“John is one of my favorite people, and it was a productive time for him,” recalls Clement. “We did a lot of experimenting and messing around, him and me playing guitars, which I thought was the direction to pursue. But he had things going on. We’d start working on a song and he’d start singing something else. He had a crush on the bass player, Rachel [Peer], who he married later. That was part of the distraction, but there were other things, too.”
Forced to start over at ground zero, a grueling prospect for any artist in any field, Prine turned to Goodman for help back in Chicago. “He said, ‘Just show up with your guitar and sing the songs however you want to sing them,’” Prine relates. “‘I’ll surround you with musicians and you’ll have a beautiful record.’”
Which is what a lot of people called Bruised Orange, the only album he has recorded in the Windy City. Streaked with whimsy and lifted by hometown energy, it boasted instantly appealing tunes such as “That’s The Way That The World Goes ‘Round” and “Fish And Whistle”. It had Corky Siegel playing harmonica and a turn by the great Jethro Burns on mandolin; it had a song co-written by Phil Spector; it had strings and voices and photos by Victor Skrebneski. What it didn’t have was what Prine was hearing in his head.
“It was really far from what Cowboy and I were doing,” he admits. “I thought I’d made this record once already, and I couldn’t find it in me to go back and make it again.” For better or worse, Goodman prodded him forward. “It wasn’t a time period I liked being around Steve. He was like Edward G. Robinson as your producer. He wouldn’t mind if I argued everyday, but I didn’t have it in me. We made a deal we’d go in and do this, though, so I listened to him.”
When it came time to go on the road, Prine decided to forgo the usual suspects in putting together a band. With the help of guitarist John Burns, Jethro’s talented son, he rounded up other reliables from the Chicago scene, including keyboardist and harpist Howard Levy and drummer Angie Varias. When they hit the road, they hit it hard.
“John was into this band,” Varias remembers. “He was playing with new enthusiasm. He wanted to do Elvis songs and old Johnny Cash and rockabilly and rootsy stuff. He couldn’t get enough of that music.”
“When Asylum asked for another record,” says Prine, “I said, well, I’m gonna give them a record. I’ll give them the record I was gonna make before I made Bruised Orange. And so I wrote some songs for it and we ended up going over to Memphis to work at Sam’s place with Knox and Jerry Phillips. We got an apartment not far from there, Johnny Burns and all the guys, and we recorded six nights a week. We’d go in at six at night and leave at six in the morning. Once Sam heard what was going on, he’d be in there at 4 a.m., his devil eyes flashing.”
“We did that for I don’t know how long — we ended up with something like 500 hours of tape — and took the best of what we had, and Asylum just about had a heart attack. They called me out to L.A. and one of the heads there said, ‘John, what you’ve got here is not what I think you want.’ This is a problem. He tells me what I want and it’s not on that tape.
“I said, well, that’s what I want. And I said, that’s expensive noise on there. We did a lot of things to get the noise on those tapes. At the time, Steely Dan and the Eagles were the kinds of records out there, and the sounds were highly digital. That was the popular sound for the records that sold, and this was not that at all.”
Pink Cadillac will forever be another commercial blip on Prine’s resume — a cousin to those “uncharacteristic” departures Neil Young got sued by his label for making. Artistically, though, it was a high point in Prine’s career. Scrapping the singer-songwriter aesthetic for a raw bar-band approach, he heated up old tunes such as “Baby Let’s Play House”, bit off as much of Floyd Tillman’s “This Cold War With You” as he could chew, poured his rakish car collector’s soul into his own “Automobile”, and spared no hope on the bleak and biting “Down By The Side Of The Road”. The sound of Pink Cadillac was jarring, the playing loose and jagged, the attitude one of going for broke.
It shouldn’t have come as any surprise that it wouldn’t be well-received at Asylum, where “everyone in the office dressed like the Cars, with skinny ties and shiny suits,” Varias says. What do you do when your best work is brushed aside by a label to which you’re under contract to deliver another record?
“I just more or less picked stuff I didn’t record on Pink Cadillac, went down to Muscle Shoals, recorded it, gave it to ‘em and left,” Prine summarizes. “That was the end of my major-label days.” His appropriate parting lyric: “Silence is golden/’Til it screams/Right through your bones.”
Nursing his wounds back in Nashville, Prine wasn’t worried about the future. If he kept on as a performer — as opposed to, say, becoming a fisherman, which he reportedly had considered at one point — he’d have no trouble supporting himself. “I knew I could go out and play till I was 140 if I wanted to,” he says, “just me and my Martin, playing John Prine songs, and make a good living doing it.”
Fans being fans, though, they like to have keepsakes from their favorites. Bunetta had had some success starting a mail-order label for Goodman. He and Prine decided to have a go at starting one up for him. Named after the Buddy Holly song (“All of my life, I’ve been waitin’/Tonight there’ll be no hesitatin’/Oh boy!”), with a logo that borrowed the curl from the cherubic figurehead for the old Big Boy burger chain, Oh Boy started out with modest aims. Prine’s first release was a red vinyl 45 of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Silver Bells”.