Back ’round Christmas 2011, I was asked by a tech blog about The Song That Changed My Life. This is what I told ’em:
In 1992, I was 25 and stuck in rehab. Well, not really a rehab, but an Arizona horse ranch posing as a rehab. A place where we baked in the merciless heat outside of Tucson, shoveling horse shit, cut off from the real world and our lives. Not sure if you know, but rehabs are one of Arizona’s chief industries. Something about bleaching your soul clean in the sun, I guess. On the pitch, I was told there’d be music up there, that there were musicians—even the old drummer for Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band was hiding out at the ranch recovering from a massive coke problem. That’s what I was told. The pitch for a rehab facility, I found out, is not unlike the pitch for a time-share.
There were no musicians at the ranch, nor instruments. Bob’s old drummer had already relapsed and left. I was told, upon arrival, I wasn’t even allowed to possess a guitar.
Weeks and weeks into my stay, they brought on a renowned therapist who was rumored to have been simultaneously treating Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and that poor drummer from Guns n Roses—not my punk rock heroes, but real live superstar mega-fiends just the same. I was vicariously star-struck. It took some string pulling and some extra cash, but soon, I too was seeing the rock n roll therapist.
In his wisdom, he determined access to a guitar was paramount to my recovery. “Get this boy an axe, STAT!” is the way I’d like to remember it. His first assignment for me? Go and write a song about my addiction. As corny as that sounds, I came up with a pretty hip tune.
In our next session, I played it for him and, when I’d finished, he said, “Hey, you know who you remind me a little of? John Prine.”
I said, “Who’s John Prine?”
His jaw almost hit the floor. He was both astonished and disappointed. He went about assembling me a homemade cassette of John Prine Live and I drank it up. It was like reuniting with an old friend. 18 tracks into my new discovery, I hit the song, That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round. It was the most unpretentious thing I’d ever heard. It crystallized my view of the world. Its easy blend of pain and humor, framed in the joyous simple key of G, put my world back on its axis. Prine perfectly married the harsh reality of an abusive life with the whimsy of hope in just a few lines. It was a complete palette of emotion, a direct line right into the human experience, all with the sandwiched in a good-natured guffaw. I knew then that I’d never be able to write anything as good.
The therapist was deluded to compare me with Prine, but it worked. The song made me feel well-adjusted again. Everything under the unforgivable Arizona sun was in its place, imperfectly, where it was supposed to be. It was okay with John, and it was going to be okay with me.
Tom Pitts, Jan. 2012.