The Last Waltz

While channel-surfing last night, I came across The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s film of The Band’s final concert at Winterland in San Francisco in 1976. This is one of the greatest concert films ever made, featuring a godlike lineup of guest stars (Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Bob Dylan) and some insanely great music. Morrison provides a raucous “Caravan”; Muddy moves the Earth with “Mannish Boy”; The Band’s own hits, such as “The Shape I’m In” and “Ophelia,” rock extraordinarily hard; and the grand finale of the show, “I Shall Be Released,” defines what people mean by the phrase “ragged glory.”

But there was another thing about the film: the number of unexpectedly powerful emotional moments. Take for example “Evangeline,” featuring a luminous Emmylou Harris, shot not at the concert but on a soundstage, in which Rick Danko saws away on a fiddle, Levon Helm plucks uncertainly at a mandolin, a dignified Garth Hudson plays the accordion, Richard Manuel flails away on drums with a demented smile on his face, and the always-elegant Robbie Robertson seems to preside over it all. If all six of them had been costumed as medieval troubadours or hobos on a train, either would have worked–they tapped into a vein of musical timelessness I could have watched for hours. The Band essentially invented the genre we call roots music, that spot where rock, traditional country, and blues meet, and while not everybody on the bill works that space, they all contribute to its existence. (It occurs to me that we need that genre, where real people have real experiences and relate them honestly, even more in 2004 than we did in the 70s.)

But the most powerful moment of the movie for me is one that couldn’t have been apparent when the film was released in 1978. Bob Dylan takes the stage, long hair falling from beneath a peach-colored hat, looking impossibly young and vital–and then he begins to sing “Forever Young.” And suddenly it hits me: What I like most about this film is that the people in it are, for its two-hour running time, back in their prime–that they really are forever young–and those of us watching can steal a couple of hours at that same Fountain of Youth. For two hours, nothing that would happen in the 80s and 90s has happened yet–the corporate co-opting of hit songs for commercial purposes, the skillful marketing of plastic idols, all the ways in which popular music becomes noisier and hollower–not to mention whatever personal losses and setbacks we would suffer in the interim. We are, once again, all possibility. Even though The Last Waltz marked the end for The Band, Robbie Robertson wouldn’t call it that, saying he considered it the beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning. And what’s that, if not an acknowledgement of possibilities to come?

All of the Other Reindeer

Last week I wrote about “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “The Little Drummer Boy” and suggested that all versions except the original hit recordings should be avoided. But there’s another song that’s just the opposite–nearly every cover version of it is better than the original. I am referring to Gene Autry’s 1949 hit, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Autry was famous for playing a singing cowboy in movies–and he must have been one hell of an actor, because he’s an awful singer, honking out the story of Rudolph in a rural twang that belies the fact that he was one of the richest actors in Hollywood. But because it’s hard to imagine the holiday season without the song, here are five better versions of “Rudolph”:

The one by Burl Ives from the TV special. You watch the show for an hour and you know this song is coming, and when it does, the feeling of release is exquisite. You realize that, yeah, Rudolph needed backstory.

The one by the Temptations. Almost all of Motown’s major artists made Christmas records in the late 60s and early 70s. They’re kinda streaky–even the best of them, the ones by Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, have a couple of cringe-inducing tunes. The Temptations Christmas Card was the first Christmas album I ever bought, and “Rudolph” is probably its highlight.

The one by Mannheim Steamroller. The Steamroller’s Christmas albums are staggeringly popular, albeit schizophrenic: carols are reworked into elegant Elizabethan tableaux, lush candlelight ballads, and amped-up halftime show numbers. Their version of “Rudolph,” from 1995’s Christmas in the Aire, is charmingly modernized. Your grandmother would hate it, but you’ll think it’s just fine.

The one by the Crystals. From 1963’s legendary A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector. Gains charm points because the girls insist on referring to more than one reindeer as “reindeers.”

The one by Chuck Berry. Actually, this is a ringer. Berry’s song is “Run Rudolph Run,” a rock classic that’s been anthologized endlessly and covered by everybody. Contains one of the all-time great throwaway lines: “Run run Rudolph/Randolph ain’t too far behind.” What?

While it was Autry who had the major hit in ’49, Rudolph the character had been around for 10 years by then, as an advertising icon for Montgomery Ward. But it was songwriter Johnny Marks who immortalized the character in song, and Autry’s recording became not just a Christmas perennial, but one of the top-selling recotds of all time. Neverthless, feh. If you know of any other worthwhile “Rudolphs,” I trust you’ll let me know.

Revisionist History: I’d like to revise my universal condemnation of “The Little Drummer Boy” a bit to say all other vocal versions save Harry Simeone’s should be avoided. Avoid vocals because it’s impossible to avoid sounding like an idiot singing “rum-pa-pum-pum,” unless you are Bing Crosby, so his version of the song with David Bowie is thereby acceptable (even if Bowie does sound like an idiot singing “rum-pa-pum-pum”). Seek out the following instrumentals, which I have heard since my original post: One is by Daryl Stueurmer, erstwhile Phil Collins and Genesis guitarist, whose version (on the 1988 anthology A GRP Christmas Collection) cuts loose from the familiar melody into a great improvised guitar solo. The other is by another guitarist, Kenny Burrell, whose 1966 album Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas is about as cool as Christmas music can get, and whose version of “The Little Drummer Boy” from that album actually swings.

