When you hear a saxophone playing Sonny Rollins on the F train, and you look up from the chapter you’re reading on 20th Century music about Glass, Reich, and the cut-and-paste roots of hip-hip and mashup culture, and you see a woman with earbuds on looking down at the iPhone she has cradled in both hands—above her is an ad for an insurance brokerage thinly disguised as an MTA Poetry in Motion sign proclaiming, “We aren’t experts in cheese./Or poetry./We just make it easy/to compare life insurance online.” And you think to yourself that this is what it is to be an American in the shade of the industrial century. But then the saxophonist, a black man in tweed with a newsie cap in his hand, walks by you and you frantically search your pocket for dollar bills to pay him for this moment, and you drop one, pick it up, and put it in his outstretched cap. “Thank you, he says. “No,” you say, conjoined to him in this moment as it closes between you, “Thank you.”
I wrote this little vignette last summer in Iceland, and promptly forgot about it. It seems too simple to submit for publication now, eight months later, but I'm kind of fond of it. And makes some perverse sense to share it now, in January - To misquote Mark Twain, I've never met a colder winter than summer in Ísafjörður.
So much of our lives exists in the margins outside the frames of our Instagram feeds. Take, for example, a strange little piece of French ephemera tagged to a bakery in Ísafjörður, Iceland on someone’s—for example my own—feed. The framed piece, or rather its digitized presentation, evokes perhaps the Alps in the background and a strange, vaguely disturbing scene in the foreground. Two women seem to have been in some sort of skiing accident. A man is either attending to them or accosting them (the only words of the piece, “Le Médecin,” imply the latter, but the subtleties of their mannerisms hint, to my wife and me at least, at the former, but this could simply be due to the overblown, grotesque representations of mid-Twentieth Century kitsch). And, most notably, a boy in the background in skis, hangs from a tree over either a fence or a ledge and seems to be spying on the other three. They are all smiling—that posed, fakey smile we give when we know our picture is being taken, when we’re conscious of our surveillance.
At least that’s the way my wife and I see it as it looks over both of us eating crepes at a small table in this Icelandic bakery and talking about Brooklyn in the margins of the shot she takes on her iPhone.
“It reminds me,” she says, “of that new coffee shop in North Slope, the one that took over Gorilla Coffee. Did you hear about the sign they posted over their bathroom? This piece just reminded me of it. Apparently the new owners put it up as a joke, but it depicts someone peeping in on the women’s bathroom. I heard about it on the Park Slope Parents listserv.”
“Ah,” I sigh. “I can already guess how that conversation went.”
“Yeah, and the Comments sections on the blogs posting about it. I think the last thing I heard was a dad accusing them of promoting rape culture, and the owners saying people should stop being so sensitive.”
“The ever-present Brooklyn hipster-vs.-parent debate.”
“There aren’t any hipsters left in Park Slope,” my wife says. “I think they might want to at least try to appeal to their customer base.”
“I think some of our fellow Park Slope parents might try easing up on the hypersensitivity.”
“Better to be hypersensitive than insensitive,” she says.
“I disagree,” I say.
“We come from a generation that told us not to take these things—the male gaze, imposition on women’s bodies—seriously,” she replies. “We have two girls I don’t want to subject to that. Or at least I want them to stand up against it when they see it.”
“I want our girls to be able to identify oppression when they see it, and laugh at it,” I say, then add, “That’s power.”
“I just want you to be aware,” my wife says, “that you are speaking from a white male perspective, with the privilege that entails.”
I stop looking at her, fixating on Le Médecin. “I guess I should just stop talking then.” I continue talking. “I wasn’t speaking from privilege. The opposite, actually: I was speaking as someone who has overcome plenty of class-based, systemic adversity, mostly because I learned to laugh at it. That’s what satire is—undermining oppression by laughing at it.”
My wife has stopped talking, but I can’t.
“You just took my position, which I’ve thought about at length, and made it into a stereotype. You say I’m speaking from a position of privilege, but I think it’s a position of maturity.”
My wife has stopped looking at me. She’s looking out the window, whatever argument she might make tucked away for another time. It’s probably right at this moment that I realize I’m mansplaining. I want to continue with this argument, to see it through to its conclusion, but I see in her icy gaze that I’ve already proven her right.
