santa

Santa’s Super Sleigh and Other Christmas Novelty Classics

“Santa’s Super Sleigh” is the platonic ideal of Christmas novelty songs. It’s the platonic ideal because it doesn’t actually exist. It’s a fictitious song invented by Nick Hornby in his novel About a Boy, though in the book all the lyrics that Hornby provides are these:

So just leave out the mince pies, and a glass of sherry,
And Santa will visit you, and leave you feeling merry,
Oh, Santa’s super sleigh,
Santa’s super sleigh…

In the book and the movie based on it, the song exists in the same way that the shadows in Plato’s cave exist. They represent something that has a reality outside the cave of the story, but it never becomes part of the story itself, except as an explanation for why the main character, Will, never has to work for a living. His father wrote the song, left the rights to Will when he died, and now Will gets royalty checks every time somebody plays it. Which allows Will the twin luxuries of not having to work for a living and not really having to grow up. (There’s an actual boy in About a Boy, but the title refers to Will as well.)

In the movie version of About a Boy, where Hugh Grant plays Will, all we hear of the song’s melody is this extemporaneous version (with different lyrics from the ones in the book) that makes Will cringe in a way one suspects he has cringed many times before:

The fact that the song doesn’t exist beyond a few (somewhat contradictory) lyrics and the snatch of melody somebody devised for the film hasn’t stopped people from putting complete renditions of it on YouTube, some of them, like this, clearly professionally produced:

Where that version comes from is beyond the power of Spotify to tell me (and I’m not sufficiently motivated to do any detective work on Google, though readers of this post are welcome to do it for me), but it seems to me that it totally misses the point. Yes, it uses the lyrics from the film and a highly modified piece of the lyrics from the book, but “Santa’s Super Sleigh” isn’t supposed to be a lush Christmas ballad that could have been covered by Josh Groban. It’s supposed to be a Christmas novelty song.

What’s a Christmas novelty song? Amy thinks it’s a song that tells a story, usually about some newly invented Christmas character like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman who weren’t even in the Christmas canon until the songs about them became hits. That’s a pretty good definition, but I tend to define Christmas novelty songs a bit more loosely, the way some people define science fiction: A Christmas novelty song is what I’m pointing at when I say, “This is a Christmas novelty song.”

“Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are unquestionably Christmas novelty songs and I’m convinced they’re what “Santa’s Super Sleigh” was intended to parody. (I’m tempted to see if Nick Hornby’s on Twitter and ask him, just to settle the matter.) But there are other songs that skirt around the edges of Amy’s definition yet still seem to me to fall quite clearly into Christmas novelty song territory.

For instance, is “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” a novelty song? It’s become so hyper-familiar over the eons that it could almost be part of some ancient codex with a hand-drawn picture of St. Nicholas on it, but when it was introduced in 1934 did people see lines like “He knows when you are sleeping/He knows when you’re awake/He knows if you’ve been bad or good/So be good for goodness sake” as a serious, if humorous, attempt to add a future classic to the Great American Popular Songbook (as it would later be called) or did they see it as, well, a novelty?

I suppose that question is rhetorical, given that novelty simply means “something new and unique,” which could describe almost any truly great song. But a novelty song is really a song that’s not so much intended to be good as it’s intended to be clever. “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” is so blatantly intended to be a novelty song that I’m almost tempted to exclude it from the category because it tries way too hard to be way too bad, but “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is also clearly a novelty song and it’s good enough that I don’t mind having it occasionally pop up as an earworm.

I think a certain silliness of intent more clearly defines — for me, at least — what a song requires to be a novelty song and “I Saw Mommy…” unquestionably has that. (So does “Grandma Got, etc.,” but it’s a really deplorable kind of silly. It does tell a story, though.) “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” is also quite undeniably a Christmas novelty song and it doesn’t really tell a story at all, at least no more than other songs do, but it has silliness of intent in spades (though I’d probably hate to have it turn up as an earworm and would possibly commit suicide if it ever does).

What other Christmas novelty songs are there? “The Heat Miser Song,” from the 1974 Rankin-Bass animated TV special The Year Without a Santa Claus, has a distinct silliness when heard played separately from the original context. Really, within context it’s even sillier because, let’s face it, the whole cartoon is a novelty if a little bit of a sad one. In musical theater terms, “The Heat Miser Song” is an “I Am” song, where a character uses music as a medium for monologuing about himself. And Heat Miser is a pretty darned silly character.

