Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Confessions of a Humbug-aholic: the Christmas Misery Hit Parade

Halloween is now over, and I'm not the only one who laments its end and the onset of the Yuletide season. The latter is represented by a non-stop barrage of television ads, promotions in e-mail, picturesque store displays, and garish red and green products that bear the likenesses of Santa, Jesus, Rudolph, the Three Wise Men, Frosty, or the Virgin Mary.

And the music. Oh god, the music. Some of it is sublime, some amusing, but the vast majority of it is pure mulch. I've written about this before on this blog but the most irritating part of the whole Xmas music debacle is that the “selling season” is the only time older musical artists are played on the radio, on store loudspeakers, and all over the streets of the city — but you're only going to hear a handful of songs that fit the season and provoke either grimaces or sad memories. That's the true key to the marketing of any holiday, making the public feel an obligation to purchase or making 'em feel lonely and wretched.

And all this after Halloween, the most enjoyable of all holidays, because it is so irresponsible and lacking in obligation. Xmas is fun for kids and a burden for adults (unless they're parents, who now exist *through* the progeny). Halloween, on the other hand, is for extroverts and introverts, exhibitionists and voyeurs, those who are religious (and thus welcome the lapse into bad behavior) and those who know religion is the biggest marketing ploy of all.

The marketing push for Xmas now begins right after Halloween (and in some stores slightly before it). It used to be that Thanksgiving was the portal into Xmas — why else would Santa be shamelessly plugging Macy's at the tail-end of their wondrously overblown annual parade/store promotion? The “door busters”/Black Friday mindset is now a deeply entrenched part of the holiday. It is supplemented by department stores and other emporia du crap staying open 24/7 on the week before Xmas — something that never happened when America was prosperous but somehow became a habit right after the financial crash of 2008.

From Nakaryah's Photobucket
But even if you're able to set aside the horrifying Xmas marketing and the sad memories that are part and parcel of the Yuletide season (and the nearly-as-oppressive New Year’s Eve holiday that follows), you're left with that one major factor: the music. The mass media embraces, for a short time only, a finite amount of old culture — great dead recording artists, classic lit (of the Dickens variety), and a small handful of old movies and Xmas episodes of series from the pre-Norman Lear/pre-Three's Company days.

Halloween, on the other hand, spotlights rockers who've played with horror elements in their music or performance. The range of films is anything at all that could be frightening or scary, from murder mysteries and psychological thrillers to monster flicks and horror movies. There's no dictated “playlist” and there seems to be a broader outlook on what the holiday can embrace in terms of entertainment.

Both Xmas and Halloween can inspire memories. But would you rather be forced to recall heart-tugging memories of relatives who have died, lovers who have left, and kids who have grown up – or that ridiculous time you wore some silly-ass costume and had a ball? (or just stayed home and watched your all-time favorite horror/monster movies)

When it comes down to it, I choose joy over sorrow — and marketing. Mark me down as being in the Halloween camp. But since we're now firmly in Xmas territory (although the fact that the holiday begins so fucking early is now a running gag on both sides of the Atlantic), I wanted to remind ya what Xmas is really all about, by sharing the all-time best Yuletide misery tunes.

I've classified them into little groups, but I'm sure I still missed some gems (feel free to comment and add your own personal fave if I missed it). At the end of the piece, I thank those of my Facebook friends who reminded me of some prime Xmas misery or intro'd me to things I'd never heard before.

Let it be known that I do think “Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas” is indeed a grade-A primo wrist-slashing piece of Yuletide sorrow (“… if the fates allow…” is the masterstroke). “Blue Xmas,” “I'll Be Home for Xmas,” “The Christmas Blues,” and “Please Come Home for Xmas” are equally gloomy and grim for the holiday. However, you know those — it would be like including the over-played (and barely tolerable) “Grandma Got Run Over by a Raindeer” to illustrate kooky Xmas tunes. I wanted to reach for the 100-proof Xmas misery ditties.

There are also songs that are just so treacly sentimental that they make YOU, the listener, miserable. There are dozens and dozens of these, but a particularly creepy one is “Shake Me I Rattle (Squeeze Me I Cry),” sung from the point of a “dolly” waiting to be bought by a sad, poor little girl (thanks to Roy Edroso for this misery “starter” kit). Here the Lennon Sisters act it out on — where else? — The Lawrence Welk Show.

The biggest subgroup of holiday-unhappiness ditties target that gift-giver emeritus, he of the beard, stomach, and creepy-ass laugh. Some of the tunes are lyrically miserable, but they are just too damned upbeat — thus I’m not including “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” and Dwight Yoakam’s “Santa Can't Stay” on this list. I will, however, start off with one of the truly weirdest tunes that appeared in the Dr. Demento universe several decades ago, the tune for fucked-up kids that hope to find parts of St. Nick underneath their beds:

One of the more peculiar depressing tunes about Santa is “The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot” by Nat King Cole. In this case Santa was a dick to a small child (because “he hasn’t got a daddy” — single moms raise disappointed children!).

