This may surprise you to learn about me, friends, but I can be a bit of a handful. Surly, seasonally depressed, emotionally volatile, all of that mess. Luckily, I’ve always been blessed with friends and associates [usually women] who are adept at negotiating the rolling waters of my emotional seas. The role is currently being filled by my friend Caitlin, who is acting as my Editorial Assistant throughout this book writing adventure, mostly because she wants me to write her a reference when it’s over. Previously the post was held by my friend Sarah, who can no longer meet the demands of the position as she is (a) a law professor and (b) has a life to live.
I met Sarah for coffee here in Toronto recently and asked her if she had any tips she wanted to pass along to Caitlin regarding what to expect in being my emotional handler for the next ten months to a year.
“It’s all very temporal,” she said. “From about mid-September up until your birthday, you’re miserable, because you’re thinking about your impending death. Late January until April is just as bad or worse, because it’s directionless, there’s nothing for you to focus it on. You just hate that it’s dark all the time. When the thaw comes, you shake out of it. Oh, and you have a minor uptick during the holidays.”
It’s true. I actually do really love the holidays. I love the way my Dad still won’t put some presents under the tree until the morning of the 25th, or the fact that he still signs them ‘From Santa’. I love my Mom’s baking and laughing about stupid shit with her. I love Christmas so much that by December 23, I’m already saddened that all the lights and decorations will come down, which probably says as much about my personality as you ever need to know [shouts to all those cities and neighbourhoods that treat Christmas lights as ‘Winter Lights’ and leave them up until March].
But what I really love about Christmas is the music. To me, the best Christmas songs are the ones that capture the joy you felt as a child, but add a sprinkle of melancholy to acknowledge the passage of time and change and loss of innocence. The popular knowledge likes to state that when you get older the season becomes something you do for your kids. As a childless, single for the first time in six years adult male, that’s not something I can do. So I find the meaning and peace and joy where I can. These are five songs that help.
1. The Pogues – ‘Fairytale of New York’
Just my opinion, the greatest Christmas song [with vocals] ever produced. Does everything I mentioned above, is beautifully melodic, Shane MacGowan’s whisky-scorched, near-tuneless voice suits the mood perfectly, and who hasn’t been longing for a Christmas song with lyrics like, ‘you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap, lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.” The coda to this one always leaves me misty, but bear in mind folks: “I built my dreams around you,” is a staggeringly gorgeous sentiment, but not an acceptable philosophy. Trust me.
2. The Vince Guaraldi Trio – ‘O Tannenbaum’
The soundtrack to ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ was a revelation to me, having only heard it for the first time maybe six or seven years ago. I remember I was at the local youth centre, where I volunteered. It was the last meeting we had with the kids before holiday break, so it was a blow-off, fun and games kind of night. Somebody brought a pile of holiday music and put this one on. And I was fucking floored. I don’t know why I never hear Guaraldi’s name mentioned more often in conversations about jazz pianists, possibly I don’t follow them closely enough, but the swing he gets going on this song just puts me at such peace. You know the spirit’s hit me when this album enters my rotation.
But the true moment of genius comes at the end of the song. Listen, I don’t know where this thing of adding the opening bars of ‘Jingle Bells’ at the end of a Christmas song came from [Nat King Cole may have been the first to do it] but it is so overdone anymore. It’s a lazy and manipulative way to accomplish what I stated above, because no grown person really likes ‘Jingle Bells’. Can you find me one? No. ‘Jingle Bells’ is a song for kids, which is fine, but all these shit-ass Christmas songs that put a few tinkles on the outro to make you go ‘D’awww…‘ are disgusting. You know what Guaraldi does? Jump to the 4:53 mark. He plays ‘Jingle Bells’, but he plays a totally deconstructed version of it, in 3/4 time signature. You can hear ‘Jingle Bells’ in it, but it’s not really ‘Jingle Bells.’ THAT‘S why this is the best Christmas song ever, just nudging out the Pogues. Gets me every time.
3. Vanessa Williams – ‘What Child is This?’
Never let it be said I wanted to take the “Christ’ out of ‘Christmas.’ The simple fact is, I was raised Catholic. Whatever my feelings toward the faith as an adult, that shit will stay with you.
This rendition comes from one of those ‘Very Special Christmas’ compilations from like…1992, I think. It’s a fairly straightahead jazz arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’ but might have extra resonance for me now, since I remember watching this video as a kid in the subterranean hidey-hole I’d carved out in my parents’ basement, looking at the black and white shots of New York and thinking, to borrow a phrase, ‘I want to go to there.’ Twenty years later, I made it to Toronto. It’ll do.
4. James Taylor – ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’
That rare Christmas song that acknowledges, without self-pity, that the holidays sometimes heighten the fact that the twelve months leading up to them might have been horrible.
In a year we all will be together, if the fates allow.
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…
I’ve heard versions of this song that back away from that last line, changing it to ‘hang a shining star upon the highest bough…’ NO. That undercuts the entire meaning of the song, which is to provide comfort for those who might not be exceedingly happy during a time when the world demands that of them. It’s the depressive’s holiday carol, and who better than James Taylor to deliver it? Bonus points go to this version for pulling a Guaraldi and dropping half a lyric of ‘The Christmas Song’ on the outro.
5. Ella Fitzgerald – ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’
I first heard this song on a Gap commercial, of all things. Rufus Wainwright sang the chorus at about five times the speed he should have, but hey, thirty-second ad spot, what can you do? I thought there might actually be a better version of this somewhere, as Fitzgerald’s voice bugs me sometimes [BLASPHEMY!] but there really isn’t, except maybe for Lena Horne’s which does a weird pronoun flip I’m not a fan of, suggesting the woman should wait for the man to ask her. You stand up for equality, Ella.
Again, this is one of those songs that stares down the potential for loneliness in the season and finds the truth and beauty in it. The singer is well aware he or she is overreaching by asking the other person to spend New Year’s, but the potential embarrassment trumps the guaranteed solitude of not asking. Also interesting to note: the original lyric has the singer mustering a bit of confidence with, ‘Ah, but in case I stand one little chance…’ in Wainwright’s version from the commercial, he sings, ‘And though I know I’ll never stand a chance…’ So nineties.
So, that’s what I’ll be relaxing to in a couple of weeks as I catch up on reading and eat too many brownies at my parents’ place. Let me know if I glaringly missed one. And no, I didn’t forget this. Too obvious.