Yule Fuel

A discussion of non-Christmas Christmas music

For several consecutive Christmases when I was a kid, my aunt Libby (who is only seven years older than I am) and I had an odd musical tradition. My grandparents and aunts (and some of their children) were all then living in an old three-story house just off Bissonnet near the art museums, and every Christmas it would pack to the rafters with still more relatives. Add in multiple mutts, a cat or two and the occasional lodger that all lived there year-round, and you had quite a few chaotic scenes.

To escape from it all, Libby and I would sneak down to the living room in the middle of the night. We'd fuel up on iced instant coffee and plug in the family Christmas tree and watch the lights flicker and dance off all the presents, and we would also decorate our own pitiful little Charlie Brown Christmas tree -- a bundle of sticks my grandmother had put in a vase for some reason. And then we'd take big "strike anywhere" kitchen matches and light all the candles on the tiled hearth in front of the faux-log gas fire and play with the wax -- building sculptures out of drippings and coating our fingertips while we talked deep into the night (sometimes until dawn) about everything and nothing.

And we would always do it all to the strains of The Beatles, the record that is better known as the White Album. Nothing else would ever do.

Over time, the White Album came to be Christmas music to me. Even today there are sections of it that are as much a part of the season as A Christmas Story, eggnog and the crisp fragrance of pine needles: the roar of the jet engines at the end of "Back in the U.S.S.R." giving way to the plaintive acoustic guitar strumming of "Dear Prudence"; the story-songs "Bungalow Bill" and "Rocky Raccoon"; the chirpy ditties like "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" and "Martha My Dear" and the hymnlike songs such as "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Cry Baby Cry," "Blackbird," "I Will" and "Julia." (Since it was usually the wee hours when we'd play it, "I'm So Tired" and "Good Night" were always well received.) Today even the total LSD meltdowns like "Revolution #9," "Yer Blues" and "Helter Skelter" are officially Christmas carols to me.

Man, listening to it again, it strikes me that Libby and I talked about that album almost as much as the Manson Family. Was Paul really dead? (John seemed to say so in "Glass Onion.") Why did John and his monkey have nothing to hide? Why did John have blisters on his fingers, or was that Paul? Are you sure it was Paul who sang "Helter Skelter"? Did Rocky die at the end of that song or did he pull through? (I really believed and hoped he lived, despite the gin-reeking doctor. Libby didn't think so.) And don't even get me started on "#9": Who was standing still? Who made that woman naked? What's all this about the Watusi and the twist? And Libby would always force me to tell her which Beatle I thought was the cutest -- if I recall correctly I would always say John because we had the same name and she was a George fan. (And then there were the nasty songs like "Why Don't We Do It in the Road," which we figured out was about, well, "doing it," and "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," which we didn't.)

I got to wondering if anybody else had similarly offbeat non-Christmas Christmas tunes and stories. So I fired up a mass e-mail and sent it out to as many locals as possible to see what I could come up with, leading off with my story about the White Album. Here's a selection of the responses:

Ryan Chavez, co-proprietor, Super Unison Productions: "Here's a funny story. I'm listening to the White Album in mono as you sent me this. Brilliant!"

David Sadof, local radio legend and current host of KFNC/97.5 FM's High Fidelity program: "I like your story, especially the part about 'Revolution #9' as a holiday song. I don't have any stories like that, but the colder weather usually has me reaching for CDs by the Cowboy Junkies, Tori Amos, the Red House Painters, Emmylou Harris, Lori Carson and Kate Bush. I may even put on Lou Reed's live album, Take No Prisoners, just to hear the version of 'Walk on the Wild Side' where he becomes a stand-up comic for 20 minutes."

Mando Saenz, local country-rocker: "I remember decorating the tree in North Carolina when I was three or four listening to Freddy Fender's 'I'll Be There Before the Next Teardrop Falls' and 'Cherry Pie.' So those songs always remind me of Christmas. And Freddy reminds me of Santa Claus."

Hayes Carll, local Americana recording artist: "I don't have any full records that come to mind. But when I was about six my family went to Galveston for Dickens on the Strand. I bought a few Christmas ornaments with my allowance money. Later that night we saw Johnny Cash play on an outdoor stage. The only memory I have of the show is me dancing around in the cold to 'Ring of Fire' with my mom. Ignore the Oedipal implications of that and just say that June and Johnny's song about lust and desire reminds me of Christmas time."

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