Levon Helm 1940 – 2012

April 20, 2012

I don’t have plans to eulogize every musician who dies during the year I’m doing this project (having already missed Whitney Houston and Davy Jones), but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a word or two about the great Levon Helm, drummer and singer of The Band, who died yesterday.  He was one of the true musical giants who still walked among us, and he kept on going right until the end.  His death is an incalculable loss to lovers of American music.

The first two Band albums are in the top fifty of this list, as well they should be, so I’ll save my gushing over them till much later in the year.  But suffice it to say that for my money, The Band is one of the most important groups to appear on this list.  The disparate strands of all the music that I love–country, soul and rock ‘n roll–came together in their music in a way that no other group has ever achieved quite so effectively.  Though most of them were Canadian, they are the fundamentally the most deep-rootedly American band of all time.  And Levon Helm, the sole American member, was their heart and soul.

I never saw The Band perform.  Their initial incarnation dissolved shortly before I was born. They reformed for a time in the 80s and 90s without guitarist Robbie Robertson, and carried on after pianist Richard Manuel’s death in 1986, but I never made it to one of their shows.  I did however, get to see Rick Danko once shortly before his death, and I saw Levon Helm four times in the last decade of his life.

It was a remarkable resurgence.  After years of relative neglect, he struggled his way back into the public eye, and spent his last years as justifiably celebrated as he ever had been.  In part, it was born of necessity.  He contracted the throat cancer that eventually killed him in the late 90s, and started putting on show in his barn in Woodstock, NY to help pay his medical bills.  These shows, known as the Midnight Rambles, were frequented by guest musicians, and became word of mouth successes.  He couldn’t sing initially, but he worked hard at it, and eventually regained his ability.  The distinctive muscularity of his voice was now diminished to a creaky, spectral croon, but retained all of the soulfulness and deep feeling that made him one of the greatest singers of all time.  His rhythmically deep and funky drumming remained undiminished throughout.  During this time, he also recorded two Grammy winning records fusing traditional country and blues material with the work of more contemporary artists like Steve Earle and Buddy Miller.

I never made it up to any of the Midnight Rambles, but I saw him as he started taking the show out on the road.  Two of those times–in a small club in my hometown, and years later at a taping of Elvis Costello’s TV Show Spectacle–he was unable to sing, or even speak.  The other two times I saw him, at New York’s Beacon Theater, his voice was in better shape, and he filled the room with his one of a kind singing.  But either way, whether singing or just playing the drums, he projected an a overwhelming sense of soulfulness.  He simply had to sit at his drums and do some little warming up fill, and it was clear you were in the presence of a master.  He’s really one of the very few artists I’ve ever seen live who communicated a deep in his bones connection to the music with such effortless authority.  Someone once said that Levon was the only drummer who could make you cry, and I have found that to be the case as well.  His musical and personal presence connected with his audience in an inarticulably profound way, like music itself was talking to you.  I think Ravi Shankar is the only other artist I’ve ever seen who achieved a similarly palpable effect.  He was also to the end a tremendously gracious and kind man.  I never saw him seeming any less than genuinely tickled to be playing for an audience, whether of 200 or 2,000 people.

I never met the man, but I feel his loss profoundly. I am tremendously glad for him that he went out on such a high note.  Contrary to the more familiar narrative of great artists dying in obscurity, it was an inspiration to see him get himself back out there, struggling against both cancer and the tide of changing musical tastes, to assert his rightful place in the pantheon of the all time greats.  As he lay dying, his family read to him thousands of tributes that poured in online from his fans.  I’d like to think he went out a happy man.  He surely deserved it.

Having spent the past week wringing my hands over the state of Christmas Music, now that it’s almost too late to do any good, I thought I’d run down a few of the Christmas albums I make it a point to listen to every year.  I love a list as much as the next guy, so I thought I’d pull this together into a top five list.  All these records are available on MOG and Spotify, and listening to them will not ruin your Christmas–I guarantee.

 5. The Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas

I have only the faintest memories of seeing this show as a kid, and am not generally a fan of jazz treatments of Christmas standards.  So there’s not a great explanation for why I love listening to this record, but I do.  The standards are treated in a nice, tasteful manner, a piano trio being perhaps the politest form of jazz.  The integrity of the melodies remain more or less in tact, and the improvisations stay well within the orbit of pleasantness.  A serious jazz fan would find little to endorse here, perhaps, but I am not a serious jazz fan.  I tried to be once, and found it exhausting.   The real weeper here is “Christmas Time is Here”.  It uses what is perhaps the cheap trick of a children’s choir, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.  Perhaps it’s because of its inclusion in “The Royal Tennenbaums,” but those kids sound like a bunch of little Nicos to me.  There’s something a little off center going on there.

