In 1970, Roger Ebert walked out of a movie he was reviewing for the Chicago Sun-Times and into the Fifth Peg, a folk club in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Out of “sheer blind luck,” he saw John Prine and wrote the first review Prine ever received.
Today, John Prine is in critical condition with COVID-19 symptoms. And the Fifth Peg is a La Colombe coffee shop, next door to a Freshii and down the street from both a Warby Parker store and the 4am bar where my dad’s Rolling Stones cover band plays sometimes.
Life comes at you fast. But, re-reading Ebert’s review and thinking of the destruction that coronavirus has wrought on a personal and civic level, I’m struck by just how deeply the people and places in our life are intertwined.
I like to think of a person or a place’s meaning both vertically and horizontally. Take the vertical meaning of an address like 858 W. Armitage, Chicago, IL 60614. Maybe today you passed it on a social distancing walk through a Lincoln Park neighborhood suddenly void of $2,000 baby strollers or designer labradoodles. Just a month ago you could have taken a date or a friend to coffee at La Colombe, sitting outside on an unseasonably warm day as you watched your fellow Chicagoans walk past. 50 years ago, that La Colombe was a packed folk venue where word of mouth led people from Steve Goodman to Ebert to come together and listen to a mustachio’d mailman sing about a guy who died because he couldn’t see through all the flag decals he stuck on his truck. And that venue, with a bar down one side and apartments up top, had been around since 1885—built a decade after the Chicago Fire but four years before the neighborhood was annexed by Chicago. You can think about John Prine’s meaning vertically too: You can draw a straight line from Hank Williams and Bob Dylan to Prine, and then extend Prine’s influence out to just about any songwriter today who picks up an acoustic guitar.
Both Prine and the place where Ebert first saw him have horizontal meaning too. At the time Prine was performing in Lincoln Park, the wealthy and mostly white (even then) neighborhood existed in a complex urban context. There was the poor and mostly black Cabrini-Green housing project next door to the south, or the more integrated Lathrop Homes to the northwest. Just a year before, the Young Lords had held protests against gentrification in Lincoln Park and the CPD had assassinated Fred Hampton on the West Side. The Hancock building had just gone up a few miles to the south of the Fifth Peg, and meanwhile the city’s factories and stockyards were looking down the barrel of a decade of deindustrialization. Prine, too, could be defined in the context of what was going around him. Ebert did just that, contrasting Prine against peers who sang “adolescent acid-rock peace dirges” or “narcissistic tributes to themselves.”
We understand a neighborhood like Lincoln Park in part based on what it isn’t: it’s not Wicker Park, it’s not Hyde Park, etc. We understand a singer like Prine in part based on who he isn’t: as Ebert noted, he was way more Hank Williams and Bob Dylan than Roger Williams or Phil Ochs. And, right now, we’re experiencing this quarantine based on who we aren’t with: the friends, loved ones, and strangers whose company we never knew we could miss so badly until it was taken from us.
Coronavirus will be a key point in our vertical memory. We’ll mark time based on what happened before or after the pandemic. The same way that Prine could probably mark his life based on what happened before versus after he got his first review. And I’ve never felt so crushingly aware of the horizontal space between us—the video chats with people who I would ordinarily see in person (or never think to video chat with in the first place), and the great effort it now would take to reach them.
John Prine wrote perfect music for when you’re down and alone. And he wrote perfect music that has, and will continue to, bring people together.
When I woke up this morning
Things were feeling bad
Seemed like total silence
Was the only friend I had
Just give me one thing
That I can hold on to
To believe in this living
Is just a hard way to go
No matter when he passes—and we know that now isn’t his time, like so many others—he’ll live on in our memory. And his music will help us try to bridge the physical and emotional gap that separates us from one another.