It’s time to talk about the worst Christmas songs of all time. It’s time to do that because it is September, and I love Christmas, so we ain’t going to crap on Christmas any closer to the actual time of Christmas. Let’s get our holiday bellyaching out of the way now, while we’re cranky because, well, it’s not Christmastime right now.
Believe it or not, the shortest Christmas song is the most hated among certain Scrooges. I’m talking about We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I don’t understand these people. First off, one can make the case that it isn’t even a song. It’s more like an epilogue, a musical cadenza tacked on to the end of a program of other songs. Everyone sings it, and half of them sing some modified version of that little bridge tucked into the middle (“good tidings to you, and all your kin?” “wherever you are?”). We Wish You a Merry Christmas isn’t robust enough to be the worst Christmas song. Sorry.
I’m also sorry that Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer does not qualify. Novelty songs are restricted from this competition. That also goes for anything by a chipmunk of any kind, at any pitch or speed.
A top candidate for worst Christmas song has to be Christmas Waltz (lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Jules Stine). Frank Sinatra supposedly called Cahn in the summer of 1954 and demanded a Christmas song. Well, he got one. I don’t think it was completely cooked, though. With lyrics such as “Santa’s on his way/He’s filled his sleigh with…things/Things for you, and for me,” Christmas Waltz is an uninspired, vague stinker. This broken candy cane of a song ends its chorus with a wet whimper: “And this song of mine/In three-quarter time/Wishes you and yours … the same thing, too.” I’ve never associated laziness with Christmas, but Christmas Waltz kind of forces me to do so. The result is something similar to moldy fruitcake, one that no one bothered to check on over the years. But hey, we can still use the tin for something.
Another contender is Do They Know It’s Christmas, written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure. This tune has the amazing feature of being wrongheaded in two different and contradictory ways. Just remember, two wrongs don’t make a right. Written as a benefit song to raise money for a devastating famine in Ethiopia, this 1985 bit of mess is amazingly condescending, suggesting that we should donate because the poor benighted folks in Africa don’t even know about Jesus Christ. How can you celebrate Jesus’s birth and buy presents and drink egg nog if you don’t even know much about the commercialism that is only tangentially associated with JC? Let’s set a few things straigh. Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the 4th Century, a wee bit before England even came to be. Ethiopia is still a primarily Christian nation. Yes, the African country is 34% muslim now, but we can feel pretty sure that virtually all Ethiopians KNOW WHEN IT IS CHRISTMAS. Famine or not.
Paul McCartney’s Simply Having aWonderful Christmas Time is a sugar cookie with lots of icing and virtually no cookie. But Paul can write insanely catchy melodies, even when he’s at his most treacly. In other words, I’d like to hate it, but I can’t.
I also can’t hate Misteltoe by Justin Bieber (more accurately, by Justin Bieber and his puppet masters). It will never live in my record collection, but I simply can’t get up the energy to hate on an autotuned piece of fluff. Similarly, the music of Pentatonix is less than thrilling, but the bile squirted by many at their version of Little Drummer Boy barely seems worth mentioning. Let Pentatonix just melt into the processed cheese spread of pop a cappella from which it came. Pay it no mind.
Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You brings out the inner curmudgeon in even the most determined Christmas lovers, but I’ll stand up for it. It has sweep. It has intimacy. It has energy, great production, and kitsch. (Don’t you dare suggest Christmas shouldn’t boast lots of kitsch. Before you say such a thing, take a walk through Hobby Lobby in any given November. Heckfire, take a stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop during December. Be careful criticizing Christmas kitsch–you just might find yourself looking coldly at some of your most treasured Xmas decorations, traditions, and memories. Smarter people than me have failed to tease out the actual value or threat of kitsch in any arena of life. If you want to be overwhelmed by this question, investigate the ideas of Odd Nerdrum.)
Anyway, the kitschiest Christmas song is not Mariah Carey’s. The kitschiest is the infamous Christmas Shoes, which is so sappy that I can’t discuss it without risking diabetes. Here’s a link, but proceed with caution. Kitschy enough for ya? Christmas Shoes is a Thomas Kincaid painting of a Precious Moments figurine–covered in glitter. It’s so twee it could take down a horse, even one that has been acclimated to sentiment via multiple appearances in Hallmark movies, dragging a carriage through a quaint small town for the umpteenth time as the town custodian hangs a garland from the wrought iron streetlights. The horse’s trainer could put blinders on the beast to spare it the visual barrage, but do they make earplugs for quarter horses? Asking for an equine friend.
Some Christmas songs are accused of causing nausea, distress, and annoyance, but their crimes are much lesser, in the grander scheme. Jingle Bells has that plodding, simple melody, but it also has the word “upsot,” and that should count for something. Baby, It’s Cold Outside is often described as “rapey,” but I have never heard the song as one between relative strangers. I hear an established couple teasing each other. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is much more disturbing, but it gets a pass because it is so easy to parody that a seven-year-old can–and will–do so.
Here are a pair of tunes that are like two sides of a tedious coin, the yin and yang of bad Christmas songs. We have the overly caffeinated Carol of the Bells, beloved of retailers who wish holiday shoppers to spend in a fevered rush. Previously known (by no one) as A Very Espresso Christmas, Carol of the Bells is not refined enough to be a coffee drink. It is a Monster Energy Drink, a can of sugar and speed decorated and marketed with all the subtlety of an Axe Body Wash bottle. Its roots are in the Ukraine, circa 1914. It has spread like a red and green rash across the globe in 100 years’ time. Someone please stop the madness. If you build the time machine, I will go back to 1913 and teach Mykola Leontovych meditation so he can calm the eff down.
