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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

FOUR CALLING BIRDS

I start listening to Christmas music a few days after Thanksgiving, usually after the first Sunday of Advent. And I don’t stop until shortly after the New Year. Make the feeling last.

Some of what I’ve been listening to this month:

* A jazz Christmas compilation with Louis Armstrong on the cover. Six Satchmo numbers, Duke Ellington’s quirky & wonderful post-bop “Jingle Bells,” Lionel Hampton’s “original” version of “Merry Christmas Baby,” and a bunch of songs I usually skip. On five of his six numbers, Satchmo exudes and exuberates Christmas -- “Cool Yule,” the funny-scarey song to a possible prowler, “’Zat You, Santa Claus?,” the expansive “Christmas Night in Harlem,” “Christmas Time in New Orleans,” and the gorgeousest, tenderest “Winter Wonderland” ever. (The sixth Armstrong number is “White Christmas,” which Louis oversings, I’m guessing deliberately, grotesquifying the syrupy Gordon Jenkins strings and the white white white lyrics. I only listen to this one when I’m feeling sardonic toward Christmas.)

* The Duke Ellington - Billy Strayhorn arrangement of eight pieces from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” I can listen to this one every day of the season, Tchaikovsky’s beautiful melodies swung by the great masters of tone color.

* The Ventures’ Christmas Album. 11 Christmas perennials rocked by a premier guitar rock instrumental ensemble (plus one original I skip). A quasi-anthology of ‘60s pop rock guitar licks -- the Ventures introduce the tunes with riffs from recent hit songs. Their own “Walk, Don’t Run” introduces “Sleigh Ride”; the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” introduces one of the few non-insipid renditions of “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer” I know; licks from “Tequila” and Johnny Rivers’s cover of “Memphis” get worked in too. I can listen to this one every day of the season too. The only non-insipid version of “Frosty the Snowman” I’ve ever heard.

* Roland Kirk’s Coltrane-and-Miles-inspired take on “We Three Kings,” retitled “We Free Kings.” I posted on this a couple weeks ago, getting a few of the details wrong, but now I don’t remember which ones.

* Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Just gorgeous, though the album is sequenced all wrong. I listen to what used to be Side Two first, opening the album with the theme song that opens the show. I skip the bonus outtake of “Greensleeves,” and follow what used to be Side Two with what used to be Side One. With this modified order, the last two tunes become the climactic “Linus and Lucy” and the meditative reprise of the theme song, “Christmas Time Is Here,” bringing the album full circle beautifully. (I don’t remember if I made this discovery, or my friend Jay, or my friend Jeff Haas, back in college.) In any case, gorgeous music.

* A Doo-Wop Christmas anthology from Rhino. Lots of great stuff, including rare non-insipid versions of “Rudolph” and “White Christmas.” (Bing’s “White Christmas” isn’t insipid either, because, recording during World War 2, he’s singing in the voice of a soldier overseas, and his wistfulness goes deeper than all the conventional versions that followed him. Berlin wrote it as a comedy song, oddly enough, which Phil Spector understood.)

* The classic Christmas blues “Merry Christmas Baby.” A short history. The “classic” version is by Charles Brown, who, as far as I know, was the first to sing the great verse, “Merry Christmas Baby, you sure been good to me / I haven’t had a drink this morning, and I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree.” The earlier, shout-ier version by Lionel Hampton didn’t have this verse, but had instead a tacked-on traditional bluesy verse imploring Santa Claus to bring his baby back to him, which Jimmy Rushing had sung in a completely different Christmas blues, and which contradicts the song’s earlier verses, which thank his baby for being so good to him. In Chuck Berry’s fine, quiet, teen-oriented version, he thanks his baby for buying him a hi-fi, instead of the song’s traditional diamond ring; Chuck also omits the allusion to drinking, thinking of his youthful audience. Elvis’s version skips the third verse too, because it sounds like he’s just jamming with his buds and he hasn’t remembered that verse. It’s Elvis at his relaxed and rockin’ and self-assured Elvisest, with nice hot guitar from James Burton. James Brown’s pre-Brand-New-Bag version goes for the sophisticado suave vibe, changing Charles Brown’s “drink” to “a toddy.” Lots of other versions out there.

* Mannheim Steamroller -- my mom has given me two of their numerous Christmas albums, and I dig ‘em, a New Age rock instrumental group led by the guy who had earlier written the wonderful ‘70s Country novelty hit Convoy, believe it or not. I’ve tried to get into other Mannheim Steamroller albums, but the pomp only works for me at Christmastime. I was a teen-age Emerson, Lake & Palmer fan, and this is where ELP’s music went -- no lie -- only with the improvement of no lyrics (except occasional traditional Christmas lyrics) and no retrospectively unconvincing displays of virtuosity.

* A few anti-Christmas hits, because sometimes that’s where it’s at. The Sonics’ rockin’ ‘60s Chuck-Berry-on-speed “Don’t Believe in Christmas.” A bizarre and funny blues-soul monologue from the ‘60s, “Santa Claus Got Drunk,” with background singers harmonizing, “Oooh, Santa, Santa’s drunk again.”

* Another anti-Christmas song I think of but don’t listen to because it’s never been recorded: In December ‘98 my friend Jake London had a gig, and he invited John de Roo and me to play it with him. We brought in my friend and then bandmate, man-of-the-theater and ex-University of Michigan marching band and punk rock drummer Dan Tierney to play drums. We decided to do an all Christmas set -- Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” the Ventures’ cover of “Sleigh Ride,” Buck Owens’s “Blue Christmas Lights,” the Sonics’ “Don’t Believe in Christmas,” the Singing Dogs’ “Jingle Bells” (John D. sang treble dog, I sang bass dog), “Santa Claus Got Drunk,” and so on. At practice one day Jake started noodling the lick from “Paint It Black,” and John D. popped out with, “I see a reindeer and I want to paint it black / No Christmas any more I want it to turn black.” We made up words on the spot. John came up with most of it, most of which I don’t remember, but stuff like this, “I see that drummer boy, I kick him upside the head,” to which I suggested the rhyme line, “When Santa’s out I will take Mrs. Claus to bed.” And at the end, when John (who’s an excellent Jagger mimic) was doing the Jagger-esque freak-out, Jake and I sang “nyah nyah nyah” to the tune of “We Three Kings,” in harmony, which works on the same chords. Maybe someday we’ll record it.

There’s tons of other great Christmas music out there, and anti-Christmas music, and comedy Christmas stuff (though I never liked marijuana, I’m partial to Cheech & Chong’s surprisingly sentimental “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” which I listen to and laugh out loud at once a year).

My apologies if you’re partial to Rudolph and Frosty -- both sport interesting stories, but somehow for me the cheeriness of the music doesn’t do justice to the ominousness of the words. In Rudolph, it’s all about kids being mean to the weirdo, until the weirdo turns out to have a valuable skill. In Frosty there’s death and resurrection, but the way people tend to sing the jaunty tune just bugs me -- no numinousness, which the words have. Bah.

I’ll be enjoying Christmas music for a few more days. And our Christmas tree too, which we keep alive in a pot in our front yard -- it will be sad to take off the pretty lights again. And it’s great to have them up now.


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