History Lesson: Whispering

December 8, 1980: The first Associated Press bulletin is four words long: “John Lennon shot dead.” My radio station, at college, is off the air due to transmitter trouble. In addition to keeping me from programming a Lennon tribute, it also keeps me from doing a 24-hour radio stunt I had intended to do in conjunction with a charity telethon run by the campus TV station.

December 8, 1975: Bob Dylan holds a benefit for imprisoned boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter in New York. Carter manages to call Madison Square Garden from jail while the concert is going on. Dylan’s song “Hurricane” sits at Number 69 on the Billboard chart; it will squeak into the Top 40 early in January.

December 8, 1943: Jim Morrison is born. I don’t share the opinion of some fans that Morrison is a gifted poet who was the equal of some literary figures who flamed out early, such as the poets Shelley and Rimbaud. Neither do I believe that the Doors are one of rock’s great capital-A artists. What they were is one hell of a singles band–but as long as there are adolescent boys, “The End” will always be popular.

Other Birthdays Today: Sinead O’Connor is 38. “Nothing Compares 2 U” collected an astounding number of awards when it hit in 1990 (and still does, in various historical rankings of popular songs). Nevertheless, it was the moment I realized that pop music had passed me by. I didn’t hear the hook. Neil Innes is 60. Innes was part of the Bonzo Dog Band in the 60s (Paul McCartney produced their lone chart hit, “I’m the Urban Spaceman.”) In the 70s, he collaborated with the Monty Python team, writing songs and appearing in TV episodes and movies.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1974: “Kung Fu Fighting”/Carl Douglas.
It was the 70s. We couldn’t help ourselves.

1969: “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)”/Steam. Recorded as a joke, intended to be a B-side so bad that no DJ would mistake it for the A-side. Apparently, the reason Steam didn’t have a better career is that they were lousy judges of their own material.

1963: “Dominique”/The Singing Nun. More evidence why the British Invasion had to happen.

1957: “You Send Me”/Sam Cooke. The first secular hit for an accomplished gospel singer. Cooke was one of the earliest performers to realize that the real money in the music biz is in controlling your own copyrights. He formed his own publishing company and record label, but his career was cut short when he was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1964.

1920: “Whispering”/Paul Whiteman. The first record to sell a million copies and as such, one of the most important recordings of all time. Whiteman, a white bandleader, billed himself as “the King of Jazz”–although he wasn’t, not really. He did help popularize the form, and a 20th-century pop-music pattern was established: white performers adopting black styles and feeding them back to the white audience, thus making the market “safe” for the black performers who innovated the form in the first place.

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

Last week, the Edison Research Group released preliminary results of a survey asking women aged 30 to 49 about their favorite Christmas songs on the radio. Before we get to the survey results themselves, let’s answer another question: Why women 30-49? In one way or another, most radio station programmers are trying to reach women. A station attracting primarily male listeners is going to have a harder time attracting advertisers than one attracting primarily female listeners, unless maybe the station is doing sports talk or hard rock. It’s presumed that in any given market, there are probably slightly more women than men; women tend to be more active listeners to music radio then men. Female listeners are why classic rock stations stop their momentum dead to play “We’ve Got Tonite” by Bob Seger; female listeners are why Bob and Tom and Howard Stern are never heard on adult contemporary stations.

Because women aged 30-49 tend to make up the largest female segment of the audience, their musical preferences are of great interest to radio stations 365 days a year, so it’s no wonder somebody finally asked them about Christmas music. The favorite songs on the list are pretty predictable. Edison hasn’t released the full list yet (and may not, at least not to people unwilling to pay for it), but USA Today reported the top 10 last week, and I’ll repeat it here, with my usual high-quality commentary.

1. “The Christmas Song”/Nat King Cole. Yeah, OK. This is Number One on my personal list, too. It sets the quintessential holiday mood better than any other record. The Mrs. and I used to put it on our answering machine every year, and the holiday season doesn’t officially begin at our house until The Ceremonial Nat Crank. Trivia question: This song has a parenthetical title. What is it? Answer to come.

2. “A Holly Jolly Christmas”/Burl Ives. From the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this provides serious nostalgia for everybody in the demographic Edison surveyed. It always makes me think of the old Norelco commercials with Santa riding an electric razor downhill like it was a sleigh, done in the same stop-motion animation style as the Rudolph special.

3. “O Holy Night”/Celine Dion. This is the newest song on the list, and since it came out after I left radio, I’ve managed to avoid it. This is one of the loveliest of Christmas carols, though–Aaron Neville does a magnificent version of it on Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas, which came out in 1993. The Edison survey picked Eric Cartman’s South Park version as the least-favorite holiday song, although its inclusion in the survey sounds like a ringer to me.

