Common Sense

Some albums are collections of great songs, with varying degrees of consistency in style, mood, instrumentation and lyrical content, often not without a high degree of cohesion, but nevertheless without demanding to be evaluated as a single, unified work. Aside from these, however, there are those albums which somehow manage to be more than the sum of their parts by a significant margin. The albums that fall into the first category are almost too numerous to warrant examples, but how about The White Album, Who’s Next, The Heart of Saturday Night and every single Merle Haggard album. These aren’t necessarily just patchwork collections of songs, of course, but I want to distinguish albums like these from those such as The Wall, Red Headed Stranger, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, as well as Tommy and most of the other various “rock operas,” “concept albums,” and album-length suites that have followed in its wake, that contain songs that cannot be divorced from their context without a certain amount of distortion. These aren’t perfectly lucid categories, largely because there are any number of albums that work both ways, which is to say albums that contain perfectly crafted songs that can make themselves at home on greatest hits collections, compilation tapes, and the radio, but at the same time need to be listened to in their entirety, and often in order, so as to be fully grasped (for some examples, how about Abbey Road, John Wesley Harding, Sticky Fingers, and Kind of Blue, and the list could go on and on). And some artists have so much cohesion that their work could almost be rearranged at will without significant distortion; every song on the first three Ramones albums is basically a hologram, containing a perfect image of the whole in every verse or riff.

In any case, I am sure that there is at least one absolutely perfect specimen of an album where the songs cannot be removed from their context without suffering a serious diminishment in significance and impact. John Prine’s Common Sense (1975) is an astonishingly original piece of work that deserves to be considered a classic, at least if I have any say in the matter. Yet there probably isn’t a single song on it that I would include on a list of my ten favorite John Prine songs. This isn’t to say that there aren’t great songs, or that they entirely fall flat when taken out of context. The title track, “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard,” “Saddle in the Rain,” and “He Was In Heaven Before He Died” sound just fine on Great Days, the Prine anthology released in 1993. But these fine songs become something more when considered in context, which is what I intend to do in this review.

Most of John Prine’s best-known songs are on his first album, 1971’s John Prine, which is a shame because he had not yet reached maturity as a songwriter or as a performer at that time. The album does contain two indisputable classics, “Paradise” and “Angel From Montgomery,” one probable classic in “Donald and Lydia,” several that sound like they should be classics but on closer examination miss the mark by a bit, and one, “Far From Me,” that is just as good as a classic even if it isn’t one. All of the songwriting is highly proficient, but some of it sounds, probably uncoincidentally, like a very young man with truckloads of talent but not enough experience to go with it. “Sam Stone,” which is one of Prine’s most celebrated songs and was even covered by Bob Dylan, has a satisfyingly catchy chorus but comes off a bit heavy-handed and silly overall. “Hello in There” has a beautiful melody, although listening to the 24-year-old Prine sing about encountering “hollow, ancient eyes” while walking down the street always makes me cringe for some reason—he’s probably thinking of a 52-year-old, I can’t keep from suspecting, and anyway the lyric is overdone here and underdone elsewhere (“We lost Davy in the Korean War/ Still don’t know what for/ Don’t matter anymore” is singsongy and banal). And in addition to all that, the album contains some out and out filler (“Pretty Good,” “The Quiet Man”).

And then there’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” a very good anti-Vietnam song that seems to have earned Prine the tag “protest singer” for a while, a trade he also tepidly plied on his second album, Diamonds in the Rough, with the mediocre “The Great Compromise” and the mystifying “Take the Star Out of the Window” (unless someone can explain to me what “Take the star out of the window, let my conscience take the rest” means; I mean, it sounds like it should mean something, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t) before mostly abandoning it. It’s hard to imagine John Prine being called “strident,” but if he had made a few different choices along the way perhaps he’d be remembered as the long-hoped-for amalgam of Dylan and Phil Ochs that could earnestly strap on the mantle of social responsibility along with his guitar. What’s more likely, though, is that he’d have been remembered as a semi-obscure folkie with a promising debut album.

“Rolling Stone” even accused Prine of excessive bitterness in its review of “John Prine.” With the benefit of 40 years’ perspective on Prine’s (continuing) career, it’s hard to imagine a less apt epithet for him. I would contend that Prine’s work could more properly be said to strongly militate against bitterness, while at the same time keeping an eye trained on all of the unpleasantness and heartbreak that seems to be the lot of mortals everywhere and always. If he does this with a sense of humor, it is nevertheless just as wrongheaded to accuse him of cynicism, as the “All Music Guide” goes so far as to do (which isn’t to say he’s never cynical; he sometimes is, particularly on Common Sense). His attitude to suffering is perhaps made most explicit on “Bruised Orange” (from the 1978 album of the same name); it may even be tempting to accuse the song of self-help vacuousness or Buddhist nonattachment when considering the chorus:

You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder,
throw your hands in the air, say “What does it matter?”
but it don’t do no good to get angry, so help me I know.
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrow.

This advice is tempered by the next verse which, far from asserting the transience of human suffering, manages with startling economy to put the listener in touch with the most universal, which at the same time means the most personal, feelings of sadness and regret, all the while insisting that full recovery will never be in the cards:

I been brought down to zero, pulled out and put back there,
I sat on a park bench, kissed the girl with the black hair
and my head shouted down to my heart: “You better look out below!”
Hey, it ain’t such a long drop, don’t stammer, don’t stutter,
from the diamonds in the sidewalk to the dirt in the gutter,
and you carry those bruises to remind you wherever you go.

