“Plastic Jesus, sittin’ on the dashboard…”

I recently watched the movie Cool Hand Luke (1967), so this song has been stuck in my head:

“I don’t care if it rains or freezes
Long as I got my plastic Jesus
Sittin’ on the dashboard of my car.
Comes in colors, pink and pleasant,
Glows in the dark ’cause it’s iridescent,
Take it with you when you travel far.

Get yourself a sweet Madonna,
Dressed in rhinestones, sittin’ on a
Pedestal of abalone shell.
Goin’ ninety, I ain’t scary [sic: “wary”],
’Cause I’ve got the Virgin Mary
Assurin’ me that I won’t go to hell.”

In this scene, Luke just found out that his mother died, so the tone of his performance is tender, soulful, sad—completely unlike the obnoxious and irreverent premiere performance in 1962, which was intended as a parody. Singer-songwriters Ed Rush and George Cromarty wrote the song in reaction to a Christian radio station in Del Rio, Texas, which they said ran ads whose copy read like the lyrics of this song. They recorded “Plastic Jesus” as part of a fake Christian radio broadcast, under the fake band name “The Goldcoast Singers” (click here to read the script, or here to listen to the audio on YouTube). Ernie Marrs adapted the lyrics and tune in 1965. The song was adapted even further for Cool Hand Luke,and has since been covered by a few dozen artists, the most famous of which is probably Billy Idol.

To see some of the lyric variations that have developed in the last four decades, click here.

I put together a (nonexhaustive) Spotify playlist of different versions of the song. The only one I can stand to listen to is Rocky Votolato’s from 2007, which I rather like. (Still doesn’t beat Paul Newman’s, though.)

Click here to listen to the “Plastic Jesus” playlist. (You will need to sign up for Spotify if you are not already a member.)

Plastic Jesus

Photo by Joseph Novak

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4 Responses to “Plastic Jesus, sittin’ on the dashboard…”

  1. chris robbins says:

    thats what i’m looking for my jeep

  2. Pingback: A Brief History of Chocolate Jesus | The Jesus Question

  3. MeridianMan says:

    Dear “The Jesus Question”: “Tender, soulful, sad”: Indeed. One of the most poignant moments in American cinema, brilliantly performed.

    I’d like to bring to your attention one small matter about “Plastic Jesus.” In your transcription of Cool Hand Luke’s version, you indicate that “scary,” here, actually means “wary.”

    I don’t think that’s right. An alternative, though generally unacceptable, definition of the colloquial “scary” is “easily scared or roused to fear, or timid.” This definition, though running almost opposite to the standard meaning of “scary,” works well in the lyric.

    What do you think?

    • Hmm, I hadn’t considered this alternate definition before. I’ve heard other performers of this song substitute “wary,” which I think makes more sense in the context, but perhaps “scary” was intentional!

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