How does a wall figure into rules for social distancing?

Jerry Moore

Watertown — In opting to write a music review rather than a film review nearly 50 years ago, movie critic Roger Ebert likely didn’t realize he was helping to launch the career of a legend.

He walked into a Chicago nightclub called the Fifth Peg to grab a drink after leaving a movie theater in October 1970. He found himself mesmerized by the young performer at the microphone.

“He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight,” according to Ebert’s review, published Oct. 9, 1970, by the Chicago Sun-Times. “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”

At the time, John Prine was a 23-year-old mailman living and working in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. He was born and raised in that area, but he was drawn to the country/western culture as his parents were originally from Kentucky. After serving in the U.S. Army Reserve, he took up performing folk songs that he had been writing.

“While ‘digesting Reader’s Digest’ in a dirty book store, John Prine tells us in one of his songs, a patriotic citizen came across one of those little American flag decals,” Ebert wrote in his music review. “He stuck it on his windshield and liked it so much he added flags from the gas station, the bank and the supermarket, until one day he blindly drove off the road and killed himself. St. Peter broke the news:

“Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore;

“It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war.

“Lyrics like this are earning John Prine one of the hottest underground reputations in Chicago these days,” Ebert continued. “He’s only been performing professionally since July; he sings at the out-of-the-way Fifth Peg, 858 W. Armitage; and country-folk singers aren’t exactly putting rock out of business. But Prine is good.”

Numerous music-lovers over the past five decades have agreed with this assessment of Prine’s talent. Ebert’s article on the Fifth Peg performance was the first review of the musician’s long and distinguished career in the music industry.

Along the way, he won two of the 11 Grammy Awards he was nominated for (1991 and 2005) and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award this year. Among many other accolades, in 2005 he became the first singer/songwriter to read and perform at the Library of Congress.

Prine died April 7 due to complications from COVID-19. He is survived by his wife, Fiona, and his sons, Jack, Jody and Tommy. At the age of 73, he left behind an extraordinary body of work.

Prine credits Ebert for widening his base of fans. He said he always performed to packed venues after this review was published.

A few days after Ebert wrote about Prine, the Chicago Tribune printed a blurb promoting his performances:

“John Prine, back from his Army Reserve duty, is singing folk music at the Fifth Peg on Fridays and Saturdays. Fleming Brown, a folk singer whose opinion we respect, says: ‘We’ve got a genius on our hands.’”

It wasn’t long afterward that others began taking note of Prine’s considerable skills.

“Mr. Prine was a relative unknown in 1970 when [Kris] Kristofferson heard him play one night at a Chicago club called the Earl of Old Town, dragged there by the singer-songwriter Steve Goodman,” according to a story published April 7 by the New York Times. “Mr. Kristofferson was performing in Chicago at the time at the Quiet Knight. Mr. Prine treated him to a brief after-hours performance of material that, Mr. Kristofferson later wrote, ‘was unlike anything I’d heard before.’ A few weeks later, when Mr. Prine was in New York, Mr. Kristofferson invited him onstage at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, where he was appearing with Carly Simon, and introduced him to the audience. ‘No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy,’ he said. ‘John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.’ The record executive Jerry Wexler, who was in the audience, signed Mr. Prine to a contract with Atlantic Records the next day.”

Reading of how Ebert publicly highlighted Prine’s brilliance before anyone else intrigued me. This is a good example of people who make their living in the arts supporting each other.

On a higher level, it tells the story of one genius opening doors for another genius. Ebert used his literary gifts to enlighten his readers about an up-and-coming artist.

Ebert, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, died in 2013 after a long bout with cancer.

Prine, a cancer survivor himself, outlived him by seven years but became a casualty of the health care crisis we’re now confronting.

Both men helped us make sense of life’s senselessness in ways few other people could. It’s times like these that we need such individuals the most and suffer their absence the worst.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(23) comments


John Prine and Roger Ebert (who opened doors for Prine) passed away. Prine's and Ebert's artistic genius helped us make sense of-- understand, cope with, find meaning in, and navigate-- life's senselessness. At this time of senselessness, we need such individuals and suffer when they are absent. (The gist of the column.)

Too many of the comments stray from the gist.

Prine and Ebert are dead. Man, it was astounding how their artistic genius propped us up when we found ourselves limping... senselessly. Oh, were they here, today!

It's irreverent to ignore dead men. It's ungrateful when we fail to acknowledge what they did for us. It's sad when we aren't moved by their absence and don't miss their contributions, especially now.

This time of senselessness... What is it? Being beaten senseless is something to ignore?

It's shallow to ignore this time of senselessness.

Today we need individuals like Prine and Ebert. Without them, we will suffer. To whom can we turn?

