Friday, November 28, 2014

Is There Really a Santa Claus? Part 1

I make it a strict policy to stay close to home and hearth on the day after Thanksgiving. You won't catch me within five miles of a “Black Friday” event — especially since this madness now seems to go on for a week or more each year. Moreover, there's a special reason to think twice about dashing from mall to mall today. A group of concerned citizens is urging people to boycott Black Friday as a way of protesting the failure on Monday of a Missouri grand jury to indict the police officer who shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown last August. I can't speak to the correctness of that decision as I wasn't on the grand jury and am unfamiliar with the evidence that was presented. But this holiday season will be a lot less jolly in far too many homes as the result of racism and race-based hatred and violence, and I'm ready to back nearly any non-violent means of calling attention to this scourge and demanding equal justice regardless of race. I trust all good people are in agreement on this one, so let's make that fact clear. Thanks for listening. Back now to our regular program, already in progress.

I’ll be using this blog once again this year to share some personal thoughts and background about each of the various tracks on my latest holiday CD. As in previous years, I'm hoping to look at two or three tracks at a time, starting today with the first three tracks and continuing to the last one sometime just before Christmas. I’ll probably post on other topics from time to time throughout the period, and I don’t plan to post every day, but by the time Santa arrives we should have shared a little something about all 39 tracks. I’ll cover the tracks in reverse order within each post so that the final list will appear in true reverse order.

With all that out of the way, what do you say we get started?

Track 3
Holiday Greetings, by Smokey Robinson (2009)
This was Alonso's crackerjack kitchen crew, with Smith 
in front, and me in back wearing the red T-shirt.
I went to college in Baltimore many years ago, and to help cover expenses I worked as a cook several nights a week at a popular neighborhood restaurant called Alonso’s in Roland Park. It wasn't fancy, but they served great food at reasonable prices, so we did a brisk business. It wasn't always easy juggling classes and work, but I was glad for the opportunity to leave campus life behind to spend time with local people, and the free meals helped, too. The kitchen was run by a crusty middle-aged black woman who was known to everyone simply as “Smith.” Raised in the Deep South, Smith was a straight-laced tyrant who ran a tight ship and brooked no nonsense from anyone. She specialized in the sort of home-style fare I’ve always enjoyed, and her soft-shell crabs and crab cakes helped put Alonso’s on the map. What I remember best about Smith, however, was that she was absolutely crazy in love with Smokey Robinson. Whenever one of his songs came on the radio, she’d not only whoop and swoon, but literally start to shake like a parishioner who’d caught the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure, but I think she was occasionally even talking in tongues. It’s been years since I’ve seen her, of course, but whenever someone mentions Smokey Robinson or I hear one of his songs, I instantly think of Smith. I miss those days, and I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.

Track 2
Rock Around the Christmas Tree, by Daniel Johnston (2006)
Daniel Johnston
My taste in music isn't easily categorized, and I've always had a thing for the offbeat and esoteric — much of which would today be called "outsider music." Definitions of this style vary, but "outsider music" is generally said to include material written and performed by artists from outside the established music industry whose work ignores typical conventions either due to the artist's lack of formal training or as an intentional comment on mainstream sensibilities. I've included offbeat music on previous holiday mixes by such outsider artists as Johnny "Bowtie" BarstowWing and Wesley Willisand I've usually done so for comedic effect. In some cases, I've seen nothing wrong with that. In Bowtie's case, for example, I'm pretty sure he works with his tongue in cheek — that is, he deliberately flouts accepted musical norms to be funny. I'd say Wing falls in that same category, as her own website compares her style to William Hung, '60s star Mrs. Miller, and Florence Foster Jenkins, three unconventional artists universally regarded as having little or no musical talent. In certain other cases, however, I'm more conflicted. Consider the late Wesley Willis, for example — and Daniel Johnston. Both of these two men were clearly blessed with a certain amount of innate musical talent. Sadly, however, they both also suffer from mental illness — in Johnston's case, reportedly, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I'm not a clinician, but it seems evident to me that Johnston's music is colored by the effects of these disorders, which makes it difficult to know whether enjoying his songs for their offbeat style isn't in fact making a cruel joke of his disability. I've been following Johnston's career for years, ever since I first came across his song "Christmas in the Loony Bin." I was attracted at first by the title, which sounded sufficiently bizarre to fit in really well on one of my mixes. After listening to the song, however, I knew I couldn't use it. It wasn't funny in the least to me. Indeed, it was sung in a gut-wrenchingly honest voice that obviously understood the tragedy of spending one's holidays in a psychiatric ward, while at the same time falling sway to the redemptive power of the season and the promise of a better day. 