The songwriter’s imagination goes to strange places when pondering the toy-making factory of St. Nick. The misery-epic “Death of an Elf” by Reverend Glen Armstrong is astoundingly grim:

And then children like the kid in the Nat Cole song grow up and take their revenge on Santa. There’s the wonderfully titled “Millie Pulled a Gun on Santa” by De La Soul. This is one of my all-time favorites, though: Ray Davies vision of a street corner Santa being attacked by angry poor kids. (“Give my daddy a job because he needs one/he’s got lots of mouths to feed/And if you’ve got one I’ll have a machine gun/ so I can scare all the kids on the street…”):

The next one probably belongs with the unhappy family Xmas tunes, but its raw r&B sound makes it perfect for the Santa-is-a-mean-fuck-up subgenre, “Santa Came Home Drunk” by Clyde Lasley and the Cadillac Baby Specials:

The sorely missed Tiny Tim came up with the single most depressing image of Santa in his absolute masterpiece “Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS.”(“He won’t be yelling out ‘Ho-ho-ho-ho’/But he’ll be screaming out ‘No! No! No! No!’…”) It’s a disturbing song, a bizarre one, an endlessly funny one (most likely because you can’t figure out if Tiny is kidding — I don’t think he was), and perhaps the ultimate expression of our twisted relationship with the man who comes down people’s chimneys and wolfs up their cookies. Tiny, we miss you so…

The nexus of the Xmas holiday (at least they keep telling us) is the family unit. The bulk of the miserable Xmas songs have to do with the lack of family and loneliness on the holiday, but there’s just as much misery that can be doled out by one’s relatives. 

Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family” is the best dysfunctional-family-at-Xmas song ever, but it’s still too chipper a vision: the sweet, fucked-up family that Keen describes is us, and they’re charmingly tacky. (The song gets major credits for being the only Xmas song I know of to mention tampons.)

Commander Cody’s “Santa's Drinking Up Our Xmas” is more in line with the family misery that gets communicated in song. Consider it the first great country ode to holiday pain in this list (more to come!):

And because it has the single most spiteful title in the whole canon of Xmas music, I have to include Sufjan Stevens’ “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (well, you deserved it!).” Stevens came up with the words of a bickerer who is the exact opposite of the guy in the Ramones song “Merry Christmas (I don’t want to fight tonight).” His character is happy he’s made his partner miserable for the holidays:

The blues are the ultimate expression of sadness in song, and so there needs to be one unhappy Xmas blues tune on this list. Thus, Victoria Spivey tells us how low-down miserable Xmas can get in the  “Christmas Morning Blues”:

Blues masters have other things to be unhappy about, but country-song writers have a laser-focus on Xmas misery. There are songs in which people try to ignore the whole thing — as with Dolly Parton and company singing “Hard Candy Christmas” in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (a stunningly poorly-made movie musical).

Although it isn’t the single saddest Xmas-sucks country tune, the award for best title has got to go to “Please Daddy (Don't get drunk this Christmas).” Here the ever-pure John Denver warbles this timeless tale:

The “coal miner’s daughter” gave us one of the most perplexing sad-ass country tunes, “Christmas Without Daddy.” I’ve listened to this sucker more than once trying to figure out where daddy went — did he leave Mom and the kiddies? Is he in prison? The military? Is he dead? (She says he’s “so far away” and the son is writing him a letter, but then again, kids have been known to write to dead folk.) The songwriter supplies no answer, but it’s still a downer of a tune:

Ernest Tubb altered his big hit “I’m Walkin’ the Floor Over You” for the holidays as “I'll Be Walking the Floor This Christmas.” The best line? He’ll be “decoratin’ the tree with tears…”:

Arguably the all-time king of sad country songs, George Jones gave us “Lonely Christmas Call.” It’s a letter from a sad husband and dad, asking his departed ex to come back for the holiday. (“Why not show consideration/to the ones whose heart you’re breaking?/Give them your gift of love/this Christmas day…”)

The above are all great tunes, but the gut-punch best is definitely Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December.” It’s beautifully written, is about the eternal subject of lack of money, and isn’t just about the holiday. The narrator has been laid off and hopes that, if the family can survive the month of December (“the coldest time of winter”), they can move to a warmer climate where he can get a new job. It’s so non-sentimental and clear-minded in its point of view it’s emotionally wrenching:

A really great example of how Xmas music has been depressing since the get-go is the “Coventry Carol.” Intended to commemorate the order from King Herod to kill all the male children under the age of two in Bethlem, it’s a gorgeous-sounding carol that tells of the needless, horrid slaughter of innocent children. (Suddenly your losing your lover during the holidays doesn’t sound so bad, eh?) Here’s a beautiful version by Allison Moyet:

And continuing the massacre theme (I rarely get to write that phrase), next up is a discussion of Xmas songs revolving around the Vietnam War. Proving that the ridiculous phrase “EVERYTHING is on the Internet, Granddad!!!” is indeed ridiculous, I was unable to find a posting of one of my personal Nam-era faves that references how bombing in wars is sometimes stopped on Xmas Day (and then picked up as soon as the calendar changes). 

The song is “The Rest of The Year” written by David Buskin (of Buskin and Batteau) and recorded most prominently by Mary Travers. This song was on YouTube, but was taken down, so I mention here, because it is both beautiful and sad.

