In Which Jesus Loves AC/DC and I Try to Love the Gaither Vocal Band

At Malaiseville U., an icebreaker for my intro to creative writing class: name the worst song ever written. Fourteen students in the class. Thirteen answers because two students agreed on AC/DC's “Highway to Hell.”  

Highway to Hell. Highway to Hell.

I keep my dismay to himself. You say “Highway to Hell” to me, and I don't think of Hell. I think of Jesus. I think of high school.

It’s 1979 and my best friend and I are milling in the crowd that’s milling around the floor of the Quincy College gym, waiting for a Nazareth/Blackfoot show to start. Pre-concert music plays over the PA while roadies go about their stern work on the stage. Who remembers what non-sequiturs had already played, “Go Your Own Way” or “Uncle Albert” or anything by Supertramp?

Because here’s the story: “Highway to Hell” came on and suddenly a sound as of a violent wind. The crowd roared.

It was the fire in our bones.

I’ve gone to church for 50 years and have liked it best only when it’s over. Sunday shoes. Sunday school. Small talk. Long sermons. Afterglows. Pot Providence picnics. Men’s retreats. Some Sundays I have to brace myself to go by listening alone to music in the basement while my family gets ready upstairs.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, and I’m downstairs trying to break my heart.

Here’s Brother Neil’s “Thrasher.” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me.” Al Green’s “L-O-V-E Love.” Motorhead’s cover of Metallica’s “Whiplash.” Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” Courtney Barnett’s “Boxing Day Blues.”

The Bill Evans cadenza at the end of Miles’ “Blue in Green.”

The Bobby Whitlock coda at the end of "Layla."

Jackson Browne’s “Cocaine.”

Rev. Gary Davis’s “Cocaine.”

Clapton’s “Cocaine.”

Here’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” Here’s “I Stood On the Banks of the Jordan.”

Here’s The Consolers.

Here’s Jason Isbell’s “Elephant.”  

Until my daughter calls me out of my reverie.

“Dad. Your wife and children are wait-ing.”

Everything eventually becomes because with Jesus.

Jesus is in “Highway to Hell” because He had me there with Mike Banta when I heard it. Who’s with Jesus now but back then drew band logos with the swift exactness of an architect. Who would have looked like Malcolm Young if Malcolm Young had been in Future Farmers of America, which is to say he didn't look like anyone I'd ever gone to church with.  

Jesus is there because He told Schopenhauer that the essence of art is that its one case applies to thousands. “Highway to Hell” isn’t high art. But its one case applied to me, applied to Banta, applied to everyone that night, and lo, He came with clouds descending. He split the sky open with it.    

He’s there because I feel gratitude for the balm of a moment I can still feel today. Because when I think of “Highway to Hell” I don’t think of Hell, I think of Heaven. Where, dear Jesus, it'll be a long pull if it doesn't feel the way I felt that night: leaner, younger, healthier, happier, freer. The real me. Unstooped for a moment that lasted only seconds. Sanctified and righteous and healed.

Because Jesus has always eventually come to me in music. Or because same difference: music has always eventually delivered me to Him.

The worst song ever written is Rascal Flatts’ “Life Is a Highway.”

The worst song ever written is Lee Greenwood’s “Proud To Be An American.”

The worst song ever written is special music at a Baptist church—a husband and wife duet who sing like the last two candies in the dish. Youth group interpretive dance. Unctuous worship bands. Christmas musicals. The backing track that won't start. The lie that because the music is sanctified it's good: four wax dummies in a southern gospel quartet, grinning like pie plates and pointing at who knows what.

The worst song ever written is the most astonishing performance I’ve witnessed in a church: the pastor’s adult daughter, who went to southern California to develop what I understood as a Christian lounge singer career and came back one Sunday to do her entire act, including a winkety-wink version of “Has Anybody Seen My Guy?”

Ha-cha! It’s Jesus!  

My God, my God.

But there’s also this. When my father was long gone with Alzheimer’s, my mother and I moved him from a facility by my parents’ home in Bloomington, Illinois, to a nursing home where I and my family live. When we picked him up, he’d been in another fight, this time with his roommate. He had a raw-looking scrape on his face and someone’s handprints still in red on his alabaster forearms. He hadn’t shaved/been shaved in days. A former college president and a devoted Christian, he looked like skidrow Billy Graham. My mother and I took him and his few, drab belongings and drove sadly away.

For most of the four-hour trip, my father didn’t say a word. He didn’t know me and he regarded my mother suspiciously. He stared out the window.

“Sugar, you want to listen to some music?” she asked him.

She put on one of my father’s Gaither Vocal Band CDs, long kept in the glove compartment.

What’s the worst song ever?

It didn’t matter. My father had loved them all. Let’s imagine it was “Because He Lives.” And let’s imagine that as soon as it played, my father did what he always used to do: he took the tenor harmony and sang along.

Because that’s what he did do. There in the back seat of the car he no longer knew was his my father started singing every word.

I was crying and driving.

My mother was crying and trying not to for my sake.

The Gaithers were punching the final chorus with a show-stopper key change: BE-CAUSE HE LIVES, I CAN FACE TOMORROW! BE-CAUSE HE LIVES, ALL FEAR IS GONE!

And my long-gone father was there behind me, rocking back and forth in his seat, saying loudly to no one in particular, “Oh, this is GREAT music, isn’t it?”

Bird Report

February. Drone-y sound at night. Microwaves that my fillings are picking up. And then an owl in the woods somewhere. Only once. Say again, man?

I’m learning French. I don't want anyone to understand me anymore.  

J’ecrout une chouette dans les arbres.

C’est tu, Duo?