Paul Newman gave one of his greatest performances in the wonderful movie Cool Hand Luke (1967). In one scene, after hearing about the death of his mother, he sits on his bunk with a banjo and sings a song about a plastic Jesus statue in a car. When I first saw the film, I wondered if the song were an old folk song or if it might have been written for the film.
Well, I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I have my plastic Jesus,
Riding on the dashboard of my car;
Through all trials and tribulations,
We will travel every nation,
With my plastic Jesus I’ll go far.
The song, “Plastic Jesus,” was a real song that had been around for about a decade before Cool Hand Luke was made. Ed Rush and George Cromarty wrote the song in 1957 while they were high school students in Fresno, California.
As kids in Del Rio, Texas, Rush and Cromarty listened to the radio and heard a Mexican border station playing a religious program that sold a wide variety of religious items to make money. One of the items was a glow-in-the-dark plastic Jesus with a suction cup the driver could stick on a car’s dashboard. The teenagers saw the humor in the selling pitch, and they giggled at a song about “the bosom of the Lord.” From there, they created the song “Plastic Jesus.”
You can buy a Sweet Madonna,
Dressed in rhinestones sitting on a
Pedestal of abalone shell;
Goin’ ninety, I’m not wary,
‘Cause I’ve got my Virgin Mary,
Guaranteeing I won’t go to Hell.
Rush and Cromarty began performing the song in college and then traveled around performing as The Goldcoast Singers. As Rush later explained, when they were playing the song around 1962, sometimes the audience reacted with hostility to the song, finding it sacrilegious.
The Goldcoast Singers recorded the song, but their band eventually ended. Rush and Cromarty had their last performance together in 1963 when Cromarty went off to Vietnam.
Below is the original version of “Plastic Jesus” recorded by Rush and Cromarty with a humorous introduction capturing the origins of the song.
If you look around the Internet for the lyrics, you probably will find a long list of verses. Most of them have been added by various people, as the song has taken on a life of its own as a real folk song. Rush and Cromarty only wrote the chorus and the verse about Madonna (both above). The Paul Newman version only uses the original chorus and verse too.
In addition to Paul Newman, a number of artists have performed “Plastic Jesus.” In 1971, Tia Blake included the song on the album Folksongs & Ballads with a bouncing country sound.
The Flaming Lips included the song as a hidden track on the album Transmissions From the Satellite Heart (1993). The band mostly maintained Paul Newman’s sparse arrangement.
“Plastic Jesus” also appears in a rock version with extra verses on Billy Idol’s Devil’s Playground (2005). Idol explained in an interview with Juice magazine that his version of the song that is about “an alcoholic who keeps his booze in his plastic Jesus on his dashboard. It’s a symphony song.”
In addition to using additional verses, Idol changed the music from the Cool Hand Luke version, making the song more upbeat: “I just followed the meter of the words and made it less like a hillbilly song. I made it sound more religiouso.”
Idol even made an official video for the song, featuring a plastic Billy Idol jamming with the plastic Jesus, who is pretty good at air guitar. Seriously, you have to watch Idol’s video.
After I posted the initial version of this story actor Lucas Hare pointed out to me that Bob Dylan’s song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” from Blood on the Tracks (1975) has music very similar to “Plastic Jesus,” and at least in one live version from 1976, the guitar solo actually plays the “Plastic Jesus” melody.
Finally, Jack Johnson often performs the song, which appeared on Live at Boulder (2001).
My favorite version remains Paul Newman’s version in Cool Hand Luke, where Newman adds a layer of meaning to the humorous song. The lyrics remain funny, but as Newman sings the song in his pain at losing his mother, the viewer learns a lot about the relationship between the son and the mother. Additionally, the song about Jesus underlies a movie that is full of Christ imagery.
I’ll bet those two teenagers laughing at the radio had no idea their song would go so far. But “Plastic Jesus” was not the only time that Ed Rush and George Cromarty had a brush with movie fame. In 2013, the Coen Brothers used an altered version of The Goldcoast Singers’ 1961 song “Please Mr. Kennedy” in the film Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).
And that is the story behind the song.
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(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)