While looking for some pictures to tie this piece together, I discovered this – The Greek Christmas Goblins not to be confused with Krampus. Krampus is there to screw with the bad children, but the Kalikantzaroi are there to screw with Christmas.
Who says Santa Claus is the only one trying to come down your chimney during the festive season? According to Greek mythology, a gaggle of goblin-like spirits are trying to slide into homes -- and instead of presents they are intent on leaving a trail of destruction. As the Greeks tell it, it wouldn't be hard to confuse theTwelve Days of Christmas with the Twelve Days of Hell. That is if you believe in the Kallikantzaroi.
Well, there’s definitely reason when we think about it to see this as a definite possibility. The recent madness in Sandy Hook is a marvelous metaphor for the impact of reality striking the sensibilities this time of the year. I spend a couple of weeks before and after braced for the next bad deal – invade someplace? Pestilence? Riots? Tsunami? Tiffany, Goddess of the Defeatists and Malcontents, is definitely driven to distraction by the all the sugar consumed and her consequent inability to fit into her skinny jeans, so she wrecks havoc on the world around us…part petulant teenage fit, part evil deity exercise program.
There’s a young artist up in Denver, Katey Laurel, who for some odd reason decided to follow me on Twitter. Since we don’t actually know each other, I always react to “Follows” like Henri the Cat would if he actually typed his tweets to his peeps….I check out who they are. If they are interesting, I follow them. Katey has a gorgeous voice, excellent guitar taste, plays very well and is very much an upbeat and positive type of the sort that gets Henri and me feeling nervous. But, talent, music and beauty cover a multitude of sins. In our occasional correspondence, I referred to her as “hippy Dale Evans” which she seemed to like. Snarky as that sounds, I can’t see a downside.
However, AXE’s world does have some standards. One of them is a vomit-reaction to anything approaching a sentimental attitude at Christmas that could be mistaken for commercialism. When I was a practicing Catholic or actively non-practicing Catholic, I felt that Christmas was a silly feast. If you buy the whole Christian mythos – and a number of other mythos with similar stories that pre-date Christianity – the true center is neither word becoming flesh nor dwelling amongst us but the 36 or so hours between the death of Jesus on the Cross and the stone rolling away on Sunday morning at dawn. The whole torture, suffering and death thing serves as a horrible prologue for something outside of human experience.
But, human beings love cuddly, warm and bright at least for the most part. I’ve never had a Goth girlfriend, but I suspect that even they feel the need for warmth, security and brightness in the night. So, Christmas evolved and despite the best efforts of the Puritans and Roundheads and the Jansenists and bunches of other people, Christmas is the center of everyone’s world for six months of so. Good Friday and Easter get a token nod, maybe some Lenten fasting and abstinence but there’s no real hysteria and commercial upside to Easter. Eggs, chocolate and hats do very well. Not like Christmas…
So, Katey decided to do a Christmas song every day. Bleech…and post them on her blog. What is nice and authentic about them is that she just turns on her web cam, sits down with the guitar and plays the song, and then does whatever a Colorado-Hippy-Cowgirl type does for the rest of her time. It would be a lot of fun to just sit around with her and play by the way…she’s got a marvelous voice and an attractiveness in the purest sense that would make her easy to accompany. What wasn’t cool was her suggestion that she’d like to do a Christmas album for next year. My immediate response, on Twitter, was”Are you changing your name to Bambi?” She obviously got the joke, because she not only favorited it, she re-tweeted it. However, after hitting send, I thought why not do an existentialist Christmas album.
Objectively, Christmas is a really schizoid kind of holiday. For six weeks or so, everything operates at a level of hysteria such that the entire world is torn between glee, despair, love, hate, anger, angst, joy and fear. The emotional roller coaster is shadowed by the looming debt, the stress of “loved ones,” the joys of travel in the US today and so on. It’s unavoidable…inescapable…insatiable. And then, of course, on the 26th the post Christmas commercial blitzkrieg takes center stage, the toys don’t work, the tree comes down, the crumbs are vacuumed, the cats come out of hiding and every one gets ready for the cycle to begin again. Poorer, older, fatter and more depressed…sugar high, crashing blood sugar low.
