The Songs of Jesse Adams
Click on this link to read more about the musical in a report by Melbourne’s Herald Sun.
And, click on this link to read a recent review on the musical, which was described as ‘prophetic, gutsy, moving, compelling’.
Set in the turmoil of social change and political unrest of Australia during the 1960s, The Songs of Jesse Adams traces the meteoric rise of a boy from the bush – a farmer’s son who breaks away to follow his heart, his dreams and his love of music. But, as Jesse travels with his band and the crowds gather, it becomes clear that something else is afoot. This rock singer captivates and transforms a host of fans who hear his songs and encounter his touch.
Lives are changed in unexpected ways and the enigmatic Jesse becomes a symbol of hope and freedom for those on society’s edge. But not all will celebrate the rising tide of influence of this charismatic figure whose words and actions challenge those in power – the media, the politicians, the church. In one tumultuous week this clash of ideals comes to a head – with profound consequences.
Awash in all the protest and collapse of conservative Australia, the colour and madness that was the sixties, The Songs of Jesse Adams is a tale of conflict, betrayal and tragedy, but ultimately the triumph of love.
Brilliantly written, and as a ’60s’ child so resonant … beautiful descriptions and character development … so plausibly recontextualising the original and biggest story … a future classic – Tim Costello.
This book is also available as an eBook (eISBN: 9780987428684). To purchase this title as an eBook, follow the instructions on our eBook page. You can also follow these direct links:
Read more about the launch of The Songs of Jesse Adams here.
Peter McKinnon was recently interviewed by Simon Smart and Natasha Moore, from the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). You can listen to this interview by following this link.
This is their opening blurb about The Songs of Jesse Adams: ‘In September 2013, The Guardian declared that ‘Jesus is having a moment in literary fiction’. From Dickens to Norman Mailer, as well as a more recent crop of novelists, writers have been intrigued by the story of Jesus and have set out to explore its limits and possibilities in fictional form. Australian author Peter McKinnon asked himself the question: what would the character of Jesus look like in 1960s Australia instead of 1st-century Palestine? The result, The Songs of Jesse Adams, pushes the boundaries of our assumptions about Jesus with its reimagining of his life amidst the social, political, and musical tumult of the ‘60s.’
Review by Carol Firth, MU, St Philip’s Anglican Church, Caringbah NSW
MiaMia, Magazine of MU Australia, Summer 2014.
An evocative recreation of Melbourne in the late sixties. Its night life, the music scene, its winners, lost-hopers and no-hopers. Or something more? A powerfully moving re-telling of the greatest story ever told. In a time of social and political upheaval, a boy from the bush is driven by his music and by something else. He gravitates to the city where he mingles with those who run society and those who have no place in it. He gathers an unlikely band of followers around him and proceeds to change lives. The author demonstrates immense respect for his subject while inviting us to view it from a new perspective, the perspective of those who were there.
To read Jeanette’s review of ‘The Songs of Jesse Adams’, follow this link to her Goodreads post, January 2015. The text is found below.
In the late 1970s I was a cast member in a production of an original musical based on the life of Jesus. In a decade when Jesus was being popularised through Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Schwartz and Tebelak’s Godspell, Peter McKinnon adapted the gospel story to our time and place by giving Jesus and his disciples an Australian flavour under the title ‘We’re with you TC’ [Truman Christie]. It was a brave venture in Peter’s own context of the evangelical Bible belt culture, but played to packed churches over a number of months.
Years later Peter McKinnon has undertaken an even braver venture: re-imagining the story of ‘TC’ in novel form. How do you turn a musical into a novel? By making the main character a rock star! But although the broad concept is familiar to those of us who saw or participated in the earlier musical, The Songs of Jesse Adams is a completely new iteration of the Jesus story.
Since reading this book myself I have passed it on to several friends and family members and the consensus is that it is a great read with its strong characters, short chapters and rapid changes of scene that maintain interest in a relatively long novel, its evocative descriptions of both country and city life, and its compelling central character Jesse Adams, ‘a farmer’s son who breaks away to follow his heart, his dreams and his love of music … captivating and transforming the host of fans who hear his songs and encounter his touch’ (cover blurb).