On the flip side is Coventry Carol, which is the slowest, saddest, seasonal song to ever inspire suicide among its listeners. How off-brand is this Christmas song? It centers on King Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Hey, here’s a cheery story for Rankin/Bass to animate for TV: It’s about all the babies who were murdered because they might have been Jesus Christ. Pass the egg nog!
So, who “wins”? Coventry? Bells? Do They Know? Christmas Waltz?
Yes, Christmas Waltz. Christmas Waltz wins for being the best at being the worst. Such promise! And in 3/4 time!
Incidentally, Silver Bells is the best Christmas carol.* It wins easily. O Come O Come Emmanuel is the best Old School Christmas carol. It’s so Old School, I never fail to feel like a 1st Century Jew on a dark, mysterious night in the Palestine every time I hear it. I love it unequivocally. The Advent longing is powerfully present. But Silver Bells marvelously mixes the modern with the traditional. It sidesteps the religious, which is sure to rankle some, but most importantly, it evokes the good feeling, the holiday cheer, of the city at Christmas time. We all know the feeling described in Silver Bells. It is straight-up magical. Yes, that bit about it being “Santa’s big scene” is a little New Yorky, maybe. A little Ring a Ding Ding. Swallow that phrase and the rest is well crafted and beyond reproach. Incidentally, William Frawley (Fred Mertz from “I Love Lucy”) sang it first before Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell did (in the 1951 film “The Lemon Drop Kid), and before Kate Smith had a hit with it in 1966. So there’s that.
Disagree? Put coal in my stocking. We need it for the fireplace.
*Silver Bells doesn’t have a chance against half or more of the songs on James Brown’s album “Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but that is self evident.
Jake is the kind of friend who will get you involved in a bar fight. He loves to play pool, and he has a temper. I’m not sure who looks at him with more of a side-eye—other pool players, or the bar owners/bouncers. Get him drunk enough (and you need only give him the opportunity and he will do so) and soon he will be banging his pool cue on the side of the table, annoying his opponent and angering management.
He may disappear in the middle of a night out to pursue some mysterious errand. You may later get a call from the ER from him, or possibly a call from the local hooscow. His body amply illustrates Jake’s love of good beer, his belly contained in a soccer jersey, most likely of German origin.
Jake is a gambler who loves the ponies. He is excitable. He’s also the most loyal friend you will ever have. Jake has your back, no matter what. He will eagerly jump in front of a belligerent stranger to protect you, perhaps in part for the “joy” of busting some heads. This kind of loyalty makes you intensely loyal to him. Jake is a great friend who can get you in great trouble. Calm, extremely rational friends are crucial for a person. But if you don’t have a Jake among your friends, your life is lacking.
All this to explain how I came to be at Belmont Park for the running of the Belmont Stakes one year a good while ago with my friend Jake. Jake and I had the handicapper’s routine of perusing the Daily Racing Form, walking to the paddock to see how the horses looked that day, hurrying back to our seats to finalize our bets, heading to the betting window at the last possible minute to adjust bets according to the latest odds, then hustling to the outside to watch the race.
On this occasion, we were both having a pretty good day at the track. It wasn’t quite a surf-n-turf day, the kind of day that ends with us blowing most of our winnings in a Manhattan restaurant eating steak and lobster, but we were up. I can’t be sure, but I think a Triple Crown was on the line on this Belmont Stakes day. Regardless, our excitement level was high, and the Maker’s Mark was flowing.
The stands were packed, and we had the choice of grabbing a terrible seat or lingering in the aisle to watch the race near the fence. We fought to a good spot by the finish line. The horses were in the starting gate and it was now post time.
Suddenly, a crowd of people shoved in front of us. There were some guys in suits, and there were a few guys in serious suits, and with wires running to one ear. They were surrounding a balding, grinning man with greying hair. It was George Pataki, the then-governor of New York. His entourage was not moving quickly as he shook hands and chatted with constituents. The bell rang, and they were off!… and Jake was not happy. The entourage was parked right in front of us. He started yapping.
“Hey get the fuck out of the way!” he bellowed. Some of the entourage turned to look at Jake. “Get the fuck out of the way!” he yelled louder. The serious men in serious suits swiveled and locked in on Jake. Two moved toward him, somewhat astutely recognizing trouble when they see it. I told Jake it was Pataki. He responded at the top of his voice, “I don’t give a fuck who he is, I’m trying to watch the goddamn race!”
This got Pataki’s attention, he turned around and looked at Jake with a laugh and a nod, and urged his entourage to move along. Pataki knew an honest-to-God New Yorker when he saw one, and he appreciated it.
And that’s how Jake taught me that George Pataki loved New Yorkers. Ω
Such a label placed on a band or album would be a significant insult, as far as I was concerned, back when I reviewed music for newspapers. It’s a silly charge, of course. What music springs out whole and completely new, like Minerva from Jupiter’s head? I can hear y’all calculating, making arguments for certain recordings…Sgt Peppers? Paul’s Boutique? Kind of Blue? Giant Steps? Rock Around the Clock? Rocket 88?
No. All music is based on the past. We hear music from birth, sung by our parents, drifting out of the computer or TV, in the streets. Our ideas of harmony and melody, dissonance and scales, polish and power, calm and storm in music are placed in us by our environment, making their way into our conscious and unconscious via our ear hole.
So. In 2003 when Puffy’s album “Nice.” was released on Bar/None Records, a copy arrived in the mail for me to review and I had the somewhat challenging task of imagining what these young Japanese singers were trying to do with their 48:59 of recorded sound.
