In one of his last recorded songs before his death from coronavirus-related complications Tuesday night, even Birmingham’s iconic iron statue atop Red Mountain served as a muse for the acclaimed songwriter, who was often compared to the likes of Mark Twain or Marcel Proust for both the humor and emotion of his songs.
In Prine’s “The Lonesome Friends of Science” from his final album, “The Tree of Forgiveness,” Vulcan, the god of fire in Roman mythology, was a part of a celestial love triangle as a lover spurned.
In one part of the song, Prine described Vulcan like this:
“The Vulcan lives in Birmingham
Sometimes he just don’t give a damn
His head is full of bumblebees
His pride hangs down below his knees
Venus left him long ago
For a guy named Mars from Idaho
The Vulcan sent a wedding gift
Three-legged stool and a wheelchair lift”
However, Vulcan had been a longtime obsession for Prine long before “The Lonesome Friends of Science.” In fact, Prine, who had written about Alabama in “Angel from Montgomery,” arguably his most well-known song, had spent years trying to write a song about the Birmingham landmark. In an interview with Offbeat Magazine in 2002, Prine said that up to that point, he had spent several years working on a song that was tentatively called “The Iron Man from Birmingham.”
“They used to have it with a giant pickle in its hands, but the main thing that interested me is when they had a light in its hands that would turn red when there was a traffic fatality,” Prine told the magazine. “That to me is Biblical, you know? I’m trying to fit all this together, and I’m reading newspaper articles and things about the Vulcans so I can get a line on it and direct it to this mother and son that are going to be the second part of it. I’m hoping I can get it finished for the next record.”
However, after his cancer diagnosis in the late 1990’s as well as a slough of other health problems over the years, Prine’s musical output slowed and he never finished “The Iron Man from Birmingham.” However, Prine did use some of the lyrics from his unfinished Vulcan song to write “Lonesome Friends of Science,” according to the Nashville Scene.
The Vulcan statue was designed by sculptor Giuseppe Moretti for Birmingham’s entry for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. For many years, it did carry a neon torch that would glow red if someone had died in a traffic accident that day. In 1999, the statue was temporarily taken down for renovations and was erected in 2003, this time with a spear point in hand instead of its longtime torch.
Standing 56 feet high and weighing over 120,000 pounds, the Vulcan statue is the largest iron-ore statue in the world.