My gut feeling is that this novel stands up on its own merits as an engaging story, but I will be interested to see how my reading group of Canberra based women, most of whom do not have a strong church background, receive the novel when it comes up in our program for 2015. The setting is moved briefly to King’s Cross in Sydney but otherwise is firmly Victorian, causing me (a former Victorian) to wonder if the familiarity of locale was a large part of its appeal for me. But this, too, is a reminder that Jesus lived a parochial life, never travelling more than about 100km!
For those who do know their gospels, however, there is great delight in uncovering the intriguing adaptation of the story we are familiar with: identifying the large cast of characters as Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, ‘the twelve’, Mary Magdalene and other followers, characters from a parable, temple personnel or Roman functionaries; trying to decide which gospel has had most influence in the retelling; locating the pericopes in their new settings. Angels ministering in the wilderness become aborigines watching over him in the scrub, fishermen are itinerant shearers, the woman at the well is a barmaid, the rooster’s crow is the ding ding ding of a Melbourne tram, the Roman centurion is an underworld hitman for whom ‘a job’s a job’ and after his murder Jesse is ‘crucified’ in the press: ‘a large front-page picture coupled either side with images of two criminals who had been victims of gangland-style executions’ (p. 311).
My research focus in recent years has been in Biblical Performance Criticism. It is the nature of performance to be re-enacted in new times and settings, and I have been interested in exploring the notion of ‘improvisation’ in application to biblical texts. Improvisation of familiar texts can range from slight modification in the light of new experience to entirely new artistic endeavours that nonetheless take their starting point or inspiration from the message conveyed in the text. In my view, Peter McKinnon has taken the familiar message contained in the Jesus story and created a masterful improvisation, tweaking aspects of it to suit a new time and setting. The choice of the late 1960s as the setting for this rendition is understandable. In the sixties counterculture was the norm and musicians were prophets who could command a following. The catchcries of freedom, peace and love give credence to this novel’s tagline: ‘sometimes love is all you need’. In the pre-punk era popular music wasn’t angry, so that Jesse Adams’ song lyrics based on the occasional parable, the sayings of Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Beatitudes ring true. Despite the nostalgic setting, the story does not seem dated or irrelevant. The first waves of gay rights, civil rights and feminism alluded to in the novel form a background that gives this story the opportunity to tackle those same issues still in focus in our time.
The Songs of Jesse Adams is a great yarn but it is also a theological treatise, representing the social justice/ radical discipleship end of the evangelical spectrum. The Jesus character in this novel is closer to a radical, in-your-face rebel than a gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Seeing the story again in this setting reminds us of the shocking elements in the gospel story – a man who identified with and chose to keep company with the marginalised in society, who opted for an itinerant life that depended on the generosity of others rather than a life that met society’s expectations, who proved to be such a threat to the ecclesiastical and political establishment that steps were taken to first discredit and then remove him. Representatives of the institutions of church, politics and big business are a foreboding presence in the novel, representing the hypocrisy and self-serving side of humanity that contrasts with Jesse’s pure and joyful message of love and acceptance.
The Songs of Jesse Adams packs a theological punch, but it is also a lovely piece of literature: lyric and imaginative. There are a few too many adjectives, perhaps, but it is assured writing for a first time novelist. Australian audiences will recognise themselves on its canvas and will have some new metaphors with which to speak of their faith: God as a keeper whose hands are always ready to catch you; the Spirit as refreshing water sprayed on a hot and thirsty crowd; sin as a terminal cancer.
This novel is not a new quest for the historical Jesus, but it is a story that makes us think about who Jesus is, and how we might have responded to such a character had we encountered him in our place and time.
Jeanette’s review can also be read in the St Mark’s Review no 231 April 2015 (1).
KARA MARTIN is the Associate Dean of the Marketplace Institute, Ridley College, Melbourne, has been a lecturer with Wesley Institute and is an avid reader and book group attendee. Kara does book reviews for Eternity Magazine.