And Eartha Kitt’s 1953 hit “Santa Baby” is a Christmas novelty song, because it deliberately misses the true spirit of Christmas and goes right to what we’ve suspected was the underlying reason for Christmas all along: sheer, naked greed. These days it may be better known from covers by singers ranging from Madonna to Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift.

Now come on. Doesn’t “Santa’s Super Sleigh” belong in this list? Sure it does, even if the most complete version extant can’t seem to understand that. Nick Hornby invented a prototypical Christmas novelty song as a way of putting Will in the perpetual adolescent state that About a Boy finally resolves and, if nothing else, its sheer lack of existence makes it a novelty. But I think it was intended as a novelty song all along.

Now where’s Nick Hornby’s Twitter address?

Postscript: Amy pointed out that I’d missed an important Christmas novelty song. (Actually, I probably missed several.) But Gayla Peevey’s “I Want a Hippotamus for Christmas” deserves a high place on the list because it’s about as novel as Christmas novelty songs get without degenerating to the level of  “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” It was a hit in 1953, but totally vanished from radio airplay until uber-quirky-DJ Dr. Demento, as much of an expert on novelty songs as the airwaves have ever had, revived it on a novelty song anthology in the 2000s. Now it’s become inescapable, almost relentlessly so, but its sheer cuteness makes it bearable, maybe even loveable.

And I’d like to add the somewhat lesser-known “Chrissy the Christmas Mouse,” recorded God-knows-when by Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, that I didn’t start hearing on the radio until about 2003, which maybe coincidentally is the year Donald O’Connor died. It’s an attempt to create a new Rudolph the Reindeer-style story song about a previously unheralded Christmas character, an adorable mouse who “lives in the middle of Santa’s house,” that never got the traction (or tailwind) that Rudolph did. But it still gets played and like any good Christmas novelty song makes up in charm what it may lack in musical quality.

That about covers it, yes? Or are there other Christmas novelty songs lurking out there that actually get airplay (or streaming play) that I’ve missed? Suggestions are welcome.

I finally broke down and looked up “Santa’s Super Sleigh” on Google. The version for the film was written by composer Peter Brewis, but I’m pretty sure the full version on YouTube wasn’t anywhere in the movie. Maybe on the soundtrack album?

And now that I look back over Nick Hornby’s original lyrics, I’m convinced that, while he meant “Super Sleigh” as a novelty song, he meant it as a really bad novelty song. Is it possible that Nick “High Fidelity” Hornby hates Christmas music?

Maybe I won’t look him up on Twitter after all.

Kardashian Khristmas Songs

Christmas songs are like the Kardashians. Some people can’t get enough of them while some people are repelled by the very concept. Me, I love them — Christmas songs, I mean, not the Kardashians. I’m not even sure why the Kardashians exist.

Kardashian Khristmas Kard

Have a Kardashian little Khristmas!

Even for those of us who love Christmas music, though, there are certain individual Christmas songs that have all the aural appeal of a buzz saw slicing through a Fraser fir. Several years ago I ran a poll on a forum I frequented asking people what Christmas songs they couldn’t stand. The results were no doubt skewed by the usual self-selection biases that affect Internet polls as well as my tendency to inject my own opinions into the conversation. But some very definite trends emerged. There are several Christmas songs that just make people see red. And I’m not talking about deliberately awful songs like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” but Christmas classics that, at some point, became more annoying than a barrel full of drunken elves.

Let’s call these Kardashian Khristmas songs, because they have no obvious reason for existing.

“Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney  was possibly the single most divisive Khristmas — er, Christmas — song in the poll. In fact, it was witnessing the derogatory comments lobbed in the direction of this song that inspired me to start the poll in the first place. Not that a large number of people hated it, but the ones who did utterly despised it.

Why the hate for Sir Paul? It may be the repetitious nature of the melody or those bouncy synthesizers boing-boing-boinging in the background. Or maybe it’s just the sense that McCartney didn’t spend any more time writing this song than it took him to sing it. But most likely it’s because the song is wildly overplayed on every shopping center audio system from Thanksgiving on.

I actually like the song myself and several other people rose to its defense. Not that the former Beatle needs defending. McCartney’s royalties from “Yesterday” alone have probably paid for several vacation homes, where he can have as wonderful a Christmas time as any Kardashian.

“The Little Drummer Boy” by a Lotta Different People grated on at least as many nerves as “Wonderful Christmas Time.” This is another song that suffers from ubiquity — those endless “pa-rump-pa-bump-bumps” are everywhere during the last month of the year — but “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole is just as ubiquitous and hasn’t worn out its welcome, at least not with me. There also seemed to be some question as to why the sound of a drum would be appreciated by a newborn baby. The main problem, though, may be the dirge-like nature of some arrangements, including the Harry Simeone Khorale — okay, Chorale — version linked above. Yet compare this to David Bowie’s weirdly sublime 1977 duet version with Bing Crosby.

