John Prine was once known as the Singing Mailman, because that's exactly what he was as a young man. Since he quit his route, he's put out more than 20 albums, and has now published a book of lyrics, photographs and memories called Beyond Words.
We've invited Prine to play a game called: "The Singing Mailman Delivers ... My New Toner Cartridge From Amazon!" Three questions about Amazon Prime — a service that offers super fast shipping for all the stuff you don't actually need.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we reward a life well-lived with 10 minutes poorly spent. It's called Not My Job. So John Prine was once known as the Singing Mailman 'cause that's what he was right here in Chicago. Since he quit his mail route, he's collaborated with just about everyone who's anyone in American music. He's put out more than 20 albums. And now he's put out a book of lyrics, photographs, and memories called "Beyond Words." John Prine, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
JOHN PRINE: Thank you. Thank you.
SAGAL: So I did not know this about you. I thought the Singing Mailman thing was just a joke. But you really were a mailman here in Chicago.
PRINE: Oh, for six years out in a neighborhood in Westchester.
SAGAL: Right. And how did that feed into your singing career? How'd you go from that to...
PRINE: I wrote a lot of my first album on the mail route because there's not much else to do on the mail route.
PRINE: The best way to write a song is to think of something else and then the song kind of creeps in. The beginning makes no sense whatsoever. It just, like, rhymes. And then all of a sudden I'll go into, I am an old woman named after my mother.
SAGAL: Yeah. Well, that's actually interesting because that - I think it's perhaps your most well-known song, "Angel From Montgomery." Bonnie Raitt covered it. Now, I wanted to ask you about that because you're known for your lyrics. But now that I have a chance to ask you, the lyric is make me an angel that flies from Montgomery, make me a poster of an old rodeo.
SAGAL: That's beautiful. What does it mean?
PRINE: Well, I had pictured the woman in the song to be from Montgomery, Ala. A friend of mine in Chicago, Eddie Holstein, thought I was writing about the Montgomery Wards building there on State Street.
AMY DICKINSON: Oh, funny.
SAGAL: Yeah. The old department store here in Chicago.
SAGAL: And did you dissuade him of that?
PRINE: Yes, I did. He also thought I was talking about a pizza from Tufano's.
SAGAL: Oh, really?
SAGAL: Another great story I didn't know until I looked at your book, which is that you were discovered - if you needed to be discovered - by none other than Roger Ebert.
SAGAL: Who happened to - he was a film critic then, as he was for his whole life. And he walked into a club and heard the Singing Mailman and wrote about you.
PRINE: The story I heard from Roger was it was a bad movie and the popcorn was too salty, so he went to get a beer. And somebody told him if he walked into the back room he'd hear this kid whose songs were better than the movie's. And Roger wrote about me instead of the movie the next day.
DICKINSON: Oh, wow.
SAGAL: That's amazing. So you owe your, like, whole musical career to a crappy movie.
PRINE: That's the way I planned it.
SAGAL: And, you know - and there's some, like, movie director who ended up being a mailman.
SAGAL: Maybe he even got your route and, like, karma had its way.
ADAM FELBER: Wow. It would seem to me that the one thing that you're not qualified to do is offer anybody career advice.
FELBER: Here's what you do, kids. You get a job at the post office.
SAGAL: And wait for Roger Ebert to hate something.
PRINE: I hope he got bit by the same dog.
SAGAL: Yeah. Hey, I've got to ask you about one song in particular because it's my girlfriend's favorite. "Fish And Whistle" - what is that about?
PRINE: Well, I was asked to write one more song for an album I thought was done already. And I thought, well, I'll write the worst thing I can think of.
PRINE: And then maybe the producer will decide the record's over with.
DICKINSON: Oh, funny.
SAGAL: So you...
PRINE: So I wrote three different unrelated verses. None of them - they're all true, but none of them relate to each other. And then I tied them together with an unrelated chorus and somehow it worked.
SAGAL: Just if people don't know this song, could you - do you remember the chorus off the top of your head?
PRINE: Sure. The chorus is, fish and whistle, whistle and fish. Eat everything that they put on your dish. And when we get through we'll make a big wish that we never have to do this again.
SAGAL: So this is hilarious because my girlfriend has been trying to learn this on the guitar, so she's playing it all the time. And I'm like, what is that song about? And she's like, it's so deep.
SAGAL: Well, John Prine, it is a pleasure to talk to you. We have asked you here to play a game that this time we're calling...
BILL KURTIS: The Singing Mailman delivers...
KURTIS: ...My new toner cartridge from Amazon.
SAGAL: So you're John Prine. So naturally, being us, we're going to ask you about Amazon Prime. That's the wonderful service...
PRINE: Oh, I get it.
