Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Books Worth Reading (9): The Songs of Jesse Adams by Peter McKinnon

The Songs of Jesse Adams (Melbourne: Acorn, 2014)

The Songs of Jesse Adams is a contemporary allegory of the New Testament story of Jesus. Well, ‘contemporary’ inasmuch as it is set in 1960s Melbourne. We see the Jesus figure appearing at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl and meeting up with associates in Nicholson and Lygon Streets. We see the political, media and religious leaders doing their conspiring in Spring Street. Echoes of Henry Bolte and his ilk resound across the story. Readers are invited to imagine the front page of the Sun News-Pictorial – the original morning half of what has now become the Herald Sun. And AFL tragics get to be reminded of the ’Roys at the Brunswick Street Oval. There are also forays to Sydney and the moral ambiguities of King’s Cross. And Byron Bay gets included as well. Yes, something the hippie scene of 1960s Australia is part of the background to this Jesus figure, Jesse Adams.

The book is written by Melbournian, Peter McKinnon – a friend and fellow member of Brunswick Uniting Church. Peter is a trained psychologist, and this is evident in the way he develops the characters in this book. All the characters are believable and have, well, character. Peter also writes with a deft literary touch and creative flair, but the creativity is never indulged or allowed to slip into exaggeration. The allegorical parallels are teasing - obvious enough but sufficiently different to keep the reader on his or her toes. There’s a definite familiarity, but not so much so that you know exactly what the next turn in the plot will be.

But to the story. Jesse Adams is a talented musician who has grown up on a Victorian farm. As a young man he heads to the big smoke to pursue his musical dreams. But it turns out there are other dreams as well which are driving him. A certain eccentricity, or deeper calling, disorients both him and also, more deeply, those who gradually gather around him: other musicians, entrepreneurs, friends, journalists, fans and his puzzled (but not entirely surprised) mother. There is, as the saying goes, something about him. He eludes categories.

Jesse’s wilderness experience was in the dunes near Port Phillip Bay’s ‘The Rip’. He arrives there uncertain, hungry, homeless and confused. He is protected by local indigenous men who, in some deep, spiritual way, “were in touch with what was happening to him”.

He attends a teenage wedding. His mother tells him that the motel has mucked up and there is no champagne for the toasts. Jesse organises, not for water to become wine, but beer to become champagne. There’s some nodding and winking that invites you into the mystery. There’s no rationalising of how it happened.

Jesse pursues his calling, playing his music around the town. His popularity grows – but not just for his music, but also for this something else that accompanies and drives him. He gets a big gig at the Raspberry Hill music festival. Music gives way to a summons to the tens of thousands hanging on his music and his words: “The world’s a dark place…  You can be the light… Be the revolution. If the bloke beside you needs a shirt, give him yours – give him two…”  You get the drift.

He heads to King’s Cross, befriends a young girl about whom he knows more than she would like him to know. She’s trapped by the local porn movie business. Incensed by what it has done to her, he seeks out the theatre during a showing. He discovers various respectable authorities exercising their hypocrisy,  pulls the plug on the projector, turns everything and everyone upside down, runs off with the projector and heaves it into the El Alamein fountain. There were, however, too many of those respectable people with all their connections at that theatre for this not to get him into big trouble. The powers that be begin to marshal their forces against him.

Still, concerts and gigs follow. Music is the medium of his message; it’s the point of connection with the cultural ferment pervading the nation. It’s also the platform that gives him an audience. Then there’s the anti-Vietnam war Moratorium. The crowd hear that he’s at the march – they demand he be given the stage. He took it. He called the crowd to follow his way as the alternative to war. The crowd begins to demur: is this about Vietnam or about Jesse Adams? He’s the guest speaker at the Lord’s Mayor dinner, but provokes a walkout of all those finely-dressed dignitaries with his straight talking. He walks up  to  Spring Street, invites himself in to the parliamentary chamber, and predicts that "this house will be destroyed and a new one rise in its place".

The conspirators can take little more. A darkness begins to descend on the story – a climax approaches. He’s set up. Being interviewed on national television, he is presented with a photo of him offering a healing  touch to young girl. Yes, he had his hand on her leg – that was the touch of healing.  But now, before the nation, it’s evidence that he’s a paedophile.  But, at the same time, because he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he’s ‘accused’ of being gay. So, from hero to figure of scandal and suspicion.  

But Jesse and his associates also knew a thing or two about the conspiratorial authorities – too much for their own good. They knew about corruption that was rotting the core of society. And they knew who was running it. Therefore, humiliation on television wasn’t enough. He had to be eliminated, and on a dark inner-suburban street he was. He’s gone – until, though, there was a series of ‘appearances’ to those who had known him: weird, suspicious, unbelievable, disorienting but somehow real.  Jesse may have been killed but not vanquished.

This bare summary doesn’t do justice to the richness of the plot and its various subplots which weave their way through the book. The threads of the plot outlined here don’t reveal the complexity of Jesse’s own character, the depth of his relationships, or the volatility and range of the reactions he provoked. It’s an absorbing and enticing story.

What might we make of this as the allegory it seeks to be?  For me, the great value of this particular narrative is how well it captures, allegorically, the puzzling nature of Jesus. For all the familiarity (at least to Melburnians) of the setting, and even the familiarity of some of the causes (e.g. opposition of Vietnam war, or the rage against corruption), Jesse is never predictable. He consistently eludes the categories in which people try to place him: political and religious. People are no sooner drawn to him than they are confused by him.

In that regard, this is a very timely telling of the story. Christian faith has managed to domesticate Jesus in so many ways that the New Testament narratives of Jesus have often ceased to be of much interest to Christians themselves, let alone to non-Christians.  Unless we Christians allow ourselves to be puzzled by Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament, and resist the urge to stifle our questions with familiarity, we are likely to lose interest in the faith’s own central, pivotal figure. Jesse Adams supported all the right causes – but over and above that he presented himself. Yes, this self-presentation was often cryptic and disorienting. But perhaps that’s why those who were closest to him couldn’t quite let him go
The Australian church has had minimal success in generating much interest in Jesus. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the church itself to rediscover Jesus for his own sake and for the sake of those seeking and questing. The Songs of Jesses Adams could well be an effective conversation starter to kick start that rediscovery.  

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This (very occasional) series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.

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