People die around Christmas. It’s not just the uptick in suicides which may or may not be mythical. A lot of old and sick folks stop fighting around Christmas and just go. It’s a time of ends and beginnings. The coldest and darkest time of the year, 3 days into winter which is already turning from darkness to light.
I fleshed out my suggestion to Katey for a more Either/Or Christmas album. I could see this as a single artist project, an ensemble or a larger collaboration. Do a traditional Christmas song and then counterpoint it with a Christmas song of angst, anger, despair or whatever that would model the dark side. Perhaps a Harlequin Christmas although I like the Either/Or concept. I stole the title from Kierkegaard, one of my favorite thinkers…and, for K at the end, there was an effort to synthesize the aesthetic and the ethical realms into the religious realm, the Both/And.
I sent her a tentative song list, and she said she was going to check out the videos I linked. Now, it is probably not a terribly commercial idea – do you think? – and I can understand it if she doesn’t jump all over it. Still, I think Katey and a couple of other guitars, maybe a blues harp, maybe a violin, some simple drums and a string bass, and Christmas would be honestly and respectfully portrayed.
Although I never made it to the Stilge Nacht, Helige Nacht church in Austria, I have attended Midnight Mass in small village churches in Germany and Austria where the light was from candles and a fireplace and the instruments were guitars, flutes and zithers. The starker, simpler arrangements are special. At the same time, some of the greatest commercial songwriters in the glory days of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley touched the Christmas theme. So, why not…
So, here’s my partial play list, proposed from the Dark Side of the Force for Christmas... The Guardian has a marvelous piece on how Fairytale came to be. This is one of the most popular contemporary Christmas songs, and one of the few Christmas songs I have ever bothered to learn how to play. Part of it is the Irish part of it of course – an early version has some lyrics beginning “it was a cold dark night in County Claire/and I looked to the west and wondered what’s over there…” Part of it is of course, it’s America…”it’s got cars big as bars, it’s got rivers of gold? but the wind blows right through you it’s no place for the old/when you first took my hand on that cold Christmas eve/You promised that Broadway was waiting for me”…Failure, loss, despair and love gone bad: “I could have been someone/Well so could anyone, You took my dreams from me when I first found you…”and, maybe hope triumphant…”The Boys of the NYPD Choir still singing Galway Bay and the bells were ringing out on Christmas Day!”
Robert Earle Keen is one of the non-Gonzo Texas Alternative Country musicians, closer to Townes Van Zandt in substance and Guy Clark in style with some Lyle Lovett tones. Which makes a lot of sense, given that Clark and Lovett were roommates and band mates and fellow English Majors at Texas A&M. Like Clark he confronts reality in a sort of off-kilter way that is truer to the whole thing than fantasy or straight reporting could be. The Robert Earle Classic, Merry Christmas from the Family is so true to Christmas gatherings and families and family issues. This is the other Christmas song I’ve bothered to learn. Now, if you love Texas, the song is pretty whimsically real, but it doesn’t have to be Texas…I was the Irish boyfriend at a Sicilian Christmas decades ago, and yes they were connected. “Sister brought her new boyfriend/He was a Mexican/We didn’t know what to think of him/ Until he sang Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad…”
Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis is Neko Case singing Tom Watts...Despite being an acquaintance of mine, Neko Case one of the most talented singer-songwriters working these days or any days. Powerful voice, expressive and alternatively yearning, defiant and reflective. Hell, simultaneously yearning, defiant and reflective. Her twitter remarks are worth the price of admission alone. She’s a unique talent, responding to a piece of my snark with “Crusader AXE, if I wanted a father, I’d buy one.” However, she complains about Christmas and indicates that this is just not her happiest time of the year, she’s the kind of great soul, kind heart and love-filled spirit sheathed in a protective coating of red-headed angst and cynicism that makes her perfect to deliver this song. ”Everyone I used to know is either dead or in prison/Came back to Minneapolis and this time I think I’llstay…” Waits version is perhaps more authentic, but less affecting and less humane. Valid still, but Neko owns this song.