4. Various Artists – A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

In the movie “Love Actually,”  the assertion is made that “at Christmas you tell the truth”.  I’d never heard that before.  Is that a thing? I have my doubts…Still, in that spirit, I will confess the scandalous fact that I don’t love this album as deeply as I know I should.  It is widely regarded as the best popular music Christmas album of all time.  It’s the only Christmas record that appears on the Rolling Stone list of greatest albums I’ll be surveying all next year, so that I’ll be reviewing it again in some more clement month.  It is Brian Wilson’s favorite album of all time.  It feels like adulation for this record is particularly strong this year.  And it is indeed a great album.  It’s a near perfect summation of Phil Spector’s art at its peak.  Every song is a miniature masterpiece of AM Radio exhilaration–each one a gift unto itself.

And yet it don’t move me, at least not in a very Christmas-specific way.   It’s a great album, and it’s about Christmas, but it doesn’t somehow feel like a great Christmas album to me.  It’s rather like “Love Actually,” in that sense, actually, although certainly a better record than that is a movie.  It’s just a bit too relentlessly upbeat to inspire much Christmas spirit in me, which I best experience as a quieter, more bittersweet feeling.  Many of the songs, especially The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” are ubiquitous as cheerful credits music for Christmas movies, and feel just right in that context.  Perhaps a boozy, shmoozy Christmas party of the sort I’ve seen only in movies would benefit from this record as a soundtrack.  But it’s not one I tend to put on when I’m trying to engender a warm, peaceful feeling of Christmas.  The closing nod to the spiritual nature of the holiday, “Silent Night” might almost do it for me, but for the strange, faintly menacing voiceover from Phil Spector.   The best song on the album is Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but it’s great as a gritty piece of R&B as teenage pop. As with much of the album, Christmas is its subject matter, but it could easily be otherwise.

 3. Elvis Presley – Elvis’ Christmas Album

While it could be seen as heralding Elvis’s transition from artist to entertainer, his Christmas album is nonetheless a great one.  It is also the best selling Christmas record of all time.  It makes the neat structural decision to make one side secular and one side sacred, and the ever versatile Elvis throws himself into both with equal aplomb.

On the secular side, Elvis’ easygoing confidence makes the unlikely possible: he sexes up Christmas, and doesn’t sound like an asshole doing it.  “Blue Christmas” was a minor Christmas country song before Elvis sang it.  He both makes it a standard, and establishes a standard for it that still has not been bested.  He owns that song.  His mumbly, almost self-parodic “Here Comes Santa Claus” is great fun as well.  A beautiful version of “I’ll be Home for Christmas”  rounds out the side with some emotional heft.  His version of “White Christmas” rips off The Drifters, but is pretty good too.

The spiritual side starts strong with “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”.  Unfortunately, they fill out the side too early with some gospel numbers that, while great in their own way, and y’know, pertain to Jesus, don’t feel all that Christmassy.  Would it have killed him to do “O Holy Night”?  Most people can’t pull that one off, but is there any doubt he could have?  On the plus side, he does do “Peace in the Valley,” which reminds us of this transcendently fine moment in American television:

2. Burl Ives – Have a Holly Jolly Christmas

Did a more sainted individual ever walk this earth than Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives?  Probably, but he was one of the greats.  He was a great balladeer and interpreter of American folk music, and I have no idea how he felt about becoming an icon of Christmas through this album and his role as the narrator/snowman in the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” special–if he considered it a debasement of his craft.  I prefer to think not.   There is something so infectiously warm and reassuring about his voice, it seems like an inevitably good fit.  I found a sealed vinyl copy of this record recently and could be heard to excitedly exclaim “Fuck yeah! Burl Ives!”.  Not many things get that kind of rise out of me.  I have almost nothing specific to say about this record except that it makes me feel good, and it’s one of the records I put on for the big Christmas moments like trimming the tree.  It has very little of the bluesy, existential undercurrent I think that I like in my Christmas music, but when I listen to it, I simply don’t care.  It reminds me that Christmas actually can be fun too.  Listen to him lean with perfect ingenuousness into the title track, and you will be sold.

1. Leon Redbone – Christmas Island

I can’t pretend that this is objectively the best record on the list, but if there is any time to go with the sentimental favorite, surely this it.  This one came out when I was ten years old, and has been a constant favorite of every Christmas since.  I think a lot of people dismiss Leon Redbone as little more than a novelty act.  I grew up listening to him-especially his masterful first record “On the Track”–and believe to my soul that for all his shtick, he is a very fine musician and curator of a certain key intersection of American music.

