(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough: Everybody The Torch Singer Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues Sour Grapes Billy The Bum The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You Take the Star Out of the Window The Great Compromise Clocks and Spoons Rocky Mountain Time
Steve Burgh's bass starts out the album "Diamonds in the Rough" with a rising lead-in, and then its first song, "Everybody" springs to life as a seriously toe-tapping 2-4 country juke box tune. David Bromberg, the great Chicago multi-instrumentalist, dances along the top with a clucking, snapping electric guitar accompaniment. His syncopation gives the recording a swing that I'm not sure you hear much in country music anymore. John Prine's accoustic guitar provides the percussion — Burgh's booming bassline frees John from his characteristic boom-chuck, allowing him to simply chuck with gusto. The overall effect is what an African American former roommate of mine lovingly called "chicken music." You'd need a heart of stone to not love it.
The song tells the story of a sailor who happens along Jesus taking a stroll across the water. It turns out Jesus is troubled and lonesome, needs someone to talk to. The singer has troubles of his own, of course, and might have liked to talk about them too, but Jesus won't shut up about his own problems long enough to do any listening. The singer just chalks it up as his good deed for the day.
In 2005, the lyrics are refreshingly blasphemous (as they probably were when they were written in 1972):
I bumped into the savior
And he said, "Pardon me"
I said "Jesus, you look tired"
He said, "Jesus, so do you"
A few years later, John would repeat the first joke more explicitly, in case we missed it:
Father, forgive us
For what we must do
You forgive us
We'll forgive you
It's a good joke — we pardon God. Maybe the Bible spends so much time teaching us to forgive because God knew there was gunna be a hell of a lot to forgive him for. The song doesn't really tell us what's troubling Jesus, but in the depths of the Vietnam War, it's not hard to believe he's feeling guilty.
This kind of "high concept" for a song wasn't so unusual in country music in those days — "Everybody" is a novelty song like "Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life." But John Prine's approach is so sympathetic to the situation of the song that it comes off less as a joke than as a parable. You think about it when you're done laughing.
Humor is a funny thing. It can release a songwriter or arranger from the rules of the game in ways that mimic — or explain — real artistic innovation. I'm thinking especially of Spike Jones and Frank Zappa, who would be more widely thought of as surrealists if they weren't so widely thought of as silly. There might be a little of this in "Everybody." It's a novelty song, but it has a seriousness, maybe, that invites you to listen closely without listening literally. In this sense, maybe it gently prepares you for the flashes of modernist poetry that you'll hear in the rest of the album.