“Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

December 16, 2012

Today I don’t have any attempted “words of wisdom” (to use an appropriate phrase), introspective reflections, views on events, or song analyses to offer. Since the day several weeks ago when I read that Martin Short and Paul McCartney would be hosting Saturday Night Live’s final 2012/holiday episode, I was super excited to watch. And even though I seriously doubted it would actually happen, I hoped that I would get to hear one of my favorite musicians sing one of my absolute favorite Christmas songs.

I was very tired last night, and a combination of fatigue and ongoing gloom had definitely dampened my enthusiasm for the program. But I pushed myself to stay awake, figuring that distraction would help a little. And it did.

The show made me laugh, and last night I needed laughs. Even as 1:00 AM approached, Paul had already sung two non-holiday numbers, and things seemed to be wrapping up, I didn’t mind. As the final skit started, a more aware and astute person could easily have predicted where things were headed. But I think I was too distracted by the outlandish absurdity of the whole scenario (which is still cracking me up) to really have noticed.

Usually, as my friends and family can attest, I do not like to be surprised. I really was caught totally off guard when I heard those first few notes of “Wonderful Christmastime.”

And last night, it was a perfect and wonderful surprise, and I did not mind one little bit.

(I posted the video for the original song at the top, but I’ve also included below the link to the skit and live version done last night for anyone who needs some smiles and laughs as well!)

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/holiday-pageant/1427025

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid

December 15, 2012

I contemplated not writing at all today. My thoughts are the opposite of joyous. My conscious spirit of peace and goodwill toward others right now is dimmed. I’m scared and angry and frustrated.

I read people saying things about how unsafe today’s world is. And I agree. It’s unsafe. But I felt this same way after Columbine. And Virginia Tech. And Arizona when Rep. Giffords was shot. And Aurora, Colorado. To name only a few examples. So are we really less safe? And if we are, how and when will we change our mindset, healthcare system, legislation, culture to at the very least improve so many factors that contribute to these horrific outcomes? Nothing changed after any of the other events mentioned. Why start now?

Others are saying how events like yesterday are a test of faith. I agree, again. My faith has been tested. It’s not my faith in God. The belief I hold, admittedly theologically simple and unsophisticated, is that for every dominant force in the world, its opposite exists. For happiness, sadness. For love, hate. For courage, fear. For good, evil. The God I believe in pulls us toward the positive. Humans make choices.

And once again, yesterday, a human made the wrong choice.

So, my faith, not in God, but in people, is once again shaken.

As William Styron wrote in Sophie’s Choice “The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response. The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’ And the answer: ‘Where was man?'”

I am working today to maintain a state of trust and balance, yes, for my own sake, but also for that of my child, my most precious treasure, who looks to me for security, stability, and perseverance. I cannot teach him that there will always be more to love and enjoy in the world than to dread and despise if I don’t strive to believe that myself. I told him last night to think of the wonderful things the world, that life can offer. While I ended the conversation with him at that, my purpose in encouraging him to focus on the good is because dwelling on the negative leads to numbness, and numbness leads to complacency, and complacency enables the passive tolerance of what is instead of the active consideration of what could be.

Actions ultimately matter more than thoughts. But actions start with thoughts. Right at this moment, to cope, I am directing my own thoughts to reflect on human kindness–an event when people came together to try to help instead of hurt one another.

So I am posting today’s charity record by Band Aid, a song that affected people of my generation directly by helping us, even briefly, to consider the “world outside your window.” Scoffers and cynics will argue how money from “Do They Know It’s Christmas” never got to the poor, that funds may have been misused, that Bob Geldof and others were just seeking publicity. Maybe. But good also came of this song and continues to be somewhat derived from it. Just this week, musicians gathered together in a charity concert to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Band Aid certainly was not the first time that rock stars used their status to call attention to a cause. Nevertheless, since Band Aid, music as a source of activism, intervention, and assistance to those in trouble has been largely ongoing. And helpful to many people.

