Tom Waits performing live. Photo by Annie Wittenberg.
There’s a priceless DeMello family video of me getting a Batman Returns-oriented toy Batcave on Christmas 1992, complete with Jack Nicholson-esque Joker and Michael Keaton-resembling Batman. I don’t remember there being a Robin in the movie, but the Robin I got looked a lot like Ben Savage. Anyway, “freak out” are two words that should cut it to describe my excitement at that time, but don’t quite illustrate the blood-curdling happiness the way a phrase like “foaming at the mouth” does.
I’m kidding of course, but every American knows the materialistic orgasm (or is it the orgiastic materialism?) of a good childhood Christmas. You know, the kind you had before Christmas became so damn serious and so much about everything the Christ child represents — “peace on earth”, “goodwill towards men”, etcetera. They were the years before you had to separate your belief in Santa from your belief in God, even though both seemed equally too magical and too ridiculous to be true even from the start. In recent years, I’ve come to adore these recurring seasons if only when I can find them still surrounded by those innocent spirits.
Growing to love them comes with all the agonies of learning to love Christmas music again, and for me, the trajectory of patience I have for either has followed a mirrored course over the years. “Stockholm Syndrome” is a good psychological term to describe the relationship between Christmas music and my adulthood. The typical reasoning for my aversion to it has usually gone hand-in-hand with how exhausted I am with the holiday’s suffocating commercialism and extended celebrations that seem so far departed from any utilitarian ethos.
Still, my first interactions with the genre were pleasant. It began with a cassette my mother still has of all-standard Christmas classics being sung by a choir of Disney characters. If this makes for good enough synergy to qualify as orchestral pop, then I can’t decide whether Mickey makes a better Esquivel, Gil Evans, or Brian Wilson on this tape. For the record, I couldn’t be further from kidding. On that tape, the only choice you had between styles were between nursery rhymes the sounded as they were invaded by a gaggle of xylophone players on a kid’s show; or polished, Broadway-influenced ballad arrangements via Beauty and the Beast. I may have no better artifact of the weird ’90s sitting in my parents’ basement.
Fast forward twenty years later, to earlier this week when I found Mike Mills name-dropping a Christmas tune like Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” while checking out The Onion outside my local laundromat. Alex Chilton’s unabashed ode to the child savior has been an essential listen for my yuletide musical regimen for five years and counting, helping me to fall back in love with the feeling of the season. Like all my favorite Christmas songs, it manages to focus on the darkness of Christmas Eve night above all else, with sleigh bells that swirl like mist and a reverberated saxophone that rings like a holy fog-horn.
Ever notice how that song, and so many tracks off Third/Sister Lovers for that matter, have so little actual bass guitar on them? “Jesus Christ” vies for something less conventional to give it a strong bottom end: some extremely honky piano during the verses and timpani in the chorus. Chilton’s characteristic bouncing chorus here causes me to look for the star of the East with the same vigor that my cousins and I initiated “Santa Watch” when we were kids. If you’re wondering what that means, the activities involved in “Santa Watch” are exactly as your imagination would assume: five small children, ranging in ages from six to nine, huddled around bedroom windowsills with binoculars focusing on every passing 747 and Cessna plane that could pass for a sleigh lead by a certain reindeer’s red nose.
The childhood sky-searching that was once inspired by the legend Johnny Marks coined into song with “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer” also comes from Judy Garland’s version of “Star of the East” in adulthood. Unfortunately there’s no YouTube video of this version, so you’ll have to make do with footage of this kind gentleman playing a ‘78 of a 1911 version by Gladys Rice.
I owe part of my existence to Judy (my grandparents’ first date was to the opening night of The Wizard of Oz) and there’s something oddly comforting about how this song makes for one of the few Christmas songs I’ve successfully brought with me from childhood to adulthood. Though, unlike the other songs on this list equally forgotten by pop, it’s strange to hear an unfamiliar Christmas song now that was widely known sixty years ago. In that way, all of it’s non-lyrical elements evoke this dead language of style and fashion in its humbling signs of age, and even more so on the version I’ve provided.
Yet on Judy’s version, she sounds young, just barely wet behind the ears from her recent unprecedented collision with Hollywood. Anyone who knows anything about her story knows can’t help but feel the ominous ghost of her tragic end that casts a boding shadow over the entirety of her work, and “Star of the East” is no exception. That’s as good of an explanation as I can wager as for why this song hasn’t aged well in the public’s ears. People say they can hear Kurt Cobain’s last cry for help on his famous version of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. Yet for me, the single most daunting voice of the two I’ve always been able to hear louder is the one in Judy’s where I can hear her getting royally screwed by her deceitful manager years later, as history would have it. That always romantically counterweights the positivity of her best known work (or on here, the simple joy of Christmas) with a tragic irony and Dickensian sense of mortality, though perhaps only because none of it was actually intended to be there in the first place.
As with our routine family viewings of The Wizard of Oz, my cousins and I are keeping those sorts of traditions alive for the next generation, as many of my older cousins are starting families of their own today. In their presence, I find it odd in how most who celebrate Christmas tend to keep more secular visions of the holiday (elves, the North Pole, and reindeer) alive the most at the times in their lives when they most resemble what Christmas is supposed to be about — the forming of a holy family.
