Monday, December 18, 2006

More Songs That Made Christmas Great

Last year at this time we were in a mellow mood and were moved to write of our long relationship with Charles Brown’s Please Come Home for Christmas, which as we pointed out is the undisputed Greatest Christmas Song in Christendom (not an opinion but an empirically verifiable fact)---a standard that surpasses even Silent Night in its narcoticizing power.

This year we’ve had difficulty getting in to the swing of the season, for some reason, and thus have been unable to fully participate in the rituals of rabid consumption that make this the most wonderful time of the year.

Maybe it’s that we’ve yet to hear Please Come Home for Christmas, except as done by the Eagles---twice, most recently on late Friday afternoon at a Starbucks. That’s the gay version, as the kids say, and it makes us blue to realize that the genius of Charles Brown has been shunned in favor of this tepid, half-assed, don’t-get-it remake.

Maybe it was belatedly learning of the death of George W.S. Trow and the subsequent and probably unrelated passing of Ahmet Ertegun, whose life was a monument to unforced, naturally occurring, non-quota bearing, non-legislated and non-dictated multiculturalism (as has been naturally occurring since we began marking time).

Or maybe it was the sweat rolling off of our broad forehead as we clambered up to the roof Saturday to string lights in the 80-degree weather. We hate to have to run the air conditioning at Christmastime and get ensnared in the global-warming feedback loop.

Whatever the reason, we’ve tried to force-march our self into the spirit by playing some of our favorite holiday sides, few of which come close to the majesty of Please Come Home for Christmas (which we must hear, unbidden, on the radio, for the season to truly commence) but all of which say to us, “Hey, man, it’s time to get down to the Meyerland Mall and see if you can find a parking spot, and if your luck holds you won’t encounter any parking-lot robbers,” etc.

The very first number that comes to mind is afore-mentioned Mr. Brown’s very mellow Merry Christmas, Baby, a relatively unremarkable song save for these lines: "Merry Christmas, baby/Sure been good to me/Ain’t had a drink all morning/But I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree.” An Xmas song for 12-steppers and other non-drinkers, although you suspect Brown is going to pour one as soon as the song ends.

At the darker end of the street is the Pogues’ fantabulous Fairytale of New York, wherein the late Kirsty MacColl and the possibly late Shane MacGowan (haven’t heard from him lately) stumble through the streets of New York, cursing and crying and whompin’ on one another until they hear “the boys from the NYPD choir … singing Galway Bay” (that’s what it says on Wikipedia, usually infallible in important matters such as these, although it always sounded to us as if they were singing “the boys from the NYPD choir were singing Gaahwa Humall,” or something). The cops’ serenade offers the hard-living codependents only momentary distraction, not an occasion for forgiveness and reconciliation, although when they sing “ … and the bells were ringing out on Christmas Day!!” … Well, everyone’s Irish at Christmas.

… Especially Bing Crosby, whose jaunty Christmas in Killarney always left us buzzed the countless times we heard it as a young person on our parents' copy of Bing’s White Christmas album (we could see the Pogues covering it, if they’re still alive, or maybe they already have). We also much liked the subsequent Hawaiian number, Mele Kalikimaka.

Bing, too, was a practicing multiculturalist, and we thoroughly understand Bob Dylan’s late-life fascination with the putter-toting crooner. Bing Crosby was far out.

Speaking of Dylan and far-outedness, we shan’t forget Mott the Hoople’s Death May Be Your Santa Claus. Despite the title, the song has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas. The best we can remember, it’s all about being pissed off, at nothing in particular. Yet we include it here simply because it leads off what is arguably the best Dylan album (by Dylan or non-Dylans) between Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Our copy is too scratchy for further listening, so on the off-chance this is available on CD and we’re on your Christmas list, we’d be much obliged (and in return, we’ll give you something of value).

Closer to home, no Christmas would be complete without a listen or two to Robert Earl Keen’s Merry Christmas from the Family. It’s become a sort of Christmas tradition of ours to threaten to play this in our mother’s presence, since, after one listening years ago, she declared it “awful” (a judgment we believe may have something to do with an ongoing fear of falling into White Trash-dom). We, of course, greatly admire the song for its recognition of the power music has to bridge cultural divides: “Sister brought her new boyfriend/He was a Mexican/We didn’t know what to think of him/Till he sang Feliz Navidad.”

There are many other fine Christmas tunes---John Prine’s Christmas in Prison (“ … and the food was real good/ we had turkey/and pistols carved out of wood”), the O’Jays’ (or was it the Spinners’?) Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas (“ … without the one you love”) and the Run-DMC number about “Christmas time in Hollis, Queens/and mama’s cookin’ refried beans”---as well as many must-have collections of holiday songs (our favorite being Rhino’s Doo-Wop Christmas, although we seem to have lost track of ours, so if you have it please return it).

Most scholars agree that the greatest recorded selection of Christmas tunes once traded commercially under the title Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (originally A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector), which features various acts from the famed producer’s early ’60s stable---the Ronettes, Darlene Love, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Several of the songs approach Charles Brown territory, especially the Darlene Love number Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) [not to be confused with Please Come Home for Christmas] and the Ronettes’ very sweet I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus.

Still, we’ve always found the highlight of the album to be the final cut, a spoken-word coda set to Silent Night in which the future accused murderer explains, in a soft, post-adolescent voice that can only be described as angelic, how the album was his attempt to showcase the Christmas music he loved and to do something new and different for the “recording industry, which is so much a part of my life.” (We Googled around for three or four minutes trying to find a transcript, to no avail---somebody’s falling down on the job out there.)

This, to us, is what Christmas is all about: a nice but potentially psychotic Jewish boy from Los Angeles overproducing frothy holiday songs by African-American singers meant to celebrate the season dedicated to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Feliz Navidad, as they say at the jailhouse.

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