This version is marvelous, a Christmas song for the ages and not even remotely a Kardashian, but it also cheats. Bowie, along with the producers of the Christmas special where it originally appeared, added a counterpoint track, “Peace on Earth,” that replaces the monotonous drumbeats with a lovely, flowing melody. Halfway through you barely remember what song you’re listening to.

I have no problem with “Little Drummer Boy” in any version because it makes me think of my childhood, of tiny manger scenes covered in pine needles and sprayed-on snow, of eggnog served next to the radio. But I suspect even I’d be tempted to rip the speakers out of a department store ceiling the 19th or 20th time they played it during a single visit.

Other songs mentioned in the poll included “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid, a well-intentioned charitable relief effort weighed down by the same monotony and ubiquity as “Little Drummer Boy” (though I’m pretty sure nobody ever sings “pa-rump-pa-bump-bump” in it); “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Miss Piggy and others, a one-joke song that doesn’t get any funnier the 500th time you’ve heard it; “Feliz Navidad,” which is pretty much just José Feliciano singing “Merry Christmas” over and over in Spanish; and “anything by Mariah Carey.” I’m pretty much on board with all those choices.

There was, however, a clear winner in the poll. Okay, it didn’t help that I made it obvious from the start how much I despise this particular song. I even posted a YouTube link to make sure the lucky people who’d never heard it could experience firsthand how bad it was. It’s a song that’s manipulative, crass, smug and fuzzy on its poorly thought-out religious notions. It’s the Kardashian Khristmas song to end all Kardashian Khristmas songs. In fact, I’m not sure even the Kardashians deserve to be compared to this song. They at least help make supermarket checkout lines bearable.

I am referring, of course, to “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong.

If you’ve never heard it, you owe it to yourself to listen, though I advise a stiff drink of eggnog first, preferably with more rum than nog. Note that the video above contains clips from the Rob Lowe TV movie made about the song. Yes, this song has even had a TV movie made about it. The movie came out the year Lowe left The West Wing and he must have been really desperate. I hope he changed agents.

The song is about a man — we’ll call him Rob — standing in line shopping for Christmas presents, presumably shoes, and having a lot of trouble getting into ye olde Christmas spirit. Rob is apparently a bit of a jerk, which is no doubt what gives the TV movie its character arc, and then the young boy in front of him starts trying to pay for a pair of women’s shoes with a handful of change.

At this point most jerks would go ballistic and start shouting loudly about how many damned times they’ve heard “Little Drummer Boy” on the audio system, but no. Rob actually listens to what the boy is saying. It turns out that the boy’s mother is dying — on Christmas Eve, which really puts a damper on the holiday — and the kid wants to buy her a new pair of shoes so she’ll look good for Jesus.

It’s possible that you already feel manipulated by just that brief description, but it gets worse. Rob decides to buy the boy the pair of shoes so his mother can go to heaven in style and — guess what? — his heart is suddenly filled with the true meaning of the holiday, which apparently involves giving shoes to a woman who’s more in need of chemo.

The execution of the song is perfunctory in a country-western-lite sort of way, with the requisite children’s chorus (a gimmick that actually works in some Christmas songs) coming in on cue. I suppose taken strictly as a piece of music it’s no worse than one of the lesser songs from the Kenny Rogers oeuvre (something I don’t mean as a compliment), but it’s the song’s message that churns my stomach. The lyrics imply that God is taking the life of the boy’s mother in order to give Rob the Christmas spirit!

I’m not religious, not even remotely, but even I can see what a craven, exploitative message that is. Worse yet, Wikipedia tells me that NewSong is a Christian vocal group, which presumably means they’ve run this concept past their personal Jesus and he gave it his holy okay. The best spin I can give it is to assume that the woman was dying anyway and God decided that this made her son the perfect candidate for spreading Christmas cheer. Yeah, I’m sure those shoes really cheered mom up, assuming she came out of her coma long enough to put them on. I’ll have to watch the TV movie and find out.

Other respondents in the poll were even more cynical about this song than I was. How do we know the kid’s not running a scam, reselling expensive shoes to a fence in an alley behind the store? Or maybe he’s a closeted crossdresser, who’s ashamed to admit that he just wants to wear the shoes to a Christmas party that evening, possibly at the Kardashians house?