4. “Jingle Bell Rock”/Bobby Helms. The endurance of this song for 47 years is a bit hard to figure, although it goes down well on both AC and country formats, and two generations of airplay momentum is not to be trifled with.

5. “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”/John Lennon. A multi-format monster, and an eternal novelty, given that Lennon is really the last person you’d expect to sing about Christmas.

6. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”/Johnny Mathis. I usually associate Mathis with “Sleigh Ride,” and this with Perry Como, but that’s just me. Both Mathis and Como are definitely in the pantheon of artists who get their peak airplay during December. (Andy Williams, too, and if I had to bet on what was Number 11 on Edison’s survey, I’d pick “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”)

7. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”/Brenda Lee. Another AC/country crossover a la Bobby Helms, but beware–all other versions are to be avoided, except maybe Amy Grant’s, which is OK.

8. “The Little Drummer Boy”/Harry Simeone Chorale. What was it about the 1950s that made choral cheese so popular? This original recording is fine, but all versions by other artists are to be avoided like ancient fruitcake.

9. “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”/Dean Martin. If you need to experience Dean’s lounge-lizard persona in a ski-lodge setting, this will do it. “Let it Snow,” like “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Happy Holiday,” and a few others, is not specifically a Christmas song–and so one year, my radio station got the idea of continuing to play such generic winter songs for a few days after Christmas. The phones blew out–with grateful listeners. Many radio stations dump Christmas music entirely by mid-afternoon on December 25. We discovered that not everybody is ready to let it go so soon, particularly when Christmas falls on a weekend and family celebrations may occur on the 26th or 27th.

10. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/Carpenters. Again, not the song I associate with them–that would be “Merry Christmas Darling,” although both songs are from the Carps’ Christmas Portrait album, which is better than you might expect. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a Judy Garland song to me, with its original World War II lyrics: “Next year all our troubles will be out of sight” and “Someday soon we all will be together if the fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

Last year, I wrote extensively about my personal holiday favorites, which you can read here. Somewhere I have a snarky bit about the worst holiday music you hear on the radio this time of year. I’ll have to dig that up, too.

Trivia Answer: You’d probably bet the house that the parenthetical title of Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” is “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”–and you would lose your house. It’s actually “Merry Christmas to You.”

Friday History Top Five Lesson-Type Thing

Today, we present the love child of History Lesson and Friday Top 5–a countdown of the Top 5 Historical Events That Took Place on December 3:

5. December 3, 1968: “Love Child” by the Supremes completes its first week at Number One. (Sorry–it was too good a coincidence to pass up.)

4. December 3, 1954: Steve Forbert is born. Forbert’s first two albums, the folky Alive on Arrival and the slicker Jackrabbit Slim promised more than the rest of his career could deliver, although he’s recorded steadily ever since. “Romeo’s Tune,” from Jackrabbit, may have been the first great single of the 1980s.

3. December 3, 1971: “Frank Zappa and the Mothers were at the best place around/But some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground.” The Montreaux Casino fire, immortalized by Deep Purple in “Smoke on the Water,” takes place. (An old post of mine about the song is here.)

2. December 3, 1979: Eleven concertgoers are trampled in a pre-concert rush at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati before a show by the Who. The event has a profound impact on concertgoers everywhere, first of all by putting a dagger into the practice of festival seating. The impact had legs. The next summer, a bunch of us were heading into Alpine Valley Music Theater near Milwaukee when a pre-concert crush got a bit intense. Somebody yelled, “Remember the Who,” and the crush relaxed almost instantly.

1. December 3, 1968: Elvis Presley’s famous “comeback” special is broadcast, known then as “Singer Presents Elvis.” It starts with Presley in black leather looking straight into the camera and singing, “If you’re lookin’ for trouble/You’ve come to the right place,” thus announcing instantly the brief Renaissance of Rockin’ Elvis. The year 1969 would be his most successful on the charts since his 1962 heyday.

Other Number One Songs on This Date:
1978: “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”/Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand.
The story goes that some DJ noticed that the solo recordings of this song by each artist were in the same key, so he edited them together, and then Streisand and Diamond decided to record the thing for real. I don’t know if it’s true or not.

1975: “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention. Another of my guilty pleasures. There’s something about that bass line and those strings. Sue me.

1969: “Come Together”-“Something”/The Beatles. The greatest two-sided hit of all time, and it did only a week at Number One.

1964: “Leader of the Pack”/Shangri-Las. Classic girl group death song, which would be dethroned at the top in a few days by Lorne Greene (the star of Bonanza) and his spoken-word western number called “Ringo.” I am convinced people bought it because they thought it had something to do with the Beatles.

1945: “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”/Harry James. World War II continued to permeate the culture in late ’45 on a scale we can scarcely imagine, even though the war had been over for a few months. This classic song of reunion after a long separation will spend five weeks altogether at Number One–three by this James recording and two by the version that knocks James from the top, by Bing Crosby with Les Brown’s orchestra.