But onto a record you can hear online: “Christmas in Vietnam” by Johnny and Jon, surprisingly hails from relatively “early” in the war (1966) — although we all know the Vietnam quagmire was being ramped up during JFK’s presidency and during LBJ’s first years.  The song is a fascinating “news story” that contains the bluesy line “I’m in a foxhole, baby!”

Now the final, most sublime Xmas-misery songs.  And yet *another* note about a song that is NOT online, “My Most Miserable Xmas Blues” by Charles Brown (which accuses the listener, the singer’s lover, of making this Christmas “the most miserable Christmas” of his whole life — Brown’s pronunciation of it as “mis’able” makes it even better). I love the song to pieces, but can’t present it here, because no one has uploaded it to YouTube.

Again, I will try to dispense with songs that have depressing lyrics but are just too upbeat melody-wise (a great example is “Christmas Will Just Be Another Day” by Brenda Lee). What are we left with? Sheer unmitigated seasonal misery, like Aimee Mann's “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas”:

Some early Seventies soul, the Emotions with “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?” The jingle bells are a ridiculous touch that play against the whole arrangement, but I guess the producer felt it “lightened” the depressing lyric.

Sometimes, during the year, when it's decidedly not Xmas, I begin to sing the next number to myself. Wall of Voodoo's amazing story song, “Shouldn't Have Given Him a Gun for Christmas.” (“He put two slugs in the neighbor’s door/and kicked apart the manger scene/The plastic baby Jesus he blew to smithereens/I can’t think of all the nine-year-olds who won’t be seein’ ten/Or how he went-a caroling to the doors of now-dead men!”)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band gave us the lovely rocker (yes, I'll include upbeat tunes when they're nasty rock) “There's No Light on the Christmas Tree,” which concerns a killer being executed on Xmas Eve. There are indeed some sublime Xmas misery ditties about the Big House, including “Christmas in Jail,” the 1956 rocker that boasts beautifully deadpan delivery of the lyrics by the lead singer:

The always sublime John Prine went a similar route with his catchy “Christmas in Prison”:

Now, we come to the home stretch: the crème de la crème of sad Xmas songs. Tom Waits has written some of the most memorably depressing songs of the past few decades — to the extent that he has been impersonated for a novelty tune called “Christmas Sucks.” Tom's own Yuletide masterwork is the memorably downbeat “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis.” It gets to the essence of the holiday in a few short minutes. A smiling, happy facade concealing all kinds of sad truths.

The vision of owning a used car lot is the grace note. (“I'd just drive me a different car every day/depending on how I feel...”)

A good part of the strength of garage rock was its raucous, unpolished sound in an era when the Beatles and Beach Boys were releasing gorgeously crafted pop-rock “teenage symphonies" — thus the main reason the notion of Little Steven's Underground Garage makes so little sense, since he decided the perfectly polished, million-selling hits belong with the raucous items by more obscure acts, just because he says so.

There was also the refreshingly short duration of the songs. Here the Sonics from Tacoma, Wash., offer up their feelings about Xmas in less than two minutes. Brevity is indeed the soul of Xmas-misery wit.

And because punk was built on the shambles left by garage rock, we have Fear's exceedingly succinct summation of the situation:

It's not like the notion that Xmas is a dreadful drag is anything new. This brilliant piece (also very concise) from 1962 skewers the holiday beautifully. Vocalist Bob Dorough wrote the lyrics (“It's a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy/Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the folderal/Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all/What I call/folderal/Bitter gall... folderal”). He composed the melody with some guy named Davis.

Hard to beat the conclusion of Dorough's lyrics (“Merry Christmas/I hope yours is a bright one, but for me, it bleeds...”). Leave it to the beautifully blended voices of the Everly Brothers to supply the fell blow that demolishes the holiday, “Christmas Eve Can Kill You.” (“And Christmas Eve can kill you/When you're trying to hitch a ride to anywhere/The icy air I'm breathing's all that keeps me on my feet/I feel like I've been walking all my life...”)

And because I have to leave you with one dram of hopefulness after this death-orgy of Xmas-music (which is actually just more *honest* than the music you normally hear; Andy Williams' “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a horrific but tuneful deceit from any angle), I turn to the much-loved “Fairytale of New York.”

The strength of the song is its mixture of beauty and ugliness (something that those from Eire are masters at). The fact that the music is beautifully arranged, gorgeously sung (ah, Kristy...), and so wonderfully evocative of dreams that are promised and the reality that is delivered makes it perhaps the perfect urban Xmas song.

I can think of no better place to close out than with a rollicking, boisterous, emotional Xmas song that contains the charmingly romantic lyric, “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it's our last.” What more can you add?

Thanks to these Facebook pallies for reminding me of, and in some cases introducing me to, some of the songs found above: Doug Brod, Rich Brown, Nick Bruel, Zach Crowell, Roy Edroso, Ed Edward, M. Faust, Tony Gordon, Greg Gutbezahl, Judy Hennessey, James Marshall, Arnold Neimanis, Garo Nigoghossian, Suzu Renaud, and Louis Sessa.