“Right now,” she says, “I don’t feel safe in your company.”
We sit, both of us looking out the window at the hotel across the street, or the fjord this hamlet is situated within, or the cloud-capped cliffs looming over both sides that block out the sun for two entire months of the winter—both of us shrouded from each other. Her hands are in her lap, one of my legs is crossed over the other, and the French doctor, the women, and the peeping-tom skier gaze over us into the online ether, smiling.
When you’re getting a coffee on a Monday morning and the barista, on handing it to you, says, “Enjoy,” to which you reply, “You too,” and it’s only while you’re adding cream and sugar that you realize one doesn’t say “You too” when a barista tells one to enjoy one’s coffee. And you wonder, while picking out a wooden stirrer (the broken one—you always go for the broken one), how many people remember you as the guy who said the wrong thing in what was supposed to be a perfectly normal, meaningless conversation. And you wonder how many normal, meaningless conversations are made abnormal but replete with meaning because somebody said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
For the past 12 days, I've essayed various aspects of this strange and wonderful season. Here they are, collected in their entirety for your yuletide bewilderment.
On this, the final day and panel of Christmas, I give you the elusive true symbol of Christmas: the unicorn. The idea for this was twofold:
- My daughters are really into unicorns. Like really into unicorns, especially my 8-year-old. It may be from her recent plowing-through of all seven Harry Potter books or our joint obsession with Parry Gripp novelty songs, but the enthusiasm is catchy.
- It just happens that Sufjan Stevens, in his tenth (and perhaps final?) Christmas album posits the unicorn as central to all Christmas mythology in his 12-minute opus "Christmas Unicorn":
Not at all tongue-in-cheek, the song is a masterpiece of unitarian mythology and gender fluidity, worthy of serious critical explication. Don't believe me? Just a read the honors thesis a student at Baylor recently completed on it. I've been stunned for the handful of years it's been with me at Christmas at how genuinely moving it is to to hear, along with the refrain from Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart": "I'm the Christmas unicorn. You're the Christmas unicorn. It's alright, I love you."
It's alright. I love you all too.
This is perhaps my favorite Woody Guthrie song, and undoubtedly one of his most important. It's also one of the saddest songs ever written.
In line with Guthrie's habit of pulling songs from headlines in his hard travels, he wrote it to commemorate the senseless mass disaster - and likely mass murder - in which 76 men, women, and children of striking copper mining families were trampled to death during a crowded holiday celebration at Italian Hall after someone yelled "Fire!" The person who yelled the fire and started the riot and stampede to the second floor exit that led to all this death and mayhem was never identified.
The song's reach is longstanding, if not as part of our historical record then as part of our collective unconscious. Any fan of Dylan knows that he used the song's chord progression and structure for his "Song to Woody" from his debut album:
And Woody's song Arlo, a masterful storyteller in his own right, gives some of the tragedy's continuing legacy in his introduction to his rendition of the song one hundred years after the event in 2013:
My friend Magdalena recently asked on social media, "Which is the Christmas carol that really sends you into a homicidal rage?" This for me is easy: "The Little Drummer Boy." ("Jingle Bells' is disqualified because it's so ubiquitous we can't really call it a carol anymore. It's musak, a jingle. Ha.) LDB's war march of the little boy is so monotonous, so faux-reverent that I want to take both drumsticks and break them over my knee and gouge my eyes out with the broken ends.
And then along comes Beck, to inject hip hop, Hanukkah, robotic voices, into a cut-and-paste pastiche that sounds like a great lost outtake from Odelay.
For the first minute of this two-minute instrumental romp, Los Lobos give us a fairly straightforward flamenco variation on this tired old horse. Then, things get weird. And wonderful.
"You look like Santa Claus, but in a good way." I've probably overplayed my Santa hand with the previous two entries, but I had to include this late-Eighties gem, which there's no evidence the ever-awkward Throwing Muses thought of as an actual Christmas song. I love how Kristin Hersh turns "Ho, ho, ho" into a transgressive cry.
If yesterday we looked at Santa's dark side as reflective of the Western tendency toward violence, today we address Santa as expression of libido.