To read Kara’s review of The Songs of Jesse Adams, click here.
Review of The Songs of Jesse Adams by Rowland Croucher, John Mark Ministries.
‘WWJD?’ has been a very popular slogan in Evangelical Christianity since the days of the Jesus People in the 60s/70s. Every Christian pastor has preached or counseled asking “If Jesus came to [our town] what would he be doing? Who would he be with (would he hang out with society’s riff-raff again?). What would he say about the evils and self-interest embedded at all levels in our country?”
Whilst we preachers mightn’t be too specific about some things (unless we’re ready for another Golgotha: still happens), here’s a novel – Peter’s first – which in 346 very readable pages tries to imagine Jesus and his followers in the 1960s/early 70s Melbourne and its environs.
Peter McKinnon is an interesting man. He’s produced two musicals; is au fait with the business-world; and he remembers ‘those days’ very well. (I knew him in the 1970s/early 80s: a multi-talented parishioner, a psychologist, and someone who cared enough about homeless people to be involved with our church’s ministry to them).
We who have ‘remember when’ conversations about Australian life and culture ‘back then’ will resonate with authentic descriptions on every page: three or four different brands of cigarettes (who recalls the Peter Stuyvesants?), Kingswoods, the paper-boy on his Malvern Star, trams (their ‘ding ding ding’ provides the music for a disciple’s betrayal), Flinders’ Street, Fitzroy, Carlton playing the Demons, a country town’s chook races, bodgies and bolshies, Albert Langer, Monash Maoists, Vietnam War protests, Kentucky Fried Chicken (the newest food sensation)… There are words/phrases/clichés I’ve not heard for decades: ‘You’ve been had’, galoots (remember that word?) and many more…
And if you went to Sunday School ‘back then’ (more of us did) you’ll enjoy spotting the Gospels’ equivalents of about 30 or 40 characters and events: Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, Peter, the rich young ruler (“it’s all or nothing Jarret”), the cleansing of the temple (done by Jesse in a Melbourne city church!), ‘lost and found’ stories, the ‘woman with five de factos, six including the last dropkick’, the Good Samaritan, one of the lyrics an interesting ‘take’ on the Lord’s Prayer, Judas, the Sadducees/politicians, the Last Supper (in a pub, the ‘Doubtful’!), the mockery of a trial, the Emmaus-event, and many more…
But above all there are the constants in terms of human sinning (‘like a terminal cancer’): an inordinate preoccupation with earning, amassing and stealing money, institutional evil (police, government, church, media et al), widespread antipathy towards society’s scapegoats – homosexuals, ‘communists’, criminal gangs (they’re at the bottom and the top of our culture). Peter’s writing-style is quite brilliant. How about this: ‘wearing a grin that would charm the stripes off a tiger’? He’s mostly restrained, sometimes oblique, until you get to the gripping page-turning denouement events towards the end. The build-up includes some dramatic events – as when Jesse hijacks a mayoral men-only function and invites the women to join them; or interrupts a State parliamentary sitting! Many of these scenarios are somewhat improbable. Exactly!
So here we have a bush-boy who becomes God-man, and whose message is clear: Love is all you need. Love wins no matter what life throws up. Happy is good; free is better. ‘I don’t want to own anything.’ And even ‘Peace for poofters’ (p. 238).
People from everywhere came just to hear this ‘stirrer from nowhere’ talk (as well as sing). ‘He was The Man’ (p.86), his era’s most charismatic pop-star, its greatest celebrity – a sort-of cross between the Beatles and Jesus. (I know someone born back then who says “If church can be as good as a U2 concert I’d be there every week!”). But Jesse is humble: “As for who’s the best – it’s the kid here. Big shots come last in my book” (p. 248). And like Jesus he needed to slip away occasionally to enjoy some solitude (he liked hotel roof-tops and similar places).
Ever thought about this: ‘How can a body go missing from a modern city’s morgue?’ Good question.
I can imagine church youth groups and reading clubs having a wonderful time with this book.
jmm.org.au July 2014
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