I've learned a good bit more about Johnston and his music since that initial listen, and I've developed a more balanced view of his work in the process. Raised in a fundamentalist West Virginia household, Johnston displayed a natural talent for music and art from a young age. He was something a loner as a child, and he spent long hours alone drawing, playing piano and writing music. After graduating high school, he enrolled in a Texas Christian college, but dropped out before the end of the first semester. From there he moved to Ohio where he started closses in music and art at Kent State University and began making homemade cassette recordings of his songs and music. In the early 1980s, Johnston moved to Austin, Texas, where he got a job at McDonald's and became known for distributing his homemade cassettes. In time, he attracted the attention of the local media and built a significant fan base by playing shows in local bars and clubs. In 1985 he was featured on the MTV program The Cutting Edge, and soon afterward arrangements were made for him to record a professionally engineered album in New York City. Unfortunately, this coincided with a worsening of his mental illness, and in 1990, he was committed to a mental hospital following an episode in a private plane his father was piloting. Apparently believing he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, Johnston removed the keys from the plane's ignition and threw them out the window. His father managed to successfully crash land the plane, but the incident sidelined Johnston's musical career just as it was beginning to take off.

Johnston was eventually released from the hospital, and he's continued to write, perform and release CDs over the past two decades. "Rock Around the Christmas Tree" appears on his 2006 CD "Lost and Found," and while it's a little rough around the edges, I thought it would get this year's mix off to a boisterous and rowdy start. Johnston is a big fan of the Beatles and he loves rock and roll, so it's neat to hear him performing material like this. He's probably better known, however, for his slower, more introspective songs, which are striking for their honesty and lack of artifice. These qualities are evident in the Tiny Desk Concert performance Johnston did for NPR a couple of years ago, so while it doesn't have anything to do with Christmas exactly, I thought I'd add it as an introduction to his material:

Visit Daniel Johnston's Website, "Hi, How Are You?"

Watch the Documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" for free on Cackle

Watch Daniel Johnston at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2014

Listen to Daniel Johnston Sing "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer"

Shop for Holiday Cards Designed by Daniel Johnston

Track 1
A Recorded Message, by Daniel Johnston (1988)

This short track appears on Johnston's album Merry Christmas, which was recorded during a period when his mental health was beginning to show signs of increasing instability. Despite the title, and the fact that it was released in December 1988, most of the material on the album has little or nothing to do with Christmas. I've always found this track fascinating for its endearing self-assurance ("Perhaps you can comfort one another about my absence by consoling each other about it and talking about how much you miss me.") and professed concern for its unnamed intended recipient(s). It certainly seems sincere, and what's wrong with starting things off with words like this:
And so I say unto you, Merry Christmas and a Happy, Happy New Year!
Incidentally, the incredibly talented Bomarr worked up a very special version of this track several years ago with a perfectly groovy musical backdrop featuring the one and only Johnny Largo on the Optigan. You can enjoy it HERE just as if it were 1973 all over again.

Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Johnston altogether, here's a short film he apparently made with some friends approximately 30 or more years ago. I like its message, too:

Back soon with information about Basil Marceaux, the former Tennessee gubernatorial candidate who really likes Christmas a lot but hates gold-fringed flags.

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