The most egregious display of vulgarity is the Christmas classic "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," a lurid tale of one child's loss of innocence. I can't even bring myself to repeat the scandalous lyrics (and come on, we know them all anyway). I'm even abstaining from linking to the original 1952 version written by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd and performed by Spike Jones with little-boy vocals by the same guy who sang "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," instead giving not one but two lounge-y variants by Eddie Dunstedter and Jimmy McGriff respectively, which are steamy in their own late-Fifties/early-Sixties leisure suit sort of way:
Ever wondered where Run-DMC sampled that honking riff in "Christmas in Hollis" comes from? Look no further than Clarence Carter's 1968 think piece "Back Door Santa," the flipside to the front-door creep Elvis embodied "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" from his seminal 1957 Christmas album. Together they embraced the Santa-as-Lech motif in rock & roll, stealing all the girls' hearts along with their mothers'.
And of course the ladies loved Santa even before they loved Clarence and Elvis. Eartha Kitt was the first to perform the masterfully sexy purr "Santa Baby" in 1953, though I know it more from Madonna's 1987 version. And finally, it feels only fitting in the circular narrative I've woven here to conclude with pretty-much-forgotten girl group Girls Aloud dissing the dreamboat Santa sugar daddy in favor of, you know, that guy they're dating.
Like any good myth, Santa Claus embodies the values cherished by the cultures that believe in him. He's gone through many permutations in the long journey from St. Nicholas, the man, in the 4th Century to the jolly old elf with cheeks of jelly who sneaks down our chimney, with many submythologies in our cultural tributaries (I recently discovered on Amazon Prime, for example, a claymation Santa Claus creation myth where he is a human raised by wood elves, brought to Earth by a Gandalf-like wizard.)
Santa has comes to represent many things to children: wonder, joy, presents, etc. To adults, though, especially the ones with streaks of pathos and/or ironic humor, Santa is a tabula rasa for two cultural indicators intrinsic to American culture: sex and violence.
Both the sex and the violence are on full, humorless display in the 1984 horror flick Silent Nighy, Deadly Night, a story of a guy whose family was murdered by a guy in a Santa Claus suit when he was a child which of course led him to become the Oedipal heir and become a serial killer in a Santa suit as an adult. This movie haunted my junior high Christmas fantasies, and apparently spawned a full five sequels.
If ever there was a band uniquely suited to give a musical rendition of this slasher Santa myth, it is the Killers, which they did on the first of their annual strange Christmas songs, "Don't Shoot Me, Santa":
But (hopefully) no one will ever fulfill the Santa massacre myth with more satirical aplomb than Matt Groening's masterpiece, Futurama (yes, it's much better than the Simpsons, if only because it knew when to stop, when to start again, and when it was finally over). Every Christmas from 1999-2003 and 2010-2013, we got a Robot Santa, who keeps track of all our naughtiness on large screens on the planet Neptune and punishes us every Xmas with no mercy and no remorse.
Thursday's Christmas Vacation reference reminded me of the great conundrum of that movie: It's Christmas but they're not on vacation. This has always bothered me for reasons that are undoubtedly a little obsessive-compulsive (bait and switch!), but being bothered by it for a few minutes led me to today Christmas gift - Christmas on location! Some are vacation, and some are right at home, but they're all Christmas in their own way, and in their own place.
Black guys with their rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens in Queens, and a white guy in Hawaii with his lei. Who lives there, and who's just visiting?
I've never been to Las Vegas, but the shuffling beat of this song, deliberately derivative of Elvis and Wayne Newton, sounds like Las Vegas to me, and it's a lot cheaper.
I've been to New Orleans plenty, and all hail the great Satchelmouth for getting it right. From the magnolia trees at night, to barefoot choirs, to that bright honking trumpet - golly what a spirit, and you can only hear it down on Basin Street. Or in a 3-minute digitized track.
One of my favorite themes to explore during the holiday season is: Why?
Why do we pretend to be happier than we are, then feel bad that we're not nearly as happy as everyone else seems on social media? Why has "Merry Christmas" become a slogan spit out why social conservatives to say "You are not like me"? Why have we made the birth of a child who we now know would be tortured and killed by the governing authority as an adult, only to be used into perpetuity to justify subsequent governing authorities, the symbol of our supposedly happiest season? Why Christmas sweaters?