I’m sure the Kardashian ladies would appreciate the shoes even if they wouldn’t appreciate the song. Which is as good an excuse as any to post this picture I took in Las Vegas three Christmases ago:

 

Kardashian store in Vegas

Kardashian Khristmas store with Khristmas Tree!

Ah, Khristmas in Vegas! I’m pretty sure the audio system was playing “Little Drummer Boy.”

The Most Miserable Time of the Year: Sad Christmas Songs

Christmas is a happy time, right? Okay, I know there are people who immediately groaned when they read that. Some of my friends turn into Ebeneezer Scrooges immediately after Thanksgiving (though I won’t name any names). In general, though, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, a time for televising the umpty-umpth rerun of every Rankin-Bass Christmas cartoon ever animated, for getting drunk on spiked eggnog and mulled wine, and for listening to Christmas music on the radio, your iPod or your favorite streaming music service. And Christmas music must be the happiest music ever written. Right?

Blue Christmas

Elvis may be smiling on this album cover, but it’s a sad smile.

Not necessarily. It took Amy, who being Jewish has a somewhat different perspective on Christmas music than I do, to point out what should have been obvious to me years ago: A lot of modern Christmas songs, maybe more Christmas songs than not, are real downers.

I’m not talking about religious Christmas music, which is mostly about how thrilled the singers are over the birth of their savior. And I’m not counting Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” which isn’t really a Christmas song so much as it’s a “bitter-rejection-of-Christmas” song.

When you get into secular Christmas music, though, the landscape starts to change. Sure, songs like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “Let It Snow” are so upbeat that they make you want to dance. “The Christmas Waltz” even tells you what dance you’re supposed to dance to it. But a surprising number of pop Christmas songs are about how depressing a time of year this can be, especially if you want to be someplace that you’re not or with somebody you can’t be with.

I don’t know if it was the first depressing Christmas song, but Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” at one time the most popular Christmas song in the Great American Songbook, is definitely a sad song. As the rarely used intro says, “It’s December the 24th and I’m longing to be up north.” It’s about a person (probably Irving Berlin himself, stuck in Los Angeles writing songs like “White Christmas” for the movies) having a somber Christmas because it’s not “like the ones [he] used to know.”

During World War II, there were thousands of GIs who wouldn’t be home for Christmas because they had a war to fight in Europe and Japan. The 1943 song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” acknowledged this by painting a picture of a perfect Christmas homecoming — “We’ll have snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree” — then blowing it apart with what may be the most heartbreaking punchline of any song from that era: “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

By the 1960s, Elvis Presley was singing about having a “Blue Christmas” (a song actually written in the late 1940s), lamenting that the object of his affections would “be doing all right with [her] Christmas of white, but I’ll have a blue, blue, blue Christmas.” (Three “blues” in a row. Can’t get much bluer than that.) The song was a huge hit and still gets played, in versions by Elvis and dozens of others, every Christmas. And note how it neatly references the Irving Berlin song, not only in its title but in that line about “in your Christmas of white.”

It may have been Karen Carpenter, though, who really started the sad Christmas ball rolling with 1970’s “Merry Christmas, Darling,” a song written by her brother Richard in collaboration with Frank Pooler and not made any happier by the fact that Karen died a much-too-early death a little more than a decade later. It’s a sweet but heartbreaking song about a woman separated from her beloved for unspecified reasons and remains one of the greatest Christmas songs to come out of the 1970s.

The Karen and Richard Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts

The Karen and Richard Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, made relevant only by the fact that we saw David Benoit and his trio perform a tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas there a few nights ago

Dan Fogelberg must have been drinking from the same pain-spiked bowl of eggnog when he wrote and sang 1980’s admittedly rather sappy “Same Old Lang Syne,” a song that’s often played as a New Year’s song, but that takes place on Christmas Eve. In it, the singer meets an old girlfriend who apparently broke his heart long ago and who is now in a loveless marriage with an architect. (Honestly, Dan, I don’t know how you got through the song without gloating — unless the whole song is one big gloat.)

It’s hard to say if Mariah Carey’s 1995 Christmas hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” released again in 2011 as a duet with Justin Bieber, is a happy song or a sad song, given that she leaves us hanging in the end as to whether the person she loves leaves her standing, kissless, under the mistletoe. The uptempo arrangement suggests that this is really a happy Christmas song, but we don’t know for sure. Come on, Mariah. End the suspense and tell us if Mr. Right finally showed up! (Given that formfitting Santa suit you’re wearing on the album cover, I’m guessing he did.) And feel free to give me one of those presents under the tree that you seem so uninterested in. I’m guessing there’s some pretty expensive stuff in there.

