just like a diamond ring
But it’s far, far from me..

Grandpa Was a Carpenter

…Grandpa was a carpenter
He built houses stores and banks
Chain smoked Camel cigarettes
And hammered nails in planks
He was level on the level
And shaved even every door
And voted for Eisenhower
‘Cause Lincoln won the war…

He Was in Heaven Before He Died

There’s a rainbow of babies
Draped over the graveyard
Where all the dead sailors
Wait for their brides
And the cold bitter snow
Has strangled each grassblade
Where the salt from their tears
Washed out with the tide…

It’s a Big Old Goofy World

Up in the morning
Work like a dog
Is better than sitting
Like a bump on a log
Mind all your manners
Be quiet as a mouse
Some day you’ll own a home
That’s as big as a house…

Just the Other Side of Nowhere

I’ve come from just the other side of no-where,
To this big time lonesome town.
They got a lotta ice an’ snow here,
Half as cold as all the people I’ve found…

Killing the Blues

Leaves were falling just like  embers
In colors red and gold they set us on fire
Burning just like a moonbeam
In our eyes…

Late John Garfield Blues

…An old man sleeps with his conscience at night
Young kids sleep with their dreams
While the mentally ill sit perfectly still
And live through life’s in-betweens…

My Darlin’ Hometown

Far away over the sea
There’s a river that’s calling to me
That river she runs all around
The place that I call my hometown…

New Train

Full blown silence in an empty room
A former bride and a former groom
A folding table and a folding chair
A folded hand of poker there
All new directions must go everywhere
Big round people in a cool little square
You can’t cut it with a boat or a plane
Man it’s gonna take a new train…

Often is a Word I Seldom Use

…I’m cold and I’m tired
and I can’t stop coughing
long enough to tell you all of the news
I’d like to tell you
that I’ll see you more often
but often is a word I seldom use
often is a word I seldom use…

Paradise

…And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away…

Quiet Man

Strolling down the highway with my shoes in my hand
I don’t talk much I’m a quiet man
Beauty and silence both run deep
And running like crazy while you are asleep…

Rocky Mountain Time

…Christ I’m so mixed up and lonely
I can’t even make friends with my brain
I’m too young to be where I’m going
But I’m too old to go back again…

Souvenirs

…Broken hearts and dirty windows
Make life difficult to see
That’s why last night and this mornin’
Always look the same to me…

Take the Star Out of the Window

…Robert was a sailor
For the best years of his life
His captain was his mother
And the ocean was his wife
Only fresh out of the cradle
Life’s one and only spring
He was sworn to do his duty
And got blood on his high school ring…

Unwed Fathers

From a teenage lover, to an unwed mother
Kept undercover, like some bad dream
While unwed fathers, they can’t be bothered
They run like water, through a mountain stream

Way Down

…Spring is just a smile away
Laughing at a summer day
Turn around  Look at fall
Winter, hear my lonely call…

You Got Gold

Is there ever enough space between  us
To keep us both honest and true?
Why is it so hard just to sit in the yard.
And stare at the sky so blue?
I’ve got a new way of walking and a new way of talking
Honey when I’m around you,
But it gives me the blues when I’ve got some good news
And you’re not there to bring it to….

Nominees:

       Charm City Jukebox

       Bottomless Lake:  “If you should make  a mistake in the bottomless lake, you may never see your sweetheart again.”  – John Prine.

       justysir: Music, mostly

      Inspired Freelancing: Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever.

      You Hear That?!

      Paws for Thought: A diary of being a guide dog owner in Ireland.

      Mellotone70Up Blog

      The Temenos Journal: I seek, therefore I am.

      The Yogi Rock: it’s easier in mars.

      Big Blue Dot Y’all: politics, ethics, culture, diversity, feminism, economics, good news, bad news & news from around the planet–straight out of Nashville.

      Meadow Muffins of the Mind: The droppings of some guy’s imagination.

      Meanwhile, at the Manse: Retrieving and renovating a childhood home.

      Cave of Fame: Digging through the relics of rock music.

      The Midnight Tracker: Vintage vinyl, one side at a time.

Discovering John Prine: A Memoir of a Muse

I went to Hanover College convinced of my brilliance, driven to succeed, ambitious to learn.  My brain was a sponge – filled with living water, yet ready to absorb more.  My professors took great efforts to first wring me dry.  My acting professor sat me down the last day of class and told me I would get a C -.

“Someone has told you you are a good actor, right?”

I just looked at him.

“Well, they were wrong.”

I did better in other classes, but it came at a cost.  My mind reeled from the politically and socially packed critique of my orthodox thinking that made up a liberal arts education.  “Question authority,” was the mantra.   “But what do you replace it with?”  I wondered.

I was home alone late one night flipping through the 4 TV channels, hoping for divine guidance.

It came in the form of a folk singer from Maywood, Illinois – John Prine.  PBS was doing a documentary on his life and music and I was immediately captivated.  Prine’s songs were poetic stories with profound meaning.

John Prine

He sang of a Vietnam War veteran.  “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, where all the money goes.”

He sang of growing old.  “You know that old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers grow wilder every day.  Old people just grow lonesome waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there.  Hello.'”

