Thursday, January 22, 2009

All About the D-I-V-O-R-C-E

CATEGORY: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
John Prine
ALBUM: Bruised Orange
YEAR/LABEL: 1978, Asylum

These songs are so depressing you're going to have to give out a razor blade with each record.
(Bruised Orange producer Steve Goodman)

Divorce has become so commonplace in American life and popular culture (especially country music) that it is easy to forget that it is frequently a traumatic experience for those going through the process. Thankfully, John Prine came along and jolted everyone back into reality regarding how painful getting a divorce can be for the parties involved. In 1977 Prine discovered this fact when his first marriage ended. In a funk, he did what a number of songwriters have done through the years: turned his pain into art. He then took his heartache into the studio with best friend Steve Goodman in the producer's chair and emerged with his masterpiece album, Bruised Orange.

The singular theme of Bruised Orange is unmistakable. Prine's grief pours out of nearly every song. He cites "an ill wind" that "blew your picture right out of the picture frame" in "Crooked Piece of Time" and says that during the divorce proceedings "the grudge wouldn't budge" in "There She Goes." Even when he attempts to put on a game face ("If You Don't Want My Love") and shrug off his divorce ("Well I thought she'd never leave" he claims early in "There She Goes") his emotions betray him. The songs that apparently have nothing to do with the theme still imply that Prine is not a happy man: Sabu is, after all, visiting the Twin Cities alone, and the hobo is "free to wander" again because there is no wife tying him down. The "father forgive us for what we must do" line in the superficially upbeat "Fish and Whistle" comes out sounding like a confessional plea about ignoring church prohibitions against divorce, and later in the song he makes "a big wish that we never have to do this again."

The centerpiece of the album is "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)," a magnificent mixture of music and lyrics that serves as a somber reminder that divorce is, as Tammy Wynette once famously spelled, "Pure H-E-double-L." The song starts with Prine's simple strum of an electric guitar as he recounts an event from his youth: an altar boy, taking a shortcut on railroad tracks when walking to church one Sunday morning, was run down by a train.

As Prine moves to the chorus, where he tries to warn people (and remind himself -- he says, "So help me, I know" after doling out his advice) to not "get mad and get madder" because "a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter," an organ plays in the background as if performing at a funeral. It is quickly obvious that the funeral is not for the altar boy but Prine's marriage.

Prine tries to recall the love's happier moments during the second verse when he fell in love and "my head shouted down to my heart 'you'd better look out below.'" By the end of the verse, however, the short drop "from the diamonds in the sidewalk to the dirt in the gutter" has happened. The love is gone, leaving only "those bruises to remind you wherever you go."

After the chorus and an increasing musical interlude (complete with a mournful steel guitar), Prine repeats the first verse, and this time it is apparent that Prine, not the altar boy, is the victim. Prine connects his heart, stuck "in the ice house," to the accident he witnessed as a teenager, indicating that he, too, was hit by a train he did not see coming: the divorce express.

The punch of the song does not end when Prine finishes singing. The song concludes with Jim Rothermel playing a saxophone solo as powerful as the lyrics because it reinforces everything Prine has said. Rothermel's performance is exquisite, perfect for the tone of the song. Rarely has an instrumental performance spoken so loudly. The saxophone sounds like a person wailing, painting a visual (especially with the background vocals as the song ends) that family and friends are filing past the casket as they pay their last respects to a love that once was.

John Prine's long career has been filled with exceptional music and very personal music. The two never melded so well together as in this song.


The entire Bruised Orange album -- no razor blades included, just some of the best music John Prine ever made. From start to finish, this album is a gem.
"Diamonds in the Rough" (from Diamonds in the Rough) -- proof that the human voice is the greatest instrument on earth is here in the Carter Family song performed a cappella so amazingly that producer Arif Mardin can be heard at the end over the studio speaking commenting, "Fantastic." Mardin's remark is an understatement.
"Souvenirs" (from Diamonds in the Rough; different versions on John Prine Live and Great Days) -- Prine said he wrote this quickly in his car on the way to a club to play in 1970. The pain of graveyards, old pawn shops, and old love letters he hastily composed that night endures to this day.
"Onomatopoeia" (from Sweet Revenge) -- the title and great rhyme ("Onomatopoeia, I don't wanna see ya") is enough to sell this song, but the true joy is the scathing commentary on the music business that Prine, once hailed as "the new Bob Dylan" by those industry pundits, lays out.
"Sam Stone" (from John Prine) -- one of the most powerful songs ever written about veterans. This ranks right up there with Johnny Cash's "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" for emotional impact. This is an incredibly difficult song to listen to, but it should not be missed.
"Paradise" (from John Prine) -- the story of a town literally strip mined off the face of the earth. The main street in Drakesboro, Kentucky is named after Prine because of this song.
"Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" (from German Afternoons) -- the thing that separates Prine from Dylan and all those other "next Dylans" is the fact that he has a sense of humor and is not afraid to show it, and this hilarious tune proves it.
"Unwed Fathers" (from Aimless Love) -- dang, what a song. Prine teamed up with one of country music's greatest songwriters, Bobby Braddock (who wrote "He Stopped Loving Her Today"), for this exceptional song about the one-sided nature of pointing fingers when it comes to teenage pregnancy.

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