Here in the U.S. of A., countless bands stole from the playbook of grunge to jump into the hot sound of the day, a dozen bluegrass bands imitated Mr. Monroe’s lineups and sounds to get over, Lenny Kravitz bit Prince and Jimi hard, and Queensryche copied Pink Floyd while Greta Van Fleet was supposed to replace Zeppelin. Those are the egregious cases. Everywhere on the radio, all the time, in every era, ideas were being, er, cross-pollinated. Additionally, hundreds of bands started out by imitating other groups early in their career, only to blossom into something much more original. Think the Beatles in Hamburg, Pink Floyd chasing singles with Syd, Dylan playing folk standards, and Led Zeppelin nicking about a dozen old blues tunes in their beginnings. Having your hand in the cookie jar is not a crime. Eating only cookies at every meal, however…
Back to Puffy. (In the United States, they must be known as Puffy AmiYumi, because Puff Daddy sued for infringement. He later went on to sell clothes made of dog fur and change his name to Love. Can these women call themselves Puffy again now? Please?) The first spin through the album revealed an overstuffed closet of influences, thefts, homages, and nicks from all manner of bands, songs, and genres. I almost wrote it off after the first run-through as something like a Japanese wedding band…until I realized that the light-as-a-feather confection “Your Love Is a Drug” was stuck in my head. My rule for record reviewing was always to listen carefully all the way through three times before formulating my opinions on an album. By the third listen through “Nice.,” I loved it.
It became a game. Was that a borrowing from No Doubt in “K2G?” How could those vocal harmonies in “Thank You” be anything but a go-between in the rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles? Is that Buddy Holly’s influence I hear in “Long Beach Nightmare,” or just mid-career Fab Four? Surely that’s not Styx I hear in “Tokyo Nights” before the beat goes disco. I just looked up the credits for the album on AllMusic, and the reviewer listed several influences I didn’t initially hear, which only proves how deep this treasure chest is.
I could go on. And on. Some songs have one instrument that is strongly suggesting an American band or hit single. Others adhere to Japanese roots, especially “Planet Tokyo,” which has the energy of Shinjuku Station and ends, appropriately, with the sound of roaring street bikes. I’m left contemplating the notion that Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura grew up or at least went through an intense stage of devouring British and American pop with a connoisseur’s deliberate fervor. Could it be that pop devotees in the United States gain a sense, just from the air, of what can be borrowed from another act without accusations of appropriation, while someone growing up on the other side of the world only sees the wonderful buffet available?
I don’t have my original review of “Nice.” I know I gave it a positive review, but I remember nothing else…except effusive praise for “Your Love Is a Drug.” As I surveyed all the hints and heists on the album, I realized that most readers would not read a listing of such as praise. And I considered “Nice.” to be one of the greatest pleasures (guilty or otherwise) of that year’s music. So I focused on “Your Love Is a Drug,” knowing that only the most ornery would refuse to acknowledge its pop hookiness.
The next question is about how seriously we should take pop songs that are meant to be consumed like a bon-bon, all sugary nothingness, so delicious and yet also barely consequential. It’s a question that spans bands and genres. Poor Billie Holiday had to wait years before she was allowed to record better pop songs—they were all claimed by the white performers the record labels favored. The Clash’s pop outing, “Train in Vain,” is hated by half of the band’s fans. The early Beatles material is considered inferior to the more complicated and adventurous work they made toward the end of their run, at least by critics and self-appointed pundits (like me). The entire R.E.M. album “Green“…
“Nice.” now receives regular play on the home stereo, in part because my 10yo son loves it as much as me, and the rest of the family doesn’t hate it. And I am left listening to a song by Aimee Mann.
Her record “I’m With Stupid” is likely to show up later in my blatherings, but for now, I ask the reader to simply consider the song “Superball.” I loved the album the first time I heard it, and I hated “Superball” just as early on. It was almost always skipped when possible.
Groups such as Big Star and Matthew Sweet and Jellyfish never flipped my switch, despite the right and well-meaning efforts of several enlightened friends. Power pop for me ends at Elvis Costello. Mann’s “Superball” was literally bouncy and bright, clashing with most of the rest of the album. In my decrepitude, as I consider that Andy Sturmer, the producer of “Nice.,” was a member of Jellyfish, things are getting clearer for me. And as I learn to play guitar and help my son with the same, I appreciate the pop sensibilities and genuine love for the sounds on Puffy’s album—and on “Superball.” Mann’s song is a pop tart, a Trojan horse. It seems as threatening as a gumball, until you hear the subtext, which is spelled out in the song’s outro: “And I won’t deny/the velocity I’m gathering.” Earlier in the song, she says that this velocity is sending the “lamps and chairs all scattering.” This is an Atomic Fireball, not a gumdrop. A cartoon ball with nitroglycerine inside. Destructive, unpredictable, energetic. Pop can hide power.
“Nice.” is a box of chocolates, a sampler. But the chocolate is good quality and the fillings are fine. Gorge yourself. And ponder pop’s roots.
My neighbor’s dog is not named Dewey. I can’t remember what his name really is, and that doesn’t matter, because the dog should be named Dewey, or at least, Llewellyn. Those are fine names for dogs. Maybe I know a Dewey or a Llewellyn in the canine world already? I don’t think so, but I’d have to ask my wife to be sure because she is more on top of things. If we all work together, we can do this. If we all do our part. I’m not suggesting anything too crazy. Just, maybe, sometime when you are in a city park, yell, “Dewey! Here, Dewey! Deewwwweeeeyyyy!” The mere suggestion of naming a dog Dewey might inspire a passerby. Or, if you happen to be there when puppies are being born, you could just wait for your opening and casually suggest, “How about Dewey for a name? Or Llewellyn? Llewellyn is a fine name for a dog!” If we all do our part, someone, somewhere, will name a dog Dewey, and there will be world peace and everyone will be happy.
People who don’t particularly care for gospel music still feel moved by it. Why?