SAGAL: Oh, yeah. Yeah, talk about sophisticated metaphors, John. That's the wonderful service that just for 100 bucks a year gives you free shipping on all the stuff you don't actually need. So we're going to ask you three questions about Amazon Prime. Get two right...
SAGAL: ...You'll win our prize for one of our listeners. Bill, who is John Prine playing for?
KURTIS: Lucy Schuck of Long Beach, Calif.
SAGAL: All right.
PRINE: All right, Lucy.
SAGAL: Here's your first question. Prime membership, of course, gets you free shipping. And by free, that means free. Which of these is the heaviest thing that we could find available on Amazon Prime with free shipping...
SAGAL: ...A, an 8,000-pound engine lathe; B, a 500-pound statue of President Trump made of anthracite coal; or C, a 3-ton shipping container filled with gravel?
PRINE: I'll take the shipping container filled with gravel.
SAGAL: You would, wouldn't you?
SAGAL: That would suit you, and you'd make a great song about your shipping container of gravel. But it's actually the 8,000-pound engine lathe.
PRINE: Oh, really?
SAGAL: It costs $25,000. But again, remember, the shipping is free.
PRINE: I'll be on there as soon as I get off the show.
SAGAL: I know. How many people have a little too much to drink and an order engine lathe from Amazon? It can...
PRINE: Never wear your necktie while you're operating a lathe.
FELBER: Decent advice.
ALONZO BODDEN: Good advice.
SAGAL: That sounds like something that would show up in one of your choruses.
DICKINSON: (Singing) Never wear a necktie while you're working on your lathe.
FELBER: Yeah, lathe doesn't rhyme with a lot.
PRINE: That was "Farmer In The Dell," wasn't it?
SAGAL: It can be easy these days, since you can get anything from Amazon - that it started as a bookstore and you can still buy books. Which of these actual books is available on Amazon Prime - A, a book of photos that is 5 feet wide by 7 feet tall; B, a new thriller novel called "This Book Has The Word Girl In Its Title, So Just Buy It"; or C, an adaptation of The New Testament in which all mentions of Jesus are replaced with Jeff Bezos?
PRINE: I'll take the second one.
SAGAL: The new thriller called...
PRINE: The - where the title has the word girl in it.
SAGAL: Yeah, so that would be an idea, like - it would be like you bought "The Girl On The Train." You bought "Gone Girl." You bought "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." So girl...
PRINE: Yeah. You haven't heard this girl yet.
SAGAL: John, I know that marketing isn't your thing, but don't you think that would be a little baldfaced attempt to attract people's interests?
PRINE: I mean, it's pretty rugged out there, you know, in the publishing world.
SAGAL: Yeah. Sir, are you just going to stick to that no matter what I do?
PRINE: I am.
SAGAL: All right. Well, it was, in fact, A, the book of photos. It's the world's largest book. It's 5 feet by 7 feet.
SAGAL: It costs $499, but again...
SAGAL AND FELBER: Shipping is free.
SAGAL: All right, last question. Sometimes you need something right away, which is why you paid for Amazon Prime. Which of these can be at your house in just two days - shipping is free - if needed - A, one dozen ice cubes made from the Ross ice shelf in Antarctica; B, Frank Stallone, the actual guy - he'll just come to your house, do whatever you need; or C, five pounds of fake human fat?
PRINE: I'll take the ice cubes.
SAGAL: You're going to go for the ice cubes?
SAGAL: Because when you want to make a cocktail, you don't want just any ice. You want fresh ice.
PRINE: No, no, I would like my ice really solid.
FELBER: Really solid, fresh and vaguely penguin-flavored.
SAGAL: Shipped from the Ross ice shelf. I think that would be awesome, but it's actually the five pounds of fake human fat.
SAGAL: Apparently, people use this for demonstration purposes. Like, this is how much you'll lose or whatever.
DICKINSON: But the good news here is that Frank Stallone will not come to your house. So that...
SAGAL: I actually have a feeling if you were to put in a request he might. Bill, how John Prine do on our quiz?
KURTIS: Well, John, you didn't get any right, but in Chicago you'll always be a winner.
SAGAL: Oh, that was great.
FELBER: Well done. Well done.
PRINE: Thank you guys (laughter).
SAGAL: John Prine, singer-songwriter, is a legend among anyone who knows anything about American music. His new book is called "Beyond Words." It has lyrics, charts, stories and photographs. John Prine, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
PRINE: Thank you, Peter. It was my pleasure.
KURTIS: Thank you, John.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FISH AND WHISTLE")
PRINE: (Singing) Fish and whistle, whistle and fish, eat everything that they put on your dish. And when we get through we'll make a big wish that we never have to do this again, again, again. On my very first job I said thank you and please.
SAGAL: In just a minute the cafe where the soy milk is not the grossest thing there. It's our Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAITWAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.