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.
Non-Christmas Christmas music
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.
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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."
Rick Mitchell, author, teacher and former Houston Chronicle music critic: "My in-laws have a small lodge on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, where the extended family meets most Christmases. When the skiers return from a full day on the slopes to sit around the fireplace, compare aches and pains and sip adult beverages, the artist of choice is, inevitably, Frank Sinatra.
"Sometimes somebody will slip on a little Sammy or Dino, but Frank rules the roost. Albums by other artists, other than Christmas music, don't seem to stay long on the boombox.
"I don't really know why this is, other than that it is now a family tradition, and we all want to please my mother-in-law, whose musical taste is pretty spotty once you get past Frank. My late father-in-law's favorite song was 'New York, New York.' He liked it so much it was played at his funeral.
"The Sinatra/Tahoe connection may also have something to do with Frank's spiritual home at the Cal-Neva, a North Shore hotel/casino not far from the family crib where the Rat Pack used to run wild back in the day. It sits on the California/Nevada border, hence the name. Out back is the private guest lodge where Frank supposedly hooked a brother named Jack up with Marilyn Monroe.
"My wife was raised on this music. She sometimes puts on a Frank album in April, or August. I rarely do. Frank is my main man for Christmas, and only Christmas. I grew up a rocker who got into blues, jazz and world music. It wasn't until I reached adulthood that I learned to look past Frank's personality and politics to appreciate his true artistry. (Although back when I was in college, I knew a girl who claimed to have snorted cocaine on an elevator with Frank. Later, I knew some jazz musicians in Portland, Oregon, who routinely referred to cocaine as 'frank,' as in 'Frank Sinostril.' Get it? Never mind.)
"Anyway, we now have quite a collection of Frank on vinyl and CD, some of which we take with us to Tahoe every year. I know this is not supposed to be about Christmas music, but I have to mention my favorite Sinatra Christmas recording. It is actually not by Frank himself, but by an imitator named Bob Francis, who billed himself as 'the poor man's Frank Sinatra Jr.' The song is called 'That Swingin' Manger,' and it appears on the album Blame It On Christmas!, which came out on some small label in 1995. The lyrics imagine 'that little cat Jesus asleep in the haaayyyyyy!' "
It's Christmas Eve and there's nothing to do. Wrong! Incomparable New Orleans exiles the New Birth Brass Band are doing a Christmas-themed show over at Dan Electro's and, and, and well, that's about all I can find. But that's all you need -- if you love funky beats or hot brass and you haven't seen them yet, you are a foo'. Meanwhile, on the big day, after you've torn open all your presents, gorged yourself on ham, turkey, lamb or turducken, knocked back a few flutes of champagne (or Styrofoam cups of vodka and Red Bull) and wept over all those sickly-sweet TV specials, what's to do? Go check out a local band. Many of the city's top draws are playing Christmas Day shows. 30footFALL will be tearing up Fitz's again for the first time in quite a while (Hell City Kings, Last Few Days, Bowel and Slippin' Mickeys bring the raunch downstairs); Tody Castillo and the Scattered Pages are putting on a top-notch double bill at Rudz; the Fatal Flying Guilloteens will be slicing through the Proletariat; and the Handsomes will be packing the Continental will their usual full complement of hotties. Satin Hooks are playing one of them-there hip warehouse-type shows at Benner Studios (2324 Commerce); and Super Happy Fun Land's Ho Ho Holly Day party features CJ Boyd, A Fluff Christmas, the Gomez X-Spearmint, the High Elves Christmas and the Krinkles, not to mention a midnight screening of Slump's feature film debut, Wizard of Oz, which stars "37 local jackasses."
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