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Christmas eve, babe, in the drunk tank…

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I generally hate Christmas music. Happy, happy, joy, joy — elves, lollypops and sugarplums. I am looking for a Bluegrass or Rock version of the Messiah. A goth or punk version would be fun too.

Not that there aren’t some great Christmas songs. A lot of them are in Latin or German, and reflect emotions other than “oh boy, oh boy, this is gonna be great!” They reflect a sense of yearning, hope and melancholy. If you’re a believer, you realize the agony necessary for the promise of the Messiah to be fulfilled…and, if you’re a realist, your recognize that the agony will go on far longer than. If you tend toward the agno-anti-atheistic side of things, you can scoff, or appreciate the need for balence and forgiveness and hope in a future that remains dark and beyond a present tied to a past full of pain, disappointment and loneliness. We are spared despair by those moments of anticipation, fulfillment and hope, and I believe that the best Christmas songs capture all of that. Even though few were written in minor keys, they can be played that way…from Away in a Manger and Silent Night — which I once got to hear in a 9th Century Catholic Church played on zither and guitar and sung by the children of Berchtesgarden, a somewhat haunting moment –to White Christmas..

Christmas is the Holiday that is most human. Perhaps since so much of it results from Christianity ripping off the various  Solstice feasts and festivals; perhaps because it speaks not to the past in our western mythology but rather to the past  living through and to a future, real or not; perhaps because it is child-centered regardless of the worst Church  bureaucracy and commercialization have been able to do to it since the Milesian Bridge — it is just that way. In China  today, Christmas is celebrated as a lead-in to the Spring Festival, which starts in early January. The nicest Christmasy-  Christmas I’ve spent in recent years was in Shanghai, where there was enough Christmas stuff around to not make me  homesick, but it was weird enough in many ways to make me smile. The Chinese in Shanghai and I suspect other parts of  China don’t really get the whole realm of sacred versus profane thing. I saw this my first evening wandering around a  Shanghai mall, where the anchor store, Carrefour, had a large number of displays with Santa, Reindeer, Angels, Cribs and  Wisemen. All together — with a tree and presents. Go figure.

So what are my thoughts on the best contemporary Christmas stuff?

The Guardian had a piece with some of their critics favorite Christmas songs and Fairytale of New York came in 2nd on their poll; Planet Rock did one of their listeners and the Fairytale came in first. It’s one of my favorite pieces of Celtic stuff, as well as of Christmas songs. The reason that it didn’t win the Guardian poll, by the way, was that one of the judges felt it wasn’t really a Christmas song and it got zero points. Well, he’s a fucking idiot. Yearning, past happiness, despair in the present and acceptance of a confusing future, forgiveness and redemption– If this isn’t the best of what Christmas offers, then screw it. It should be.

While I was screwing around last night, I found a new Shane McGowan and Popes compilation and they had this one. I thought it was almost as good as the Fairytale. It loses points in my estimation because it feels overproduced and it takes the Toora-Loora-Loora melody without a lot of modification. However, I think people like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan would have little problem with it, seeing the borrowing of the tune as part of the folk process, and who am I to argue. (In case you’re wondering why I cite Dylan, I recommend listening to Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game and then to With God on Our Side; closer to home, listen to All I Really Wanna Do and then to Muddy Waters’ I Just Want to Make Love to You –same song, same phrasing, different instrumentation, voicing and lyrics.) and, as with a lot of McGowan’s material, the lyrics drive the train. The Pogues were a better band, and he needs someone like Kristi McCall or Sinead O’Connor or Dolores O’Riordan singing harmony to make it perfect. But, it’s close. Same emotions, stronger on the hope perhaps and on the acceptance than Fairy Tale.

On a far more contemporary note, there’s my young, sort of little friend Sheri Miller. She hasn’t recorded this one yet, and doesn’t want me to publish her lyrics for it until she’s got a polished version and video. I can understand that, bt I wish she’d have gotten it done! — The version is I’ve posted is from several years ago, and Sheri is still evolving artistically. Her most recent effort included a wider variety of musicians, including people like Steve Cropper and I think it’ll be really great. This song is more of a straight folk, kinda Shawn Colvin kind of thing, and she’s done a variety of stuff in her short career. She recently wrote something about Rock and Roll Landmarks, and I’m not sure where she went with that. Although she got a kick out of Keith Moon’s antics in various LA hotels and the idea of Sun Studios and Stax in Memphis among my various recommendations. I wish I had thought to mention the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle, by the way — the hotel is on pilings over Elliot Bay, and supposedly John Lennon tried to fish out his bedroom window the first time the Beatles came through Seattle. Anyway, she’s working on another album and says that this number, “Merry Christmas…Jesus it’s been One Helluva year” will be a great fit. While I’m looking forward to it, I think the rawness and starkness of this version combined with the lushness of her voice should be a performance classic in years to come. After this, musically, I can forgive her anything, even Spoons

Steve Earle has kind of a classic Chrismas protest song here, showing his Woody GuthrieTownes Van Zandt roots. I had a senior moment earlier, thinking that it had originally been titled Christmas in Taneytown, a city in Maryland between DC and Baltimore and Gettysburg. For some reason, I thought this might have had something to do with Larry McMurtry’s book store that he owned before going back to Texas. Well, the song resounds even today, and adds Phil Ochs to the list of his antecedents. It also reminds me of some Guy Clark stuff and some Robert Earl Keen stuff. But, it is a Christmas song — calling us to do, be and build something better.

Speaking of Robert Earl Keen, it would be blasphemous for someone like me to not cite Merry Christmas from the Family as a marvelous contemporary take on things. And then, there’s the Jeff Foxworthy take on the whole thing which I first heard on a Christmas in Germany, and have chuckled over at least once a year — especially those years where I own a Mustang GT.

Thinking again of my Celtic roots, I thought of the Chieftains. This is one of their carols, with Nanci Griffith providing the vocal. They have a history of recording with interesting talents, and here is a more normal carol, but with Rickie Lee Jones providing the vocal. However, again, note the minor key and the sense of resignation.

How can you think about Ricky Lee Jones without a nod to Tom Waits? I suppose it’s really not that hard, but this is a fascinating little piece by a major artist who irritates and illuminates. And then irritates again — I suspect he wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Now, in mercy for the season, I’m using Neko Case’s cover — his voice is an acquired taste, where as her voice is insanely good. And, as a bonus, here’s a New Pornographers piece that has a definite 90s hipster Vancouver Christmas vibe…you’re asking me to believe too many things…

Finally, I thought of blues and R&B. As you probably know, Hubert Sumlin died recently and Etta James is dying — and in the tradition of the music, friends paid for Hubert’s funeral and Etta James family is squabbling over her estate. Now, I heard this piece earlier this week on Little Stephen’s Underground Garage at XM21. James Brown is definitely telling us to get a grip and a perspective — particularly at this time of economic injustice and oppression. Still resonates, and I hate to say that, but I find that very sad indeed…

Here’s Etta James take on the holiday, and on life in general.

Sumlin isn’t really identified with any Christmas music; there is a school of thought that “Sittin On Top of the World” is kind of a Christmas song. That school is wrong. If that’s a Chrismas song, I can make the case that St Valentine’s Day is a Christmas song. And, Sumlin wasn’t in Howlin Wolf’s band when he cut “Sittin…” for Sun Records before going off to Chicago and Chess. However, the Drifters cut this piece, and it’s definitely worth considering, as is this nugget from John Lee Hooker.

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