I used to be patriotic, in that t-shirty, tearing-up-at-the-anthem, wanting-to-execute-flag-burners kind of way, but when I was seventeen I got into Rage Against the Machine and Kurt Vonnegut and eventually grew into a real person. Ain’t saying that’s the only model to follow, just that some people never develop beyond self-parody, and those people are the subject of a wonderful John Prine song called “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”
I don’t believe in having heroes, except for John Prine. I wish I could say I grew up worshipping him, but I came up in that New Country phase, Garth Brooks and his ilk. I actually did grow up a Prine fan; I just didn’t know it. One of my favorite songs was “You Never Called Me By My Name,” which was made famous by David Allan Coe, but written by Steve Goodman (who is credited in the song’s lyrics) and John Prine. That song exhibits the characteristics I love about John Prine, the playfulness, the wit, the self-awareness, all on display in “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” the seventh track off his first album, John Prine. It gets overshadowed by more well-known songs like “Paradise” and “Angel of Montgomery,” but goddamn it is good. The opening lines, even with the misplaced modifier grammar nerds are about to spot, should be taught in writing classes:
While digesting Reader’s Digest in the back of a dirty bookstore
A plastic flag with gum on the back fell out on the floor
The narrator takes the flag with him and sticks it on his windshield, which by the end of the song is so full up with patriotic displays he can’t see out of it. When he dies in a car crash, the narrator finds himself denied entrance to Heaven because
Your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
We’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reasons for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
Some folks, the folks who approve of blowing people up with our fancy killer skyrobots, would say the lyrics are self-righteousness, but this song is the only anthem worth standing for.
I’m linking to a live version in which Prine says he had retired this song but brought it back in honor of George W. Bush.
(Song recommendation by Alan Good)