John Prine’s ‘When I Get to Heaven': A Goodbye With His Customary Humor [LISTEN]
The final song on John Prine's final album couldn't have been more fitting. The iconic singer-songwriter employed his usual humor and off-kilter way of looking at the world when he wrote "When I Get to Heaven."
Prine laid out some surprising plans for what he'd do first upon arriving in the afterlife in the song, which is the 10th and final track on his 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness: "And then I'm gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale / Yeah, I'm gonna smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long / I'm gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl / 'Cause this old man is goin' to town," he sings in the chorus.
It's an upbeat, fun song propelled by jaunty acoustic guitar chords, and it features an unusual arrangement that includes kazoos and yodeling. In an interview with Vice to promote the album, Prine explained that the inspiration for the song came from him having to give up some of his unhealthy habits.
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"The chorus was about my favorite drink and then having a cigarette with the drink," he said. "I had my first cancer 25 years ago, and I quit smoking the night before. I still really miss cigarettes. I see them in my dreams. [When] I see somebody lighting up outside a restaurant, I go and stand next to them so I can get that first whiff, and so I’m thinking I’ve got this chorus that goes, 'I’m going to get a cocktail / Vodka and ginger ale / I’m going to smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long,' and I thought, 'Where can I do that?' Heaven, that’s the only place.
"There can’t be any cancer, and probably not any 'No Smoking' signs, because there’s no bureaucracy in heaven," he observed. So, I figured that’s the next place I’m going to be able to have a cigarette is Heaven, and that kicked the song off for me.
"I came to Heaven just so I can have a cigarette with my drink," Prine concluded. "Now that’s pretty practical, isn’t it?"
The song is a perfect cap to a celebrated career that saw Prine become one of the most influential songwriters in American music. He died on Tuesday (April 7), at the age of 73, after suffering complications from the coronavirus (COVID-19).
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