If these are not the most uplifting words you’ve ever heard, neither are they cynical or bitter.

But if it was possible at the time of John Prine for “Rolling Stone” to accuse Prine of bitterness, that is because the 24-year-old who wrote “Sam Stone” could not have written “Bruised Orange.” In fact, for all the songwriting prowess displayed on Prine’s debut, there are times when he sounds like he just might be faking it a little. Prine’s slightly stilted, coffeehouse folk-singer vocals don’t help matters any, either. Not that it is a bad album; it’s a very good album, and almost even a great one—it’s hard to listen to “Paradise” and not get the feeling that the song is in a certain way perfect. But it’s also hard to agree with Kris Kristofferson’s comment in the liner notes: “Twenty-four years old and he writes like he’s two hundred and twenty.” Whatever a 220-year-old might write like, most of the songs on John Prine sound like they were written by an exceptionally talented 24-year-old.

Prine’s second album, Diamonds in the Rough, was panned when it came out, but in many ways it is an improvement over the first. While there is nothing that can match the perfection of “Paradise” or the pathos of “Angel From Montgomery,” the best thing about the album is that Prine starts to loosen up a little, and loosening up is the key that opens the door to the entire rest of what has priven to be a spectacular career (assuming, of course, that he won’t revert to being awkwardly earnest in his dotage).

Incidentally, this is also the album where Prine sounds the most like Bob Dylan. For one thing, his voice often sounds the way Bob Dylan looks on the cover of “The Times They Are A’Changin’” (if you don’t remember the cover, picture a young kid self-consciously trying to look like Woody Guthrie, who was himself plenty self-conscious in trying to look like a salt-of-the-earth proletarian). Add to that “The Late John Garfield Blues,” the most Dylan-like song Prine has ever done. Nevertheless, Prine never sounds like a lesser Dylan.

Indeed, it’s a remarkable testimony to Prine’s originality that he always sounds just like himself even though he has a voice a bit like Dylan’s and sometimes writes songs that could almost be Dylan songs. If “Sweet Revenge” were running from the cops, it could safely hide somewhere on side B of New Morning or Planet Waves until the heat was off. And “A Crooked Piece of Time” could hole up there too. “People Putting People Down” sounds like it could be on Oh Mercy; it makes little difference that it was released five years before Oh Mercy and covered by Dylan himself. Prine simply figured out a way for Dylan to sound before Dylan did in this case. But again, what’s remarkable here is that Prine can do songs like this with impunity, and nobody with any sense will question his originality.

There were little hints of the absurd or the whimsical on “John Prine” (mostly in “Illegal Smile,” “Spanish Pipedream” and “Pretty Good”), but on Diamonds in the Rough Prine develops these aspects of his writing even further with songs that sometimes seem to be just tossed off without much deliberation. Still, all of the songs that meet this description are winners, with the only clunkers on the album coming when Prine gets a little more serious on the two anti-war songs mentioned above, and perhaps Billy the Bum, which is a bit too long and slow to be as interesting at the end as it is at the beginning. If the first album took itself a little too seriously, Diamonds in the Rough has the feel of something intended to be a minor effort, which isn’t a knock on the album; in fact, that is precisely what makes it a step forward from John Prine. What is becoming evident with this material is that the more Prine allows himself to have a sense of humor, the better his work will be.

The third John Prine album, Sweet Revenge, is really just as good an album as anyone could ask for. Just on the strength of the songs, in fact, this is probably Prine’s best album ever, although I hope to explain why Common Sense could make a claim to that title, according to different criteria. From this point on in Prine’s career, there is no more self-consciousness, and even when the joists show through the songs are well-constructed; after Sweet Revenge, awkward lyrics are mostly welcome idiosyncrasies rather than mood-breakers. In other words, on Sweet Revenge Prine has finally settled into his style. And absurdity will be a big part of that style.

Whereas the material on John Prine sometimes sounds a bit forced, from Sweet Revenge on Prine sounds so relaxed about his songwriting he can at times be almost sloppy. The most extreme example is probably “Everybody Wants to Feel Like You” (from 1991’s The Missing Years), otherwise a very straightforward song. In the middle of the first verse Prine sings:

Everybody wants to be wanted
I mean, I ain’t no scarecrow cop
I don’t want no transalization
I don’t want no diddley-bop

What just happened? Apparently Prine had written some placeholder lyrics and decided to leave them in the finished song out of laziness, perversity or frivolity. Perhaps the recording is a demo he liked so much that he decided to use it; coming immediately after “The Sins of Memphisto,” the most sonically florid thing Prine ever recorded, it’s a solo number for voice and guitar. In any case, the lines neither enhance nor damage the song, they just flow right by and allow you to chuckle before getting you back into the song’s proper mood of mild indignation at never having the upper hand.

