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Friday, December 26, 2003

BAD SANTA 

Considering that I got sick of Christmas music about two minutes after Thanksgiving, like I do every year, and that Christmas itself has finally trampled us underfoot, it's a little perverse to put together a list of my five favorite Christmas songs. But the songs themselves are perverse (or worse), so it sort of fits.

(5). Vinnie & the Stardusters: "XXXMas Song"
From Novelty Music for Casual Sex
Listen! (you'll have to click through; bastards won't let me link directly)

It sounds so chipper you almost forget it's about fisting. Tasteless, perhaps, but such lapses ought to be forgiven them, as the poor lads suffer from numerous medical and psychological problems. But they've bravely risen above their disabilities to inflict a permanent scar on the Minneapolis music scene and, indeed, the course of world history, which you can read all about here.

(4). Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper: "Son of Santa" / "Transylvanian Xmas" / "Jesus at McDonald's"
From Get Out of My Way! (Restless Records 72185-1) (reprised in part on the CD version of Frenzy)

These three songs comprise the second side of a 1986 EP by gonzo punk bluesman (pluesman? blunker?) and Don Henley-hater Mojo Nixon and his washboard-thumping sidekick Skid Roper. The first song chronicles the adventures of the Son of Santa upon his release from San Quentin (my favorite line: "I was drinkin' a Fanta with the Son of Santa / Down in Looos-iana"). The second is a spooky instrumental version of "Joy to the World" with Skid on harmonica and Mojo on bongos. The third is not strictly speaking a Christmas song, though it does mention Santa and Rudolph and (naturally) Jesus--and Allah and Buddha and Moses and Confucius ("I saw Confucius at a Kentucky Fried Chicken / He said, 'Mojo, it's . . . finger lickin'!") and John Lee Hooker and warm Schaefer beer. I end the list, arbitrarily, here.

I once took a leak next to Mojo in the blood-splattered men's room of a bar in Chicago where he and the New Duncan Imperials were performing together. As we took care of business we briefly took up the topic of the possible sources of the blood ("What the hell happened in here?" I think is what he said). But he was considerably drunker than I was and so we were unable to advance the inquiry much beyond these preliminary musings before our bladders emptied.

Mojo has lived an eventful life. Presently he has a day job as a flabby bearded DJ at a San Diego radio station. Sometimes he works naked, as documented by these and those profoundly disturbing images.

(3). Tom Lehrer: "A Christmas Carol"
From Songs & More Songs by Tom Lehrer
Listen! (to a live version; scoot the progress button up to 20:53)
Read the lyrics!

The world's greatest mathematician/musical satirist--think Mark Russell, if Mark Russell were a mathematician and funny--takes aim at the commercial spirit of Christmas. A rather obvious topic, it must be granted, but Lehrer's verbal panache carries the day. Best verse:
Relations, sparing no expense, 'll
Send some useless old utensil,
Or a matching pen and pencil.
("Just the thing I need, how nice!")
For further study: an interview in The Onion A.V. Club from 2000 and an animated version of "The Elements." (And for a less predictable take on Christmas and commerce, check this out.)

(2). Sonny Boy Williamson: "Santa Claus"
From The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson
Read the lyrics!

I can never quite make up my mind whether the greatest blues harpist ever was Little Walter Jacobs or Sonny Boy Williamson (Number II I'm talking, though Number I was a fine player too). But Sonny Boy wins hands down in the yuletide division of the competition. "Santa Claus" relates Sonny Boy's feverishly intense search through his baby's dresser drawers "tryin' to find out what did she bought me for Santa Claus." The search raises the ire of the landlady and the police but, strangely enough, not Sonny Boy's baby, who, having inexplicably told him where she hid his gift in the first verse, leaves the stage without returning. The song is reputed to have been made up on the fly during a drunken studio session in 1960, and lyrics sure fit that description, but the performance itself is crisp and biting: half blues, half rock and roll, and all Sonny Boy.

The song is also available on a Rhino Records compilation called Blue Yule, which I don't own but which looks first-rate.

(1). Elvis Presley: "Santa Claus is Back in Town"
From If Every Day Was Like Christmas (also on The Complete 50's Masters, CD 3)
Listen and read the lyrics! (this reeks of copyright infringement, by the way, so don't let the jack-booted thugs at Elvis Presley Enterprises know)

According to the liner notes for If Every Day Was Like Christmas, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller whipped this up on demand when it became apparent at the end of the recording session for Elvis' 1957 Christmas album that one more track was needed. They must have been laughing out loud as they composed it: their Santa has traded in his reindeer and sleigh for a "big black Cadillac" and issues a command to "Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light / Santa Claus is comin' down your chimney tonight," which I would peg at about 1.1 on the entendre meter. For his part Elvis rises (or sinks, depending on your perspective) to the occasion and turns in a bravura barrelhouse performance, including a lascivious, sotto voce "Hah hah hah" just before the piano break. You can't listen to this song and not imagine strippers.

But the most curious thing about "Santa Claus is Back in Town" is the very end of it. The Jordanaires harmonize "Christmas . . . Christmas . . . Christmas" just like they did at the top and again in the middle, but instead of bumping and grinding into another verse, the song drifts away on a piano arpeggio followed by an odd chord, not quite jarring but distant and even a bit regretful. It sounds like someone opening the blinds too early on an uncomfortably bright morning after. I don't want to read too much into the tossed off ending of a tossed off (but brilliant) song, but it's hard not to hear the gospel-singing, mama-loving side of Elvis' personality, having allowed the hip-swivelling, rock-and-roll-inventing side its bawdy little romp, getting in its two cents' worth of tsk-tsks. And that's why this song gets to be Number One.