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John Prine's "In Spite of Ourselves"

Chris Parker on why John Prine's tune will score the first dance at his wedding


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When I listen to this song, I think of John Darnielle's "Alpha Couple," would things have gone a little bit better. Like the subjects of several Mountain Goats songs and the album Tallahassee, the couple here possesses a scruffy, mismatched manner and charm that are at the song's center. On this 1999 cut, Prine duets with the wonderful Iris Dement. Against odds, her willowy country twang intertwines nicely with his gruff baritone.

The characters certainly aren't swells: She looks down her nose at money and thinks crossing her legs is funny. He's a "wacked-out weirdo" who's "not too sharp" and a borderline alcoholic, given how he "drinks his beer like it's oxygen." But isn't that the wonder of love, that in spite of all our oddness and personal failings, there's someone out there who will appreciate us?

I first heard this song as part of the pre-show music for a They Might Be Giants show at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Heights. It was maybe the third or fourth date with Michele, who's now my fiancée. We met through e-Harmony, and at the time, I had been considering leaving Cleveland for Portland, Ore. I signed up to give fate one last chance to work its magic.

We'd been waiting for the band to appear for 20 minutes, and we were growing antsy. But the song transfixed us: It was the humor of Prine's lines that first hooked me, but we ultimately both saw a little of ourselves in the song, too. Two headstrong individuals who'd forged careers on our own outside of button-down "boss" culture, we weren't used to compromising all that much for anyone. That, of course, probably has something to do with us being our late 30s and early 40s and still unwed. Maybe it's simply that nothing had clicked to that point, but for me the song spoke to a larger truth: Though our relationship has always had some rather contentious, hot-blooded moments, there was something stronger than our wills pulling us together. I can't speak for her, but for me, an energy exists between us that is impossible to resist.

Life isn't easy for most of us, and sometimes the only way through is to put your head down and simply plunge forward. The winds of fortune batter you with all manner of flying projectiles—loose shingles, empty liquor bottles, small pieces of furniture—chipping away at heart and resolve. And the older you get, the harder it becomes to retain more than a sliver of your former pie-eyed innocence. Responsible for only yourself, it's easy to fall prey to "us-and-them" thinking. As you and your cadre of fellow unmarried friends grow older, cynicism grows, reinforced by bad habits like bed-hopping and knee-jerk distrust.

So when that curmudgeonly camel threads the romantic needle, it's pretty clear something special is happening. But even then, you have to maintain your grip, lest you lose the thread and find yourself back in the pool of discontent. That's easier said than done, especially when the relationship endures more on-and-offs than a strobe light. Faith becomes a mean feat the older you get. You just want to get out before you get burned.

Even if the instinct to run and save oneself is strong, though, sometimes it's no match for the sense that something is indescribably right. That, for me, is what this song is about: Lest you have "Welcome" written across your forehead and back, you won't find anyone whose behavior and attitude doesn't annoy you sometimes. And unless you're really lucky, you're going to fight. The question is: How strong is the bond? If it's based on such weak sauce as looks, money or status, it will tear as soon as it's presented with an opportunity to trade up. I honestly can't say I understand exactly what it is that glues Michele and me, but I know that somehow I believe in it, and I know it's deeper than any of those things. It's larger than our individual foibles or place in the world. It's something unspoken that guides my better nature and provides the conviction that's the foundation of our relationship. We believe different things: She's a staunch Republican who enjoys Fox News and considers The New York Times an unreliable organ of propaganda. I'm an avowed Libertarian who believes tax cuts for the rich and trickle-down economics are another version of "socialism for the rich, capitalism for the rest of us." Our cats don't get along, and, working as an architect, she earns several times what I make as a writer. She generally distrusts men the way I do wealth. There are plenty of trip-wires hidden in the brush that should explode, but there's something even deeper that grounds us. Against all odds, we're the big door prize. In spite of ourselves, we've arrived.

For a whacked-out weirdo such as myself, I couldn't feel more blessed. That's why, when we marry in a half-dozen weeks, our first dance as a married couple will be to this song. And there'll be nothing but big old hearts dancing in our eyes.

John Prine plays Durham Performing Arts Center Saturday, April 4. Amos Lee opens the 8 p.m. show, and tickets cost $42.50-$52.50.


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