For me (and, I suspect, others of my generation) Christmas will always be the Yule Log on WPIX, the muted glow of midnight mass televised live from St. Patrick’s, and the commercial with all the Channel 4/Live At 5 people singing in the Rockefeller Center Skating Rink
(Speaking of which Sue Simmons will have her Revenge on Seattle!)
Oh I am so confused.
Christmas does that to me, raised a barely-practicing Jew but one who was enchanted by the rituals associated with the birthday of the king of compassion. I always loved the solemn songs and the prayers, like adamant whispers, booming sibilant in the high-ceilinged cathedrals of Manhattan and Rome, and the enforced hush of the hours before midnight on Christmas Eve. I love how Christmas is a ritual of kindness; other holidays enforce thankfulness or remembrance or underline history, but for one day, we are asked to be kind, even the gravest and/or the most greedy are compelled to consider compassion; and it seems that this quality is most present on Christmas Eve (and not the grabby, shouty, often lonely day), specifically in the hours between, oh, and ten and two, and I love the stillness that falls in that time. Those are the hours of the anti-shriek, as the eve folds into the still-small day; it is the year’s most pure moment of reflection, especially for us Americans, who know not of Poppies or Armistices and other foreign occasions when reflection is the rule.Aside from that, for some reason Christmas will always remind me of local TV, the lost, shambolic glory of regional news and local commercials and crummy re-runs, for some reason I see Bill Mazer’s face and I hear the Chock Full O’Nuts theme song, which is all, I suppose, to say Christmas makes me think of the past, but not the bad parts.
I am not a great lover of Christmas Music, but there are some seasonal songs I hold very dear; a few of these make me smile, and a few bring true chills. So here are my five favorite Christmas songs, more or less. Oh, when you click on these links, it is likely you will have to see those one of those freaking ads for that Sting musical, Trouble At The Mill or Workin’ Class Boatman or Capeman or whatevertheflip it’s called. I apologize in advance for that — those things can be a real mood killer. But back to Christmas:
Jona Lewie Stop The Cavalry
My absolute favorite. Lewie blends a deeply somber lyric with a jaunty two-step beat, mixing loneliness, an anti-war message, and Christmas into one dark yet utterly irresistible package. True, the political message here is a bit, oh, soupy – the First World War musical setting plus lyrical references to Churchill and a nuclear fall-out zone make this a bit like walking out of the room a few too many times during a Doctor Who episode – but there’s something just, oh, perfect about this song, perhaps because it touches on the two central feelings endemic to the season – missing a loved one, and hoping for peace. When you add to that Lewie’s absolutely original Cajun-meets-Kraftwerk musical style, and his affecting everyman vocals, you have a treasure that never, ever fails to get me right here.
It’s probably worth noting that although this might seem like some new wave oddity to Americans, in the UK “Stop the Cavalry” has ascended to become the seasonal standard it deserved to be.
Although this song is essentially the alternate national anthem of England (in much the same way, say, “God Bless America” is here), it is still largely associated with Christmas (and major sporting events, where it is sung as a nationalist chant). Based on an extraordinary poem by William Blake and set to music in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry, it is likely one of the prettiest melodies ever recorded, married to some of the most graceful and evocative words ever written; from this short poem alone, three common and extraordinary powerful phrases have entered the English lexicon: “This green and pleasant land” (as a description of England), “Bring me my Chariot of Fire!” (tho’ originally found in the Bible, let’s just say Blake/Parry’s use popularized it), and most striking, “Dark Satanic Mills,” three words that evoke the Industrial Revolution better than many multi-volumed books on the subject. Now, there are literally thousands of versions of this song I could have showcased, but I have chosen this version by Fat Les, both for it’s clarity and drama (Fat Les is the recording alter-ego of British comedian Keith Allen, who Americans know best as the father of singer Lily and Game of Thrones actor Alfie).
Also, did you know – speaking of Jerusalem – that actress Marcia Gay Harden is a 32nd-generation descendent of Herod the Great, the Roman King of Judea?
Christmas Night in Harlem
There are a lot of goddamn good reasons to include this one, not the least that it gives me a chance to showcase Louis Armstrong, the artist who is the cornerstone of the American Pop Century. It’s a strange, beautiful, boppy tune that takes you to a land that might never have been, but it’s a helluva song. Raymond Scott, the extraordinary composer/electronic music pioneer who virtually invented the weird collection of hyper sugar-jazz we have come to know as “cartoon music,” wrote it in the 1930’s and it’s totally worth hearing his version, too, which can be found here.
Also, that Marcia Gay Harden thing isn’t remotely true, but why not, right?
Paul Sanchez I Got Drunk This Christmas
Paul Sanchez’s name belongs alongside Springsteen, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, Joe Ely, Steve Goodman, Kinky Friedman, and other great lyricists/melodicists who use story-songs to tell us the bittersweet legend of the American dream and its’ dreamers. I MEAN THAT, DAMMIT. He gets a little better known every year, and that is a very goddamn good thing. There are a lot of reasons Paul’s one of my all-time favorite songwriters, and this song is one of ‘em. “I Got Drunk This Christmas” is deeply funny, deeply dark, and should be a classic. Now, I wish I had access to a better recording of this track, but this one will do the trick.
Pogues Fairytale of New York
Because you have to, right, and in many ways it’s an excellent compliment to Paul’s song. It also showcases the spectacular Kirsty MacColl – BOY, does this song come ALIVE after she enters! — one of the most expressive and absolutely riveting vocalists of her era, and her too-early death only makes this song more melancholic. Oh, and also my old friend Peter Dougherty, a true prince of New York, directed this video, something I actually didn’t know until I wrote this column.
Bonus Track: Hugo Largo Angels We Have Heard On High
Recorded about 26 years ago, this is my own contribution to the world of Christmas music, and an example of the magic I made with three of my favorite people, Mimi Goese, Hahn Rowe, and Adam Peacock. I am very proud of this indeed. Oh, this fades up, so don’t be confused if the audio takes a while to get, uh, going.
Merry Christmas to you all, from the Godfather of Slocore.