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"JESUS THE MISSING YEARS: "JOHN PRINE'S BABY BOOMER MESSIAH

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I wrote an English paper in college on "Jesus: The Missing Years". I thought that one day you may decide to have a "Boring Academic Writing" section.  : ) Jay Jones   [email protected]

Jay Jones 1998

In John Prine's "Jesus the Missing Years," the narrator offers a contemporary version of the lost years of Christ. When listening to the lyrics of Prine's song, it quickly becomes apparent that the narrator is not speculating on the eighteen lost years of the biblical Christ; in the course of the song, the narrator takes the listener on a journey with a baby boomer named Jesus. Although Prine's Jesus is similar in many ways to the biblical Jesus, this modern day child-god undergoes a transformation which is uniquely American and which places him firmly in this century's most traumatic period. 

In "Jesus the Missing Years," the narrator's description of Jesus is representative of the archetype that Jung called the "Eternal Child." In "The Myth of the Eternal Child in Sixties America," Harold Schechter states that although no one could fully perceive it at the time, the "sixties were a mythic age even when they were taking place," and the Eternal Child was the prevailing myth of the decade (81). From the beginning of the song, it is established that Prine's Jesus embodies the qualities of the Eternal Child as he innocently discovers "love" and "pain" (7), and is subsequently misunderstood by authority figures. 

Prine sets the stage for his "contemporary" tale of Jesus in the first verse of the song. The narrator states that Jesus decides to leave his hometown of Bethlehem and begin his journey because its "raining and cold" and "West Bethlehem [is] no place for a twelve year old" (1-3). The suggestion that Bethlehem is an undesirable place and unfit for a child elicits the image of present day Israel. With its religious wars, modern day Bethlehem certainly is not conducive for a young child. In the next few lines, it is further established that this story of Jesus is in the twentieth century. Prine states that Jesus begins his journey by going to "France" and "Spain" (6), two countries that were not in existence during biblical times. It is also in this verse that Prine shows that he will not base his explanation of the lost years of Christ on historical theories or solely on the speculation of theologians. When Jesus gets hassled by "a cop" after unknowingly shop lifting, it is clear that Prine's Jesus is unquestionably human (9-10). 

As a boy on the verge of adolescence, Prine's Jesus must deal with four issues that confront all teenagers: love, pain, money, and authority figures. More specifically, Prine's Jesus struggles with the issues brought to light in the 1960s: free love versus marriage, drugs, spirituality, and the generation gap. After Prine's twelve-year old Jesus leaves his home, his predicament is restated in the first lines of the second verse: "Kids in trouble with the cops from Israel didn't have no home" (11-12). The repetition of these lines emphasizes the fact that Jesus has escaped one form of authority, his parents, only to find another. Prine also uses the second verse as a time transition. In the course of the song, Jesus progresses from a state of innocence, to one of experience, and, ultimately, to a state of disillusionment and death. Chronologically, the first and second verses seem to represent the late fifties and early sixties. Each verse also contains symbolic baptisms for Jesus. After the rain in the first line of verse one, Jesus is changed and decides to leave. In verse two, Jesus cuts his hair, just as Elvis did for the army in 1958, and moves again to Rome (13). In keeping with the social codes of the fifties, Jesus marries young and settles down with his new "Irish Bride" (14).

Midway through the second verse, Prine eases the story out of the fifties and into the 1960s. He accomplishes this by making a reference to an artifact of American popular culture from that era. In lines 5-7 of verse two, Prine offers an unlikely analogy:

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. (15-20)

This section of the song is a parody of the theme song to the 1960s television comedy, The Beverly Hillbillies. The allusion to this show is more than just a humorous time placement device employed by Prine. The lead character of the Beverly Hillbillies, Jed Clampett, in addition to sharing the initials of Jesus Christ, J.C., also plays the part of the proverbial "fish-out-of-water." Like Jesus, Clampett leaves his home for a foreign town, and despite his innate goodness, he is ridiculed by all those outside his immediate family. Further, the show itself can be considered a "fish out of water" when placed in its historical context. With the 1960s' social changes--Civil Rights Movement, anti-war demonstrations--this show was, to say the least, anachronistic. Later in the song, and possibly due to the "orgies and pretty Italian chicks" he is exposed to in Rome (19-20), Jesus also finds that marriage, along with other institutions, are no longer relevant to him. 

The maturation of Jesus continues in the third verse, as does the time pattern established in the first two verses of the song. After another baptism of sorts, this time in the form of "wine" and "beers," the narrator proclaims that Jesus finds his "missing years" (29-30). At this point, Jesus completely outgrows his affinity with the 1950s. After going to a "dance," he says, "This don't move me" (31-32). With this statement, he demonstrates that he is forming his own opinions and is not living his life purely by social conventions. Like the young people of the sixties, he wants something more than just a Friday night sock hop. 