People of faith will say it is because of the power of the words. Scholars of rock music will assert that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t really become rock ‘n’ roll until aspects of gospel music were infused in it. Perhaps both assertions point to the real appeal of gospel music: its sincerity.
Opera singers can instill enough emotion into an aria to make you cry. Is it sincere? Is the diva really feeling the death of her lover? Does it matter?
Does good music need sincerity to be good?
Wave after wave of musical styles and genres have come and gone in the Western World over the last century. Most of them spawned talk about how the new style is “ours” because it addressed the concerns of a given subgroup of society. That subgroup has often been young people. Sometimes it is even narrower, singling out the disenfranchised, or those with hippie-like attitudes, or urban anger, or love of God and pickup truck, or dance-centric joy. Across all the genres and styles, one trait is usually held above almost all: authenticity. Questions always swirl around who decides what authentic means and who has it. Ask REM about the accusations of selling out, some coming right after their first EP! Ask the white groups like the Beastie Boys or 3rd Bass if the doors to the rap kingdom were easy for them to walk through, and how they were challenged in regard to their authenticity. (Don’t ask if 3rd Bass’s music holds up over time.) See what Sam Bush says about when his progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival first gained popularity and traditionalists screamed about the amplifiers and long hair and rock sensibilities in the group.
Caveman Ugg banged on a big hollow log. The sound carried for a mile. It was noted and reported to Ugg, perhaps. Could it be used as a signal? Somehow, sound became communication, beyond vocalizations. Was it creative? Was it sincere?
Does music hold communication as its main goal?
Must all communication be sincere? That could quickly get tedious. What about levity? Does anybody remember laughter?
It’s hard for this Westerner to think of music’s distant past without it receding into a religious mist. So much of what I perceive as the earliest music was liturgical or religious chanting. Yet clearly, some of the earliest singing was meant to communicate ideas from other subjects. We know that The Odyssey, attributed to Homer, was recited or sung by traveling troubadours. This continued through the Middle Ages—think Beowulf. It continued into the Renaissance, yielding songs that still are sung, such as “Scarborough Fair” and “Greensleeves.” The secular and the religious diverged. Question: Considering how vital the role of gods and goddesses are to The Odyssey, should it really be considered a strictly secular piece of art?
It’s likely that the troubadour who was singing Beowulf was embodying the roles in the story to some extent. I always imagine the singing portion of these performances to be most similar to the sound and approach of recitative in opera. Sung to a simple melody, repeated phrasing, expository. It’s impossible not to visualize the troubadour not using his body to act like Grendel in the telling. There must have been some acting in the performance. So, is Dylan being an actor when he sings “Positively 4th Street”? It sure sounds like he means every pointed jab in the lyrics. Has Ozzy been acting all along? Alice Cooper, who golfs with Trump? Marilyn Manson or Glenn Danzig—actors all? Does this make them fake? Or just good performers?
A friend of mine was in a band full of theater veterans, actors mostly, and they showcased one year at the South by Southwest arts conference in Austin. He remembers one of his bandmates being struck by a group that seemed different. “Paul said, ‘This is strange watching them, because I am an actor and I recognize the work of acting, and this whole band is acting,'” my friend recalls. “He was absolutely right.”
How grievous of a crime was this performance? Surely one shouldn’t expect Joni Mitchell to relive the intense grief she felt giving up her baby daughter every time she sang “Green,” or Dylan to revisit his divorce during each performance of “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Jeff Mueller, best known as a traditional printmaker and as a primary element in the bands Rodan and June of 44, toured Italy in 2018 after having not played June of 44 songs with the rest of the band for years. He didn’t know how he was going to sing and play those songs, considering how much had changed in his life. “Once we finally got back together, being together wasn’t a problem at all. We are all dads and relaxed, and learning the songs again wasn’t hard. But putting my head into the music in a way that brought some kind of sincerity to the songs we were going to play was harder—not just playing for the sake of performing them. I had to dial myself back into Louisville situations, to where was I psychologically back then. [June of 44 was born while Mueller was living in Louisville, KY, in 1994.] I had to think about what it meant 20 years ago, what I was feeling of at the time the music was conceived. That was the hardest part of it. I didn’t want to be in a cover band, playing my own songs. I always wanted just a feeling to be conveyed, whatever that feeling was—frustration, beauty, anger, I want that emotion, and when that comes across in a song, it’s important to me. So I just sat for many hours with those songs, listening to them and practicing them. I would look at them and pull myself back into that headspace. What was I doing in 1997? How broke was I? What were the headlines then? What was the genesis of those songs?”
Mueller is still a revered figure in the alternative rock world, and he is still making music and visual art, along with growing a fine family. He escaped the dangers of sincerity (and lack thereof) in an often horrifying music industry. Not everyone does.
Charlie Hunter, a fine-art painter who has booked concerts and managed musicians over the years, has seen too many souls get crushed by the requirements of the job of being a musical artist. Much of the pain comes from the star-making machine, but plenty is allowed in by the artists themselves. He describes two successful self-confessional musicians—Aimee Mann and Shawn Colvin—as “both smart and very calculating…well-armored individuals. So they have a much better shot at surviving than the genuinely fragile souls. They also may have fragile souls, but they are fully armored.” Hunter goes on to point out that while ballads of past centuries told stories often true, songwriters today can be confessional or could be creating composites from many people they have met. There’s a truth in that, a sincerity in that. Right?
