Words launch other words, and names have a way of establishing themselves as footholds – nothing could be truer than with the name Jesus, which – thanks to the centuries of teaching, tradition, imposition and imperialism which have used him as currency – has come to mean whatever you earnestly wish. The devil may have the best tunes, but in at least several top-class songs Jesus gets a mention.
O.k, so it’s not the ‘real’ Jesus, but that’s exactly the point in this word-made-flesh ballad, where the singer and subject drink beer on the fourth of July. Underneath the soft beautiful melody there’s a tight-packed tale of debauchery and human failing.
File this along side the excellent Frightened Rabbit tune Heads Roll Off : ‘Jesus, is just, a spanish boy’s name’.
This is judo music, a strange oriental power-play where you use your opponents strength/momentum to flatten them. Kinky strolls into a redneck country music bar, both in the narrative and musically speaking, and proceeds to trash its foundations using a pedalsteel guitar and some home-truths. Alice Walker, in The Colour Puple had her characters debate whether Jesus was black: “”Somewhere in the bible it say Jesus hair was like lamb’s wool, I say. Well, say Shug, if he came to any of these churches we talking bout he’d have to have it conked before anybody paid him any attention. The last thing niggers want to think about they God is that his hair kinky…”. Kinky Friedman and Alice Walker together, though, agree in art on one thing – whatever race or colour Jesus may have been, he sure as hell wasn’t a w.a.s.p’y-texan, beer-drinking, god-loving, race-hating bigot.
Written by two beatnick hippies in their student days as a social satire and folk parody, the song gained extra weight by being included in the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke. It’s been covered and added to by everyone from the Flaming Lips through to little-known social satirist Billy Idol (?!?)
“I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, riding on the dashboard of my car”
on a follow up theme you could also check out Soundgarden’s Plastic Jesus: “Plastic Jesus, where are you from? Korea or Canada, or maybe Taiwan”
The crash course collision between christianity and capitalism that is the American dream is captured brilliantly by the man that wrote Satan is my master (not to be confused with the equally splendid Satan is my motor by Cake).
If you’re going to listen to this, I suggest the spine-tingling accappella version recording that Folds produced of the The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Loreleis choir for his University A Cappella project.
This is a song that makes you yearn for and hate that ‘beautiful mcmansions on the hill’ society.
The practice of building churches on ground sacred to other cults became a guiding principle of the expanding Church in its early centuries and through to the Spanish conquests of the Americas. Take a winning formula and change it slightly, give it a ‘value add’ and see where it takes you. So too, then with Depeche Mode, the band that started out as Basildon whitewashed jeans and synths likely lads on Top of the Pops, and merged into S&M rock n’ roll beasts with an eye on the darker side of faith, love, and devotion (all the while reigning supreme in the US church of Stadium rock).
The majesty of this song is testified to by the fact that artists poles apart like Johnny Cash and Italian metal band Lacuna Coil have chosen to cover it.
Speaking of Johnny Cash – a man with a bit of a thing for Jesus, it’s safe to say – it’s no surprise that he was drawn to this, perhaps the most emblematic of Cave’s songs. Jesus has turned into Christ here, ‘born into a manger, like some ragged stranger he died upon the cross, and might I say, it was quite fitting in its way, he was a carpenter by trade, or at least that’s what I’m told’.
There are no atheists in the trenches, they say, and this is a song battling between old testament defiance and new testament redemption, all told on death row as the singer awaits that most American of judgements, the electric chair.
This is what you get when you get America’s greatest song-writer rhapsodising about the rapture. With his gravel-rolling vocal chords taking the lead, accompanied only by some twanging and clapping, it sounds as if Tom’s been called from the grave, ready to greet a cargo-cult ass-kicking Jesus, back to judge the living and the dead. Forget the beautiful ballads, the doomed romanticism, in this tune Waits puts himself into the worn-out shoes of a believer walking the last mile. The results are spectacular.
Tags: singer songwriters