As Jesus grows older in this verse, he also takes on more of the qualities of the biblical Jesus. After leaving the dance, he goes to a movie that has a miraculous effect on him. After seeing Rebel without a Cause, the narrator states that Jesus goes home and invents "Santa Claus" (35-37). First of all, this passage is significant because the narrator states that Jesus sees this movie on his "thirteenth birthday" (34), the Jewish age of maturity. Second, this film depicts a teenager who feels alienated and unloved by even his parents. By going home and inventing "Santa Claus," Prine's Jesus demonstrates that he too is capable of miracles and is compassionate. He is so moved by the film that he creates a father figure who is able to give "the gift of love" (36-40).

In verse five, Jesus breaks free from the social conventions of the fifties and immerses himself in the free-flowing waters of the sixties. Jesus decides to leave his wife at this point in the story because they are not "getting along" (41). The narrator states that he can not get a "divorce," however, in the "Catholic Church" (43-44). Ironically, an institution that he inspired, now inhibits him. This event foreshadows the complete alienation Prine's Jesus feels at the end of the story, but at this point, he remains a child of the sixties and increases his spiritual quest.

After he completely exorcizes himself from the fifties by declaring that he does not need any of the Catholic Church's "shit" (47), Jesus again undergoes a symbolic baptism and is reborn. This time the liquid is a "Coca-Cola" which he uses to swallow a "pill" (48-9). The narrator does not state if the "pill" is L.S.D, but to a young person of the sixties, to discover "the Beatles" and to record "with the Stones" would have been a miraculous event no matter if it were an hallucination or a Divine act.

Near the end of the song in verse five, Jesus comes closer to the end of his young life. The narrator states that when Jesus "woke up he was seventeen" (56), and the world looked different to him. The optimistic years of his adolescence had now passed by "like sweet little days." As the children of the sixties discovered, the "babies crying" signified the loss of innocence as they pulled up to the middle-class table full of cheap "pork chops and Beaujolais" (55). Prine's Jesus finds that there is no longer a generation gap between "the man down the street and the kid on the stoop" (58-9). Robert M. Pirsig suggests in Lila that 

"in the early seventies, as people began to see...an extremely destructive form of degeneracy of the sort seen in the Manson murders, the Jonestown madness, and the increase of crime and drug addiction throughout the country... they dropped away from the movement. (348)

Pirsig goes on to say that since the end of the "Hippie revolution" in the seventies, there has been a "slow confused mindless drift back to a kind of pseudo-Victorian moral posture accompanied by an unprecedented and unexplained growth in crime" (346). This longing for relief, for a period of time which cannot be revived is the central theme of the sixth verse and of the chorus in Prine's "Jesus the Missing Years."

The disillusionment that Jesus feels leads him to back to Jerusalem, but he finds that the innocence he left there is gone. Although he again grows "his hair long" as it was before he left, when he gets home he finds that the "cupboard" is "bare" (64-8). It is at this point in the song that Prine's Jesus realizes his fate and more closely resembles the biblical Christ. When asked what he is going to be when he grows up, "Jesus says, 'God.'" (71-6). He realizes that he is to become the authority figure he has been running away from. Further, at the end of his journey, he is still alone. Although he is talking to an "old black man," the black man is an additional symbol of alienation. Set in the time frame of the late seventies, the Civil Rights laws, which were fought so hard for in the 1960s, were not successful in ending racism. Although the black man is now in the old neighborhood of Jesus, it appears as if Jesus' parents have moved away. Prine's Jesus also comes to the understanding that he is a symbol. When he says, "I'm a human corkscrew and all my wine / is blood" (75-6), he realizes that he has been used as a tool so that others might live. As in the Bible, when Jesus tells his Apostles that he "must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed... " (Mark 8:31), Prine's Jesus also predicts his own death: "They're gonna kill me momma / They don't like me Bud" (77-8). 

The chorus, which closes the song, paints a picture of rural America before the sixties and even before the materialistic 1950s. In the chorus, it is the narrator, not Jesus, who is speaking and remembering. The lines, "Charlie bought some popcorn / Billy bought a car" (21-2), symbolize an innocent America which many people long for, but which never existed. Death is described as something that almost happens, but does not: "Someone almost bought the farm / But they didn't go that far" (23-4). The last lines of the chorus state, in the present tense, that "we all reside down a block inside / At 23 Skiddoo" (27-8). As Jesus does in the last verse in the song, the narrator tells his "contemporary peers" (84) that everyone lives in this mythical place because everyone wants to get away from the savagery of reality--everyone wants "to go to heaven awful quick" (79).

The dream-like quality of "Jesus the Missing Years" is in keeping with Joseph Campbell's definition of a myth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: 

Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche. But in the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind. (19)

The dream of the sixties dwells in Prine's "story," as does the Eternal Child--longing to be resurrected.

Works Cited
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: University Press, 1973. 19.
The Holy Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1978. Pirsig, Robert M. Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam, 1991. 346-8.
Prine, John. "Jesus the Missing Years." The Missing Years. Oh Boy Records, OBR-009CD, 1991.
Schechter, Harold. "The Myth of the Eternal Child in Sixties America." The Popular Culture Reader. Ed. Christopher D. Geist and Jack Nachbar. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983. 81-95.

 
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