He sang of lost love, “Blue umbrella rests upon my shoulder, hides the pain while the rain makes up my mind.  Well, my feet are wet from thinking this thing over and it’s been so long since I felt the warm sunshine just give me one good reason and I promise I won’t ask you any more just give me one extra season so I can figure out the other four.”

But he didn’t just diagnose the problems of life, he playfully suggested solutions.  “Blow up your TV throw away your paper.  Go to the country, build you a home.  Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches.  Try and find Jesus on your own.”

Over my college and grad school years, I accumulated and devoured everything John Prine produced.  I saw him in concert 6 times.  I wrote theology papers based on his songs.  On my way to surgery once, I insisted on listening to his music through headphones on the operating table.

It’s been over 30 years now since I first discovered John Prine.  His music still means a great deal to me.  I don’t accept his worldview uncritically.  Some of his unorthodox theology makes me cringe.  But his understanding of the human condition and ability to bring words to life in song keep me coming back to him for inspiration.

For someone weighed down by deep regret and racked with terrible guilt over sins real and imagined, Prine’s words in the song “Fish and Whistle” are a liberating refrain –

“Father forgive us for what we must do.  You forgive us; we’ll forgive you.  We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue.  Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven.”

(image of John Prine from Mark Bush in Images)

An Angelic Call; A Luminescent Fall: Dan McCormick’s “Sandy and Creole”

I’ve been moving in slow motion this week, weighed down by a nasty chest cold and a general spiritual malaise that has stifled my creative output.

I did find some solace and a spark of energy not from my own creativity, but from the poetry-in-song of a young man named Dan McCormick.  Dan is a senior at Hanover College, looking to pursue a career in writing.  He has performed in various theater productions and produced two musical albums (which can be accessed and downloaded free here).

Dan tells stories in his songs with word pictures that are vivid and non-sentimental.  His songs are succinct (most under 3 minutes) and they avoid clichés and easy resolution.  They are vignettes, or, as in the title of his second album, “devotions” of a young man looking for the best in life but not afraid of the worst.

One song that really grabbed me as I listened to Dan’s work is called, “Sandy and Creole” which sings of two distinct young women – one, a starry-eyed debutante – the other, a pill-popping femme fatale.  Through the wonder of the narrator, we fall in love with both of them.  The song works on a literal level – describing two alluring young women, but also philosophically, as we are drawn to both the idealism of Sandy and the nihilism of Creole.

I encourage you to hear Dan’s version of “Sandy and Creole” (by clicking on the title).  If you want to follow the lyrics, they are listed below.

 

Devotions cover art

Sandy says that best friends will never grow apart,

and she makes faces at the clouds.

She cuts pretty pictures out of magazines,

and if it rains we watch T.V. without a sound.

 

Creole fills her pockets with cigarettes and pills,

curing boredom with anything she can.

She says, “You can find your answer in the melody.

Forget the rest—it all means nothin’, man!”

 

And Sandy says she’s gonna be a star.

She says, “I’ve got this debutante thing down.”

Creole says, “I don’t care if I don’t have any money.”

And she sobers up and drives back into town.

 

Sandy gives me chewing gum and giggles all the time,

and we lay in circles in the grass.

She says we’re perfect just the way we are,

and she wonders how we can make the summer last.

 

Creole pulls my jacket off and takes me by the arm,

and we dance like feathers in the air.

I can see her busted up and smiling,

tumbled over with blood in her hair.

 

And Sandy says, “Tell me all your dreams.

Can’t you hear that sweet angelic call?”

Creole says, “God is dead, so let’s get drunk instead,

and we’ll celebrate our luminescent fall.”

My Top 10 Anti-Resolutions for 2013

10.  I will not eat the food left over in my refrigerator from our Thanksgiving meal.

Time to clean out the work fridge.

(from akeg, some rights reserved)

9.  I will not go to the Super Bowl, sit behind the goal post and wave a placard with “Habbakuk 2:16b” on it.

 { “Now it is your turn! Drink and let your nakedness be exposed…”}

8.  I will not personally disprove the Big Bang theory.

church sign

(from mikecogh, some rights reserved)

7.  I will not hide shoes behind books in the Goodwill store so I can get them for half-price on the first Saturday of the month.

goodwill sign

(from revger, some rights reserved)

6.  I will not petition the Vatican to make folk singer John Prine a saint.  He has been divorced and remarried (at least once).  He is not Roman Catholic.  And neither am I.

john prine

(from wfuv, some rights reserved)

5.  I will not react so enthusiastically to my discovery of what “meggins” are that I go out and buy some.  (see Matt Robb’s post)

tight pants

(from Tricia Wang 王圣捷, some rights reserved)

4.  I will not enter any writing contest where the entry fee exceeds the top prize.

writing contest

(from thepocnews, some rights reserved)

3.  I will not comment on a blog post written by a woman grieving the sudden death of her husband by correcting her grammar.  (Or, asking her out on a date.)

i (I)  m (am) so sad(.) he (He) wus (was)my life.

2.  I will not use parentheses excessively…

(unless I absolutely must whisper something in the reader’s ear.)

1.  I will not pursue a Marketing Internship for the Hoosier Lottery (though I may submit the slogan “Be a Real Loser – Play the Lottery” for free).

lottery

(from chicagogeek, some rights reserved)

 

(Inspired by a writing prompt from Today’s Authors)