My blog isn’t remotely changing the world. In fact, few people take notice of it, and I have no illusions that it will be remembered for long by those interested in it after this holiday. But I hold a desire to never fully give in to despair. To never give up on the idea that the world can be better. That people can do things that will have long-term beneficial ramifications.

The one holiday song that best exemplifies these ideas, for me, is “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

“Last Christmas” by Wham

December 14, 2012

I have been feeling a little down in the dumps the past few days. Part of it is panic over my complete lack of progress with  purchasing holiday gifts. Part of it is how quickly yet another holiday season is advancing. Part of it is confronting the passing of another year and allowing my mind to wander to those aspects  of my life in which I feel blocked, unappreciated, and discouraged.

I didn’t want the gloomy mood to fester, so I tried to pick a song that would elevate my spirits. My tune  for today absolutely does, though it shouldn’t. It’s a breakup song. It’s a song about being done wrong, deceived, and heartbroken.

But love of and for songs is complicated. Sometimes, I cling to the lyrics, swearing that whoever wrote them either somehow has lived my life in step with me or should at least be my best friend. Sometimes it’s the music behind the words that takes hold–haven’t we all had those beats and arrangements that, try as we might, we can’t get out of our heads? Sometimes, it’s the combined words and instrumentation, and the artists who manage often enough to consistently capture us with both become our favorites.

Then there are songs I treasure because, when I hear them, regardless of the year on the calendar and candles on my most recent birthday cake, I am instantly once again the age I was when I first heard them. I don’t mean that I become nostalgic or simply let my mind drift to the past. I mean that I actually feel the exact way I did at that age. In the case of Wham’s “Last Christmas,” this is 13. And as George sings, the bells chime, and the synthesizers synth (or whatever they do), I am consumed by the same adolescent drama, angst, exuberance, and goofiness that dominated my life and personality then. (And if I’m being honest, somewhat still do.)

This is another one of those holiday songs that I really don’t want to hear anyone else sing. Interestingly, most of the songs I feel that way about are modern songs. I wonder if my distaste for remakes in these instances has more to do with my emotional investments in the original versions than with superior executions?

In any event, I have time today at my disposal. So I am going to listen a few times to George pine for his lost love from last Christmas. And feel better.

And then get some things accomplished!

“Silver Bells” by Anne Murray

December 13, 2012

Today, my alarm went off, and the first thing I heard was the radio announcer reporting that Philadelphia was ranked the nation’s third dirtiest city. And it just made me sad. Another list focused on negativity. Another bad mark against my hometown’s name.

It was an ironic literal wake-up call that once again caused me to doubt myself. Just yesterday, I was thinking how special and spectacular it is to be from, work in, and live near a large city, particularly at the holidays. So many decorations in windows. Special events continually at one’s disposal. The constant hustle and rush of people.

I had met my stepdaughter for lunch. She is living at college nearby, taking the subway back and forth to school, starting to branch out and learn the city. I admit to enjoying being her gazetteer–explaining how to get around, the location of different landmarks, what to do if you go the wrong way. If you are from the city, navigating is something you simply learn by osmosis. Teaching it to someone else is a little harder, but I welcome the challenge.

We had a lovely time. She has wrapped up another semester of school, and we talked about the summer and the next few years to come. Being with her at this time in her life makes me feel happy and vicariously eager, and I admit to wanting to hang around her and absorb her projected positive energy. At 20, she radiates health, youth, and beauty. I look at her and wonder how the time from when I myself was 20 vanished so quickly.

When we were done, I walked her back to the subway station and then treked back to my office, about a mile away. It was well past lunch time, but the city was more alive than usual. Crowds were streaming from stores. People had their arms filled with packages. Outside of almost every restaurant, patrons saying farewell to one another were embracing, wishing each other happy holidays, and vowing to “do this more often” in the new year. And the song that popped into my mind as I moved in the midst of this was “Silver Bells.”

I chose Anne Murray’s rendition of today’s song, because her voice instantly brings me back to the late 1970s/early 1980s, when I was growing up in South Philly. There my character and experience were molded by and shaped within an urban environment that, just like any other place, had negatives and positives. For good and for bad, it helped make me who I am.

