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Our Five Favorite Christmas Songs

December 22, 2014

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.

Sue Simmons

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.



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I tell The Turtlenauts of Zond 5 about the Replacements, Joe Ely, Phil Ochs, the Mekons, and the lack of a true self

August 29, 2014


Although tortoises are not mammals, humankind should remain in awe of the achievement of Bek and Lek, two tortoises who circled the moon on September 18, 1968.

This is not fantasy: In 1968, the Soviets Russians were frantically attempting to beat the Americans and the Apollo space program to the moon.  They launched the Zond 5, with Turtlenauts Bek and Lek on board, to see if living creatures could survive a trip to the moon and back.  They did, and our two shell-back friends became the first living creatures ever to reach the moon.   The Soviet’s plan to follow up Lek and Bek’s pioneering adventure with a manned flight was abandoned when it turned out the Apollo program was much further ahead of schedule than the Soviets had imagined.

Yes, I said Turtlenauts.

Recently, I asked myself the following question:  What if Bek and Lek returned from space as fully sentient creatures, but Soviet secrecy and the equally obfuscating bureaucracy of the post-Soviet Russian governments prevented them from leaving the grim lab in the Urals where they had been ensconced for 45 years?  When finally exposed to the daylight of the modern world (having been freed by a quirk of the very same bureaucracy that had imprisoned and forgotten them), what kind of questions would Bek and Lek have that I, a noted pop-culture and music authority, could answer?

Bek & Lek:  Tell us about the fabled American Beauty, the Mayim Bialik.
Tim Sommer:  She inspires great men to stirring deeds. In this sense, she is like Zipporah, the wife of Moses, or Jolene Brand, the wife of Laugh-In producer George Schlatter.
B & L:  I know of this show Laugh In!  “Sock it to me,” and suchlike hijinks.
TS:  Yes.
B & L:  Tell us a little about this band, The Replacements.
TS:  Every musician must recall that at any given show, perhaps 80 or 90 percent of the audience is seeing them for the first and likely only time.  Whether they are playing in front of 8 or 8,000 people, a performer needs to treat their audience as the only audience they will ever play in front of, the best audience they will play in front of.  Therefore, an artist must never throw away a show, and no band, not even the freaking Beatles, is better than the worst show they play. Personally, I saw the Replacements play five times; I guess I saw five “off” nights.  If they were a truly great band, and I understand a lot of people feel that way, the band simply didn’t feel that every audience was important enough to know that, and that’s just horrible.  Also, the alternative music fanbase in the 1980s was largely made up of geeks and the bullied (myself amongst them); I think the Replacements fulfilled a certain need we may have had to believe there was a Van Halen-esque licentiousness and devil-may-care attitude within each of us, when really, we were just people excited about finding out-of-print Lyres 45s and over-paying for Echo & The Bunnymen import 12-inch singles because they had non-album b-sides.  The Replacements are also romanticized for a few over-sensitive ballads, but I can show you a dozen artists from that period who did that sort of thing far better, or at least as well, and they did it without despising their audience and abusing the extraordinary privilege of being able to play original music in front of people for money.  I mean, start with Chris Bailey and the Saints, listen to their fucking ballads.

(Two Sentient Soviet Turtles now know The Saints are infinitely superior to the Replacements)

B & L:  Tell us about Joe Ely.
TS:  Excellent question. Joe Ely, Joe Strummer, and Bruce Sprinsgteen are all essentially the same artist, and that’s a beautiful thing.  Each has attempted to channel Woody Guthrie via Sun-era Elvis; each wants to tell the story of the American experience via the character of a muscular guitar-slinger, sensitive but with sand in their teeth.  Each wanted to simultaneous wear Dylan’s wise-ass bookishness and Marlon Brando’s muscle-tees, each wanted to feel the world through the boots of the workingman yet see the world through the owlish-eyes of Ginsberg.
B & L:  That’s a very impressive description.
TS:  Yes, I thought so too, thank you.  If you want to turn that trio into a quintet, add Patti Smith and Paul Sanchez, each of whom have a very similar worldview and ability to translate that vision into extraordinary art.  Patti adds some shady, shadowy art to the mix, Paul adds some hot sauce.
B & L:  Speaking of “devil may care,” Is there a God?
TS:  You are sentient, talking turtles that have been to the moon.  Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?
B & L:  No.
TS:  Well, there is Abba, and there is Nick Lowe’s production on his Jesus of Cool album — these may be a sign of some higher power.
B & L:  Who are the quintessential American artists?
TS:  I’d have to go with Louis Armstrong and Phil Ochs.  Each told the story of rich, troubled century, spotted with joy and tragedy.  Each spoke in an essentially and exclusively American vocabulary, discarding the frippery of England or San Francisco. Here, you should listen to the Ochs’ song “When In Rome.”  It tells the story of America, a place of hope and disappointment, through the eyes of one deeply troubled troubadour, a once optimistic man that experience has turned cynical.

B & L:  But it’s 13 minutes long.  Are you going to make us listen to that whole thing?
TS:  You watched eight straight episodes of American Horror Story Coven last night, I think you can spare 13 minutes.
B & L:  We’re not sure.
TS:  Tell you what:  just listen, at your leisure, to Ochs’ Rehearsals For Retirement album.  It tells the story of the death of idealism in America.
B & L:  Gee, that sounds like fun.
TS:  If you want fun, listen to Slade or BTO. By the way, “Hey You” by BTO is an extremely satisfying song, plus it is essentially the template for all Nirvana and Pixies songs.
B & L:  If we only have time to listen to one song right now, what should it be?
TS:  “Where Were You” by the Mekons. It reduces rock’n’roll to its absolute essence:  two chords and thwarted desire.

B & L:  I count four chords.
TS:  I am not counting those passing chords between the verses and I don’t think you should, either.
B & L:  We have to go to lunch, and then someone is going to show us how to set up a Kindle account and explain to us the cultural context of the British “Carry On” film series.
TS:  Don’t bother buying Ulysses by James Joyce just because you think you should.  You’ll never read it, or much of it, anyway, and if you want to feel smart yet still be entertained, you are far better off reading Rushdie or William Gaddis.
B & L: — Before we go, Tim, do you have any final words of advice?
TS:  Whenever even the most cursory examination is applied, one finds that the self is made up entirely of non-self elements.  Seriously.  Remove the word “I” from any idea, or dialogue — especially a self-dialogue — and very remarkable things happen.  That’s because there is no “I.”  There is no homunculus sitting somewhere in our brain consistently infusing some consistent or permanent idea of self into all our actions and decisions.  There are just an infinite number of ever-moving, ever-changing parts adding up to the constant reality of dependence arising.  As Chandrakirti said, “Afflictions and faults arise from the false view of a transitory collection.  Having understood that the object of this is self, negate self.”
B & L:  Homo-what-culus?

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