Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holiday (Modern): Christmas Must Be Tonight

The Band: Christmas Must Be Tonight

So many “modern” original holiday songs are arch or ironic, or are novelties or are overly treacly. To my mind, it is easy to tire of these types of songs, and since the holiday season comes up every year, I appreciate songs with staying power.

I make no bones about the fact that I’m an atheist, and I have discussed here and elsewhere that I was raised Jewish, so it might be surprising that I picked this song to write about. It is a simple, beautiful, low key song with a strong Christian message. Not only that, but I’m willing to bet that no member of my family—who have listened to holiday music with me over the past quarter century plus—would guess that I’d pick this song to write about.

I’m not sure if I should admit to this in public, in a blog where I purport to opine about music, but when I listen to music, lyrics are not as important to me as the overall feel of the song. I suspect that some of that comes from the fact that with many rock songs, you can’t actually understand the lyrics, and when you do, often they are less than stellar. I mean, is “Louie, Louie,” less amazing because the lyrics are impenetrable? And I know that “Stairway to Heaven” still rocks, despite the fact that it exhorts me not to be alarmed by the bustle in my hedgerow, because it is just a spring clean for the May queen. And what exactly is an American aquarium drinker, anyway, Mr. Tweedy? Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate a good lyric, which adds to my enjoyment of pretty much any Richard Thompson or Bruce Springsteen song. Just a few weeks ago, when my son and I saw Lucero, I was struck for the first time by one of Ben Nichols’ lyrics—“It was Texas, it was Tennessee/It was exes and some wannabes.” Not deep, but clever and fun.

Maybe what I like about “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” is that it just sounds like a good Band song. Written by Robbie Robertson with lead vocals by Rick Danko backed by Levon Helm and featuring Garth Hudson’s organ, it works on its own. Robertson wrote it after the birth of his son Sebastian, and it can’t be a coincidence that the song describes how a little baby boy could “bring the people so much joy.” He intended it to be a Christmas single in 1975, but the record company wasn’t interested, so it languished until the Islands album, a collection of unreleased songs and outtakes. When The Band was good, their music had a timelessness to it, and this song fits that mold, with a gravitas that never crosses the line to overly reverent (although I have seen it referred to on another blog as “kitsch.” But what do bloggers know, anyway?). There is a “rehearsal” version that was later released as a bonus track to the Northern Lights, Southern Cross album which is faster and rocks more, and is missing the organ part. It is ordinary. (Robertson also recorded a version for the movie Scrooged with himself on vocals and a synth driven backing track that is really disappointing.)

The Band never performed the song live, but Danko, who coincidentally died 14 years ago today, did at some solo shows, and based on a few versions I’ve heard on the Internet, he played it well. But there is still something about the original version that strikes a chord, and if it doesn’t pop up on my iPod during the holidays, I make sure to throw it on my computer so that I hear it a few times.

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