I’ll spare you the summon, for if we dwell on this any further, we’ll mope like Rick Danko on the awfully downbeat version of the Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” that made it on to their first post-breakup LP, 1977’s Islands. That song, like the whole record, is a generously low mark for odds-and-sods compilations that hastily soil a great band’s legacy just as they’re trying to affirm it. (Then again, they’ll always have The Last Waltz, so this record could do no real damage.) A vastly superior version of the song arrived to the public as an outtake on the re-release of 1975’s Northern Lights — Southern Cross.
On it, drummer Levon Helm, guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, and bassist Danko form a shuffling, muffled trio behind closed doors while piano player Richard Manuel and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson are away. When the song becomes less pressured to include everyone’s contributions, the tempo contracts as the emotional space between players closes in. Danko almost whispers the words, brooding over the everyman details of the nativity scene:
“Son of a carpenter/ May he carry the light/ It Must be Christmas, must be tonight” goes the chorus. What is universally present in every year-end holiday tradition, New Year’s included though arguably, is the theme of family. In idea, we appreciate those who were with us last year and recognize their presence years on as representative of how much or little we’ve changed in the time since; either how much we’ve amicably evolved into another year of life or rather, wandered off the beaten path of accepted morality. Though regardless of whatever blood relation these individuals are to us, they become family on some level, and it’s the image that strikes the deepest chord with me this time of year.
In speaking of families and pop, only one of the Jackson 5’s contributions to A Motown Christmas caters to this view. If nothing else could be said about them, the Jacksons were entertainers first before they were anything else, be they siblings or even a fully functional family, and the songs here follow suit from those origins. Young Michael’s performance, already flexing a muscular talent, carries the same spotlight-baring weight on “Give Love on Christmas Day” as he does for every standout Jacksons single. While it’s typical of manager and father Joe Jackson’s conceit in Michael, it’s still enough to sell the emotion inside the song, just like “I’ll Be There” does. I’ve long maintained that many of the best songs of Michael’s career are the Off the Wall tracks and Jackson 5 songs that bar mitzvah DJs don’t care about, and “Give Love on Christmas Day” couldn’t make for a greater exhibit in that argument:
Strangely, fellow ’70s Motown staple artist Stevie Wonder comes up short on this compilation, as his ever contentious relationship with the label was just starting to show signs of tear where his creative hand feels forced here. As Carly Shields noticed in her Wednesday piece comparing Hanson’s Snowed In and *NSync’s Home for Christmas, the auteurs-in-band model of creation doesn’t bode well for the Christmas pop song format. More often has the advantage gone to vocal groups being directed in the great assembly line of mainstream retail radio by producers who eagerly want to make an impression on a uniquely homogenized niche market in the song-listening public, whether or not they actually celebrate the holiday. In fact, most of the time, the most successful usually don’t.
Phil Spector tends to be the name most often listed in this category, but if you need a counter example, one need not look farther than the Beatles. Bootleg versions of their ‘Christmas Album’ say everything about why they never officially released any of this material — it’s horrible. “Christmas Time is Here Again” shoots for the child-like appeal of “All Together Now” and “Yellow Submarine” with a few less interesting chord changes. It wanders more pointlessly than the band’s most strung out work, even more than “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number”) or “Blue Jay Way” ever did. Certainly the fab four were more capable than this, and it says something about the inverted congruence between quality and camaraderie in their later years that this jovial toss away track was conjured in the midst of their catalytic strife between recording The White Album and Abbey Road.
Though the auteurs-in-band trend when it comes to Christmas songs ends, as so many rigid rules in pop do, with Tom Waits. It may have one too many characters to keep track of but “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” is the perfect adult indulgence into the genre, serving as the glowing centerpiece for Side 1 of 1978’s Blue Valentine. The cover of which features Waits with closed eyes and his arms folded as if holding two large and presumably emptied bottle of whiskey in each hand. Here comes a regular? From the looks of Blue Valentine, it appears as though he’s arrived. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is a shout-out to a chorus line of Midwestern low-lifes who have to suffer through the holiday splendor alongside everyone’s celebrations, most likely from their seat at the local bar which is bound to be delightfully empty on Christmas Eve.
Lastly, no list of great alternative Christmas tunes is complete without mentioning the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” featuring Kristy MacColl. Like most tracks mentioned here, it’s not so much a noteworthy Christmas song, but more so a fantastic song in which Christmas just so happens to be involved. In this case, the holiday serves as a heartwarming backdrop to an immigrant’s love affair both in and with the greatest city in the world.
Though I’ve loved this song for far longer than I’ve lived in the big apple, this year marks the first official Christmas I’ll be spending in the fair city. For those reasons and too many more to explain, it sounds particularly poignant to my ears this year, reminding me of what a dear friend told me just before I moved out here: “In New York, everyone’s an immigrant. Whether you have a foreign accent or you’re just a kid from the suburbs.” Thus the plot gives the song a universal appeal that not many Christmas songs can boast, let alone good ones; for “Fairytale” is a song inherently about living adjacent to different religious denominations and having them still be apart of your own religious experience in ways dogma (or general piece of mind) never let you thought possible.
With that, I wish you all a grand holiday season. Indeed, a Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, and general holiday cheer to you and yours. Enjoy these tracks for your listening pleasure and more from all of us here at BreakThru Radio. May they properly deliver you from the annoyance of having to wake up on December 26th to wait in gargantuan customer service lines to return all those gifts you didn’t want.