Getting back to Sweet Revenge, then, the album is just as ambitious as John Prine and just as relaxed as Diamonds in the Rough. There is very little filler on the album, but it must be admitted that there probably is not a single John Prine album without at least one disposable song (with the exception of Common Sense). There is a pointless cover of “Nine Pound Hammer,” and “Often is a Word I Seldom Use” isn’t really unpleasant, but it isn’t really necessary, either. It’s a good title; Prine should have invented a hack songwriter (like Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout) and just attributed the title to a non-existent song, because there’s not much else to like about this one. On the other hand, “Mexican Home” sounds like a throwaway the first couple of times through, but with repeated listening it opens up into something more, not least because of the poignantly understated lyrics:

Well it got so hot last night I swear, you couldn’t hardly breathe
Heat lightning burnt the sky like alcohol
I sat on the porch without my shoes and I watched the cars roll by
As the headlights raced to the corner of the kitchen wall

Well mama dear your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home

Well, my God, I cried, it’s so hot inside, you could die in the living room
Take the fan from the window, prop the door back with a broom
Well the cuckoo clock has died of shock and the windows feel no pain
The air’s as still as the throttle on a funeral train

Well mama dear your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home

My father died on the porch outside on an August afternoon
I sipped bourbon and cried with a friend by the light of the moon
So it’s hurry, hurry, step right up, it’s a matter of a life or death
Well the sun is going down and the moon is just holding its breath

Well mama dear your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core, that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home

In addition to classic material like “Please Don’t Bury Me,” “Blue Umbrella,” and “Grandpa Was A Carpenter,” Sweet Revenge contains Prine’s second song about masturbation—the first was John Prine’s “Donald and Lydia,” an excellent song, and “Christmas in Prison” is at least as good as that song. Both songs contain plenty of humor, but neither is primarily a humorous song or a novelty number. Rather, both songs deal with the anguish and sadness of a blocked pathway to others, in one case due to shyness and social maladaptation, in the other due to being in the hoosegow.

Such, at any rate, was the career of John Prine up to the point when Common Sense was released in 1975. The trajectory of this career would quite a bit different from the way I’ve given it if reviews were taken into consideration: a more standard view is that Prine released one brilliant, classic album, suffered a bit from the sophomore jinx and then righted himself with his third record, although he would never completely match the brilliance of John Prine. And, according to common sense on the matter, Common Sense stands in a similar relation to Sweet Revenge as Diamonds in the Rough does to John Prine. In reviewing an album that questions the sense of common sense, however, it is only appropriate to demur from consensus. And, while I don’t consider Sweet Revenge to be overrated, Common Sense is certainly an underrated album much like Diamonds in the Rough.

The album opens up with a fairly ordinary, off-the-cuff song, “Middle Man.” That is, the song starts out sounding ordinary, but the lyrics never quite attain anything like the discipline that would keep them making sense. The narrator meets a girl at a diner, named Flo, who purports to be looking for a “middle man,” sort of an ordinary Joe who doesn’t run too hot or too cold but sticks around and gives her the love and stability she craves. It is a commonsensical view of love, and the narrator expresses his willingness to fit the bill, but the lyrics keep taking off into flights of fancy; a scheme to sell half-dollars to the French and a half-baked idea to rip off Flo’s own money in order to support both of them seem to indicate that the singer isn’t quite as steady as the job description requires. However, on second thought, it appears equally likely that the world described in the song is so batshit crazy that these are legitimate schemes. A “middle man,” according to Flo, “has a left-handed manner and leans to the right,” and as the floor of the diner pitches, we get the sense that the middle is a place where you have to move around a lot just to stand still.

As unsettled as our common sense probably is after hearing Prine croak “Middle Man,” the next song gets right to the point, whatever that may be. “Common Sense” has a nice, commonsensical chord progression and a beautiful steel guitar, but what is it about? I’m not entirely sure. The chorus claims “It don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.” Prine’s own comments on the song, in the liner notes to Great Days, are helpful up to a point:

This was my Bicentennial tribute to that other great American patriot, Tom Paine. It’s a song about the American dream only existing in the hearts and minds of immigrants until they live here long enough for democracy to make them cold, cynical, and indifferent, like all us native Americans. It don’t make much sense.

One thing that strikes me about this is how unlikely it would be for any reasonably popular singer to say words like those today, as innocuous as they may have sounded 14 years ago. But after September 2001, the only criticism of the United States one is likely to hear in popular music is on the lyric sheet of some fringe rap album that rants about black nationalism, the New World Order, and space aliens running things behind the scenes in Washington.

Of course, it is still possible to be anti-war, and even to have a critique of capitalism to a certain extent. Michael Moore, after all, is still a popular figure. But in 2010, it seems like no remotely mainstream critic of any aspect of America can speak without bending over backwards and half-retracting everything that is said in a lame attempt to reassure everyone involved, both speaker and audience, that, deep down, everyone involved, both speaker and audience, is a loyal American. The most immediately familiar example of this is the absurd fact that anyone who criticizes the American involvement in one of this century’s interminable wars is required to avow that they nevertheless support the troops, thus immediately rendering their supposed opposition to the war nonsensical.

But that’s common sense: it doesn’t need to make sense, because it conforms to extrinsic imperatives. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. And here I have to pause and proceed more carefully, because I have already begun to muddy things up, which is unavoidable, because the term common sense is ambiguous, which is to say it contains an excess of sense. On the one hand, common sense is something like the zeitgeist, the sense of what is possible and what is fitting that prevails in a given period of time. This changes with time, as we’ve already seen by comparing Prine’s remarks a decade and a half back with the sort of discourse that commonly goes on today. On the other hand, “common sense” can refer to something like a faculty or a capacity, our ability to conform to common sense in the first sense, as opposed to a foolish or pernicious tendency to deviate from it. These, then, are two senses that “common sense” has in common. And in this case, if there is a common sense that regulates what we say, if we have common sense we will conform to it as an extrinsic standard.

