Music works on many different levels, but perhaps its main appeal is its ability to bypass analysis and make you feel different inside your skin. When writing about songs that do this, the effect often seems dry and detached by comparison, but the original experience is always a visceral one.
Yesterday I stumbled across the title track from John Prine’s 1991 album The Missing Years. The song is based on the premise that Christ’s life between the ages of twelve and thirty is a complete mystery. The song starts like a children’s poem: “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 …” After this inauspicious start, Prine has Jesus travel to Europe, get into trouble with a cop for shoplifting, marry an Irish bride, learn to play the guitar, discover the Beatles and record with the Rolling Stones and see Rebel Without a Cause on his thirteenth birthday. The song is utterly secular, yet it hints at a context in which the life of Jesus matters. The most important clue to this context comes in the chorus, the only part of the song that isn’t spoken: “Charley bought some popcorn / Billy bought a car / Someone almost bought the farm / But they didn’t go that far / Things shut down at midnight / At least round here they do / ‘Cause we all reside down the block / Inside of … 23 Skidoo.”
The point seems to be that, for the purpose of the song, Jesus experiences everything: love and pain, family, music and the drug culture of the ‘sixties, whereas the characters name-checked in the chorus choose to play it safe.
A similar comparison is drawn in Richard Thompson’s unforgettable God Loves a Drunk, from 1991’s Rumour and Sigh. Whereas Prine’s lofty subject is belied by his unassuming drawl, Thompson is defiant. In this song God’s love is extended to drunks, “the lowest of men”, to the exclusion of those “with your semis and pensions”, who “bring up the babies to be just like Daddy” in the hope that “… maybe you’ll be there when he gives out wings.”
Once again, this is a song in praise of experience, even at the expense of the body and the mind. There is one particularly haunting image in the middle verse, in which Thompson stretches the argument for intoxication as far as it will go: “And he can’t hear the insults and whispers go by him / As he leans in the doorway and sings Sally Racket / And he can’t feel the cold rain beat down on his body / And soak through his clothes to his skin / O God loves a drunk, come raise up your glasses, amen.”
Thompson’s drunk has apparently lost all sense of the outer world, and has become an object of ridicule to others, but the song stakes a claim for the private world of inner experience that becomes accessible to him, and for which he is willing to undergo hardship and suffer hostility. In this context, his life as the “lowest of men” is transformed into a solitary triumph in the face of the conformity that surrounds it, a life close to the elements as well as to the bottom.
Songs like these have the power to inspire those who hear them to throw themselves into the world in search of meaning, chaos or both. They might also inspire them to become songwriters.