In his curatorial capacity, the song selection on his Christmas record is note perfect, ranging through familiar (mostly secular) standards like “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” and various charming obscurities like “Christmas Ball Blues” and the tropical themed novelty title track, which in other hands would be (and is, it turns out) a Jimmy Buffetesque monstrosity, but hits just the right sweet, goofy tone in Leon’s hands.  His renditions are strong throughout.  “Blue Christmas” doesn’t top Elvis of course, but succeeds by not even trying to.  “Frosty the Snowman” doesn’t benefit much from a cameo by Dr. John, but has a nice jaunty, invigorated quality to it.  The absolute emotional centerpiece of the album is his achingly tender, beautifully arranged take on “Toyland”.  It’s one of maybe five or six songs I can think of that makes me cry.

The makers of the movie “Elf,” which is of course tied with “Bad Santa” as the best Christmas movie of the past ten years, are clearly fans of this record too.  In addition to closing out the movie in a perfect duet with a pre-insipid Zooey Deschanel on “Baby it’s Cold Outside,” Leon is cast as a snowman in the mold of Burl Ives’ claymation doppelgänger.  He is thus canonized as the great Christmas balladeer of our time–the heir to the throne, as it were.  This makes perfect sense to me: after I listen to Burl Ives, I head straight for Leon.  There is a warmth there, an unembarrassed good natured corniness that feels just perfectly Christmassy to me.  It’s concern seems to be purely that of generating a nice warm feeling of good cheer, touched ever so lightly with a twinge of sadness.  I cannot imagine Christmas without it.

Well, I hope this has been useful to someone, if a bit on the lengthy side.  May whatever music you listen to help you to enjoy the season as deeply and as warmly as you can.

Merry Christmas!

So why is it that among the Christmas music loving peoples of the world, so few have managed to produce any of it that the rest of us can be bothered to listen to more than once?

To begin with, it’s a problem of selection.  There are only so many good Christmas songs out there, and new ones aren’t keeping pace with demand.  Most great Christmas songs fall into one of two categories–sturdy old protestant hymns from the nineteenth century, and songs from the World War II era.  The best of the first category– “Silent Night,” “In the Bleak Midwinter” and most especially “O Holy Night,” are capable of producing a sense of spiritual awe regardless of one’s religious bent, of lack thereof.  The latter–“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “White Christmas,” and of course “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” tap into the existential blues that lurks beneath the surface of our merry sentiment, and in some sense vivifies it.  It’s as good a time as any to reflect on the bottomless, sweet sadness of being alive, and this music patches us right through to it.  Even the jollier songs of this era, like “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!,” seem to be whistling in the dark.

There is no third category of songs, certainly none more recent, that has the staying power of these two groups. Fundamentally, the sweet, sad  feeling of Christmas is kind of a corny, ungainly thing, and doesn’t play nicely with the predominant cultural thrust of the late twentieth century and beyond.  Christmas isn’t cool, and attempts to make it so have that uncomfortable, “Rappin’ Granny” quality to them.  “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” get a pass, but only because they aren’t really rock ‘n roll songs.  They’re more like 50s pop songs which assumed that this whole “rock ‘n roll” thing was a trend that would be blow over soon enough, but could be capitalized on in the meantime.  Their very uncoolness is their saving grace.

John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” might be the only song of the modern era (broadly speaking) that is in serious contention for canonical status.  Its message of peace feels general enough to transcend the specifics of its time, and the simple, singsongy melody is built for endurance.  Still, it’s not quite on track for becoming a standard in the sense of having been widely recorded–it is still Lennon’s version we hear while waiting in line at the grocery store.  It’s not a bad effort all told, although its flaws–a political stridency verging on the humorless, and too much Yoko in the mix on the long fadeout–could be read as emblematic of its author’s post-Beatles artistic decline, just as the almost nihilistic fluffiness of Paul McCartney’s “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” are emblematic of its author’s.

A further problem is that most of the great Christmas songs are not all that ripe for radical reimagining.  With some noteworthy exceptions, they do not benefit from getting all tarted up, as if to blow our fuckin’ minds. The feeling of Christmas is not without its complexities, but the music that best helps us experience it must be utterly uncomplicated.  And there are very few artists out there who have the humility to pull that off.

Even for those antagonistic to religion, the feeling we seek at Christmas could be described as a spiritual–which is to say transpersonal–one.  It’s bigger than any one of us.  Ripe though it may be for mockery, the simple, uneven harmonizing of carol singers hits the mark in a far deeper way than some histrionic, look-at-me asshole burying “O Holy Night” in excessive glissando.  A nice, tight choral ensemble does it one better for recorded music, even if what it gains in sonorousness it loses in charm.  But to make a really good Christmas record–one that helps us to feel like we want to when wrapping presents, or being with family (in all that entails) on Christmas Eve, or making a lazy, fattening breakfast on Christmas morning–seems almost unattainably difficult.  Happily, though, I can think of a few who’ve pulled it off.  In my next post, I’ll take a look at them.