Mariah Carey

Yeah, I’m sure the guy never showed up, maybe because her then-husband Tommy Mottola would have had his fingers broken.

When talking about sad Christmas songs, though, there’s one that leaves all the others in the dust (or snow) and you certainly wouldn’t guess it from the song’s name: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” As sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s about a family being torn apart from friends and relatives, not to mention having to miss the 1904 World’s Fair, because of their father’s job in New York. Garland sings the song to comfort her little sister, played by Margaret O’Brien, but that didn’t prevent lyricist Hugh Martin (who had written the song many years earlier) from having to change lyrics like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas./It may be your last./Next year we may all be living in the past” to their marginally more cheerful versions in the film. And when Frank Sinatra recorded the song, he asked Martin to “jolly up” the lyric “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” It became “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Ironically, when Judy Garland sang the song to her daughters on television in the 1960s, she sang the Sinatra version rather than the one she had sung in the film.

The truth is, Christmas music is like all other types of pop music. There are sad songs, like the ones we’ve discussed. There are upbeat songs, like “Sleigh Ride.” And there are dance songs, like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Christmas may be a happy occasion — although we’ve been told many times that suicides soar around the holidays, Snopes.com says that’s just an urban legend — but the truth is that we’d eventually get sick of hearing nothing but cheerful music.

I say bring on the heartbreak songs, if only because sometimes it brightens your day to learn that someone else’s life is going even worse than yours is.

UPDATE: After I posted the column above, Amy and I discussed some other downbeat Christmas songs. The most obvious was Wham’s 1984 “Last Christmas,” which earns its sadness rather cheaply: The singer apparently had a one-night stand last Christmas and expected it to outlast the holiday. It didn’t. Another Christmas song that could conceivably be seen as a downer is “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” a much-covered Amy Grant hit from 1990. Although the song is hopeful — it’s about an adult who asks Santa Claus to cure everything that’s wrong with the world — it requires the singer to list all of those things and that’s the downer part. “What,” the singer asks, “is this illusion called the innocence of youth? Maybe only in our blind belief can we ever find the truth.” Upper or downer? Your call.

My vote for most suicide-inducing Christmas song of all time, though, goes to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which has lyrics taken from an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “Christmas Bells.” Depressed by the death of his wife and the even more recent death of his son in the American Civil War, the poet wrote:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I suppose Longfellow was trying to find hope and meaning in the tragedies he had been through, but there’s a sense that he doesn’t believe a word of it. If “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is about a family falling apart, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is about a world falling apart. It makes “Merry Christmas, Darling,” where the missing lover is at least alive and presumably coming back some day soon, sound positively cheerful.

Snark with Weight: The Music of Steely Dan

As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more about what it is that I like about music, why certain songs appeal to me, why a very few songs go beyond appeal and into a zone that I can’t describe. And the older I get, the more I realize that I really don’t want to know.

I have a Spotify playlist called “Chris’s Writing Soundtrack” — I’m listening to it now and would link to it if I had the foggiest idea how to do that — which contains mostly songs that have to meet a very specific and (I think) unusual criterion: They have to touch someplace inside me that I can’t identify. They have to create an emotion in me that I have no name for. There aren’t many songs like this, at least when counted as a fraction of all the songs that have ever been recorded and gained some sort of reputation, however small. (I have “Voices” by Russ Ballard on the list. Remember that? No, I didn’t think you would. It never even hit the Billboard Hot 100 and I only know it from hearing it on the jukebox at a strip joint I would occasionally visit in the 1980s, but it has a small following, probably because it was once used in an episode of Miami Vice.) I use this playlist for writing because it helps me to tap into emotions that I’d have more trouble accessing without it. Okay, I’ll confess that not every song on the list meets this criterion. A few are just there because I think they’re excellent songs, like Rodgers & Hart’s delightful “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” But most of the songs on it go to that unidentified place.

The performers who belong on it most are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, otherwise known as Steely Dan, because they hit that mysterious spot or spots more often than any other singer-songwriters I know. I can’t tell you what I love about them because I don’t know. And I think it would destroy my love of them if I ever figured it out. Fortunately, I don’t think that’ll happen.

