Thursday, December 18, 2008
Yuletide taints and Christmas creeps
It’s not because I’m basking in the bosom of toy-addled family love that December 26 is one of my favorite days of the year. No, I’m at peace because the day means it’ll be about 335 days before my ears are tortured by another Christmas song.
Well, to be accurate, it’ll probably be another 240 days or just after Labor Day before I hear another one.
The Christmas song creep gets worse and worse every year. By creep, I mean how Christmas songs show up earlier and earlier and not Elvis Presley. Yes, the King is de facto king of modern Christmas songs having recorded hundreds of standards, duets and originals, including one, “It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You)” that lists the songwriting credits as “Elvis Presley, Balthazar,” the by God name of one of the Three Wisemen.
The man had connections.
It’s been at least 15 years since we topped out with just the right amount of Christmas songs. After 1992 we haven’t needed another one. Still every year artists try in vain to add to the timeless mix.
A safe way to rank the credibility of bands (and actors for that matter -- sorry Vince Vaughn) is on how few Christmas songs or performances with which they’ve been associated.
I love classic country music, but this sensible posture practically rules out the entire genre for credibility consideration. No one panders more to their fan base with tired Christmas ditties than country music stars.
Toby Keith, hardly a timeless classic along the lines of George Strait or Alan Jackson, has already released two full Christmas albums. And you have to believe the tough guy poser had to be persuaded to enthusiastically sing “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!” lest it over take his anthems about boots in the asses of dark-skinned folks around the world.
Keith’s arch-nemesis, the Dixie Chicks, however have never released a single Christmas song. Keith has outsold the Chicks by many millions, but give the gals marks when it comes to credibility.
Even the great Steve Earle suffers from a slight Yuletide taint. He recorded “Christmas in Washington,” a moving lament about political decay in the capital. It’s a great song, still it’s a Christmas song and we have all we need.
It gets a little murkier for me when you get to the great rock bands. Even accomplished artists like Tom Petty, U2, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen couldn’t resist the cheap temptation to make a seasonal grab, even though the Petty song, “Christmas All Over Again” still gets my pulse racing when it comes on the radio.
Recorded in 1992, it’s maybe the last new Christmas song we’ve ever needed.
For years I used this Christmas song argument to bolster my insistence that the Rolling Stones were the greatest band in history. But then I discovered a rare Keith Richards solo cover of Chuck Berry’s great Christmas song, “Run Run Rudolph.”
Granted, it was done in 1971, Keith’s only one-fifth or so of the band, and he probably doesn’t even remember 1971, much less recording the song, but the taint persists.
The Beatles? Forget it. Both John and Paul have recorded preachy and silly Christmas songs respectively and, for heaven’s sake, every song Ringo’s ever recorded could be considered a Christmas song.
The Christmas stipulation significantly strengthens my contention that George Harrison was the greatest Beatle. It’s unlikely Harrison’s ever recorded a Christmas song -- and I’m certainly not counting anything about Vishnu or other Hindu big shots he often praised.
I was sorely tempted to make an exception for The Kinks, one of my very favorite bands. But how could I when they have a great popular song, “Father Christmas.” The Ray Davies lyrics are perfectly subversive. Check ‘em out:
When I was small I believed in Santa Claus
Though I knew it was my dad
And I would hang up my stocking at Christmas
Open my presents and I’d be glad
But the last time I played Father Christmas
I stood outside a department store
A gang of kids came over and mugged me
And knocked my reindeer to the floor
Father Christmas, give us some money
Don’t mess around with those silly toys.
We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over
We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys
I’ll stand those words up against “Silent Night” as the sublime essence of 21st century Christmas any day.
Still, I have to be fair. It’s a Christmas song so that rules out The Kinks.
That leaves us with Bob Dylan.
Born Robert Zimmerman to devout Jews, he’s never penned a single Christmas ditty, even though he went though a born-again Christian phase in the late 1970s when he may have been tempted to sonically celebrate the holy season.
One of our most proud and prolific songwriters, a man who’s written more than 600 songs, has never once penned a song about Rudolph, Santa, mangers, or cuddly snowmen. It’s a staggering achievement.
To me, at least.
I’m sure there’s some may consider that a blotch or even an affront. They may say it’s a religious insult coming from a man born Jewish.
I can name one other pretty famous Jew who never did much of anything during his life to celebrate Christmas.