Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
“Not sure if you’re aware, but Christmas is just around the corner,” my beloved MTV Hive editor Mike Ayers reminded me in an email. “Any way your last Spitz Take of 2011 could be about your favorite Christmas songs?” In theory at least, it was an excellent suggestion. I have a lot of strong opinions and emotions wrapped up in holiday music. But as it turns out, after doing just a modicum of research, not a single one of my strong opinions or emotions is in any way unique. The Internet is literally clogged with stories about the best, worst, saddest, happiest, weirdest, funniest, phoniest, most played, most obscure, most rockin’, most religious, most nostalgic, most unintentionally stupid Christmas songs of the year/ decade/ century/ all time. I honestly did try to write something pithy and original about Christmas music, but my every observation just seemed painfully redundant, every half-hearted gag sounded like something from a hackneyed stand-up act. “Have you ever really listened to the lyrics to ‘Jingle Bells’? There’s that line ’We ran into a drifted bank and there we got upsot.’ What the fuckity-fuck does ’upsot’ mean anyway? Who’s with me?” No, I can’t be that guy.
I begged Mike to let me skip the column this week. Let’s just agree that there’s a lot of Christmas music in the world, and you’ve probably heard all of it by now. You know what you like, you know what you don’t, and that’s the end of the discussion. But Mike insisted I try anyway.
Here’s my definitive list of the five greatest Christmas songs ever recorded in human history, based on very specific memories from my childhood that have nothing whatsoever to do with you, unless you also knew a guy named Chad who played the Little Drummer Boy at your church and committed suicide when you were a kid. Maybe you did? That would be weird.
1. Andy Williams, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
Growing up in a small town in northern Michigan, this song was always playing on constant repeat in our house. My father couldn’t get enough of it, but even at a young age I found it profoundly depressing. Williams is just a little too insistent about it being “the hap-happiest season of all.” Nobody that happy on the outside is nearly as happy on the inside. I imagined that Williams’ breathe probably smelled like bourbon and regret, and he hadn’t spoken to his children since the last time he told them what a disappointment they were. But even with that sad mental image, I still feel instantly nostalgic for the song every time I hear it.
The last time my brother and I visited our home town, we knocked on the front door of our house — our parents sold it decades ago — and asked to take a peek inside. Walking those familiar hallways, I could almost hear Andy Williams aggressively optimistic singing. “You’re happy! You’re fucking happy! Be happy, motherfucker! Smile, smile, smile!” But it was July, so there was no Christmas music. And nothing else in our former home looked even remotely familiar. I guess we just assumed it’d stay exactly as we remembered it, preserved forever as a historical landmark, like Lincoln’s log cabin.
We scoured the house for evidence of Us, and discovered a tiny scratch on one of the bedroom doors that had somehow escaped the revisionist history of paint. We huddled around it, ignoring the not-so-subtle hints from the new owners that we’d overstayed our welcome. We debated every possible explanation for the scratch, coming up with hundreds of potential origin tales, giving its backstory far greater weight than it probably deserved.
“There’ll be scary ghost stories,” we both hummed without realizing it, “and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
2. Vince Guaraldi, “O Tannenbaum”
When I was 23, my dad gave me a basketball for Christmas. Almost immediately after I opened it, he asked if I wanted to “shoot some hoops.” I would’ve been as surprised if he’d asked if I wanted to do Jägerbombs and hit on Puerto Rican chicks.
We were not, in any discernible way, an athletic family. I’d dribbled a basketball only once in my life, and even that’s open to speculation. And my dad, well, my brother once described his basketball skills as “a retard with an oily baby.” We both watched a lot of NBA games and were fluent in basic basketball terminology. We could say things like “free throw” and “point guard” and “full court press” and actually know what we were talking about. That was our entire experience with basketball, which made us roughly as qualified to play the sport as practice criminology or perform circumcisions.
But my parents had a basketball hoop in their driveway, and for any American male between the ages of six months and 95-years-old, a basketball hoop is like uncut heroin to a junkie. We couldn’t not use it. We had dreams of jumping into the air and wagging our tongues and hanging from the rafters and doing chest high-fives — or at the very least, landing a few baskets without experiencing shortness of breath.
