Saturday, December 24, 2016

11 immutable truths I've learned about Christmas music

I wouldn’t call holiday music one of my primary genres of interest, but I happen to have a child who is enamored of Christmas and has almost as broad a musical appetite as I do. I can’t not go overboard when it comes to hooking my kid up with art, so I’ve spent a lot of this season digging into the bottomless reservoir of Christmas music, looking for unknown nuggets and giving old standards a deeper analysis than I’ve ever bothered to before. I’ve reached a lot of conclusions over that time, and I’ve deigned to make you privy to ten of them.

1. Low knows Christmas
It’s my understanding that they still have Christmas in places without snow, and I’m sure they do a fine job of it. You’ll forgive a Minnesotan, though, for feeling a little smug about spending the most wintry of holidays in the most wintry of states. That’s why I hold that Duluth’s very own Low gets Christmas from a different angle than any other band that ever put out a Christmas album. Their aptly titled Christmas EP opens with the cheery indie pop of “Just Like Christmas,” then dives into chilly, almost mournful reflection for the next seven tracks. Whether they’re repurposing old standards like “Blue Christmas” and “Silent Night” or crafting striking originals like “If You Were Born Today” and “One Special Gift,” they display an innate grasp of the specific melancholy that defines the season at least as much as peace on Earth and good will toward men. I was fortunate enough to make it out to their annual Christmas show at First Avenue this year (on a night of negative-20-degree weather for extra street cred) and can attest that Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and various bassists have a much deeper understanding of Christmas than you.

2. Merry Christmas from Sesame Street is a stone classic
Although it’s not the most celebrated Muppet-affiliated Christmas property, this 1975 TV special soundtrack was a pillar of my childhood and it sounds just as good today. Oscar the Grouch’s misanthropic “I Hate Christmas” is justifiably the best-known cut here, but there’s not a bad track in the bunch. You’ve got Bert and Ernie delivering my favorite rendition of my favorite carol (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), a spirited “12 Days of Christmas” culminating in Snuffleupagus forgetting what present he got, the lovely original “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” and David (remember David?) delivering a proto-rap “Night Before Christmas on Sesame Street.” Stir in a couple of fantastic sketches - Prairie Dawn directs a Christmas pageant starring a reluctant Bert as The Tree, and Bert, Ernie and Mr. Hooper reenact “The Gift of the Magi” - and you’ve got something timeless that could only come from the peak era of Hensonian creativity.

3. “The Little Drummer Boy” is very good
I think I first became aware of mankind’s general hatred of “The Little Drummer Boy” while reading one of several Dave Barry columns bemoaning “a song, lasting longer than most dental appointments, in which a chorus of high-voiced women shriek ‘Rum-pa-pum-PUM, rum-pa-pum-PUM.’” Barry’s knack for drawing humor from overly literal nitpicking of popular songs has since been rendered redundant by the entire internet, but his sentiment stands. People haaaaate “The Little Drummer Boy” to a near “Wonderful Christmastime” degree. I don’t get it and never have. The staccato beat; the relentless, almost threatening progression of events; the somewhat saccharine but narratively sound arc of the story - this is a great damn Christmas song, whether it’s being performed by the aforementioned Low or the latermentioned Jackson Five or The Temptations or Bob Seger or a Christian hair metal band.

4. Christmas proves Springsteen knows Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band playing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is the type of thing that should be good for a quick goof, but damned if it isn’t a genuinely great performance and a deserving entry in the Christmas canon. The first time I heard it I wasn’t sure if I was listening to Springsteen or a spot-on parody, and therein lies the greatness. Springsteen plays this song exactly the way someone parodying Bruce Springsteen singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” would, from his opening line about it being cold down at the beach to the brief shifts into doo-wop to needling Clarence Clemons about asking Santa for a new saxophone. Springsteen’s a good dude by most accounts, but he’s got such a carefully maintained image that it’s nice to know he’s not afraid to take himself down a peg.

5. Christmas is for Michael Jackson
I’ll confess that I’ve never been much of a Michael Jackson fan. I like the hits well enough, but his music has never stirred my soul the way that it did for most of my agemates. If I had to pick a favorite Michael Jackson era, it’d easily be his earliest work with The Jackson Five, and if I had to pick a favorite piece from that era, it’d easily be Christmas with the Jackson Five. While young Michael’s powerful-beyond-his-years vocals can come off a little creepy when he’s singing about romance and yearning, his Christmas songs overflow with a childish enthusiasm that can only be captured by, well, a child. His adolescent voice and delivery really are among the great wonders of the rock era, and they seldom got a  better vehicle than this collection of holiday standards. Michael Jackson’s “rooty-toot-toot and rummy-tum-tum” alone is worth any number of aging crooners’ Christmas cash-ins.