Sheri Miller is another acquaintance of mine through the world of virtual media Great young songwriter and marvelous voice and musicianship. Most recent project included a washed up session guy named, uh, Steve. Steve Cropper. THE FREAKING STEVE CROPPER. I think Booker T Jones might have played on some of it as well. She’s getting kind of an entirely too positive, bright eyed feel for my tastes, but it’s possible that she really does see the world that way. But, some of her stuff is very different. I’ve written of her before, and written of this song before. When we communicate about things, I always ask her when she’ going to release it. Not yet. Which is a shame…I personally think it would have been a hell of a track for Hurricane Sandy relief. Similar to Katey Laurel in some ways, Sheri, a Mediterranean brunette is less the ash blonde alpine type and definitely a New York musician. And, anyone who can write lyrics like this song has got some “ insight…”Merry Christmas is what they tell me…Jesus it’s been a hell of year. “Provocative, layered (is it a curse or a prayer?), beseechingly dignified. <iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/_HS40o0Mn_E" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
The Hives are 90s garage-punk rock from LA and everybody knows Cyndi Lauper. However, there is more happening here than it seems, and frankly, I’ve heard arguments like this from lots of people. This is a lot realer than we’d like it to be. I’m kind of amazed at Lauper – she’s gone a long way musically from wince-producing to very interesting at times. This was part of the journey, and I could see Katey laughing her ski boots off but never considering it as a possible song for the album. Think that would be a mistake though…
When I heard Dylan say he was going to do a Christmas album with new songs one morning while listening to Theme Time radio while driving to work, I spit coffee all over the dash board. And then he produced this…the guy remains unpredictable and true to his own vision. He’s not unwilling to share it, but we’ll never understand it in advance. That’s how a scrawny Jewish Kid from Northern Minnesota was able to change the world – we never saw it coming. Steven Van Zandt repeatedly tells the Al Cooper legend of how Koop ended up, a guitar player overshadowed and intimidated by Mike Bloomfield’s presence in the recording studio so fakinghis way on to the Hammond B3 for the session that produced Like a Rolling Stone. While that may define Chutzpah, Dylan gave an insight into the vision that day when he told the producer to turn up the organ, he wanted to hear the organ louder. The Engineer apologized and said basically that Cooper wasn’t an organ player and wasn’t supposed to be there anyway. Bob said, “I’ll tell you who’s an organ player and who isn’t. Turn up the organ.” And the rest is rock history. While I don’t envision rock and roll polka coming anytime soon, this is a helluva lot better and definitely a subversive take on the whole Santa thing. And, how could it be a music recommendation from Crusader AXE that didn't include Dylan?
There are dozens of other songs that fit this mold, but from my point of view, these are probably the best fitting for me. There is an underlying ethical and existential tension in the whole Christmas story – for if Jesus was the son of God and fully God and fully man, he would know his future, even while an infant. So, there is a bit of the dark side in all the religious carols. Now for me, anti-theist but cultural Irish Catholic, I find that so incredibly awesome and awful that I can’t approach it. Mr. Deity has fun with it in the whole “Jesse is a quitter!” thing but it’s a philosophical and theological problem that I don’t think has been addressed except in Kierkegaard’s Attack on Christianity.
There are two iconic mainstream Christmas related songs that I think could fit in this compilation on the dark side. The first is Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be home for Christmas.” A 1943 release, the whole I’ll be home for Christmas malarkey is actually a pretty good wartime meme…wars are always expected to be done by Christmas, and they never seem to end quite that way. I sense, and this is probably just me reading into it, a connection thematically between this and the country song, “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” Still, I’ll be home for Christmas is all positive buildup until the end, with “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams…”
The next one is another in Crosby canon, “White Christmas.” Katey commented on Twitter to how she can’t see how people in warm areas can get in the Christmas spirit without snow. Well, Christmas is largely about Walmart’s bottom line these days, so in SOCAL and similar locations, it just removes a distraction from what it really important.
It would be possible on a concept album to use these two numbers with a pretty simple arrangement to bridge the dark side to the cheery sides. Thus, the Either/Or. Worth considering, I think.