One of my favorite old CDs, now existing solely on my computer, is one from Marcel, a fellow sailor I met anchored at the base of the Statue of Liberty. He was a crazy French-Canadian fireman, so crazy that he melted his entire keel, more than 5000 pounds worth, in his backyard from bicycle tire leads. He burned me a CD with MP3s his nephew had bit-torrented for him and his wife before they set sail from Montreal, down towards Lake Champlain. It’s still in my iTunes library, named “Marcel’s Country Classics.”
(It begs a whole series of other questions, I know, about electronic rights, a question that becomes more pertinent to me as I now aim to sell a book. I believe in authors and artists making money, but I’m also a music historian. I keep everything my iTunes library lays its hands on, from Aaliyah to Zappa. I hope that the musicians end up making money off of me, either from libraries buying their albums, or Pandora stations I name after them. Books and music are among the few things I think are worth spending money on, but do I spend enough? I can never tell. Okay—here’s how I earn my keep—everyone go buy a John Prine album on Amazon or iTunes. Take your pick—we only get two choices anymore, in politics as in the rest of life.)
Which brings me to my point: John Prine. He was among the artists on Marcel’s Country Classics. I’d only heard him one other place, on a mix tape made for me by an ex-boyfriend. (See, I was pirating music long before iTunes.) The song is “Jesus (The Missing Years)” and it has to earn a place at least in the top ten songs of all time.
I used to be one of those girls who liked every kind of music but country, another song, by Robbie Fulks. Now I think it’s the best kind of music there is. All that took to turn me was spectacular song-writing, and Bob Dylan, as usual. The irony of rock and roll is stripped away in country music, and artists sing honestly, painfully so, about pain and loss and longing. John Prine sings about home, and about Jesus, unapologetically. He sings about country music itself, art as a calling, paying homage to its heroes: old George Jones, among others.
I don’t know why I love “Jesus (The Missing Years)” so very much. I love thinking about Jesus as a child, as lost as I was at that age, wandering around the world, hunting down home. I love thinking about him living an ordinary life, with a wife and children and poop (baby poop, that is, the worst kind). I love thinking about those eighteen lost years, when he could have been as human and as profane as I am.
I’ve been reading some, on the web, from those of the Christian persuasion, and I hate to say it, but a lot of it sounds like a crock. The worst thing about the community of faith is the hypocrisy. People refuse to tell the truth about how broken they are, about the kind of messes they get themselves into. But Jesus doesn't. Not in his missing years, and not in the Bible. He brings together the human and the divine. And he brings us together, me and John Prine, and me and Marcel, and now I think back to my own history, to facing the endless horizon at sea, to friends far gone, and to the music that holds us together.