Becker and Fagen as young men

Becker & Fagen in younger days

Not that there aren’t some overtly likeable things about their music. For instance, individually and collectively, they write some of the cleverest lyrics ever used in pop music. Since I regard Becker as slightly the better of the two lyrically when they work apart, I’ll just throw in a verse from his first solo album, the 1994 11 Tracks of Whack, from the song “Book of Liars”:

Time exploding, the long night passing
Electrons dancing in the frozen crystal dawn
Here’s one left stranded at the zero crossing
With the whole of his half-life left to carry on

This is actually the slightly variant version Becker sings on Steely Dan’s 1995 live album, Alive in America. In either version, this verse just leaves me breathless (as do all the others, come to think of it). Anyone who can create a gorgeous metaphor for heartbreak based on particle physics (and that term “the whole of his half-life” just rips me up) is a god to me. If he dies before I do, and he didn’t look too healthy at the concert two years ago, I’ll create a religion devoted to him. Fagen’s almost as good lyrically and better than Becker, I think, with melody, if not quite as edgy, which is why their talents complement one another so perfectly.

I also love their harmonies. Harmonies are the most reliable way of creating an emotion in me and once again I don’t fully understand why.  (The song “All Day Music” by War is also on that Spotify playlist and I think it may have the most gorgeous harmonies ever used in a pop song.) If you’re familiar with Steely Dan’s work, consider the song “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” from their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill. It’s sort of silly and trivial, yet there are moments in that song that send thrills up my spine and it’s mostly done with harmonies. For instance, the couplet:

This highway runs from Paraguay
And I’ve just come all the way

where the italics represent the sudden burst of harmony. I have no idea what that couplet means. I have no idea what the song means. (Either Becker or Fagen once said that all their Steely Dan songs are based on something real, possibly something that happened to them, but they won’t always tell you what it is.) It doesn’t matter, though. For me, the harmony, and perhaps even the cryptic lyrics that leave so much room for my imagination, are what cause that indefinable emotion to occur in me on those lines. I used to go weak in the knees, hyperbolically speaking, when I’d hear them.

What I love most, though, about Becker and Fagen’s Steely Dan work is the snark. One of them has said (I can’t remember where I saw this or which one it was) that all of their songs are essentially comedy songs and I think that’s true, if you regard relentlessly snarky, sardonic lyrics that rarely make you laugh out loud to be comedy. Yet it’s not the comedy aspects of the snark that interest me; it’s the deeper level of emotion hidden beneath the comedy that gets to me. I call this kind of comedy “snark with weight,” because it could easily be taken as simple sarcasm and yet it’s not. It has an emotional heft, an emotional punch. At it’s best, which is most of the time, Becker and Fagen’s sarcasm conceals something emotionally deeper and more serious, and the fact that it’s hidden by the snark and therefore is able to sneak up on me, catching me off guard, lets it hit that unknown button just that much harder. Take the song “Black Cow” from Aja, about a man who knows his girlfriend or wife is cheating on him and actually sees her with other men in a bar, something she makes no attempt to hide from him. It has fairly humorous snark like:

Down to Greene Street
There you go
Lookin’ so outrageous
And they tell you so

But it also has lyrics like this:

On the counter,  by your keys
Was a book of numbers and your remedies
One of these
Surely will screen out the sorrow.
But where are you tomorrow?

The use of the word “remedies” is funny, I think, but when you realize this woman has a serious alcohol and drug problem, and is probably suffering from deep depression and low self esteem as well, and that the guy singing the song keeps telling her to get out of his life and then comes looking for him, or that she seems to need him desperately for one thing — a shoulder to cry on — and he needs her desperately for everything, it’s not funny anymore. It’s not remotely funny. It’s about a complex and tragic emotional situation and that fact doesn’t come over you all at once. It may take several listenings. But you can feel it emotionally, in part from that burst of harmony on “But where are you tomorrow?,” the first time you listen to it, and to me that’s what makes it such a great song, one that touches that magic button.

Of course, I could reel off a lengthy list of Steely Dan songs that do the same thing, like what may be my favorite song by them, “Dr. Wu” (“Are you with me, Doctor Wu?/Are you really just a shadow/Of the man that I once knew?”) from Katy Lied or “Jack of Speed”  (“Don’t stop/When you hear him plead”) from Two Against Nature, or the last and title song of the last album they’ve done to date, 2003’s “Everything Must Go,” which is the most openly comic of all their songs I’ve mentioned, yet still has a sense of sadness, and even a hint of farewell, underneath it:

We gave it our best shot
But keep in mind we got a lot
The sky, the moon, good food and the weather
First-run movies
Does anybody get lucky twice?
Wouldn’t it be nice?

Becker and Fagen have both released solo albums (one, Circus Money, by Becker, and two, Morph the Cat and Sunken Condos, by Fagen) since Everything Must Go came out, but I want them to release another album as a duo before they call it quits, either musically or physically. I want to see if, together, they can still keep hitting that oh-so-mysterious button inside me. Maybe they won’t and I’ll be disappointed.