Some Useful Holiday Links

December 19, 2011

Dear Reader,

As you might well know, it’s never easy balancing the demands of raising up a family with the impulse to spend all day in pajamas staring at a computer screen–especially around the holidays!  With this in mind, I regret to report that the thrilling conclusion to my post on the failure of most Christmas music to adequately inspire is not yet ready.  In the meantime, some readers have been good enough to send my way some of their holiday favorites, and I thought I’d pass them along.

The first is an old favorite that still resonates:

Its unlikely intermingling of the generations remains striking, despite the fact that David Bowie is now himself an old man.  It works, I think, because of Bowie’s willingness to set aside his persona du jour in the true spirit of Christmas, which in this case means doing whatever the hell Bing Crosby says.

The next one is a new favorite, but one that can’t help but become a holiday classic:

It reminds us that the true warmth of Christmas is where you find it…in hell.

Next we again turn back the clock to another old favorite, from the second or third golden era of Saturday Night Live:

The real shining stat of the show (other than the sweaters!) is Dana Carvey’s crazed expression.  But, as was so often case, it is good ol’ Phil Hartman who really holds this thing together.  Also, keep your eye out for a pre-psychotic Victoria Jackson!

Finally, I offer a new favorite of my own:

It’s one of the few Christmas songs I’ve discovered in recent years that truly brings a smile to my face, as it fills my heart with peppermint, peppermint, PEPPERMINT!, peppermint.

I hope you enjoy, and will tune back in for further thoughts on the music of Christmas.  I’ve an excess of them!

I do seem to recall having heard something about that, yes.  And so I will interrupt my regularly scheduled programming (more or less treading water till January anyway) to dwell on the ever thorny subject of Christmas music.

Like most people I know, I am neither religious, nor all that avid a capitalist.  Still, there is something in the dream of Christmas that seems compelling enough to comply with revisiting year after year.  I just had a baby, so I’ve lost the power of opting out for a good couple of decades, but at the moment, I don’t mind at all.  I like the same things about Christmas that you do, assuming you don’t hate Christmas–the warm, cozy, brotherhood of manliness of it all; the hunkering down by a fire, should it ever again be cold enough in December to warrant it.

But because real life can only be expected to provide so much of the elusive good feeling we seek, we of course look for it in our seasonal media choices.  But here too, we are all too often confronted with a shitstorm of inadequacy.  At least one new Christmas movie is released a year, but I can think of only four or five in my lifetime that are possibly worth making annual traditions of (three of which, oddly, came out in 2003– “Bad Santa,” “Elf,” and the only tangentially Christmassy “Love Actually.”)

And so it is with Christmas music.  We are all well enough inured to tuning out as best as possible the execrable Josh Grobanesque material that Duane Reade starts piping into our lives in late October.  But what is harder to accept is the extreme rarity of really good Christmas music, even among artists who are otherwise awesome.

Al Green’s Christmas record, for Christsake, is just completely awful.  How could such a thing be possible?  If anyone should be able to pull off a good Christmas record, it is he.  But it’s replete with feeble synthesizers and other trappings of the soul killing 1980s-style of production, and his voice, one of the greatest of all time, just can’t rise above it.  When he and Willie Mitchell got back together (also in 2003), they should have done a Christmas album right, just for posterity’s sake.  But they didn’t, and now it’s too late, because Willie Mitchell is dead.

I don’t think anyone had very high hopes for Bob Dylan’s Christmas record, but could anyone have imagined just how terrible it would be?  How swiftly it would rocket to the top of the already considerable list of his very worst records? Sub-“Self Portrait” for sure.

As I write this, I’m giving “A Very She & Him Christmas” a try.  But, much as I loved their first record,  and politely endured their second, I’m a little too far along the curve of my swiftly declining regard for Zooey Deschanel to feel much generosity of spirit toward her depressive, indifferent warbling of Christmas standards.  Her lovely take on “Baby it’s Cold Outside” from Elf is retrospectively tainted–verily shat upon–by the too fast, utterly half-assed version presented here.  What the hell happened to that girl?  Is it her or us?

And so on–The point is, it is exceedingly hard to find a modern Christmas record that gives us the feeling we yearn for.  Sooner or later, almost every recording artist whose ethos is not too firmly ensconced in sullenness or rage tries their hand at the genre, and almost all of them fail.  Why is this? Let me think on that, and I’ll let you know, tomorrow, or maybe Monday.  As the week draws on, I’ll try to stop being such a cotton headed ninny muggins and talk about some of the Christmas music that I do like.