6. Christmas is for novelties
I’m pretty fond of the 1960s heyday of novelty rock songs, and possibly even more fond of the Christmas-themed sequels those hits frequently spawned. Maybe most famously, David Seville’s “The Witch Doctor” spawned the Christmas anti-classic “The Chipmunk Song,” but that was far from the last time a chart-topping weirdo found the yuletide spirit. The Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” spun off into “Snoopy’s Holiday,” in which the aerial aces declare a holiday truce. Sheb Wooley’s Purple People Eater teamed up with Santa Claus to stop a runaway Sputnik satellite. Even Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s decidedly non-Christmassy “Monster Mash” gang hatched a plot to hijack Santa’s sleigh only to be foiled by the irresistible force of generosity. Those were different times, I reckon.

7. “Here Comes Santa Claus” is the ultimate Christmas crossover
For the longest time I grouped Christmas songs into four distinct groups: Santa, Jesus, Winter, and General Christmas. Santa and Jesus might get name-checked in a Winter or Christmas song, but the overtly religious carols tend to eschew Santa and vice versa. This year, though, I paid close attention to Gene Autry’s lyrics to “Here Comes Santa Claus” for what must have been the first time and realized that there are references to Santa loving the rich and poor equally because he “knows we’re all God’s children” and exhorting us to “follow the light” and “give thanks to the Lord above.” Turns out Santa and Jesus are playing for the same team, I guess.

8. The California Raisins hold up
Look, there are times in history when cutting-edge clay animation, misguided advertising campaigns, and vaguely racist characterizations dovetail into something that captures the pop-cultural zeitgeist. I can neither excuse nor explain the existence of the California Raisins as a concept, but I can aver that the crass promotional tie-in albums released under their name are pretty dang good. Christmas with the California Raisins does what the band (fronted by legit rock legend and former Hendrix bandmate Buddy Miles) did best: crafting slightly updated, surprisingly authentic renditions of Motown-style tunes you know by heart. The Christmas album is full of soul-slathered standards, plus a rap version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that by all rights should be cringey but instead kinda rules. Apparently this was quietly reissued as Buddy Miles’ Greatest Christmas Hits, which gives credit where it’s due but is also somehow a little less fun.

9. Just because you shouldn’t do a Christmas song doesn’t mean you should
The dank back alleys of Christmas music are riddled with singles and albums whose main and perhaps only hook is “Can you believe ___ did a Christmas song?” With very few exceptions, these songs are good for one ironically amusing spin and very little else. I’m thinking here of endless CD samplers with titles like Punk Goes Christmas or We Wish You a Metal Christmas, or even, lord help us, Prog Rock Christmas. I won’t say these albums don’t sometimes feature a few gems - heck, seeking out gems from unlikely sources is one of my principal occupations - but by and large the gag’s shelf-life runs out in the time it takes to read the title.

10. “Christmas is Coming” owns A Charlie Brown Christmas
I love “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time is Here” as much all good-hearted people, but for my money the best thing about Vince Guaraldi’s justly beloved piano jazz score is the bouncy, propulsive “Christmas is Coming.” You know the tune even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, but it’s nowhere near as iconic as those other two. I think that’s part of its strength - even though it’s deeply embedded in its source material, it can also live independently of it. It’s the difference between “Hey, it’s that Charlie Brown song!” and “Say, isn’t this that Charlie Brown song?” In my book (and maybe my book alone) that’s a meaningful distinction.

11. Seriously, Low
And then there’s “Santa’s Coming Over.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Knifing Around with Lou Reed

I’ve been blogging about the weird nooks and crannies of Lou Reed’s musical career on his birthday for quite a few years now. You might think by now I’d be running short on topics, but as this year’s entry illustrates, that would be grossly underestimating my creepy eye for minutia. At this point I can’t imagine why anyone else would want to read this stuff, but I know I want to write it and that’s all that really matters.

A while back my friend Stefa tweeted me asking for the name of the Lou Reed song where a guy is killed with a knife. It took me a few moments to answer “The Gift,” not because I couldn’t think of it, but because I could think of so many songs that fit the description. I’d never really thought about it before, but Lou Reed wrote a lot of songs about knives.
As I’m prone to doing when struck by a revelation, I immediately made a playlist about it. Pulling from Lou’s entire catalog beginning with the Velvet Underground, I assembled every song that mentions knives, swords, razors, stabbing, cutting and/or slicing. The playlist wound up being more than two hours long. If I’d included hypodermic needles it would be even longer, but I decided there’s enough of a distinction there. Here, then, is an annotated documentation of Lou Reed’s long and bloody history of knifing around.
Delivered in a second-person street-jive, this slow-burning wad of sleaze follows a homicidal dude with a blade on an evening prowl, luring in gay bar pickups and murdering them with his knife. The lyrics make no bones about the motivations. “When the blood run down his neck / You know it was far better than sex / It was way better than getting laid / ‘Cause it’s a final thing to do.”