But at least I’ll know they gave it their best shot.

I’m Crossing You in Style Someday

Part of me always hoped that, sometime before Andy Williams died, I’d get to see him in person. If the opportunity presented itself, I’d even go to Branson to do it. A much larger part of me knew it would never happen. And it didn’t.

Andy Williams

Andy Williams

Andy Williams’ was the music of my early adolescence or maybe late childhood. Even when John F. Kennedy was getting shot in Dallas and my nightmares were filled with mushroom clouds and fallout shelters, Andy Williams was the soothing presence at the center of the universe. Never hip but rarely corny, Williams was as calming as a cup of warm milk, but with just enough cocoa in it to keep it from being boring. He made me feel peaceful and a little happy. When his TV show went off the air I missed it, but I’d probably also stopped watching it by then.

You all know “Moon River,” the song that he made famous even though Audrey Hepburn sang it first. There was something haunting not only in Mancini & Mercer’s composition but in the heartfelt way that Williams sang it. I’m still not sure what that song was about, but its imagery was so deep and striking and the way Williams sang it so sincere that it never became elevator music. Neither did “Canadian Sunset,” which really should have been elevator music, yet still makes me feel warm when I hear it. Something in William’s voice (the multitracking doesn’t hurt) convinced me years ago that perfect love really did exist. And, not surprisingly, it would involve snow.

I’ve raved elsewhere about his Christmas music, so I won’t do that again, except to say that out of Sinatra, Crosby and Como, who made Christmas music superb, Williams somehow was the only one who could make it perfect.

Andy Williams died Tuesday at 84.

Sex and Snow: Secular Songs of the Season

It’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north.

Those lyrics, which send happy little thrills up my spine when I look at them in the wee hours of Christmas Eve 2011, are from one of the most famous songs ever written, a song that’s probably second only to the Beatles’ “Yesterday” in the number of versions that have been recorded. If you don’t recognize the words, it’s because the songwriter removed them from the song’s most famous recording. The songwriter was Irving Berlin, the song is “White Christmas,” and I bet you’ve heard it at least a dozen times in the last week, if only on the sound system at your local Wal-Mart.

Actually, the full, original opening to “White Christmas” goes like this:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north

Those lyrics, which Berlin removed from the song for the Bing Crosby version and which have rarely been recorded since, mean a lot to me, and for more than one reason. The first is that I live in western Los Angeles, two miles from Venice Beach and less than ten miles from Beverly Hills, L.A. I didn’t grow up here, though. I grew up (and spent most of my life) in the Washington, DC, area, where we really did get snow this time of year.

The second reason is that I’m a Christmas music freak.

Yes, I’m that guy who starts listening to Christmas music shortly after Labor Day and is still searching the radio dial on January 2nd hoping to catch Nat King Cole singing about roasted chestnuts. When I was 13 I wore out the grooves on the Andy Williams Christmas Album (we still had vinyl recordings then) and I still listen to it on my iPod. I have Christmas music streaming through my iPod Touch and into my clock radio even as I type this. (At the moment Johnny Mathis is singing “Caroling, Caroling/Happy Holidays” on the Sirius/XM Holiday Traditions channel.) But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Christmas-loving atheist that I am, what I want to talk about is secular Christmas music.

I don’t really know when secular Christmas music was invented. Maybe it was when people started writing self-referential songs like “Caroling, Caroling” instead of songs about babes in mangers. Maybe it dates back to the years BC, when the season we now call Christmas was a pagan holiday celebrating the end of the sun’s long drift toward the southern horizon. All I know is that secular Christmas music, by which I mean Christmas music that has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, is what makes it possible for me to love Christmas music despite my total lack of religious belief.

My apologies to those of you who prefer hearing Mariah Carey and/or Justin Bieber sing “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but the secular Christmas music I love was mostly written in the 1940s through the 1960s, by songwriters like Berlin, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”), Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (“The Christmas Song”), Ralph Blane and Hal Martin (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (“Silver Bells”). I adore “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” by Meredith Willson, especially when it’s sung in counterpoint with “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” (also by Willson). I turn into a grinning fool when I hear “Carol of the Bells” (which actually dates back to 1904 and was written by Russian composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, but was converted into an English-language carol in 1947). With the possible exception of that last one, these songs all belong to the tradition of the American Popular Song and have the gorgeous melodic precision of the best mid-20th-century Tin Pan Alley songwriters. They were also the songs that I heard my parents playing when I was a wide-eyed child who still believed in Santa Claus, back in the days when I could stare at the lights on the Christmas tree for hours. (I don’t believe in Santa any more, but I still love to stare at those lights.)

