The first time I read the story of Jesus in the New Testament I was in juvenile hall — too late, some might say. My irreligious parents didn’t have any Bibles lying around and though the story of His death and resurrection, I later learned, was repurposed a lot in popular culture, I was gripped by the whole prophet-not-recognized-in-his-home-town angle and, of course, that sell-out Judas. The born-again creeps who ran the local juvie hadn’t wanted to give me anything the weekend I spent in solitary confinement. “We want you to think about what you’ve done!” they said.
The problem with getting blackout drunk when you are 15, or any age actually, is you can’t remember what you did. I fucked up, sure — got drunk on cheap white “wine” and passed out in the back of Mark Hauser’s ’57 Chevy, woke up, and hammered on the wrong door of the wrong track house until the police came and took me away. (I puked in their car, too.) But the real reason I was being treated like such a pariah was that I had two joints on my person, which in the 1970-era small town where I lived was treated like a big deal . To make matters worse, I puked in the cop car, had no ID and told them my name was Rumpelstiltskin.
My mother had tried to bring me some books but they would only give me a Bible to read. They later added "Reader's Digest" to the approved reading list, something I teased my wife about when she worked there years later. In the early Seventies, at least in Northern California, Jesus Freaks were everywhere: self-righteous longhairs carrying religious pamphlets by Jack Chick (“This Was Your Life,” et al, in which everyone goes to hell) and trying hard to identify with the stoners they harangued: “I used to be just like you …” The evangelical group Young Life held weekly meetings and invited our jug band to play there. We’d arrive high and play what we thought were ironic selections — “I Like the Christian Life,” “Friend of the Devil” — eat their cookies and leave.
The big draw at such gatherings was girls, of course; I was smitten with Kathy Poole, who had found Jesus not long before. I’m not sure she ever lost Him, since she always seemed like a nice Christian girl growing up, but the new evangelicals thought your parents’ church, with its robes and its rituals, was not the real deal. One night, she consented to go on a date with me and my friend Steve Rigney and another girl who, as I recall, was in more pressing need of salvation. We wanted to go the movies; "Five Easy Pieces" had just opened in Sacramento and they agreed — provided we went to a youth revival with them first.
I remember getting stoned in the parking lot before entering the church — the girls abstaining, of course. I remember the Marjoe-like preacher doing a kind of striptease, giving away his watch, his wallet and his jacket to show how much he loved the Lord. And I remember him asking young men to come forward so he could cleanse them of the desire to drink and do drugs and partake of “the wine of the Spirit” instead. Teenage boys were getting up on stage and as he touched them on their temples they fell, paralytic, only to be caught by one of the preacher’s attendants and laid gently on the floor. By the time the stage was littered with the bodies of fallen Christians, and people in the auditorium (including our dates) were looking at us expectantly, Steve and I spoke with a single thought.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” We bolted for the door like Bill & Ted, pushing past the attendants who tried to stop us and smoked another number in the parking lot.
We did make it to the movie, though I don’t recall what my 16-year-old self made of it. The scene that made the biggest impression was not him in the diner (“Hold the chicken salad”) but an earlier one in which, stuck in traffic, he jumps on the back of a junk truck and starts playing a derelict piano. When traffic begins to move he is driven away in an unknown direction, playing a tune no one else can hear.