I think that what makes the proclamation "That's ok, Christmas means nothing to me" from Fuzzy's "Christmas" so liberating. Maybe it's just another day in an unheated house in Boston, hanging onto a warm body and asking, "How will you tell me if I change my mind?"
After twenty years listening to it I still have no idea what the Pixies' "Holiday Song" means. Again, maybe that's the point. Or maybe the most salient question is this: Is that refrain Here I am with my ham, or Here I am with my hand?
"Christmas is crying as he stumbles in vain to find Wild Turkey and vanish in pain." One of my favorite lines to a Christmas song ever.
And finally, the Vandals give us a definitive statement in response to the big Why? straight out of the Clark Griswold playbook: FUCK IT.
Sometimes I wish my favorite singers did more sacred music. I don't believe in angels, but if I did they'd have the voice of either Chris Cornell or Jeff Buckley. In fact it does my imagination some good to think of his spirit still singing after he left us this year. With that, I give you his 1992 rendition of "Ave Maria" from 1997, perhaps the most beautiful, heart-rending piece of modern sacred music ever put to record. I've never gotten to know the work of the band Eleven, but their vocalist provides a counterpoint harmony that just destroys me. And then there's Buckley's rendition of Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol," haunting in its own evocation: "The falcon hath borne my maid away." The falcon hath borne both Buckley and Cornell away too soon. Their deaths, in 1997 and 2017 respectively, feel vaguely poetic in their symmetry, evocative of the theology and geometry sought by Ignatius J. Reilly, even after his creator gassed himself in his Chevelle in 1969. Birth and death: endpoints to each of our theology and geometry.
Unlike the Cornell and Buckley, most people haven't heard of the evanescent late-Eighties band Hugo Largo. I barely remember them myself, and mostly for this version of "Angels We Have Hear on High" from the aforementioned Winter Warnerland promo. Their four-person lineup was idiosyncratic, comprised of two basses, a violin, and a performance artist whose voice is reminiscent of early Patti Smith, of which she's obviously aware: pay close attention at the end of the song for an Easter egg from Smith's "Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)."
Man, the Fifties were a strange decade. I've come to think of it in popular music terms as the era of unregulated white colonization of the non-white planet (and beyond!), from the mondo exotica of Les Baxter, to the mambo, tango, cha-cha, meringue, and every pre-rock & roll dance craze known to the Western world, to the pseudo-space-age music generated by the first (and hopefully last) era of the theremin as lead instrument.
The eskimos were perhaps the hardest hit victims of Fifties cliches. Granted statehood in 1959, Alaska was as exotic as the moon to most Americans. So, what's more American than making popular songs based on cartoonish caricatures? And we of course had such a vast store based on centuries of colonizing and forcibly assimilating natives that it was easy to transpose on this new, heretofore unexploited indigenous culture.
This is all to say I'm ashamed of how much I still enjoy both Alma Cogan's "Never Do a Tango with an Eskimo" (1955) and Hank Thompson's "Squaws Along the Yukon" (1958), both of which I discovered when my stepfather and I purchased an Eighties-vintage jukebox in 2000. The humor of both is based entirely on predictable thermo-regional generalizations: The premise of the Cogan's tune is almost cruelly unfair (Who would ever think an eskimo could tango? It's like faulting an Argentinian for not knowing how to snow-sled.), and Thompson simply takes the well-trodden Cherokee Maiden trope and moves it to the Yukon River.
One of the great conjunctions of modern musical history occurred when Dee Snider discovered that the chord progression to "O Come All Ye Faithful" would make a great pop metal tune (and not one but two great music videos!). This great conjunction became the seed for Twisted Sister's last studio album, A Twisted Christmas, released in 2006. "We're Not Gonna Take It" has been at least as influential is "O Come All Ye Faithful" in late Twentieth and early 21st Century culture - I haven't been to many karaoke bars where the song wasn't shouted at least once in the course of the night (usually by the same group of rowdies shouting out Crazy Train).