“Sword of Damocles”
The blade here is metaphorical and mythological, hovering over the head of Lou’s terminally ill friend. It’s one of the most personal and harrowing songs in his catalog. That the sword hasn’t fallen by song’s end just makes it all the more powerful.

“The Gift”
The instrument of stalker ex-boyfriend and Internet Nice Guy prototype Waldo Jeffers’s well-earned destruction is one of Lou Reed’s most beautifully observed objects. After all of Sheila and Marsha’s fruitless fumbling with the sheet metal cutter, John Cale’s dispassionate description of the long blade’s journey “through the masking tape, through the cardboard, through the cushioning and [plunk] right through the middle of Waldo Jeffers’s head” is catharsis of the most macabre sort.

“Egg Cream”
Even at his most upbeat, Lou can’t help working in a little twist of misery. This is mostly a nostalgic ode to the favorite after school treat of Lou’s days at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, a bubbly chocolate drink that “made it easier to deal with knife fights and kids pissing in the street.” No cloud is so silver that Lou Reed can’t find its grey lining.

“Hold On”
This montage of social ills in pre-Giuliani New York City hits sardonically on just about every form of violence available, including “blacks with knives and whites with clubs fighting at Howard Beach” and a subway commuter outfitted with “a black .38 and a gravity knife.” Call me nuts, but that vision of New York still sounds perversely appealing to me.

“My Friend George”
Unhinged gym rat George’s weapon of choice is a stick, but Lou’s reverie of him is sparked by a newspaper story about a man killed with a sword, and George’s barroom manifesto includes an exhortation to “stick it to these guys, right through their heads.”

“Prominent Men”
The Dylan influence is almost embarrassingly evident on this early Velvet Underground demo, from the grim social commentary to the rudimentary harmonica solos, but Lou Reed’s take on ‘60s folk is still a few degrees sleazier than his idol’s. One of the lost souls profiled here is a child with a glistening knife that “stabs no ways and all ways.” And thus was the template set.

“Dime Store Mystery”
Lou’s tribute to Andy Warhol envisions the artist as a dying Christ figure staring down his last temptation. As such, he is introduced “banged and battered, skewered and bleeding.” The real-life Warhol’s side-wound was more bullet-induced, of course, but I think we can safely assume a spear in this scenario.

“The Bed”
Lou fairly whispers his way through this haunted, ethereal post-mortem from his masterpiece of despair Berlin. After years of abuse of the mental, physical, substance and self varieties, our heroine Caroline has slit her wrists in the bed she once shared with her husband Jim. Jim narrates from his own traumatized yet unrepentant perspective, but if you’re not in Caroline’s corner when she lifts that fateful razor, I don’t think I care to know you.

“High in the City”
This steel drum-laced jaunt about getting stoned and strolling around town sounds celebratory on its surface, but listen a little closer and you’ll find the grimness beneath the glee. Before setting out on a simple walk through a landscape of vicious dogs, burning Jeeps and street crazies, Lou has to make sure that “You got your mace and I got my knife / You gotta protect your own life when you’re high in the city.”

“Future Farmers of America”
A rapid-fire slave revolt story set to a rollicking rock beat, this one culminates in a call to “kill your master with one cut of your knife. Kill them during talk, kill them during sex, kill them whenever you can.” It’s not one of Lou’s subtler messages.

“The Murder Mystery”
All four Velvets are on hand to chant along with this discordant collection of dueling nonsense rhymes, which naturally include plenty of chopping, piercing, flaying and other forms of blade-related mutilation. “Off with his head, take his head from his neck off/Requiring memories both lovely and guilt-free/Put out his eyes, then cut his nose off” is a pretty typical sequence. This is arguably the most widely hated Velvet Underground song, so it should come as no surprise that I adore it.

“The Blue Mask”
The title track from one of Lou’s most visceral albums follows a tormented soul across a life of violence that leads him to believe in the cleansing power of pain. He demands to have his face slashed with a razor, pierces his own nipple with a pin and dreams of genital mutilation. The guitar is pretty good too.

“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”
This one melds a deceptively lovely John Cale melody and dreamy Nico vocal with some mighty harsh lyrics, even by Lou Reed standards. It’s all about embracing death and finding salvation through pain, much of it blade-induced. Not to be confused for one second with the easy-listening standard, even though it’s fun to imagine Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra crooning “The knife stabs existent wounds / Pus runs through matted hair.”

