Illegal Smile Meaning

I know that most of you are wondering if I am going to write anything about my Dad.  The answer is yes, but not right yet.  I am working on a post that would be fitting since I do not feel like his obituary did him justice.  Nothing wrong with it, but it lacked emotion.

Anyways, I was having a discussion with my cousin Heather about the John Prine song, “Illegal Smile.”  We were talking about the meaning of Prine songs and I told her that when I was a kid I just thought it was a silly song, but it was not until later that I learned it was about an acid trip.  She argued that it was about smoking marijuana.

Well I will let you folks be the judge…

When I woke up this morning, things were lookin’ bad
Seem like total silence was the only friend I had
Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down… and won
And it was twelve o’clock before I realized
That I was havin’… no fun

[Chorus:]

But fortunately I have the key to escape reality
And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile
It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while
Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone
No I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun

Last time I checked my bankroll,
It was gettin’ thin
Sometimes it seems like the bottom
Is the only place I’ve been
I Chased a rainbow down a one-way street… dead end
And all my friends turned out to be insurance salesmen

[Chorus]

Well, I sat down in my closet with all my overalls
Tryin’ to get away
From all the ears inside my walls
I dreamed the police heard
Everything I thought… what then?
Well I went to court
And the judge’s name was Hoffman

Ah but fortunately I have the key to escape reality
And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile
It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while
Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone
No I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun
Well done, hot dog bun, my sister’s a nun

I mean, c’mon that sounds like an acid trip to me.  Okay, maybe not.  The funny thing though?  We were both wrong.  I found an interview with John Prine and he discusses the meaning:

I have to confess, the song was not about smokin’ dope. It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I had this view of the world where I can find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at. But it was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn’t want to stop every time I played it and make a disclaimer.
When I first started singing it I went on this underground TV program, and the only stage set they had was two chairs and this fake marijuana plant. I came on and sang “Illegal Smile,” and they kept having the camera pan in, real psychedelic-like, on the plant. On top of that, I got fine by the musician’s union for not taking any money to do the show.

So there you go Heather!  We are both wrong.