“Every time I hear Vince Guaraldi’s mournful piano, I feel like getting an afternoon buzz and not being active. It’s in my DNA”
We changed into less formal clothing and met out on the driveway. I stretched my glutes and cracked my knuckles and made obscene “feel the burn” expressions, which I hoped conveyed my competitive ferocity. He threw the ball at me, I caught it (just barely) and threw it towards the pavement in what I hoped resembled a dribble. But it didn’t bounce back. Instead, it imploded. The air hissed out of its wound at a staggering rate, and within seconds it was just a lifeless orange blob.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Not sure,” he said, lightly toeing the rubber carcass. “Must’ve gotten a leak.”
We just stared at it, dumbfounded. It didn’t seem like there was anything left to do but say a few prayers and dig a shallow grave. There was probably a simple fix, but it would’ve involved getting in a car and driving to a place where men in dirty overalls looked at us with condescending smirks. And we didn’t need that kind of sarcasm on Christmas. So we left the deflated basketball on the driveway and went inside and ate cold waffles and drank warm beer and watched a Charlie Brown Christmas.
Every time I hear Vince Guaraldi’s mournful piano, I feel like getting an afternoon buzz and not being active. It’s in my DNA.
3. Harry Simeone Chorale, “Little Drummer Boy”
There was this sledding hill near our house, which all the local kids loved because it was so dangerous. I think it was intended for downhill skiing, but we always preferred sledding on it, because it was steep enough and icy enough that you could go down it at eye-watering speeds. Somewhere at the bottom, there were a few trees and a small shed where the skiers could change clothes, and you had to be careful to avoid it. But of course, when you’re young and stupid, you actually think it’s more fun to aim for the trees, steering away at the last possible second. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
There was this older kid who used to sled with us. Chad, I think his name was. I don’t really remember anymore. Honestly, I don’t remember much about him. I don’t think I ever saw him in school, or even knew where he lived or what his home life was like. The only thing I knew about him was that he was drummer. He was too poor to buy his own drum kit, but he had a pair of sticks that he carried with him everywhere. He wasn’t much of a talker, but he’d drum a never-ending beat on anything within striking distance. It was like he communicated solely with morse code. For four years straight, he played the drummer boy at our church’s youth Christmas pageant. As the choir sang “Little Drummer Boy,” he pounded on a battered snare drum, creating a sound that only vaguely resembled “Pa-rum pa-pum-pum.” He probably would’ve done the gig well into his teens, if he hadn’t been fired after the pastor caught him trying to steal the church’s prop drum.
Me and the other boys his age, we loved him, if only because he was so unapologetically crazy. The little drummer boy, as most of us knew him, was always willing to do the most dangerous, stupid stunts on the sledding hill. He’d stand up on his sled and try to surf down the hill, or crash into the side of a tree and destroy his sled. The guy was certifiably nuts. One day, he borrowed his dad’s Sunfish, which is basically a small, two-seater boat. As you can imagine, that thing took off like a rocket. He lost control and smashed into the shed, ripping through the wall and coming out the other side. We were convinced he was dead, but he jumped out of the pile of shattered wood and began dancing around, blood streaming down his face. “I’m Keith Moon,” he screamed triumphantly. We just laughed and laughed and told him he was our hero.
That was the last time I ever saw Chad. He just stopped showing up at the sledding hill after awhile. A year or so later, we heard that he’d committed suicide by hanging himself in an abandoned barn. And I have no idea why.
“I want to get drunk and make jokes about Eartha Kitt giving blowjobs to homeless guys in Santa suits and then fill my mouth with as many free peanuts as I can cram in there, watching their shells waft gently to the floor like my abandoned dreams.”
4. Dean Martin and Doris Day, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”
We’ve all been there. You’re walking through your old neighborhood after burying your father and it’s late December and it’s snowing and the houses are lit up like Vegas strip clubs, except with fluorescent mangers instead of boobs. And as you and your family are wandering aimlessly, still in a haze from grief, you pass the home of the eccentric gay couple that just moved to town, and you notice that they’ve decorated their yard with a life-size mannequin of Santa Claus, who appears to be dropping his pants and preparing to take a big, steamy dump. There are tiny speakers peeking out of the snow, blaring a tinny recording of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” It’s the Dean Martin/ Doris Day version, which is your favorite because of the way Martin sounds extra boozy, and it always reminds you that the song is probably about date rape.