“Power and Glory”
A big, boisterous anthem that also happens to be an introspective meditation on death and the meaning of existence, the opening track from “Magic and Loss” delves into a variety of mystic imagery, naturally including a little bit of piercery. “I saw a man put a red hot needle into his eye / turn into a crow and fly through the trees” might not be one of your more orthodox visions of the afterlife, but I’ve certainly heard worse.

I’m not entirely sure that “You must think that I’m some kind of gay blade / Well, why don’t you go swallow a razor blade?” even counts as wordplay, let alone rhyming, but it’s close enough for me.

“Lady Godiva’s Operation”
In maybe the purest example of the collaborative vision of Lou Reed and John Cale, the menacing elegance of the musical arrangement both belies and accentuates the brutality of the lyrics. The jarring discordance of Lou and John swapping lead vocals, sometimes mid-verse, plays right into the story of the alluring Godiva’s vaguely defined and highly traumatic surgery at the hands of a surgeon who “sees the growth as just so much cabbage that must be cut away.” By the time “the doctor removes his blade cagily so from the brain,” it seems as though the damage has already been done.   

“The Heroine”
I’m pretty sure this ode to a seawoman standing strong in the face of both a mutiny and a collosal storm is a metaphor, but I couldn’t tell you for what exactly. Anyway, the situation with the crewmen is dire enough that it’s almost an afterthought when Lou tells us that “when they thought no one was looking, they would cut a weaker man’s neck.”

“Sally Can’t Dance”
One of the few instances where I believe the bladeplay in a Lou Reed song to be metaphorical, this sardonically upbeat number about a gender-fluid party girl and eventual overdose victim finds its heroine surviving a rape in Tompkins Square and thereafter adopting an unorthodox self-defense system. “Now she wears a sword like Napoleon / And she kills the boys and acts like a son,” says Lou. I don’t think the boy-killing is literal, but it would be hard to fault Sally if it were.

“Video Violence”
This very ‘80s cut finds a skeevy dullard sitting down to a quiet night of television and being bombarded with graphic violence both physical and ideological in nature. He’s the type of dude who beats up sex workers, then calls up a televangelist to rant against the menace of TV violence. Lyrically, Lou almost seems to be having it both ways, decrying moviegoers “grabbing their crotches at the 13th beheading” and the general pervasiveness of ugly imagery in the Reagan era. In the end, though, it’s clear that nobody’s to blame for this dummy’s actions but himself, no matter how hard he might try to blame slasher movies and Madonna.

“The Black Angel’s Death Song”
The song that allegedly got the Velvet Underground banned from at least one nightclub is as unsettling lyrically as it is musically. Lou’s monotone stream of consciousness recounts a weary trudge through an apocalyptic landscape laced with semi-coherent couplets like “Cut mouth-bleeding razors forgetting the pain / Antiseptic remains cool goodbye” and “Wandering’s brother walked on through the night / With his hair in his face on a long splintered cut from the knife of G.T.” I have no idea who or what G.T. is but I want to believe it’s George Thorogood.

“Harry’s Circumcision”
A blackly humorous jaunt into identity crisis and body horror, this one watches a poor slob named Harry taking a depressing inventory in his bathroom mirror, nonchalantly carving up his face with a straight razor, and finally slitting his own throat. The punchline has Harry surviving his self-mutilation and laughing ruefully as he considers his new life with a new, horrific face. It’s one of the less grim songs on Magic & Loss.

“Rock Minuet”
I get the impression that Lou was mighty proud of this song, but for me it’s always verged on trying too hard for the sleaze and grime of the Lou Reed brand. Anyway, it’s all about a damaged loner who gets off on torture and eventually slits the throat of a hustler who tries to pick him up. I think of it as a sort-of sequel to “Kicks,” minus the nebulous menace.

It seems only fitting that Lou Reed’s final album is loaded with mutilation imagery from the very first line, as “Brandenburg Gate" opens with the eponymous Lulu telling us “I would cut my legs and tits off / When I think of Boris Karloff / And Kinski in the dark of the moon.” It’s the story of a small town girl heading to the city with images of Hollywood and adventure in her head. You know how well those stories usually end. By the time we reach “Pumping Blood,” she’s fixated on, well, blood, demanding point-blank, “Use a knife on me” among other far less wholesome things. “Frustration” finds her lover bemoaning “a sword between my thighs,” and in the end everybody’s all carved up, emotionally if not physically. But probably physically too.

Happy Lou Reed’s birthday, everybody!