Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Jesus, The Missing Years – John Prine

Jesus, the Missing Years

Written and Performed by John Prine. You can listen to the studio version here and a good live version (low volume) with his funny introduction here. The song originally appeared on the 1991 album, The Missing Years, and later reappeared on the live album, Live on Tour, in 1997. You can buy the studio version from iTunes here and the live version here.

These poets, or in this case, a singer-songwriter, can be trouble. No wonder Plato wanted to exile them from his Republic. These poets are like a force of nature tending towards disorder, challenging what we see, asking questions no one wants asked. It’s Warren Zevon declaring “I was born to rock the boat” (from “Mutineer”) and Bob Dylan declaring, “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.” Along comes John Prine asking questions and poking fun at Jesus or at least the common notions of Jesus and you know that’s trouble. It’s why parents get so upset about the music their kids listen to. (As the elders issue their cries and objections – where are you now Tipper Gore? – over the supposed violence or misogyny of rap and hip-hop, listening to a good old Chicago folkie begs the question who’s more subservice, L.L. Cool J or Steve Goodman?)

In concert, Prine introduces this song with some humorous patter about his later day discovery that there were these missing years in Jesus’ life. Anyone who pays attention knows this, but most glide right past the point. We hear about Jesus’ childhood that takes him to age 12, then he steps off stage and we hear nothing from him again until he’s thirty. (Thirty seems to be a special age for that’s the point at which Prince Hamlet enters the stage too).

No one asks too many questions about what Jesus was doing all those years. If pressed, most Christians might answer that Jesus hung out in Nazareth with his family, perhaps working as a carpenter with his Dad (Johnny Cash intones a song called Jesus was a Carpenter “Jesus was a carpenter/And he worked with a saw and a hammer/And his hands could form a table strong enough to stand forever”).  Not surprisingly, plenty have offered stories to fill the void ranging from claims that Jesus travelled to India and Tibet where he learned Buddhism or wandered as far north as England or spent years studying at the library in Alexandria. The only problem is that no one has any facts or evidence since, outside the gospel texts, there’s scant independent evidence that Jesus existed (in your spare time, you might check out Albert Schweitzer’s classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus).

So John Prine lets the idea of the missing years roll around in his head for a few years until he does what a songwriter does: he turns those musings into a song. If there are no facts, he imagines some truth, has some fun, lets loose a little whimsy as he imagines a life for the young Jesus. You might want to ground yourself before reading the lyrics as the lightning bolts might fly if you say them too loud:

It was raining it was cold
West Bethlehem was no place for a twelve year old
So he packed his bags and he headed out
To find out what the world’s about
He went to France he went to Spain
He found love he found pain
He found stores so he started to shop
But he had no money so he got in trouble with a cop

Kids in trouble with the cops from Israel didn’t have no home
So he cut his hair and moved to Rome
It was there he met his Irish bride
And they rented a flat on the lower east side
Of Rome
Italy that is
Music publishers, book binders, bible belters,
Swimming pools, orgies and lots of pretty Italian chicks

Whether you believe or not, what Prine manages to do is recover the human part of Jesus, a little humor, a little longing, some ups and downs. He drinks (“Wine was flowing so were beers”), has trouble with the wife, which allows Prine to throw a zinger at the Catholic Church over divorce, and leads a Zelig-like life:

You see him and the wife wasn’t getting along
So he took out his guitar and he wrote a song
Called ‘The Dove of Love Fell Off the Perch’
But he couldn’t get divorced in the Catholic Church
At least not back then anyhow
Jesus was a good guy he didn’t need this shit
So he took a pill with a Coca-Cola and he swallowed it
He discovered the Beatles
He recorded with the Stones
Once he even opened up a three-way package
For old George Jones

Like any good artist, Prine can make up facts, but he cannot avoid the truth, and the truth here has to do with fate and a messianic mission crammed into the blood and flesh of a human.  Prine’s Jesus is human and God, a mystery that our minds have trouble comprehending, but the artist needs to articulate the ineffable:

On his thirteenth birthday he saw ‘Rebel Without a Cause’
He went straight on home and invented Santa Claus
Who gave him a gift
And he responded in kind
He gave the gift of love and went out of his mind  

Wouldn’t you go out of your mind? After all that running around, the now not-so-young Jesus must come to grips with his fate:

So he grew his hair long and threw away his comb
And headed back to Jerusalem to find mom, dad and home
But when he got there the cupboard was bare
Except for an old black man with a fishing rod
He said, “Whatcha gonna be when you grow up?”
Jesus said “God”
Oh my God what have I gotten myself into?
I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood
They’re gonna kill me Mama, they don’t like me Bud

So Jesus went to heaven and he went there awful quick
All them people killed him and He wasn’t even sick 

You can believe or not believe in Jesus, you can pass it off as a crock of some demonic vision (Leonard Cohen’s “Song of Isaac” declares: you have not had a vision”) but Prine accepts the story of Jesus as is. He can fill in the missing years but the ending is always the same. Is there any more plaintive line than when Prine sings, “I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood/They’re gonna kill me Mama…”

What’s a boy to do?

I’m not going to get into a list of Jesus songs (maybe another day), but same in the same vein include Jim White’s “If Jesus Drove a Motor Home” (“playing Bob Dylan and motivation tapes”) and a great reference in Dylan’s “Red River Shore.”  Kris Kristofferson takes a whack at the Jesus story with his song, “Jesus was a Capricorn,”

Jesus was a Capricorn, he ate organic foods.
He believed in love and peace and never wore no shoes.
Long hair, beard and sandals and a funky bunch of friends.
Reckon they’d just nail him up if He come down again.

Kristofferson’s tale winds up on the preachy side, but big-hearted nonetheless.

Prine’s song came to mind after some recent discussions my middle son, James. Now a 17-year-old high school senior attending a Catholic High School, he’s studying his fourth year of Catholic theology as required by the school. Now spending time each day contemplating theory would seem like a good thing. Yet as we walked the campus of a prep school that he may attend next year and he considered their requirement of a religious studies class (a non-denominational school, they have a broad and interesting offering of religious studies classes), James said to me, “It would be good to take a religion class where I could ask questions.” We – his teachers, his parents, all of us who care so much and mean so well – we’re so busy trying to teach the right way, that we sometimes forget the need for exploration, the need for humor, the mystery that exists and we cannot avoid, but should embrace. Plato and all the teachers seek order and obedience, thank God (?) we have the poets who bring a touch of chaos and madness to our lives. So here’s to an education that offers some facts, answers some questions, but leaves more questions than when we started. Here’s to the mysteries and not knowing everything. Here’s the poets and all there verses. Here’s to the missing years.

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