But there is more. The cover of Common Sense rather solemnly depicts a yokel stepping on a rake, the handle of which is coming up to meet his face. This seems to suggest that the common sense Prine has in mind is “horse sense,” which is not something that shifts with time—at least not as long as there are things like rakes. This is rather the sense that everyone needs to survive, regardless of circumstances (there will always be rakes); in other words it is entirely intrinsic, which is why it’s sometimes called “the sense you were born with.” Thus, it would seem that we are all born with common sense, but some of us lose it as we age. On the other hand, Humpty Dumpty repeats an old saying when he accuses Alice of having “No more sense than a baby,” and this would seem to suggest that things happen in quite the opposite way, after all.

This brings us to yet another meaning of the phrase in question: common sense can refer to old saws, bromides, proverbs or sayings that circulate throughout common discourse and maintain a certain amount of order in daily life, even if they do seem to contradict one another at times: although haste makes waste, a stitch in time saves nine; a penny saved is a penny earned, but if we worry too much about pennies we may be penny wise and pound foolish, which is all well and good were it not for the fact that if we take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves—and so on. And this again points to the primary ambiguity of common sense: if we have common sense, we have an intrinsic ability to conform to the extrinsic measure given in these sayings. On the other hand, perhaps having common sense means having the sense to know when common sense makes sense and when it doesn’t, when we should count the pennies and when it’s time to worry about the pounds. Common Sense is a tug of war between the internal and the external, and to resolve this conflict something beyond common sense is required. In fact, Jesus is required; someone to fulfill the law by negating and preserving it all at once. To resolve this conflict between external and internal, we need to somehow eat the law. We cannot understand this with common sense. Common Sense does not make sense.

All of these senses of common sense should be kept in mind when listening to the title track of Common Sense. The song starts out with a couple of lines that seem to bear more on the platitudinous sense of common sense than anything to do with Tom Paine:

You can’t live together, you can’t live alone
Considering the weather, oh my how you’ve grown

Here it doesn’t seem like we’re heading into particularly choppy water, especially with that piano swelling in the background. But if you’re looking for a song about common sense that makes sense, you’ll have to wait for 1991 and “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

Here you may think that Prine is setting you up for a box on the ears, but in this later song the message turns out to be that common sense does make sense after all:

Kiss a little baby
Give the world a smile
If you take an inch
Give ’em back a mile
Cause if you lie like a rug
And you don’t give a damn
You’re never gonna be
As happy as a clam

Listen, the singer seems to be saying, this is all true. And it all may sound a bit insipid, but the irony that the truth is insipid makes the song funny. And if the song is funny, then at least the song is not insipid, even if life is insipid. But of course it isn’t life that’s insipid, common sense is insipid by its very nature because it reduces life to certain formulae, and the truer the formulae are the more hackneyed they become, but when we live these formulae they make experience rich, vivid, and rewarding. And of course, this is all true. But in order to be true, it has to confine itself to a very narrow slice of what we mean when we talk of common sense.

By comparison, “Common Sense” is utterly chaotic. Since we just put the song aside for a while, let me reiterate the first two lines before quoting the rest of the verse:

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

Birds of a feather flock together, we’re told. But what is that kangaroo doing in the factory? The only part of Prine’s Great Days comment that seems to apply here is, “It don’t make much sense.”

“Common Sense” isn’t nonsense, however. Sense that makes no sense is still sense, after all, and therefore different from nonsense. The song does not really push at the boundaries of sense, or even break away from common sense altogether; rather, it feverishly recombines elements of sense to show that common sense can make no sense just as easily as it can make sense. Parts emerge and abruptly break off, giving way to something new, which is why the song continually dupes us into thinking it’s making sense before pulling the rug out from under us again. “Common Sense” is like a patchwork quilt in which every square displays a pattern, but taken together as a whole there is no pattern. There is no overriding theme, except, of course, common sense, which isn’t so much a theme as the possibility of there being a theme in the first place.

The structure of the song is a little bit odd, too, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it strange or adventurous. But after a single verse and chorus, there is the bridge, a short break, then a double verse and another chorus. The chorus consists of lines that are structured in such a way that they feel like they make more sense than they actually do, a common effect on the album:

They got mesmerized by lullabies and limbo dance in pairs
Please lock that door…

It’s hard to say who “they” are; if we grant Prine’s Great Days comment authority, perhaps it means “immigrants”; if not, then at least men in factories and kangaroos, or really just one kangaroo, as I can’t detect any sibilance at the end of the line, and the lyric sheet keeps it in the singular. (Of course, he could mean “the wild kangaroo” the way we say “the North American timber wolf,” but I don’t like that possibility, so I’ll ignore it.) And one kangaroo is more confusing than several; indeed, sense demands a plurality of kangaroos. Only what the kangaroos have in common makes sense; all sense is common, in this sense. The singularity of the kangaroo refuses to be made sense of; if sense consists in concepts, singularity is an outrage to sense. A single kangaroo can’t limbo dance in pairs; all he can do is form half of a single pair that keeps us from safely generalizing about the pairs. In other words, a single kangaroo subtracts from the sense of the situation in the factories. We don’t even know which factory the kangaroo is in. Or are they gathering somewhere outside the factories? Not on the kangaroo’s turf, however, else there would be more kangaroos hanging around.

In any case, anyone who starts thinking that this song makes perfect sense, which you can do for at least a line at a time, mostly, should keep the kangaroo in mind. There are lots of kangaroos, in that sense, in this song. And then there’s “please lock that door…” Is something unsavory going on here? Is someone about to burn down the factory with the kangaroo locked inside? And the payoff line: “It don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.” Not only does common sense not make sense, it doesn’t make sense that it doesn’t make sense. How could it? Tom Paine is spinning in the grave, one imagines. If he made arguments for American independence that any reasonable person was supposed to be able to follow and agree with, Prine’s rhymes about American decadence are themselves decadent, just as frustrating to the reason as the corrupt and brutal social and economic obstacle course faced by immigrants in the factories, equally composed out of fragments of coherence that fail to add up to an overall sense.