Snider publicly requested that VP candidate Paul Ryan refrain from using it in his 2012 campaign but expressed his approval at pro-choice activists using it in 2013. I'm on board with his politics 100%, especially after he and his crew visited Standing Rock shortly after I was there last year and ended up on the wrong end of the rubber bullets and water cannons during some of the more egregious offenses shortly before Christmas by the Morton County Police Department. Snider and the crew made a beautiful, powerful documentary-style music video in response, Snider telling the New York Post:
"To see U.S. government state and local authorities, along with hired private security, use this type of extreme violent force against unarmed American citizens in peaceful prayer is the saddest, most disturbing thing I have ever experienced. I’m glad we were there to capture the truth for all to see."
On the other end of the hair metal-in-politics diaspora, in 1999 former Extreme and then-Van Halen frontman Gary Cherone, a self-proclaimed Libertarian for Life, wrote a ham-fisted open letter to Eddie Vedder against abortion that Vedder and most of the world have now long forgotten. I only bring it up now because Extreme released an original Christmas song called "Christmas Time Again" for the second A Very Special Christmas album in 1992, at the twilight of their mainstream popularity and I remember being surprised at the time at how weirdly religious it seemed, especially as I was just coming out of my own weird religiosity. It's bombastic in both its music and its sentimentality, but also compelling (to me at least) even now.
And lest we assume glam rockers hung up the hair for their respective political issues after 1992, proto-glam band the Darkness (whom I never know how seriously to take) released the deliciously bombastic "Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End)" in 2011, complete with upper-register vocals and two-guitar attack:
In 1999, I spent Christmas Eve driving through a whole night of lake effect snow in a tiny Honda Accord with my cat on my way from Louisville to New York City. I was following a pickup truck driven by my stepfather that was toting all my belongings in a trailer behind it, and at one point whiteout conditions were so intense that I couldn't see his taillights. Then my cat started screeching and clawing at the front windshield, and all I could do to retain my focus and my sanity was to turn up my car stereo as loud as it would go. I'd been playing Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's album Acme on repeat for the past two hours since I couldn't take my eyes off the road long enough to change the CD, and the song "High Gear" just happened to be playing. I never even knew it was a Christmas song until then, but it told my story back to me as I was living it that night. Kind of.
Nightmare road trips are probably not the exclusive domain of my personal mythology.; hell, they're not even restricted to motorized vehicles, as James Kochalka Superstar documents:
But alas, lest we get too suspicious of our fellow wayward travelers, especially those in big ass trucks, remember that a certain guy with lots to do Christmas Eve doesn't always travel in the sky, at least according to Red Simpson in one of my favorite weepers from his album comprised entirely of Christmas trucker songs:
Remember used record stores? I know, they still exist, but remember when they were our pre-internet gateway out of the cycles of the record industry and into cheaper, more interesting music than the limited offerings at the K-Mart, Wal-Mart, or (or you were lucky) local record store? I scoured the shelves of the ones that opened up in the early Nineties - The Love Garden, Alley Cat Records, and others in Lawrence, Kansas (where I went to high school) and Terrapin Station in Murray, Kentucky (where I went to college) - for anything I'd never heard of. I especially loved finding stuff that was never meant for domestic release: bootlegs, promos, imports, et cetera. All this just sounds so quaint now, when we can find pretty much anything in the long tail of the music industry if we look hard enough. It was an evanescent time between the dictated mainstream tastes of the Eighties and the balkanized musical landscape we currently inhabit.
One of my favorite finds was a promo-only Christmas collection Warner Brothers sent out to radio DJs in 1988 called Winter Warnerland. Besides having some great songs (two of which are included in later strange days here) it also had a number of "holiday ID's," little spoken interludes by artists meant to be played between songs on the radio. Here are some of my favorites.