Since secular Christmas music has no specific subject matter to address, either pagan or Christian, it tends to be about the collateral elements of the season: presents under the tree, carolers in the snow, getting home for the holidays, and of course Santa and his reindeer. But once I ceased being that wide-eyed child (to the extent that I ever did cease being that wide-eyed child), I realized it was mostly about either sex or the weather. Much of it is about both.

Let’s review: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (Frank Loesser) is an obvious case, and one of the greatest comic duets ever written. It’s about a man trying to seduce a woman and a woman trying to seduce herself, with a little encouragement from the weather. (“Never such a blizzard before!”) “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” isn’t as funny, but it’s almost the same song: “Since we’ve no place to go/Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” “Winter Wonderland” is considerably subtler (“He’ll say are you married/We’ll say, no, man/But you can do the job when you’re in town”), but “Santa Baby” just does away with the weather part altogether. Conversely, “White Christmas” does away with the sex and is just about weather.

Sex (or, to be less crass about it, romance) just became more and more popular as a subject for secular Christmas music when the Tin Pan Alley era ended. Karen Carpenter sang about it beautifully in “Merry Christmas, Darling” and, yes, for you Mariah Carey and/or Justin Bieber fans, it’s also what “All I Want for Christmas is You” is about.

But sex and/or the weather isn’t really what secular Christmas music is about to this yuletide-loving atheist. Christmas, for me, is an excuse to listen to music that would be much too corny and sentimental for me in any other context. It’s a chance to hear music that carries a message that breaks right through all the cynicism I’d normally be tempted to throw at it. When Sinatra sings “It’s that time of year when the world falls in love” (“The Christmas Waltz” by Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne), he isn’t singing about either sex or the weather, and he makes me believe that, for this one brief moment in time, the world really is in love. Sappy, sentimental love.

And if it isn’t, I’d rather you didn’t tell me until at least the 26th of December.

Information Is Life

I live my life surrounded by information. So, very likely, do you. I’m writing this in front of a 23-inch computer display, with 17 tabs open in my Web browser. (They grow like weeds, those tabs. I trim them mercilessly and they grow right back, like dandelions or nose hairs.) Right now my iPod Touch is plugged into the iPod dock on my clock radio, playing Christmas music from a Sirius/XM satellite. In back of me is a shelf of books and CDs. Downstairs is a 48-inch flat screen TV attached to an XBox 360 configured to stream music, video and pictures through my home Wi-Fi network. (It also plays games.) I live in Southern California, where much of this information is manufactured.

I feel remarkably comfortable in this crowded infosphere. Maybe that’s why there’s more information in my house than there is food. The only information device I’m dubious about is my cell phone, which is often more of an intruder than a welcome guest. I tend to leave it at home when I go out. I’d rather take along my e-book reader (a Barnes & Noble Color Nook).

In the modern world, there are two ways that people react to this massive flood of information: They either run from it, as though the information dam has burst and the whole valley is doomed, or they swim with it and thrive in its flow. I tend to do the latter. I love information. I love to read, to play video games, to surf the Web, to listen to music, to go to movies, to watch television, to attend the theater and concerts, to browse the newspaper (though I only have time for the Sunday editions), and sometimes just to stare at the labels on the backs of food packages. By profession I’m a writer, so I spend my working hours producing still more information in case there’s anybody left who doesn’t have enough of the stuff. Information is my life. No, I should be more emphatic than that: Information is life.

This blog is about that infosphere, the shifting, pulsing, throbbing flow of information that surrounds us at all times. More specifically, it’s about the points at which my own life — my own biosphere? — intersects the infosphere. It’s about books, it’s about games, it’s about movies, it’s about music, it’s about TV. If I have anything interesting to say about these things (and you don’t become a writer unless you think you have interesting things to say), I’ll blog about them here.

Is there junk in the infosphere? Oh, god, yes. The infosphere is polluted with crap. Junk information surely outnumbers worthwhile information by a factor of thousands. But given the sheer quantity of information floating about, even that tiny percentage of good stuff is enough to fill anyone’s lifetime. You just have to look for it and recognize it when you find it.

And that’s what I’ll be doing here: Trying to separate the junk information from the treasures. You are invited — heck, encouraged — to post comments about any interesting gems you’ve stumbled across in the portion of the infosphere that your own life intersects.

I’m going to leave you for a moment. And then, as an ex-governor of my state once said (in a movie, of course), I’ll be back.