Mike Mellor: So, let's
try something here and see how well it works. You have a radio show,
Brendan, Saturday nights on WUMB called
Dark Was the Night featuring blues, roots and songwriters. It
airs from eight to midnight and each ten o'clock hour has a theme, like superstitious songs, migration songs or blues songs of social consciousness. We're going to take time here every
Saturday morning to swap a couple of songs from the upcoming ten
Tonight's theme is a continuation of last week's live music hour. You're really making it tough on me right away because last week you played from three of my go-to live albums: James Brown Live at the Appollo, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, and Dylan's "Royal Albert Hall" Concert. I was fretting about it earlier, but I woke up with this one yesterday morning.
For me the song itself is the quintessential example of Prine's
late '80s/early '90s writing style: minimalistic lyrics relying heavily
on loaded images, playing with baby boomer iconography to bring humor
to situations that aren't necessarily funny. The introduction story
uses the same style and, in Prine's classic way, the punchline isn't
really a punchline but an aww shucks shrug of the
It almost makes you want to break up with somebody, doesn't it?
Brendan Hogan: Ha. I've had my heart broken enough
that I don't wish that on anyone, but you did hit the nail on the
head. The humor in Prine's writing is key to understanding what
he's saying. You can get away with a lot when you make someone
laugh. So, especially with his divorce songs like "All the Best",
Prine's pain, vulnerability, and bitterness is made more accessible
and understandable through his humor. It has a way of opening
things up and can also be a pretty effective bludgeon for putting a
person in their place, depending on how you use it.
Take Dylan for example. "Ballad of a Thin Man" is one of the greatest dressings down of all time. Sure, the context of the song alone is cutting, but Dylan has us laughing at, not just feeling contempt for, the person and the circumstance he's addressing. Great stuff.
Mike: Ugh, The hectoring in this song is so
good! Even in the studio version, where he laughs on the "But you don't
understand" line, it's clear that this Mr. Jones guy is a useless
dweeb. You kinda sorta feel bad for the hapless little reporter, the
way you would any victim of a bully, but you don't really because Dylan
does such a good job of cutting him down.
This particular version is my favorite, too, because the song fits perfectly with the animosity in the room.
Brendan: In that performance Dylan is singing as much to the audience as he
is to his original target, an incompetent TIME magazine reporter
(pardon the redundancy). As a listener I don't sympathize with any
of them: John Prine's wife, Dylan's audience, or the magazine
reporter. That's the point.
Dylan and Prine could easily come off as assholes; as bitter and even weakened by their circumstance. But humor is endearing. And it's a great vehicle for the ultimate "fuck you".
Dark Was the Night airs on WUMB Saturdays from 8pm-midnight.
Listen online or at:
91.9 FM Boston, Worcester, Falmouth
91.7 FM Newburyport, Stow, Marshfield
1170 AM Orleans