I didn’t hear any silver bells yesterday. No Santa stood on a street corner collecting for the Salvation Army. And yes, there was also a ton of traffic, drivers honking and getting impatient, pollution, litter, and all the other things that can make a city challenging and difficult to tolerate.

But it’s what I know and love. And it’s exciting to watch my children, one of whom is almost an adult like me, coming to know and love it, too.

“Remember (Christmas)” by Nilsson

December 12, 2012

Today is 12-12-12, the last in a sequence of triple-number years that began with the fateful 2001, and the likes of which I will not see again in my lifetime. When I think back to 1-1-1, so much has changed, obviously for the world overall, but also in my life.

I was, at that time, a newlywed. I did not own a home. I still had a living grandparent, and was in many ways barely recovered from the death of another. I had yet to turn 30, let alone 40. My stepdaughter was only slightly older than my son is now; my son and niece and friends of many children and relatives had yet to enter the world. I was still close with people whom, through time and circumstance, I have become distant and, in at least one case, sadly estranged. I had yet to meet others who would become pivotal players.

And I was very much me but still becoming me, having yet to experience some of my own best and worst times, all within a little more than a decade.

“Long ago, far away

Life was clear

Close your eyes”

I first heard today’s song in the movie You’ve Got Mail. It plays behind a scene in which the female protagonist, Kathleen (Meg Ryan), is decorating her Christmas tree. Kathleen is just going through the motions, trying to keep up joyful appearances and a festive atmosphere, even though her heart is not in it. Her beloved children’s bookstore, inherited from her deceased mother, is being driven out of business. She’s in an unfulfilling relationship. Kathleen is at one of those points we’ve all experienced, a phase that I myself went through slowly over several years during this 12-year cycle—a time when you know things are changing, that they have to change, and you can do nothing to stop it.

You don’t know if things will improve or get worse. All you can do is understand that they will be different and hope for the best.

At such times, like Kathleen, our default is to look to the past and wish we could just return to easier, more certain circumstances. When people we loved and depended on were still there and available to us. When less was demanded or expected. When we understood our role and place and felt secure and stable.

“Remember is a place from long ago

Remember, filled with everything you know

Remember when you’re sad and feeling down

Remember—turn around”

Even a soul as troubled as the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge, upon first returning to the past against his will, is initially moved and filled with delight—to see the town of his youth, his old schoolhouse, friends from yesteryear, his own boyhood self.  In fact, in the written A Christmas Carol, at least as much of his return to the past is as happy as it is sad–he remembers a joyous incident with his sister and an exceptionally festive time with his former employer and coworkers.

The sadness Scrooge experiences in the novella heavily involves his broken relationship with Belle and a scene that usually is not included in adaptations of the story. In that oft-neglected scene, Belle now has several children and a grown daughter who greatly resembles Belle in her youth. Scrooge watches the family boisterously enjoying one another and celebrating Christmas the same year that he buried Jacob Marley. Belle laughs dismissively when her husband mentions having seen Scrooge earlier that morning, “quite alone in the world.” This is the last vision that the Ghost of Christmas Past shows the distraught Scrooge, emphasizing “These were shadows of the things that have been . . . That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

But Scrooge isn’t simply mourning what has been. Or even what is. What tortures him most is what might have been.

“Remember life is just a memory

Remember, close your eyes and you can see

Remember, think of all that life can be

Remember”

It’s so tempting to say that if I could go back in time, I would do certain things differently. Over the past several years, after a series of challenging events, I’ve had many moments when I’ve second-guessed decisions, longed for another chance to appreciate friends and loved ones with whom I’ve either lost touch or just don’t spend enough time, and yes, wished for do-overs, to rectify wrongs and, in a few cases, mend fences. But just like how the past I remember is likely illusory, so is the idea that I’d really significantly alter my path. For everything new obtained, something treasured would have to be relinquished. The option to fix one of yesterday’s missteps could actually lead to a less pleasing and suitable life than the one I have now.

This does not mean just blindly swallowing today as it is, confusing acceptance with complacency, and taking no action to remedy or improve things that I can. But to once again combine ideas from two of my most favorite influences (Mr. E.M. Forster and my all-time most beloved television show, LOST), I cannot look at my moments of flashing back to the past, flashing forward to an undesired possible future, or flashing sideways to alternative realities as anything but finding signposts, and not arriving at destinations.

The message I take from Dickens’ story as it evolves, from You’ve Got Mail and the changes that Kathleen experiences to arrive at an ultimately happy place, and of today’s song by Nilsson is this: Use the past as a helpful refuge, but do not let it become an anchor. The past can help us understand how we got to where we are. It can bring us pleasure and happiness and a sense of reassurance when our todays are unsteady and our tomorrows filled with foreboding.

But we cannot become so frozen with anxiety, consumed with regret, or preoccupied with minor or major alterations  of our lives in progress that we squander the present and whatever future remains. To do so certainly means being continually haunted. But the specter is simply oneself.

“Dream—love is only a dream

Remember

Remember—life is never as it seems”

The last words for today, as for many of these posts, are from that masterful genius who brilliantly portrayed the human condition across all seasons of the year, and especially at Christmas, Mr. Charles Dickens:

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” by The Trans-Siberian Orchestra

December 11, 2012

Last night, around 8:45 PM, I crashed. My day had consisted of work, the commute home, a simple dinner, clean up, two rounds of “Hip-Hop Dance Party” with my son, and then collapsing on the couch.

The aforementioned child, meanwhile, was still going strong. He had played a total of nine rounds of the same game and was still spinning and doing his own personal version of breakdancing. When he got bored with that, he swooped into the next room to play Nerf basketball. This was after a full day of school, an hour of running around at aftercare, homework, studying, and various other activities.

Eight years old. 9:00 PM. Raring to go. His parents told him it was time for bed, and he dragged us upstairs and put us to sleep.

Two years ago, the whirling dervish who is my child became enamored with today’s song. Part of his affection for this piece is related to the initial reactions of his parents to it. The first time we all heard it, it was playing loudly on the radio at the end of Thanksgiving. I looked at my husband with weary eyes and said, “This is not relaxing holiday music.”

“I know,” he answered. “This sounds like something that should be playing while you’re dodging sniper fire.”

Immediately our son burst out laughing. This led to all of us posing increasingly outlandish scenarios set to the background of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo”—dogs leaping over piles of rubble, babies parachuting from planes, old men catching one another as they jumped from burning buildings.

And the song was, begrudgingly by some and lovingly by one, adopted as a holiday family favorite.

Last week, my husband called me while I was at work. It was around 4:00 PM. I asked how his day was and how our son was doing. “He’s on the couch taking a nap,” was the response. “He said he had a headache.” I immediately knew I would be home from work the next day to take care of him, because he was getting sick. The only time the tempo slows, the volume lowers, the energy dwindles is when my son is not feeling well. Mercifully, those times are rare.

This song captures something internal about my little guy and his character since he was born—filled with manic energy, experiencing life with intensity, interpreting his world in a unique and imaginative way. At times he overwhelms me, like last night, when all I wanted was to rest quietly and all he wanted was for me to set up his LEGO Website account, help him write notes to MistleJoe the Elf, watch the new dance he created to “Sexy and I Know It,” and quiz him for his upcoming Social Studies test. All within 15 minutes.

But while he was sleeping on the couch last week, not himself, all I could think was how wrong things were. Even if my internal holiday radio is generally set to Johnny Mathis or Annie Lennox, I’ve gotten used to our external Christmas life being set to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

And I really wouldn’t want it any other way.

“This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway

December 10, 2012

Dear Santa Claus:

This letter is a request to help make my Christmas very special.

I listen to the radio, both traditional and satellite, a lot during the holidays. I know that I have the option of turning to my own music collection, and I sometimes do, but I have always enjoyed the random nature of radio–the anticipation of wondering what the next tune will be and the hope that I’ll hear one of my favorites when I need it most. I know I can always play a great song 100 times in a row if I want to, and sure, I enjoy that. But there still is nothing like listening to the radio and hearing that same song pop on after waiting patiently through seemingly endless commercials and jingles, smiling silently as I know that timing and fate conspired to ensure that my ears were in the right place at the right time.

For fans of the holiday music genre, this time of year requires a certain tolerance of repetition. There are only so many holiday songs, and most stations rely on a small selection of well-known favorites. Stations try to minimize the repetition by trotting out the same songs, but spicing things up by including different versions by assorted artists. I don’t mind this–in fact, in several cases, I welcome it. Even with some of my most preferred songs, by some of my most beloved artists, I am happy to hear alternative interpretations. The best example of this would involve “Wonderful Christmastime.” I really always want to hear My Sir Paul alone sing it. But I can grant that The Shins just released a decent, listenable cover, and about five years ago, Jars of Clay did an awesome version for which I give them eternal props.

But some songs really should be played only in one version. And for me that’s true of “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway.

Why would I want to look at a fifth-grader’s attempt to mimic Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh? Why would I watch Gus Van Sant’s lame attempt at Psycho with Vince Vaughn when Alfred Hitchcock got it perfect the first time with Anthony Perkins? And why would I ever, ever want to hear anyone else sing this song, rendered in perfect voice by the original artist, at the right tempo, with an awesome band behind him?

Could you consider working a little Christmas magic over the radio stations and, when it’s time for this song to be in rotation, for them to play it only in Donny’s incarnation? Even the late Amy Winehouse knew there was nothing anyone could teach that she couldn’t learn from Mr. Hathaway.

As I said earlier, I know that when it comes to Christmas music there’s not a ton of variety with which to work. So if we can’t strike a deal to limit “This Christmas” to my preferred version only, can I at least ask to somehow be spared the following:

  • Chris Brown’s version, because I don’t want to think of him luring any young woman to spend a very special Christmas with him
  • Christina (or should I say Xtina) Aguilera’s version, because she sounds like she’s having indigestion, Tourette’s syndrome, a stroke, or maybe all three through most of it, and I can’t take it
  • Above all, Gloria Estefan’s misguided and headache-inducing version, which includes cheesy, dated synthesizers, a cutesy children’s choir (never, in my opinion, the right backup group for a sexy, romantic number in which the lead singer pleads to “hang all the mistletoe, I want to get to know you better”), and strained vocals way outside her narrow and limited range

I’ve been really good this year. You already knew this, being Santa and all.

Merry Christmas. XO. Shake a hand, shake a hand now.

Sincerely,

A Lifelong Fan and True Believer

“Walking in the Air” by Peter Auty

December 9, 2012

I discovered today’s song only a few years ago, hearing a school chorus rendition of it on the radio. It is from the 1982 short film The Snowman, which tells the tale of a young boy whose eponymous creation comes alive for a day. The Snowman learns about the boy’s world, the boy learns about The Snowman’s world. At the end, the snow melts, as does the viewer’s heart. This animated film, based on the book of the same name, is entirely wordless, except for an interlude where the boy and The Snowman fly from the child’s village to the North Pole, a sequence set to the beautiful and haunting “Walking in the Air.”

With age and time, we lose many things, and part of successful maturity is learning to accept those losses with grace. I frequently dwell on aspects of my appearance that certainly are not improving as the years pass, because I must immediately confront them every time I look in the mirror–the extra pounds, the gray hairs, the deepening lines in my forehead and around my eyes. Even when I am not thinking about how I look, my body reminds me that I am not quite as young as I default to thinking myself to be. My perfect eyesight has been troubling me the last few weeks. Muscles ache for two days after a weekend of housework and holiday decorating. A skinned and bruised knee still hurts after a silly fall almost a month ago.

“Be young at heart.” “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Age is just a number.” These phrases are easy to speak, and, like most oft-repeated sayings, hold grains of truth. No matter how much we do to preserve our physical youth, it will disappear, and this lies beyond our control. But internally, can we cling to the child within? Can we keep a spirit of imagination and curiosity alive inside? Why is it so difficult to do?

Like most children, I had an overactive imagination. I didn’t watch favorite televisions shows—I was part of those shows as they aired. In my mind, I was Fonzie’s sister, Barbarino’s girlfriend, the third host of The Magic Garden. When my friends and I played, we made up crazy, elaborate stories, both for ourselves and our dolls, for which the plots seemed entirely plausible. No effort was required on my part to believe in Santa’ s North Pole as a real place—in fact, I think it was harder for me to accept the opposite. Even in my teen years, though my preoccupations began to shift to more practical and tangible issues, I still would dream of what my life would be like in years to come and never run out of options—where I would live, whom I would marry, if I would marry, what I would be when I grew up . . .

The practical, nagging details of life—those broken relationships, failed projects, sad farewells to loved ones, dashed expectations, not to mention the tedious, endless repetition of chores and tasks that accompany adulthood—they amalgamate every day, threatening to overtake and eventually completely replace wonder and hope.

My army to fight the emotional, psychological, and spiritual battle against Father Time is better equipped and more strongly fortified than the physical one. It has been reinforced through years of reading, contemplation, discussion, exposure to film, art, and music. It has been supported by sympathetic family, loved ones, and friends of similar inclinations, some of whom are further along in their own fights, others who have yet to engage, and still others directly alongside me, digging their own trenches.

When I see a Pixar film, or watch Downton Abbey, or walk through downtown Haddonfield, or make a visit to the Byer’s Choice shop, or put up lights and decorations, or sit on a couch eating Halloween candy and listening to Pandora, or look through magazines and catalogs for updates to my wardrobe or my home, or send silly and ridiculous messages to parents, friends, or my husband, or sit down to write blog posts, or listen to “Walking in the Air,” I use as much as I can of whatever remains of my childhood imagination, my creative spirit, my heart filled with eager expectation.

When I hear this song, I actually feel like I am floating in a marvelous winter wonderland—a cold, silver sky; the earth engulfed in blue and white; wind and chill whipping around me as the world I know is transformed into a magical, even if ephemeral, place.

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!” Charles Dickens

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon

December 8, 2012

For those who have been following my project, today is a “Little Saint Nick” in reverse. Two days ago, I posted a song by a band for whom I don’t much care, because the tune was the one I liked best related to a direct Christmas-associated theme of the day.

Now, it’s the opposite situation. Today my writing is not really much about the holidays. And though the artist in question is in my highest musical esteem, I don’t enjoy the song itself. I’ve never cared for it. I’ve tried. I swear I have. It has a reflective message. It promotes peace. It incorporates a sweet children’s choir.

Despite my efforts, when I hear this song, I want to switch the dial. I realize that many would consider this heresy, and I myself feel like I am being disloyal just in admitting it. My devotion to the Four Who Were Fab, the Lads from Liverpool, the Boys of Britain is known even among those who barely know me.

Sometimes, the musical chemistry is just off, and that is the situation with me and “Happy Xmas.”

However.

When I had to choose the holiday song selection of December 8, no other tune was ever in the running.

Because today is the day, 32 years ago, that John Lennon died, age 40 years, 1 month, and 29 days. An age that I, for the first holiday season, am now past.

I don’t want the holidays to take a morbid turn, so I won’t dwell on the events of that day. Over this summer, as my own 40th birthday approached and arrived, I thought a lot about John Lennon–about his music and how songs of his, both with and without The Beatles, had influenced and even come to symbolize, for me, various episodes from my life. More frequently, I confronted the reality of the shortness of the time he was given. I became overwhelmed whenever I considered his creative output, produced within an undoubtedly compressed span, left behind for the world forever. And I became angry whenever I pondered the unfairness of his murder–not for his fans, or his friends, or even his family. Just for him.

Because 40 years isn’t enough for anyone, no matter how much or how little he or she has accomplished.

John would have turned 72 in October. He should have been 72 today.

The music of The Beatles has been so influential to so many. Even a song I don’t especially like by one of them still means more to me than most songs by everyone else.

So today’s song is John’s.

 “War is over. If you want it.”

Who am I to disagree?

“Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” by David Bowie and Bing Crosby

December 7, 2012

“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?”