You point and laugh at the Christmas tableau’s inherent absurdity, and somebody mentions how much your dad would’ve loved it, and they’re right, he would’ve been the most vocal in his appreciation, and probably would’ve walked straight up to the house and rang their doorbell and told them how fucking hysterical their shitting Santa lawn decoration was, and the next thing you know you’re spending Christmas Eve with rich gay guys, talking about how any Christmas song that includes the lyrics “Hey, what’s in this drink?” is probably going to end with a police report. But as you think about this and exchange forlorn looks with your brother and mother, you begin to realize that there’s something kinda sad and pointless about it. Is that really your father’s legacy, as the Guy Who Would’ve Appreciated a Santa Crapping Joke? Is that the best you can come up with? He’s dead and now he’ll never be able to enjoy getting brown-nosed by some obese Christian icon? Is that all his life was worth? Obviously not, but in that moment, just hours after lowering his urn into the dirt and saying your final goodbyes, it feels bizarre and wrong that this is how you’ve decided to remember him.
5. Eartha Kitt, “Santa Baby”
Our family’s favorite restaurant closed down this year. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was the town’s biggest hotspot. We had dinner there pretty much every weekend, as did most of our neighbors. The food was okay, I guess. It was typical Midwestern fare; burgers the size of bumper cars and everything else deep-fried until it met the community standards of culinary conformity. My brother and I were more impressed with the video games in the back than anything they served on a plate, if only because shooting at asteroids didn’t give us quite as many chest pains. But our parents — every adult we knew, actually — they all loved the place. They couldn’t get enough of it. It had nothing to do with the Guess-Which-Vegetable-We’ve-Fried-Into-Oblivion appetizers or the shrimp that tasted like pencil erasers. It was the peanuts.
This was one of those restaurants where you could throw peanut shells on the floor. I know that because, to this day, my family still refers to it as “the place where you could throw peanut shells on the floor.” I can vividly recall the shocked expressions of my parents and their friends when gossip began to spread about the strange new bohemian eatery that had opened downtown. “You can litter!” they told each other, giggling with excitement. “You just throw your shells on the ground and they don’t even care. They want you to do it.”
Although we had countless meals there, I have a very specific memory about the place. It was December 22nd, and our family had come in for a big holiday dinner, as had apparently every other family in our immediate social circle. The adults had a few too many cocktails, and began remarking on the restaurant’s soundtrack, which always seemed to be that song by Eartha Kitt about trying to seduce Santa. They laughed about its not-so-thinly-veiled sexualizing of Christmas and ordered more drinks and flung peanut shells at the ground. At that point in my life, I don’t think I’d ever seen adults experiencing so much pleasure, so much unmitigated bliss.
I don’t know if I’d ever really thought about what that meant until now. I always thought of my parents as happy. But when you’re five or six, any adult who isn’t yelling must be happy, right? I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to be in your 30s and living in a town that size, with a population barely larger than the average daily attendance at a suburban mall. Would it have been any different for me if I’d stayed here? Would I have been the kind of guy who thought “I hate my fucking insignificant, soul-sucking excuse for a job, and I’m one bad migraine away from ending my loveless marriage and the snot-faced satan spawn we produced with a murder-suicide. But I can find the strength to go on because I’ve deluded myself into thinking there’s something liberating about a restaurant that lets you discard your snack refuse with the nothing-left-to-lose abandon of a Dickensian orphan. I want to get drunk and make jokes about Eartha Kitt giving blowjobs to homeless guys in Santa suits and then fill my mouth with as many free peanuts as I can cram in there, watching their shells waft gently to the floor like my abandoned dreams. And then I want somebody less fortunate than me, maybe somebody from my high school who used to bully me or nail all the hot chicks, somebody who I used to look up to and admire even as he sent my self-esteem into a tailspin, to pick up those shells with his grubby, unwashed, minimum-wage-earning hands, preferably while I’m watching and silently judging him, thus allowing me a fleeting sense of self-worth, and maybe tonight I’ll be able to fall asleep without drinking quite so much.”
Happy holidays, everyone! See you in 2012!