When people are embarking on a career in music—and we are talking about popular music here, because classical and religious musics have different challenges altogether—the artist starts out doing it for love of music and attention from others. They work on their songs, often for years, before their “big break” happens. This could mean simply graduating from coffeeshops to mid-sized venues, or it could mean signing with a label. They end up with a strong set of tried and tested songs. That gets them to the next level…where many are crushed. Signed acts are worked hard by the record industry. You go on the road. You fly into a random city for a radio promo, then fly to another place for a TV appearance, then to a festival, then to a small gig…. How is a musician supposed to keep imbuing every song with the utmost energy, day after day, hour after hour? The Hollywood cliché of a performer giving his or her all and feeling subsequently empty is a cliché based in truth. Enter drugs, or burnout, or, more mundanely, a lack of inspiration. “If you can portray opening a vein without actually doing it, you are much better off,” Hunter states.
The argument is often put forth that much of today’s popular music would not exist without the core influence of African-Americans and their roots in the Caribbean and in Africa. I don’t disagree. The banjo, a staple in traditional country, in bluegrass, and in the mostly lily-white acoustic music scene, came from Africa, in the process showing just how easily a music form can be co-opted by the ruling majority. Slaves were forced to perform for their white “masters,” and slaves also played for their own community. Louisville, KY, where I grew up, has been a party town since its founding. The city formed almost entirely because of the Falls of the Ohio, a shallow stretch of river that boats laden with goods could not traverse. The freight had to be unloaded, ported around the falls using horses, and reloaded past the falls. It meant spending a night in town, and spending money enjoying that night in town. Music, adult beverages, and enterprising ladies separated rivermen from their pay. The music was often minstrel. Jug bands, mostly consisting of black musicians, provided entertainment. What did these jug bands play? How could they be sincere to their experience, while pleasing the white audience sufficiently enough to get tips?
“They were playing to different audiences in the jug band era,” explains Michael L. Jones, the author of Louisville Jug Music: from Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee. “White audiences could expect one thing, and then for black audiences there was a little bit of code switching going on in the music. Black audience would get some of the references, but whites would not. The musicians couldn’t always express what they wanted to say. They couldn’t talk about actual circumstances, so they talked about their woman getting them down. But mostly, jug band music is the happiest music in the world—especially Louisville jug bands, which leaned more toward jazz, especially Dixieland.”
Plenty of the early blues musicians had a “right” to sing the blues, based on their biographies. But did Sonny Boy Williamson actually carry a black cat bone around with him? Likely not. The songs were stories—exaggerated stories with a kernel of truth, perhaps. The blues musician channeled the pain of life into joyful music. The blues musician took on the pain of the audience and transformed it into empathy, bravado, strength. How could one possibly judge the blues as authentic or not? We all know that is a favorite activity of many blues fans. Why? What is fiction, when emotion is communicated? “We wouldn’t dismiss Updike for writing fiction, would we?” Hunter asks. “We wouldn’t say he isn’t sincere. I think audiences are very good at figuring out if someone is bullshitting them.”
So is sincerity tangible at all? Is it like Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote on obscenity, “I know it when I see it”?
Sincerity is valued above technical ability by many listeners. Just consider the trumped-up comparison some jazz fans still engage in regarding who is “better,” Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. Ella had technique for days, but people loved Billie. In fact, Miles Davis said, “Everybody loves Billie.” Early in her career, she was only allowed to record songs rejected by white singers, and the material was accordingly weak. But Billie could turn dross into gold. When she began singing some stronger songs, such as “Lover Man” in 1941 and especially the heartbreaking “Strange Fruit” in 1939, the world found out the amount of emotion Holiday could pour into a tune. She channeled some of the pain in her life into her art. Like an actor would.
“It is acting to some extent,” agrees Hunter. “You couldn’t always be feeling the level of grief that is in a really good heartbreak song. If you really were so lonesome you could cry, you would be a basket case by the end of the tour. Performers have to muster the approximation of the emotion surrounding the narrator of the song. It becomes what they do for a living. We don’t object if an actor isn’t feeling everything they are doing on stage; we accept that isn’t the real life of the actor. We don’t extend that same courtesy to a singer-songwriter. Who knows why? Why must it be sincere, rather than just a really good act? That seems pretty unfair to me.”
Some of the strong emotion present in a musical performance may be exaggeration of a very real feeling. Does anyone really know if Prince was every bit the sex-crazed enigma he presented to the world? How could anyone pin down David Bowie’s real self, and, therefore, how do we know he wasn’t Aladdin Sane, or Ziggy Stardust? And wasn’t Major Tom a metaphor… or was Bowie a psychonaut?
Consider Little Richard. He didn’t become famous worldwide by focusing on his black audience. But how could a gay (or at least non-heterosexual) black man honestly express his experience to the white establishment of the mid-1950s? It appears that more than anything, more than expressing what it means to be sexually different or black in America, Little Richard wanted to be acknowledged as being utterly unique and impossible to pigeonhole. “In his autobiography, Little Richard says he did not want someone like Pat Boone to be able to cover his music,” says Jones. “He wanted to be the original, Little Richard. He was trying to do things that white performers could not do. You can see the same thing when you go back to the minstrel shows. They amounted to accidental vehicles of black culture. The minstrels were usually white northerners—they were the first whites to master the banjo… and they were looking at what black performers were doing. Eventually the audience wanted to hear real black people doing it—the real thing. That’s when you get black vaudeville and the chitlin circuit coming around.”
Little Richard wanted to be the best. He was confident—confident enough to have reportedly taught Paul McCartney how to do some of his trademark vocalizations when the Beatles opened for him in Europe on a few dates in 1962. McCartney utilized the master’s well-known “hooooo!” very effectively live and on a few studio recordings, but he was no Richard Wayne Penniman. Little Richard made sure he was impossible to duplicate, effectively preventing white—or any other—musicians from trying to bite his style.