We'll start with Pee Wee Herman, who did a full three ID's. The first is a medley of Christmas favorites and a shout out to his Jewish friends, the second a weird little crossover attempt with the Traveling Wilburies, the third a reminder not to drink and drive:
In case Pee Wee didn't drive home (so to speak) the message, former Prince protege Apollonia reminds us in both English and Spanish:
And in case the Wilburies connection wasn't forthright enough, George Harrison (aka "Nelson Wilbury") deadpans his way through canned applause:
Representing the fake bad-boy attitude of late-Eighties hair metal, we have the Bullet Boys mangling a Nat "King" Cole classic and threatening to kill the most famous reindeer of all:
And the coup de grace: Lou Reed advising happiness in "whatever it is you do" with some vaguely doo-woppy background vocals:
Oh, and ZZ Top, Peter Cetera, James Ingram, and Randy Travis phone in some of the most whitebread Christmas greetings in the history of the Eighties:
So, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or whatever it is you do. And my promise for tomorrow: actual songs!
Having taken everyone's suggestions to heart, I've decided to do something no one suggested. Get ready for 12 Strange Days of Christmas, people!
Taking into account my friend Meagan's recommendation to just do seasonal winter music, I'm now brewing up a seasonal playlist of its own. But that's for January. And as for my friend Liz's thumbs up on going with sacred music for the holiday - despite my agnostic love for churchy Christmas music, I just couldn't invoke the sacred this season. Not this year. And barring a certain mangy old fox being smoked out of the henhouse, probably not next year or the year after.
It is in fact with the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," in mind that I give my strange, interesting, wonderful friends a break from the more depressing aspects of our strange and interesting times. Starting Thursday, 12/7 and running through Friday, 12/22 (minus weekends) I give you my advent calendar of strange and interesting Christmas cheer. And to warm you up, here's a great list of 10 weird Christmas albums, none of which shall be drawn from here.
And now, dear friends and readers, for the dreaded reader-response request. For the past three years I've indulged in some Christmas fun through perhaps my favorite part of Christmas: the music. The first two years I focused on my favorite variety, miserable. Last year, at my mother-in-law's request to lighten up, I dropped 12 days of unrepentantly happy Christmas songs. Ironically, doing that list only made me more depressed. (In the songs' defense, it turned out I was actually clinically depressed.)
Anyway, feel free to catch up on the past three years, but I also need your help deciding what to do this year. The 12-day thing works, but I'm trying to find a unifier that's less polarized. I was thinking maybe my favorite novelty songs, or anti-Christmas songs, or even sacred Christmas music (which is a guilty pleasure).
What do you think? One of these? Something else entirely? Help a brother out, here in the comments or on my social media.
And as thanks, here's a nice photo of me with Santa outside his trailer in the Eighties. Those were good times.
Dinner conversation with my 8-year-old:
8YO: What if Voldemort and Donald Trump joined forces?
ME: They actually did. Voldemort now goes by the name of Vladimir Putin.
When you’re teaching Baudrillard to freshmen, and you decide to take them outside and explain the precession of simulacra at the side of a pond dug by earthmovers decades ago with a fountain bubbling loudly from the middle of it while your class is gathered on a set of stones arranged in colosseum seating, and you ask them if they can think of any examples of representations that have denatured reality until they exist outside the reality they once reflected. “You mean, like a cliché?” one asks. “Example,” you say. “Being a cat on Halloween,” one says. “You mean if you’re a girl?” you ask. “Unless you’re a girl named Kat,” she says, looking over at the girl in your class named Kat, who apparently just dressed up as a cat for Halloween. And when one student starts texting and you ask what he just texted, and he says, “lol,” and you ask if that is his example of a simulacrum. “Maybe,” he replies, and you ask, “What if someone does something just for the lulz?” “You mean like if I’m playing an online RPG and go in and just kill someone?” “Exactly,” you say. “You were obviously just doing that for the lulz.” “Don’t say lulz, Professor,” another student says, then you ask if you all are in a simulacrum right now, a denatured symbol of the real, but before anyone can answer, another student or maybe two jump up from the stone they were sharing and speechlessly point under it. And you get down on hands and knees, thinking that you haven’t yet even explained how you brought them out into a simulacrum of nature to illustrate Baudrillard’s precession, and find yourself looking into the shiny eyes of a rat. “Class dismissed,” you say, and two students stay, wanting to talk to you about Black Mirror, but all you want to do is keep looking at the rat, this Barthesian punctum of the simulated narrative you’d been cultivating for these eighteen-year-olds, this small, frightened, feral little packet of the real, silently judging you.