Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holiday Blues: Sweet Side

Lucinda Williams: Sweet Side

One of the ways that I consider myself lucky is that I’ve never suffered angst at the holidays. Growing up as a relatively secular Jew in a religiously mixed area, I never felt any tension. I celebrated Hanukkah, and some of my friends, did, too. But other friends celebrated Christmas. I don’t remember having any friends from mixed marriages, where there was a question about which holiday to celebrate, or any Jewish families who had “Hanukkah Bushes.” My family never really spent too much time focusing on the religious aspect of Hanukkah—family, latkes and dreidels were more important than thinking about the theological issues of whether oil lasting longer than expected was a miracle, or just a miscalculation. (Not to mention the question of whether Hanukkah represents the triumph of religious fanatics over more secular Hellenizers, and whether that’s really worth celebrating.) And, of course, as a Jewish kid, we got to act smug because we knew that there was no Santa Claus well before any of our gentile friends.

My family was also flexible about celebrating Hanukkah. By the time my cousins and I started going off to college, for example, we exchanged gifts either at Thanksgiving or during Winter Break, whenever we could easily gather a critical mass of family. I think that this gave me an adaptable approach about the December holidays that later paid off.

When my now wife and I were first living together, I knew that she came from a secular Protestant background, and celebrated Christmas with her family. She bought both a small tree and small menorah for our small apartment, which took me a little while to warm up to. Because my family treated Christmas as just another day off, I didn’t have to worry that spending Christmas with her family would conflict with my celebration, and I found myself really enjoying doing both. As it turned out, her Christmas included a slew of Jews, since her aunt converted when she married her uncle, and her cousins were raised as secular Jews. And it also included much drinking, eating, presents and (mostly) merriment.

A few years ago, circumstances led to a parting of the Christmas celebration in my wife’s family, and eventually we morphed the event again. Now, on Christmas Eve, my Jewish family and my in-laws get together at our house for a feast including lasagna (despite the distinct lack of any Italian in any of our bloodlines) and, often, latkes. Everyone decorates the tree, the menorah is lit, if appropriate, and both Hanukkah and Christmas music plays. The next morning is Christmas, with my nuclear family and my in-laws. We eat my wife’s family’s traditional, and scarily delicious, sausage and egg casserole, open presents, slowly, and we end the day with ham. Not to mention some of the millions of cookies that my wife has baked (10 different kinds this year!). In general, everyone gets along, and it is fun. Often, there is a nap.

So, maybe I’m not the right guy to write about Holiday Blues. But Lucinda Williams is. One of America’s great songwriters, her lyrics cut right to the gut, and the featured song today is no exception. It isn’t really a holiday song, but it does reference Christmas. It’s clearly a love letter of sorts, to someone who was damaged by a tough, mentally and physically abusive childhood and life, someone who puts up a hard veneer, but which the singer has seen through, to the rarely disclosed “Sweet Side.” It is a heartbreaking song, but also a hopeful song, because the singer has committed to sticking by her lover, “through thick and thin/ No matter what kind of shape you're in.” Although it is a situation for which I have no frame of reference, Williams’ lyrics makes it relatable, and that, in part, is what makes it art.

Now, even with the brilliance of the lyrics, Williams has been criticized for the song’s musical style, which verges on rap, but really, it isn’t. If anything, it is closer to a “talking blues” of the kind made popular by Lucinda’s musical forebears Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan (and apparently “invented” by Chris Bouchillon back in the 1920s). But that raises yet another issue about the impossibility of parsing out all of the influences in any given piece of music. Who’s to say that rap music wasn’t also influenced, directly or indirectly, by talking blues? So, “Sweet Side” has elements of country, rock, rap and blues, and probably other stuff, too. Sure, it doesn’t sound exactly like most of the rest of Williams’ music. And while a total stylistic shift by an artist can be jarring, it also can be exciting for listeners, and invigorating for performers. What’s wrong with that?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Holiday Blues: Blue Christmas

It's a bit bloody obvious, I know, and I can't even be arsed to see if it has been done before, but it seems so apposite in so many ways, covering any number of the bases I enjoy covering, even, in this case, if that veneer is of and with a thick, snowy schmalz. It's possible I may have previously mentioned my love of cover versions and this song, almost to my shock and awe, is one I have way more versions of than I ought. Or anyone ought. Who knew so many folk woke up one day and felt that this and only this was the song to cover. But then, Christmas, for all it's peace to the world and joy to all people can be a pretty godawful time of year for many, anticipatedly or contrived, through the foibles of massed family and friends. The main problem with the compulsory good cheer of Christmas is that it emphasizes the family, it expects partnership, it insists on conviviality, with that very pressure often enough to burst asunder through any too great expectation based upon. Been there, done that, and, hells teeth, alone at Xmas is the pits, the more so if you are clutched to the bosom of what loved ones you still have, rendering the essence of gooseberry to it's quintessential. I feel that Billy Hayes and/or Jay W. Johnson, who wrote the song back in the 40s knew this, the lyrics extolling the pain of lost love at Yuletime. (Having added my own existing knowledge to the 37 and counting pages of youtube vids, the repeated hearing of this song can itself render one near suicidal, alone or otherwise, but that's another story.)

Elvis is clearly the template most are aware of, originally appearing on his 1957 LP, Elvis' Christmas Album, later as a 1964 single, each doing well in their own formats, either side of the Atlantic. But it had been well-covered ahead of that, as early as 1948, by Ernest Tubb, a lot less ornately, and hence, to my ears, a lot more attractively. Since then the list has been extensive and extraordinary, largely within the canon of country (+/- western), encasing such disparates as Willie Nelson and Billy IdolWynton Marsalis and the Partridge Family and many, many more, sadly more distinguished by their bland similarities than any novel differences. Particularly galling examples I cannot even begin myself to link are by latter day "Great American Songbook" destroyer Rod Stewart and the appalling Mickey Bubbles. And even a live Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, separately (unless you know better) have managed to savage it to an ignoble death. There is also the horror of Lou Reed, together with the unlikely collaboration of, God help us, the McGarrigles, so truly bad I have to offer it, pleading then your forgiveness. But there are a few that can proudly stand above the parapet, if only by the quality of the production or the quirkiness quotient. So let me present odd UK Led Zep reggae tribute band Dread Zeppelin, Scotland's finest, the Proclaimers, credible mainly for their heavily accented diction, and recently deceased reggae legend John Holt.

There are many more. If you seek yet more malaise still, the versions by Jerry Lee Lewis, Leon Redbone, Sheryl Crow, Nicole Atkins, Low, Jimmy Martin (quite good actually), Tammy Wynette, Jewel, the Ventures (likewise), Brian Wilson with the Beach Boys, Fats Domino, Bright Eyes, Johnny Mathis, Robert Gordon, Dean Martin, the Platters and Leann Rimes, they are all but a click away, in all their varieties of awfulness.

I need to leave you with some imagery though, to break up this wall of prose, so here are 2 final personal favourites: Porky Pig.....

........and Kermit the Frog:

Happier New Year!!