The bridge vaguely hints at feelings of frustration, perhaps the frustration felt by these immigrants and their marsupial co-worker, with the first two lines drawing a false symmetry that rhymes well enough but reasons little:

Just between you and me, it’s like pulling when you ought to be shovin’
Like a nun with her head in the oven
Please don’t tell me that this really wasn’t nothing

A lot of effort has been expended, forehead veins are popping, don’t tell me this wasn’t nothing: it was nothing, but it was a nothing consisting of lots of little somethings, the way white can be generated by combining all the colors. Common Sense has been shown to be not nonsense but schizophrenia: meaning abounds, it spills out in all sorts of directions, ruining the big picture with its proliferation of detail. The kangaroo just doesn’t fit in a song about Tom Paine’s “Common Sense,” nor even in a song that says common sense itself no longer makes sense. Only a song that maintains that it don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more can accommodate that lone kangaroo.

After the bridge, the pedal steel guitar comes in and suddenly makes any American with any sense at all feel sorry for anyone who isn’t American. The steel guitar is an evocative instrument in that way; one has to have a sense for it, just as a Frenchman would presumably have to feel sorry for anyone who isn’t French when he eats his buttered snails. I assume this is so, but of course it’s just a guess; I’m talking about a community of sense from which I am excluded, and I’m assuming that there is a sense even more common that links all of these communities of sense, a sort of meta-sense that allows me to draw an analogy between the sound of a pedal steel guitar and snails. Because you wouldn’t catch me eating snails, and yet people pay a pretty good price for the things.

I don’t mean to suggest that a foreigner couldn’t appreciate a pedal steel guitar solo, on the other hand; I only mean she couldn’t be expected to appreciate it properly. The pedal steel has a context, and the sense for that particular context is a sense we Americans have in common; but actually, we don’t all have it, only the ones who have it have it. This is the nature of taste: not everyone has it, but everyone should, and the only way to know what it is, is to have it yourself. But most people who don’t have it think that they do, so only those who actually have it know that they have it and are right that they have it. That is the perplexing nature of taste, as distinct from opinion; common sense assures us that everyone has opinions and, by virtue of this fact that we all have them, they are completely worthless.

On the other hand, taste, according to Immanuel Kant, posits an ideal community—the predilections of any actual community are, statistically speaking, always pretty ghastly. Kant says that taste relies on a sensus communis (Latin for “common sense”): if we didn’t all experience things in the same basic way, we would not be able to appeal to even an ideal community, because sense would be private and there would be no such thing as taste, or community for that matter—there’d be no common and no sense. So maybe every Frenchman doesn’t appreciate snails, but they all should, because they taste basically the same to all Frenchmen, which means they’re either good or they aren’t (they aren’t, of course, although I’ve never tasted one, but it’s only common sense). And that is one reason assimilation to another culture is difficult: play a room full of immigrants some Merle Haggard (who not coincidentally is one of the primary influences on John Prine, who in my opinion has good taste in music), and many of them will probably plug their ears (there’s no accounting for taste).

But in fact, the immigrant experience is intrinsically jarring to common sense; fragments of one community are thrust into another, which they can not understand until they begin to understand some of the ideal communities that both arise from and structure the actual collection of people at the factory gate, or anyway the many not-so-ideal communities that reflect the deformed taste of the many actual people, and the one true ideal community that reflects the genuine taste of the actual people who really do have taste, if anyone really does, but maybe just the kangaroo has it, to be honest.

Now we must leave our kangaroo, however, listening to Merle Haggard and reading the Critique of Judgment on his legally guaranteed 15 minute coffee break, if such laws apply to kangaroos, and return to the song after a pedal steel break that actually only lasts for a couple of bars. Long enough, however, for frustration to have turned to menace in the interim:

One of these days
One of these nights
You’ll take off your hat
And they’ll read you your rights
You’ll wanna get high
Every time you feel low
Hey, Queen Isabella,
Stay away from that fella,
He’ll just get you into trouble, you know.

On the other side of the break, we seem to have entered a zone of relative calm, at least as far as interpreing the lyrics is concerned. No more kangaroos, just police, drugs, and Columbus, certainly a more or less recognizable portrait of America, where the only wild marsupials are possums, and none of them know how to operate a drill press. We’re on a roll now, we get it, bad things are happening, even if the how, the who, and the why are pretty vague. And next we get another big shovelful of sense, even though it would make more sense to have the chorus here, since when songs have a double verse it is standard for it to be the first verse. But as a consolation for that small perplexity, now even the people who haven’t read the liner notes to Great Days will recognize some immigrants in the next line (although an uneasy thought appears at the edge of consciousness: if the song was really about immigrants, as Prine says, we should have had some in the first verse, instead of a kangaroo):

But they came here by boat
And they came here by plane
They blistered their hands
And they burned out their brain
All dreaming a dream
That’ll never come true

A dire enough picture. And to seek redress where sense is wanting is, sorry but I must say it, senseless:

Hey, don’t give me no trouble
Or I’ll call up my double
We’ll play piggy-in-the-middle with you.

And then “Common Sense” slides back into the chorus and comes to a conclusion. If the song is taken as a straightforward critique of the American system, it has gone from being incoherent to being merely vague after it has been patched together with some steel guitar. But the song is, of course, much more than incoherent or vague, although at this point it should be clear that this “more” necessarily defies summarization.

