Since John Prine died, I figure I should spend a day with him. He created a lot of great music over the years. But I am still obsessed with his first self-titled album. I’ve purchased it numerous times and I never get tired of it. But there is one song on the album that misses for me. Not surprisingly, it is also the song that most people consider the album’s stand-out track: “Sam Stone.”
The song aims extremely high and it does manage to tell a tragic story and presents an unusually (for Prine) simplistic character. But it’s told in a weird and jarring way. The verses tell the story from an objective point of view while the chorus is told from the children’s. And given how evocative the refrain is (“there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”), I don’t know why he didn’t write the entire song from that perspective.
Sam Stone: One-Dimensional Junkie
The story also hasn’t aged well. When it was produced, there was major concern that soldiers were getting addicted to heroin in Vietnam and then coming home to become junkies. That turned out not to be generally true because drug us is contextual.
But the story does get something shockingly right — something that would become much bigger decades later: how pain poorly treated often leads to extra-medical use. But this is pushed to the side in the song to focus on stereotypes that are not true. For example, “Climbing walls while sitting in a chair.” Or “Sad songs never last too long on broken radios.” The implication is that Sam Stone’s real problem is that he can’t deal with the anxiety of life.
I think what most bugs me about it is that unlike most other people that John Prine sings about, Sam Stone is one-dimensional. He is just his addiction. And there’s even some dissonance in the song because of it. For example, somehow Stone manages to buy a house on the GI Bill but can’t manage to dress his kids. A far more interesting (and truthful) story would be about a man who works very hard to support his family while his addiction makes him distant and ultimately dead. That’s a far more tragic tale than the sad one Prine offers.
Don’t take this to mean that I think it’s a bad song. It was the first song that got my attention. And it works well enough. It’s better than anything I’ve ever written But when I’m listening to the album, I tend to skip it.