It's self-defeating to turn to no one. To whom, then, can we turn?

Where are the comments that are relevant to the gist of the column? Prine and Ebert would want to see them. I want to see them. I want you to see them.

C'mon. We can do this.

keyser soze

Nice read Jerry.

"…Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about Sam Stone the soldier junky daddy and Donald and Lydia, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that. If I had to pick one song of his, it might be Lake Marie. I don't remember what album that's on."

~Bob Dylan 2016

keyser soze

Hey guys, I’m with you all the way when it comes to Graham’s persistent undermining as to the serious nature of Covid-19 with his reckless laissez-faire approach. But unless I’m missing something here I think there is a clear plastic shield woven into the face mask.


keyser you don't buy jeff's excuse for mocking the crisis do you. I'm pretty sure if plastic provided better sound qualities for certain applications the manufacturers would produce them that way. Nope, jeff is shamefully mocking those who take the crisis seriously at the expense of true human suffering. After all, he is a trumpette.

keyser soze

Hi rockloper,

My comment was only intended to be a ‘heads up’ as I knew what was coming next. And sure enough, he’s right on time. I’ve watched him long enough to know I wouldn’t trust him as far as I can throw him. So yeah, anything is possible. The last thing you want to do though is to give people like him a reason to squawk. They will milk it ‘till the cows come home -- anything to distract from the bigger picture of Trump’s failed leadership and presidency.


[thumbup] graham is your typical republican hack. Whether his mask had plastic or not it did it as a stunt as I realize you're aware of. Yes he monitors these boards pretty well in one form or another. He was one of the first ones to cry about the lockdown cause it forced him to close his dive since he and his ignorant republican patrons would have kept going until they could no longer walk on the phlegm covered floors. I still can't make out the plastic in his mask I guess because I can't get passed his squinty eyes. He looks like such a fool in the picture.

Jeff Graham

rockloper wins the buffoon of the day award for his specious assertion I wear a mask with the mouth cut out. The clear plastic mouth covering allows for better communication in the OR as you can see who is speaking. Stop my, I'll give you one.

Holmes -- the real one

".....America's favorite talk show..." part of the opening line of the broadcast associated with that picture.

Oh really.

All of America, huh?

Before you start pointing fingers it would be a good thing to check out what you are saying yourself.


[thumbup] well what do you expect, he's a republican. They're not known for telling the truth! [beam]


Well good for you jeff. You see you're earned your reputation of being a republican dunce. I will never be the buffoon you've proven yourself to be. I'm amazed you would feel a need to wear a mask at your mic.


Oh ya and I would REALLY question the effectiveness of talking thru clear plastic as opposed to the fabric. Did you run any decibel level tests to see which is more effective?

keyser soze

Mr. Graham, Rockloper may have made an error as to your mask but he is 100% correct in his assessment of your irresponsible self serving agenda. Nothing changes that in the least.

And as long as we are on the subject of buffoonery -- nothing that exists under the sun can compare to the daily clown show our country has been subjected to for the past several weeks by the mentally unhinged Buffoon in Chief you so eagerly defend. Unless of course we count your blog and radio shows where some deluded charlatan is always trying to explain what the clown really meant to say -- along with your endless parade of far right conspiracy kooks which runs a close second.


I'll ALWAYS maintain that graham has that picture up for one reason and one reason only, to mock the mandate. That's just who the right wing has become.


Hey jeff take a look at this and have somebody read it to you. I'll bet this individual doesn't think your mask prank is funny.


Geez I apologize to the person who is hired to read to jeff. I thought I posted a link but now I can't find the article. Sorry


“Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore;” however, in the words of Tanya, “when I die I may not go to heaven... Texas is as close as I’ve been.”

Holmes -- the real one

John Prine: People Putting People Down


Apparently WDT didn't like my previous comment? jerry moore belittled the efforts of those who took this crisis seriously and jeff graham mocks the use of PPE with his picture posted on Newzjunky wearing a face mask with the mouth cut out. Very funny. Why don't you spit in the faces of survivors and family members of the deceased.

Holmes -- the real one

Excellent post, rockloper.

I think it just takes an extended period of time for a comment to show up. Clearly we have some rampant (an remarkably arrogant) ignorance out there.

For those who can stomach it, here is a link to the Jeff Graham picture:


[thumbup] Apparently.


Apparently they did like your previous comment.


Truth prevails apparently


"Prine, a cancer survivor himself, outlived him by seven years but became a casualty of the health care crisis we’re now confronting."

A health care crisis you belittle and jeff graham mocks wearing a face mask with the mouth cut out. Show that to the families of the deceased. Shame on both of you.

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