According to Wikipedia (although no source for this is given, so you’ll just have to trust me that I didn’t write it myself): “In America, the term pig in the middle is sometimes used as slang for being under pressure from both sides of a dispute. The similar term piggy in the middle means the same in the United Kingdom.” The newcomer to America, to the factory, to capitalist democracy in general, if there is such a thing as a newcomer to these things, tries to make sense of her experience and finds that sense is just a ball that gets tossed around over her head, always out of reach. There are plenty of chunks of sense getting tossed around, but they don’t add up to anything because sense is just another tool in that factory, which isn’t there to make sense, it’s there to make money, and not for you, at least not very much for you, but for the piggies that aren’t in the middle. But for consolation, there’s always the steel guitar.

After this, anyone would need a break, or at least anyone trying to interpret the lyrics. “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard” makes perfect sense—at least, it does so in the way an easily interpretable dream makes sense. This song is also on Great Days, and this time Prine’s comments seem to get right to the point of the song:

At that time, there were a lot of people who were leftover hippies who never made it all the way to California, as if they got to the Rockies and went, “God, I can’t get over that,” and just settled in. Also, I had different friends of mine who went through the ’60s, from being totally straight or greasers, then turned into hippies, and then into a religious thing. So I created this character who had done all those different things.

The verses to the song, however, are pretty cryptic:

Selling bibles at the airports
Buying Quaaludes on the phone
Hey, you talk about
A paper route
She’s a shut-in without a home
God save her, please
She’s nailed her knees
To some drugstore parking lot
Hey, Mr. Brown
Turn the volume down
I believe this evening’s shot

You can work with some of this apparent nonsense (any number of interpretations for “a shut-in without a home” would work), some of it you can only shake your head at (nailed her knees to the parking lot? “Mr. Brown”?), but the overall effect is the opposite of “Common Sense”: here the big picture makes sense, even if we can’t do much with the details.

After this small reprieve, we’re plunged deep into obscurity again with “Wedding Day in Funeralville.” Whereas in “Middle Man,” stability could only be achieved by tacking from side to side, here we are hung up on the horns of a dilemma: “It’s wedding day in Funeralville what shall I wear tonight?” However, the tone of the song is not anguished, but rather somewhat lighthearted. It’s hard to listen to a song that is both anguished and frenetic; “Wedding Day” opts for frenetic, whereas the nest track, “Way Down,” expresses anguish. Although “Way Down,” along with the songs included on Great Days, is a song that could easily prosper outside of the confines of this album, it takes on more weight here as it comes on calm, stately, and serious, three qualities that have been in short supply so far.

And yet lyrically, “Way Down”is by no means out of place here:

The air is thin and the sky is fat
I’m gonna buy me a brand new hat
Wear it out and go insane
Christ, I hope it never rains.

But there’s nothing really very confusing about “Way Down”; anyone who listens to it will no exactly what it’s about, at least anyone over the age of 14, and anyone under that age will think they get it anyway:

Way down, way down it must be
I can’t stop this misery
It must be way down.

“My Own Best Friend” is a pretty cynical song, as far as I can tell, although I’m never sure exactly what its about, or if it’s just about seeming to be about something:

I’m a victim of friction, I just got too close to see
Yeah, we sparked in the dark and God hung a light on me
And the lamp gets real heavy, and it hangs from my heart
And it comes and it goes till I can’t tell the difference apart
But I’ve done it before and I’d do it again
‘Cause it’s the only time that makes me feel like I’m
My own best friend

Self-betrayal? A sense of impersonal beatitude? Self-mockery? Masturbation again?

In any case, if seeming to be about something without actually being about anything is something to be about, that’s exactly what “Forbidden Jimmy” is about. It’s a catchy sort of calypso number that churns along pleasantly with lyrics that I can’t even think of something to say about, I just have to quote the song in full:

Forbidden Jimmy has got a mighty sore tooth
From biting too many dimes in a telephone booth
He’s got half of his bootlace tied to the dial
Thank you, operator, for getting Jimmy to smile
“Call out the Coast Guard,” screamed the Police,
Forbidden Jimmy, he’s got three water skis
He put two on his wavelength, and gave one to his girl,
She’s a mighty fine person, it’s a mighty fine world
I’m gonna make all your sorrows bright, set your soul free
I’ll see you tomorrow night if I can still see
Ginger Caputo And Dorian Gray
Oughtta stay out of pictures if they got nothin’ to say
Stack ’em back on the rack, Jack—you know you’re hurting my eye
Forbidden Jimmy, he’s getting ready to fly
I’m gonna make all your sorrows bright, set your soul free
I’ll see you tomorrow night if I can still see
I got caught cooking popcorn and calling it hail
They wanna stick my head inside a water pail
You know they’re gonna be sorry they’re gonna pay for it too
Forbidden Jimmy he’s coming straight at you
I’m gonna make all your sorrows bright, set your soul free
I’ll see you tomorrow night if I can still see

The line about Ginger Caputo and Dorian Gray would seem to be a pretty clever witticism if Ginger Caputo were a silent film actress or something like that. But actually, a Google search for Ginger Caputo only turns up the lyrics to this song, along with some people on John Prine discussion boards asking who the hell Ginger Caputo is. As for the rest of it, it’s anybody’s guess.

