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
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"
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
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
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
"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.
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.