"I got you painted on the inside of my eyelids, it’s true; I can’t sleep without looking at you." If that sounds like it could be the chorus of a John Prine song you’ve never heard, that’s because it is.
The backstory: Around 1979, Austin singer-songwriter Rosie Flores was living in Los Angeles when Prine came to one of her shows at the Palomino nightclub. Introduced by Prine’s manager, the late Al Bunetta, Flores and Prine got to talking, and Prine suggested they try to write a song together that night.
"I met him at his hotel around midnight," Flores recalls. "We started drinking whiskey and playing around with songs. And then we started this waltz."
They kept writing till the sun came up, not quite finishing it but getting enough down that Flores left with a rough cassette recording. That chorus became "the line we would sing to each other through the years" when they’d run into each other on the road, Flores says.
One of those occasions was in the early 1990s in Rhode Island, and that’s where Austin singer-songwriter James McMurtry enters the frame of this decades-long tale. Prine, Flores and McMurtry were all on the bill at the Newport Folk Festival. Later that night, they all ended up in Prine’s hotel room with other festival performers.
"They were all drinking and carrying on, and I heard these voices singing, and it was John Prine and Rosie Flores singing one of the prettiest songs I ever heard," McMurtry recalled. "They sang it in harmony, just standing around the door."
After news spread in late March that Prine was hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms, McMurtry got to thinking about that song again. He’d been asked by local singer-songwriter Betty Soo to contribute a song to a March 31 livestream event titled "Girls Who Do Boys Who Do Girls," in which Austin acts cover each other’s songs — the theme being that men cover songs written by women, and vice versa.
McMurtry called Flores, who explained that when Prine was recording his Grammy-winning 1991 album "The Missing Years," she’d sent the tape by courier to the album’s producer, Howie Epstein. (Prine apparently had mentioned the song as a possibility for inclusion.) They wound up not recording it, and Flores didn’t have another copy of the tape.
So McMurtry set about writing a few verses to go with the chorus he remembered. He’d hoped, at the time, that Flores and Prine — who initially appeared to be recovering, until he died April 7 — might revisit the song themselves. "Their lines are still the best lines in the song," he said in a brief preface before performing it on the March 31 livestream. "Maybe these verses will stick, maybe they won’t. If John and Rosie want to get together and tear it apart after this is done, that’s fine."
That won’t happen now. But there is, at least, this last postscript, an echo of decades ago in Prine’s life, rescued and held dear by two Austin songwriters. Flores recited McMurtry’s new lyrics near the end of a 20-minute livestream she did on April 8. The full chorus, as it now stands, is a bittersweet memory:
"I got you painted on the inside of my eyelids
I can’t close my eyes without looking at you
I can’t fall asleep for the knowing
That I’ll wake up alone if I do."