Next up is another anthologized number, “Saddle in the Rain,” which could have been a hit or at least an FM staple if catchiness were all that was required. As for the lyrics, again we have to consult the liner notes to Great Days, even though this time Prine’s remarks are not entirely helpful:

That’s another song about friendships and relationships, and being let down. Ever since I can remember, when I was a small kid, anytime I had a friend who really let me down, it would affect me. The disappointment was always large with me. So I guess that’s why that’s a theme I go back to every once in a while. I don’t do it with a lot of bitterness. If I’m going to nail somebody, I like to make sure that I give them all the rope in the world, along with a speech about their better points. So they’ll know I wrote it because I liked them. Like, “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’s going to hurt you.”

So somebody let Prine down, and he’s getting his revenge in this song. Whoever they are, however, they probably never noticed, unless the following serves as a devastating put-down:

Try spending the night sometime
all alone in a frozen room
afterneath you’ve lain
your Saddle in the rain

That “afterneath” is probably the only time on the album where sense is distorted on the level of a single word. It goes by pretty quick unless you’re reading the lyric sheet, but if you were to hear the song out of context it would sound bizarre. But in the lyrical context of the album it isn’t entirely surprising.

The ensuing verse is pretty weird too, and it’s even harder to interpret this in the light of Prine’s Great Days commentary:

I dreamed they locked God up down in my basement
And he waited there for me to have this accident
So he could drink my wine and eat me like a sacrament
And I just stood there like I do, then I came and went
I came and went
Like a bird in a foreign sky
Couldn’t even say good bye
Or come and share the pain
My Saddle’s in the rain

This has a zonked-out prophetic tone that is rare for Prine, but it is quite evocative here, even if, as with so many other lyrics on the album, it’s hard to say what it means.

Prine usually comes off more folksy than prophetic, although I would choose a less condescending word than “folksy” if I could think of one. Once in a while he uncorks something like this, though; in the middle of “Everything is Cool,” a minor song on The Missing Years, we meet with the following lines:

I saw a hundred thousand blackbirds just flying through the sky
And they seemed to form a teardrop from a black-haired angel’s eye

The song slides back into mediocrity after that, but it’s a stunning lyric that sounds a little too creepy to be exactly optimistic, although the song asserts, with whatever degree of irony that the listener wants to detect, that everything is copasetic, even though bad things are happening. In “Saddle in the Rain,” the lyrics just hint at a general condition of misfortune, and I suppose it is probably bad to leave one’s saddle in the rain; even if the words don’t add up to a total statement that could be readily paraphrased, the song does not come off as incoherent so much as cryptic. “Wedding Day” and “Forbidden Jimmy” are more or less gobbledygook, but “Saddle in the Rain” is like a story told in a dream that seems to make sense until, upon waking, it is recollected.

And that’s about the way “That Close to You” works, also, which is to say that it does work, but oddly. A string of similes open the song:

Like a bolt of lightning, like a bolt of thunder
Like a cloudy day down at the zoo
Like a drowning man that will never go under
That close to you, yeah, that close to you

In the end, it seems that being “that close to you” is pretty much a good thing, but even that’s not certain. As for the rest of it, who the hell knows? This may be the weakest song on the album, but it’s by no means bad. If you put this on a mixed tape, you may get some funny looks. But at this point of the album, the listener isn’t entirely surprised find himself being asked to contemplate just how close (humid?) a cloudy day down at the zoo is to someone he loves.

“Middle Man” is a hypnogogic vision of an ordinary day in America, not quite the American “dream” but a precursor to the latter, which makes its appearance with the second song, “Common Sense.” And something like wakefulness only begins to return, slowly, with “He Was In Heaven Before He Died.” The song, then, is a sort of bookend to “Middle Man”—sleep is ending, but it hasn’t ended quite yet, or at least the song is still trailing streamers of dreamstuff as it stretches its way into daylight. Prine’s remarks on the song:

I was writing about friendship. My father died back around when my first album came out. I was thinking about the trips we used to take down to Paradise. We’d cut through Indiana and cross the Wabash River; I wanted to make a specific reference to that. That one started out with the picture of the rainbow of babies over a graveyard. Where do you go from there? I consider that a challenge, though, to paint myself into a corner and then get out. I figured out that what you’re trying to do as a writer is go to places that aren’t so comfortable, that you don’t already know how to get out of.

I’m not sure if he did get out of “Forbidden Jimmy,” but never mind that right now. Paradise is the town in Kentucky whence Prine’s family hails, and which he sings about in the song of the same name on John Prine:

When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
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.

“He Was In Heaven” is similar in feel to “Paradise,” with a chord structure and melody that is strongly reminiscent of, although not exactly the same as, the earlier song. As Prine points out, the lyrics of the two songs are directly connected, and the lines of “He Was In Heaven” are rhythmically identical in length to the lines of “Paradise,” so that the lyrics of either song could be substituted for those of the other without needing to revise them. “He Was In Heaven” is in some ways a rewrite of, and a commentary on, “Paradise.” But there’s no rainbow of babies in “Paradise,” which wouldn’t fit in on this album anyway, any more than “He Was In Heaven” would fit in on John Prine:

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

These lines are just as convoluted as anything else on this lyrically convoluted album, but they need no explanation or justification, which is one reason why the song works well on Great Days. And in the chorus, daylight is finally streaming through the blinds, to continue the motif of dreaming and waking:

And I smiled on the Wabash the last time I passed it
Yes, I gave her a wink from the passenger side
And my foot fell asleep as I swallowed my candy
Knowing he was in heaven before he died

There’s nothing outlandish going on here; we’ve left Funeralville for a funeral back in Muhlenburg County, KY, with nary a kangaroo in a rented tux in the pews. “Heaven” in the tag line is a clear reference to “Paradise,” and this would probably be evident even without the benefit of Prine’s commentary, considering lines like these from the older song:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waiting
Just five miles away from wherever I am.

