“Duet” albums by legendary performers have become career staples. Such endeavors usually consist of a recording superstar of declining years teaming up with a series of outlandish, oddly matched, younger partners in an attempt to show the versatility and virtuosity of all involved. Outcomes vary in success. Sometimes, the legend doesn’t even need to be alive to be musically paired off. About 20 years ago, Natalie Cole and her record producers started the trend of a living singer adding vocals to tracks left by someone long dead, yet still more talented. To be charitable to Natalie, I didn’t mind “Unforgettable,” because the sentiment was sweet. I draw the line at Martina McBride singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with the ghost of Dean Martin. Sorry, but that one is ghoulish bordering on necrophiliac.
Pioneers of the mismatched duet have to be the barely-but-at-the-time-still-alive Bing Crosby and the Berlin-phase David Bowie singing “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy.” In the pantheon of oddities (musical, space, and all others), few pairings rival this combination. Two men representing different countries, generations, musical genres, lifestyles, and just about everything else blend a traditional, well-known carol with a counterpoint composed only a few hours before the recording session (because apparently Bowie hated and didn’t want to sing “Little Drummer Boy”). The duo filmed their tune on the fateful date of September 11 (albeit 1977, not 2001) for Bing’s upcoming Christmas special. A little over a month after the recording, Bing was dead.
Although the carol disappeared for a bit, it gained momentum with age and is now a staple of holiday anthologies. Radio stations that devote airtime to Christmas music play the recording frequently. Despite, well actually, because of its weirdness, this song is one of my favorites. It really shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does.
I knew I would include “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” at some point within my blog. I chose it for December 7 because of today’s historical significance and the message rendered by Bowie in his half of the duet. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor 71 years ago today, and soon after the attack, the United States joined Great Britain to fight the Axis Powers. From December 1941, the month and year that Bing first publically performed his classic “White Christmas,” to August 1945, 16 months before David Bowie was born, millions of people died in a gruesome global debacle, during which humanity’s understanding of its capacities for evil, destruction, and depravity was fully realized.
“Peace on earth—can it be?
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see . . .”
Clearly, the world of 2012 is not one of peace. This Christmas will be the 12th in a row in which American troops are embattled in Afghanistan. Constantly, we confront the realities of terrorist attacks, genocidal violence, and torture. A quick scan of today’s global headlines fills the reader with fear: “Mass demonstrators expected in Egypt,” “Syria ready to use WMDs,” “A renewed, unwelcome enthusiasm for execution in India.” While not as immediately terrifying, a nonetheless bleak picture appears if we zoom in from the global view to focus on our fractured nation. Only weeks after the conclusion of a nasty, polarizing, bitter election that brought out the best in no one, our leaders continue to hurl accusations and treat each other’s ideas with scorn at the expense of our country’s financial well-being and its citizenry’s emotional stability.
Answers will not be forthcoming here. My view generally drifts to that of detached resignation, similar to that offered by The Man in Black from LOST when considering the long stream of visitors to the Island: “They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.” (Weirdness note—this blurb appeared in my Facebook Newsfeed this morning, as I was writing.) History is a repeated loop of people arguing, warring, sacrificing, dying for causes they believe sacrosanct. Humans never-endingly hurt one another, physically, psychologically, and emotionally, and many of them do so while believing that their actions will ultimately make for a better future.
For one side to be right, the other has to be wrong . . .
I am reminded of the last lines of A Passage to India, by another of my literary heroes, E.M. Forster. Two men of different backgrounds, with seemingly little in common, after a series of catastrophic events, try to bury the past and renew their friendship. In that novel, it is not to be:
“The horses didn’t want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace . . . they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices: ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said: ‘No, not there.’”
But opposition can sometimes be overcome. Even if only for brief moments, even if just in small examples, compromise and unity happen. Combinations that should not blend and people who should not get along find ways to do so. At times, the strangest and seemingly least compatible entities ignore their differences to find common ground.
When they do so, the world is made a little better, regardless of how long it lasts. And I try to balance my detached resignation with the hope that enough of these minor instances, these brief, shining moments, will accumulate to outweigh the standout, glaringly obvious examples of human folly.
And if so, perhaps history’s scales can be tipped, no matter how slightly, in favor of a fragile but still real peace.
“I pray my wish will come true
For my child, and your child, too
He’ll see the day of glory
See the day when men of goodwill live in peace
Live in peace again
Peace on earth, can it be?
Can it be?”