Another hero of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, offers a different kind of challenge when considering the artist’s sincerity in writing and performing. In protest songs like “Masters of War,” the listener can positively hear Dylan seethe as he spits out the lyrics indicting war hawks, and his anger toward a lost love in “Idiot Wind” is a bucket of ice water in the face. And yet, Dylan squirmed whenever anyone tried to define him or pin down his thoughts and beliefs on half the topics in the world. John Lennon was paying attention. The legend is that Lennon wrote “I Am the Walrus” specifically to stymie efforts of Beatles fans to parse out the meaning in Beatles songs. Is it sincere to purposefully mislead the audience, to intentionally sing nonsense? It’s an honesty of another kind, perhaps.
Punk’s idea of sincerity amounted to angrily pointing out the ills of the world, even as the primary message was one approaching—if not living in—nihilism. New wave added more irony. Sincerity slipped. Hair bands nearly killed sincerity completely, although I do believe that many of the ’80s hair bands were very sincere in their dedication to sex and drugs and what they felt was rock ‘n’ roll. How much different is it for some spandexed LA band to sing about “cherry pie” and early rap’s fixation on the ladies and the Benjamins?
But soon, singer-songwriters such as Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco reminded us what deep sincerity is, and Public Enemy meant every rhyme they spat. Even with performers like them, who are almost universally considered to be sincere, it is questionable that they are feeling every word of every pointed lyric. Says Hunter, “The technical aspect of performance is what’s going on while what looks like the storytelling is going on. I would posit that when you are seeing a performer in concert, they are not feeling the actual lyrics. They are mostly thinking about all the technical aspects of their performance. If the performer is good at his or her craft, the convincing delivery of the music is part of that. If the backing band is simpatico, the band becomes one beast. And that is totally sincere, but more on a technical level rather than in terms of lyrical content.”
In short, the performance is earnest, with real sweat and tears (and occasionally blood) flowing from a concerted effort at delivering effective music. The lyrics give shape to the music but aren’t the whole of it, much like
“If you can fake sincerity, you can fake anything,” Hunter adds. “As George Burns said, ‘Sincerity…if you can fake that, you’ve got made.'” Ω
On September 26, 1995, I formed a very negative view of a band that many of my friends adored.
On that day, I traveled to Noblesville, Indiana with Ray Rizzo to see REM in concert. REM was aggressively mediocre in that performance, but the opener was downright dreadful. It was an English band named Radiohead.
I knew who they were. Their song “Creep” had been on the radio. To me, they sounded like an even mopier and whinier version of Nirvana. They utilized the “soft verse/loud chorus” effect that Nirvana made mad bank with. Their singer, Thom Yorke, sounded like a tortured cat. As the opener their mix was mud. The stage show was better suited for a club. It just didn’t work. (Even allowing the second-tier sound and stage show that openers are forced to endure in deference to the headliners.)
Radiohead was touring behind their second album, “The Bends,” but the only song hitting me from the radio from that platter was “High and Dry,” which was…fine. I focused my listening hours elsewhere.
In 1997, I moved to NYC. It was a distracting year. I still wrote about music for the daily back home, but much less. I was looking for a job writing about music in the Big Apple. I didn’t get a bite—at least not a bite that paid the bills. When my money ran out, I took a job copyediting for a national jewelry trade publication. In other news, Radiohead released an album called “OK Computer.”
I didn’t care. Radiohead was that shitty band I saw open up for REM, the group that had that trendy song “Creep.”
Because of my love of music and my past gig as a music writer, I’ve had friends who are musicians ever since I was in high school. It seemed like every other time I talked to a musician friend, they asked if I’d listened to “OK Computer.” Even Ray, who was with me when Radiohead drained all the excitement out of Deer Creek Music Center in Noblesville that hot September day in ’95, was talking up that record.
No. I was like Bartleby the Scrivener. “I would prefer not to.”
One day, Brad Cates had had enough. Brad was a singer in a band in which several of my friends played. I knew from many conversations with him that he could see inside songs to find good things. I didn’t and don’t have the same taste as him, but I learned to respect his big ears—he heard music better than me, for sure—likely still does. He burned a copy of “OK Computer” and mailed it to me.
I gave in. I listened. If someone feels strongly enough about an album that they would burn a copy and snailmail it 800 miles, it deserves a spin. The first cut, “Airbag,” had a heaviness to it that offered a doorway in. It was moody and atmospheric, like a restrained Led Zeppelin and a tighter Pink Floyd, updated for the times. And then, “Paranoid Android” changed my expectations for ALL rock music, from that first listen until today.
Can I keep this brief? Probably not. The song isn’t brief. Here goes…
“Paranoid Android” starts with some picked acoustic guitar that is punctuated by a descending guitar figure and some percussion. Yorke enters with a narrative that sketches a depressed, angry misfit wanting people to leave him alone. Keyboard textures provide a bed for the eerie and unsettling vocals and guitars. It’s dark and brooding, and there’s a computerized voice somewhat buried in the mix. That robotic voice is meant to evoke Marvin the Paranoid Android, a sad-sack character in Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a humorous social commentary. Radiohead is playing with us. They invite us to find all the doom and gloom funny.
About two minutes into this 6:23 song, a bass line by Colin Greenwood takes center stage. The song begins to reveal itself as a piece with several sections. Percussion continues to tinkle and drive the tempo, locked in with the elaborate guitar parts. (One critic called the tune “a titanic guitar opera.”) Things get louder, with a screaming Jonny Greenwood electric guitar solo roaring forward, then yielding to an elegiac, wordless, legato vocal chant around the four-minute mark. Yorke enters with lyrics asking rain to fall “from a great height.” Another layer of Yorke vocals sketch out a vegetarian nightmare with “the crackle of pigskin” and what seems like an indictment of God or the beliefs of some people regarding God’s purported wishes and feelings for “his children.” The droning background vocals and Yorke’s list of short phrases then suddenly yield to a full-blown guitar freakout that is equally met by some high-energy drumming from Philip Selway. Guitars take us out, with a frantic shaker edging to the front of the mix…and then abruptly it is over.
Thematically, it’s hard to argue that the song isn’t about alienation and mistrust of technology. The paranoid android that “speaks” during the song seems to mistrust his own existence. The concerns about technology made more sense back in 1997; all our concerns about technology seem now to be buried under absolute and unbreakable bonds of servitude to our electronic devices. It’s too late to mistrust technology now.
I became friends with a graphic designer and rock musician named Chris Bracco while I worked at National Jeweler magazine. I was working my way up the masthead and he was assiduously staying in place as assistant art director—he didn’t want any more from his day job than necessary, because rock was his love. We talked obsessively about “OK Computer.” I can remember several occasions when we were standing on a subway platform or riding a train and dissecting every single note from every movement in every song from the album. I mean, totally geeking out, along the lines of, “yes! And then Jonny comes in with that descending guitar motif!” It was wonderfully excessive.
I listened to “OK Computer” through headphones. I listened to it on an iShuffle (remember those?). I listened to it LOUD on my stereo.
The rest of the album maintains the high quality of “Paranoid Android.” “Exit Music (for a Film), a dirge with incredible weight, accomplishes the nearly impossible: It effectively distills one of Shakespeare’s plays (Romeo and Juliet) into a 4:25 pop song. Radiohead wrote and recorded it for the movie “Romeo + Juliet,” and the filmmakers didn’t use it in the film. (That makes me wonder about the sanity of Hollywood, or at least the director Baz Lurhmann.) The song is as intimate as a lover’s breath, then a big blob of guitar and keyboard weight suffocates the song’s characters in dread. The song ends with sounds that make me think of a flock of starlings singing and flying backwards.
“Let Down” is the best sad-day song I know. When I want to sit in a fetal position in a depression among brambles and vines on a rainy day in the woods, in a deer’s napping spot, contemplating the raindrops running down my forehead, this is the soundtrack for it. “Karma Police” was a hit, and it perfectly expresses the anger of someone who wishes the world would just wake up and be the way the narrator thinks it should be. And at the end, Yorke casts all of the sentiment in doubt as he repeats “Whew, for a minute there/I lost myself.” “Climbing Up the Walls” foreshadows some of the thick, almost monochromatic texture of subsequent Radiohead songs on further albums, with Yorke’s vocals modified almost to the point of utter illegibility. “Electioneering” begins with a tambourine (or sleigh bells?) that reveals itself to be more like the warning of a rattlesnake than a sassy shake of a percussion instrument, then an unholy racket of guitars, bass, and drums subsequently surges behind Yorke’s lyrics about corrupt politicians.
But “OK Computer” is more than all of this. Ignore the lyrics, look past the mood, and hear the music.
Jonny Greenwood’s lead guitar work makes it all perpetually interesting. He is the kind of guitarist who seeks out the widest possible variety of sounds from his instrument. The riff that obliterates the choral section in “Paranoid Android” reportedly had been hanging out in the back of Greenwood’s brain for a while before the perfect application for it came along. He is a guitar nut, with an ear for sweeping sounds and surprising elements. He spikes the punch. (Consider that the amorphous, staccato grunts from his Telecaster at the beginning of the chorus on “Creep” was an intentional disruptor. He reportedly thought the song lacked energy and was too pretty.) As much as Yorke seems to epitomize Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood is likely the architect of the band’s music. His guitar chimes prettily, moves quickly, growls menacingly, and provides mammoth riffs worthy of a rock ‘n’ roll band. That’s him on keys, too.
Is it the message or the music? Something I witnessed in a now-defunct Irish bar in Astoria, Queens suggests the latter. “Paranoid Android” was on the jukebox at Gibney’s, and I heard it there every time I visited (which was often). One night, I was passing away the hours and the brain cells with a friend at a table and the song came on. After the choral passage arrived in “Paranoid Android” and gave way to some guitar squall, Selway’s drum fill/short solo burst through the speakers, and one of two beefy Queens guys at a table in front of me played air drums ABSOLUTELY PERFECTLY in sync with the record. When the drum part was over, he acted like he had never flailed about with invisible sticks at all. z
I was fortunate enough to spend another week with the Nanatuck Group, a loose group of painters gathered by Mary Erickson that live for a week at a time in a rented house on the St. George peninsula on Maine’s mid-coast. Here are some of my pieces. (I also interviewed two artists for feature articles and finished up my book on art in the Wind River Mountains during my week there.)
A friend of mine here in Inwood, Elissa Gore, put together a plein air event in the neighborhood. It was low stakes–no prizes, no rules, and just enough structure to give it shape. About a dozen plein air artists found their way to what we call Upstate Manhattan and painted last weekend at the inaugural Paint Inwood event.
The first day, Friday, I met up with Elissa and about four others on the peninsula in Inwood Hill Park for an afternoon painting. I aimed for an abstract depiction of the Henry Hudson Bridge, but the painting decided it wanted to go elsewhere. But at least that little spit of land that was catching the sun so nicely stayed the focal point!
That evening, the painters gathered around an outdoor piano at the corner of Seaman Ave and Isham to tackle a nocturne. I forgot the nifty hat that illuminates one’s palette and working surface, so I had to set up under a street lamp with a decidedly warm cast to its light. Between that color temperature effect and the feeble moon, I couldn’t see well. OK, I could barely see anything. I decided it was an experiment in exploring how well I know my palette. Like a good boy, I always place my colors in the same order so I can think less about where a color is and more on what color I need and how to mix it. Nevertheless, for the majority of the painting session, I could not be sure what color was showing up on my painting. Ironically, although we all know cameras lie, the camera on my phone was giving me good guidance, seeing colors in my piece that my human eye at that light level could not. It was a struggle, and it was fun, and a skunk hung out right beside me for a while, eating slugs or ticks or whatever was on the menu that evening, and the fact that I didn’t get sprayed I took as a sign that my painting wasn’t offensively bad to skunks. And it turns out that this dicey nocturne was the piece most people looking at my work liked the best!
I had been looking forward to Saturday and the chance to paint with a couple of friends. Sarah Baptist and Robin Kappy joined me at the southern end of Inwood Hill Park for the chance to fill a couple of canvases. Robin and I only finished one, from a vantage point on the pedestrian bridge over the Amtrak tracks at the entrance to Dyckman Fields. Sarah, who is a bit of a painting machine, nailed an urban scene under the overpasses by La Marina, then she did an intriguing scene at the foot of the Henry Hudson Bridge. It was hot and I got tired, and a break on some park benches with Robin, overlooking the salt marsh and all the busy birds finding food in the water and sky above the marsh, was delightful.
Sarah and I got started earlier on Sunday. We walked down Broadway and had a substantial Tres Golpes (con magú) breakfast at Albert’s House of Mofongo, and we were seated right in the windows for some of the best people watching in Manhattan. The A train was disengorging folks carrying tents, tables, food, and summer accoutrement of all stripes, heading toward one of the parks. There were people dressed to the nines on their way to church. Clubgoers were stumbling out into the blinding sunlight. Food carts were finally packing it in after a fruitful night. Sarah and I were planning.
I chose to paint the grocery store Fine Fare, which helpfully features enormous sculptures of two cows and a chicken on its roof. Truth in marketing! Sarah painted the Inwood Library, a much-used and beloved Inwood institution that is losing its home amid local politics (<cough> corruption).
The event ended with a display of everyone’s paintings at the RING Garden, located at Broadway and Dyckman. Ω
We’ve all met people who are amazingly kind and generous.
You feel good around them. You want to celebrate them. Well, in the process of
researching my forthcoming book on the history of visual art in the Wind River
Mountains (Taking Root in Rocky Soil),
I came to know Mary and Joe Back. It started something.
Sadly, I did not meet them personally. This was mostly
through their archives, which are stored in an upstairs room in Headwaters Arts
& Conference Center, in Dubois, Wyoming. Joe died in 1986; Mary died in
1991. I came to them through their life story, not their personalities. And let
me tell you, their lives bordered on the epic.
Joe grew up in Missouri but ran away from home after 8th
Grade when a mischievous drawing of his teacher earned him expulsion from
school and additional wrath from his stepfather. He found work as a chore boy
on a ranch outside of Douglas, Wyoming. Meanwhile, Mary was growing up in
Vermont under better circumstances. She attended Berea College in Kentucky, then
earned a slot at the Art Institute of Chicago. Back in Wyoming, Joe was working
on a dude ranch near Togwotee Pass, and sketching in idle moments. A visitor
with connections got him into the Art Institute of Chicago, and he bumped into
Mary while she was sketching a grizzly bear in the Field Museum of Natural History.
That was it for them. She named her pet crow after him, they got engaged, and
sooner rather than later, they made their way out to Wyoming.
The Backs ran the Lava Creek Ranch before World War II
pulled them to the West Coast for a bit of war-effort work in factories. Once back
in Wyoming after VJ Day, they continued with the ranch until age and declining
health suggested a calmer lifestyle. They sold the ranch and bought some land
east of Dubois right on Highway 26, and built a roadside gallery and a house
and studio a little ways off he road. That’s when Mary ramped up her efforts in
art … and perhaps more importantly, art education.
Mary traveled across the better part of Wyoming teaching art
on the Wind River Reservation and in other locales. Her efforts earned her
awards and honors from the governor and a host of other admirers. In Dubois,
the Backs were much loved, and a visit to the Back home meant long, lively
conversations and an inevitable sketch or two. Mary was the Johnny Appleseed of
painting and drawing in the Winds, and Joe was the real deal: A bona fide
cowboy artist, with tales to tell.
How could I resist writing a book on them?
Actually, I will mostly be editing their writings and
retelling their story, which is covered quite well by Mary’s niece, Ruth Mary
Lamb, in her book, Mary’s Way. My
book will be a companion piece, with unpublished short stories by Mary and Joe,
interviews with friends and family, quotes from old letters, and other tidbits
I have uncovered. It will be my second book with a focus on Wyoming, but it
feels more like a second book focusing on the indomitable art spirit.
I spent 11 days in Wyoming in April gathering material for the as-yet-untitled book, and now I am truly on fire to start. While there, I didn’t get much painting done, but that was almost to be expected. It snows in April in Wyoming, and the wind is ever blowing. I’m no plein air hero.
But I am a big fan of Mary and Joe Back. And I feel like I might be able to do them justice with a book. So off I go… Ω
Actually, it was trip filled with stormy nights, plenty of wind, rain, snow, and plenty of wind. Plus, it was windy.
Although I spent 11 days in Wyoming, I only came home with three paintings. I was there to do research, so the challenging weather was actually sort of a good thing in terms of keeping me on task.
Anyway, here they be. As usual, I focused on painting on unstretched canvas that I taped to a board.
I painted this painting below when I got home based on a photo and experience I had one morning while eating breakfast. I’m not done yet–I’m not satisfied with one of the tree trunks, I want more yellow/orange/brown in parts of the grass, and there needs to be some very light grey texture in the background to signify the bare branches of the cottonwoods. I may lighten the doe as well.
I have more photos from the trip that will inspire additional paintings. Ω