The third line of the chorus of “He Was In Heaven” does give us one final twist on common sense; “my foot fell asleep as I swallowed my candy” is a line that’s so ordinary it sounds a little weird. The mundane details of a highway trip are not completely out of the blue after the wink and the smile brings us back from the reverie about dead sailors and flying babies, but they are nevertheless jarring here. That is because their only connection to the emotional state conveyed by the song is to remind us of the ordinary context in which the most extraordinary thoughts and feelings usually occur; the way that Prine’s body suddenly demands consideration in this line is like a crying baby interrupting a sermon.  In fact, my baby is crying right now; if that statement seems out of place in this review (if anything does after the kangaroo), it’s for the exact same reason Prine’s line about candy catches us by surprise.

A perfectly acceptable cover of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” brings us back to earth as it closes out the album. One reviewer, in panning the album, said that this outclasses anything else on the record, but even if I felt like I could evaluate such a claim, it’s hardly fair. “You Never Can Tell” is a song by the first truly great rock songwriter, and is a commonsensical take on common sense: the young folks lack it, except when they don’t; common sense isn’t infallible, and if the old folks have statistics on their side, there’s an exception to every rule, as they say. So common sense even has sayings that cover the situations when common sense fails: it’s usually right, but you never can tell. The song functions here to ease us back into daylight, and is a wry comment on the rest of the album, which puts common sense through the ringer but allows it to have the final word, albeit an ironic one.

13 thoughts on “Common Sense”

  1. Excellent review. I was looking for insight into meaning behind saddle in the rain. One of my favorite prine tunes but meaning has partially escaped me. Common sense is underappreciated.

  2. While a lot of people say that Common Sense is not one of their favorite John Prine albums or that the songs are not the best JP songs, this has always been one of my favorite Prine albums and I really like the songs on it. Either alone or taken together, the lyrics had me hooked long ago and you have to admit that the tunes are catchy. Years ago I would have agreed with other peoples assessment, but now I find myself listening to tunes from this LP more than any other John Prine album.

  3. I think some of Prine’s songs you’retired over thinking and you’really leaving out a couple of important factors.

    He’s a songwriter/singer and thus he’s an entertainer. Not everything has to make sense but does have to fame and fit musically. Not to say that many of his songs have deep meaning. My deep meaning may be you shallow mud puddle. But what’s important is that a lot of people like it and come to his concerts and buy his records.

    Next, as Bob Dylan said in an enterveiw I saw, some songs like Blowing In The Wind are impossible for a songwriter to write. They fall out of the sky and are a gift to the songwriter from the Devine source I’l call God who gives each and every person their gifts and abilty. If song writing was just a craft anyone could learn to do it, but they cannot. Prine is a gifted writer/singer and not a half bad guitar player. I don’t understand everything he writes and quite often on first listen I don’t like his records. But by third or forth I’m getting in the groove and by tenth listen I love it and relating to most of it. I lived in another town much like Paradise, and oh my God it does get so hot inside you can die in the living room. Many times I’very propped the door back with a broom, and my father did die on the porch outside. Etc., etc.,

  4. Regarding the line “Take the star out of the window, let my conscience take a rest.” In World War II, at least, people would put a star in their window to indicate that they had a family member in the service. The protagonist of the song doesn’t want to be identified as a participant in the war, much less a hero. So, take the star out of the window.

  5. Jake The Barber

    There’s a couple of hours of your life you’ll never get back. Luckily, I saw the writing on the wall about 15 lines in, and am gonna have me a damn nice day.

  6. “Take the Star Out of The Window”
    This is a song about a U.S. Sailor who went to the Vietnam War. When you’re in the U.S. military and go overseas your family is often given a red,white, and blue banner with a blue star on it. It is a tradition that started during WW I. It is about 8″ x 11″. My mom received hers from the USO. The banner is often hung in the front widow or door of the house for those passing by can see.
    So, as a vet returning from the unpopular Vietnam War this sailor is basically telling his parents that he doesn’t want to talk about the war or even be recognized that he was there. He just wants to be left alone and get his head together. “Don’t ask me any questions about the medals on my chest. Take the star out of the window and let my conscious take a rest.”
    I hope this explains this great song and you are able to enjoy it a little more.
    I love and relate to this song. I was a U.S. Sailor for 26 years and served a year on a patrol boat in Iraq.
    ***foot note*** A Gold Star on the same banner sadly indicates that the family has suffered a loss of a family member in combat. Look up “Gold Star Family”.

  7. This is the most ridiculous review of John Prine’s lyrics, motivations, and personality I’ve ever seen, especially for someone who seems to have heard all his songs. John Prine uses simple chords, simple lyrics, and writes about simple everyday life that goes under the radar to most. But if you listen close, he’s usually offering a different viewpoint on the situation that people should feel privileged to see from. If you don’t get the metaphors, plays on words, or the round-about avenues getting to the point too slowly, then you should stick to the crap that pumps out of your car radio these days.

  8. I really am stunned at the negative reviews of this album. Lyrics aside, how do you not love the music? The band Cropper put together was fantastic and I think the reviewers and the record company’s just didn’t know what to do with him. Cropper stretched John into areas he was uncomfortable with and the collaboration is super unique within John’s catalog. I love most of John’s albums, but I must say I can’t get away from common sense, especially the last half starting with Forbidden Jimmy.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *