Blue Xmas

Coming to terms with musical memories

I'm an unusual case study when it comes to Christmas, or most any holiday, for that matter.

I was raised in an odd religion (the name of which I'll omit, to save me and the religion the shame of the association) that doesn't celebrate holidays, even birthdays. So my childhood Christmas memories are simple -- it was a good day to go skiing on Mount Alyeska in Alaska, where my parents had a cabin, because the rest of the world was at home with their families celebrating. We certainly weren't rocking any Yuletide tunes on our Walkmen as we were schussing down the slopes, either.

Once I became an adult -- wait, I mean, once I turned 18 (the "becoming an adult" thing still hasn't been accomplished) -- Xmas was simply a pleasant diversion, a time to hang out with friends and often their families, eat well, and try to ignore the Mannheim Steamroller pap coming over their stereos at that time of year.

Things changed in early 2002 when I got into a serious relationship with a single mom with a 3-year-old girl. We got engaged, and as December of 2002 approached, I dove into the time-honored role of Christmas handyman, staple-gunning icicle lights around the eaves of the house and hanging stockings on the entertainment center (no fireplace at our pad), at the same time asking Lexi (the 3-year-old) what she wanted for Christmas.

A few months before Christmas, I'd downloaded the new Internet-only Christmas album by my favorite band, Bright Eyes, fittingly titled A Christmas Album. Being at heart a depressive emo type (at least as far as music goes), I was immediately drawn to "Blue Christmas," the Elvis cover (which also appears on the comp Maybe This Christmas). Little did I know how prophetic the song would be.

The end of 2002 already wasn't going too well for me. I was unhappily anticipating the beginning of a stay in Sheriff Joe's county campground in early January for driving drunk nearly a year previously. But before Xmas rolled around, things would get infinitely worse.

After a tumultuous few months in our relationship, full of deception and mistrust on both sides, the fiancée became an ex-fiancée, and left town with Lexi. This was mere days before Christmas. I sent her away with a burnt CD that contained only Bright Eyes' "Blue Christmas," and I was sullenly listening to the song myself far more than is healthy.

Alone in an empty house (except for my dog Tucker, who saved my sanity), I was feeling goddamned sorry for myself, and drinking like Tara Reid. Luckily, I had a great, empathetic group of friends to drown my sorrows around, though some of them had habits that made them ill-advised grief counselors.

Of course, that didn't occur to me at the time.

On Christmas Day, I was in a bar with some of my more dangerous acquaintances, one of whom had a dropper-vial filled with a dark brown substance that he was passing around the table so anyone could snort the vile liquid -- black tar heroin dissolved in purified water.

I'm an idiot (more so then than now), and was full of self-loathing, and so, in a fit of self-abuse, I took a snort. Everything spun into a dizzy euphoria, and my separation sorrows and impending jail time were forgotten for a few brief hours. The next day, when I groggily woke, half-wondering what I'd done the night before, I found I couldn't move without vomiting. This continued for two days.

I'd done myself no favors -- a blue Christmas, indeed. Once the nausea and resultant cramps stopped their assault, I drank myself into oblivion for the remaining days before my incarceration began. After that, my sobriety was enforced for quite some time, and the heroin experience soon became a distant, bad memory.


Now, two years later, I figure I ought to give Christmas music a chance to disassociate itself from my smacked-down memories. I started listening to Bright Eyes' A Christmas Album again. The collection has an incredible, fuzzed-out version of "The Little Drummer Boy" with a schizophrenic snare drum making breakbeats in the background. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is a treat also, a rollicking version of the classic that ought to be the standard played in parlors across the world. The rendition of "White Christmas," with Azure Ray's Maria Taylor singing, should be in the pantheon of classics as well.

This being a much more festive holiday season for me, I branched out into some of the new Xmas releases, like The Soulful Sounds of Christmas, which has the unassailable "Christmas in Hollis" by Run-D.M.C. on it. The rest of the record wasn't up my alley, with tracks by Babyface, En Vogue, Usher, and TLC, amongst others.

Some stinkers came in the mail from hopeful publicists as well, like the Brian Setzer Orchestra's Boogie Woogie Christmas. Isn't that cat dead yet? I know his hair style died years ago. Same goes for Windham Hill's I'll Be Home for Christmas -- Jesus, people, do you really listen to this?

On Christmas Gumbo, which was the funkiest Xmas CD I got from the USPS this year, I found one gem, "Pimp My Sleigh," by Houseman, that's the funniest shit I've heard in a month of Christmases. "Gonna pimp my sleigh, with big chrome red, fins on the tail . . ."

But by far the best, and the most up my alley musically, was Maybe This Christmas Tree, which features faves like Pedro the Lion and Death Cab for Cutie. I was pleasantly surprised by "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" by the Polyphonic Spree, a band I detest with every cubic centimeter of my black heart. The Raveonettes' "The Christmas Song" is a sultry soft rocker that almost makes me wish I was sharing the holiday with someone more special than my dog Tucker (but not quite). For most of my ilk, the winner on the CD is Death Cab's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," where Ben Gibbard's voice seems destined to croon loungey ballads.

This year I think I've overcome my aversion to Christmas music; shit, just the other night in my living room, some friends and I had a dance party (no heroin this time) to the sounds of Maybe This Christmas Tree. You oughta try it. Happy holidays.

E-mail brendan.kelley@newtimes.com

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