Ostensibly a festival which gives hope to all human beings, tidings of comfort and joy, all that, it’s never been that kind of happy-clappy thing it appears on the surface.
Partly it is because the double-edged nature is built into the festival, into its myths. The best example perhaps is in three wise men who brought the gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The gift of gold appears straightforward enough: frankincense is more ambivalent and myrrh is an embalming ointment. It prefigures the crucifixion, suffering and the fact this child will be tortured to death.
The most memorable carols are often ineffably sad: ‘Silent Night’ is incredibly melancholy, and as a child, for years, I would avoid it. Partly because I associated it with an episode of ‘Lassie’ in which Lassie had gone missing and Little Timmy had to sing it in the town choir. I must have been about four when I saw that.
That double-edged nature of the festival carries into the secular songs associated with Christmas, often in bizarre ways.
One of the most popular modern Christmas songs, the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, is a duet between two people at the end of every tether they could have reached the limit of: in a drunk tank, insulting each other with foul epithets (‘you scumbag, you maggot’ ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ etc) and yet managing to be somehow uplifting at the same time.
A more bizarre one is the loved and hated Snoopy’s Christmas: a childish celebration of a mythical duel above World War One’s western front between the lovable cartoon dog Snoopy and the real-life, somewhat cold and probably psychologically disturbed Manfred von Richthofen. Who was, after all, the greatest fighter ace of the First World War, whose specialty was sneaking up behind reconnaissance machines and setting them on fire – and then, if they, as they usually did, fell on his side of the lines, scouring the wreckage for souvenirs amid the bodies.
It is a deeply weird song.
Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly wrote one of the great Christmas songs, about a bloke phoning his family home from prison at Christmas. ‘How To Make Gravy’ is a song which builds and builds, emotionally: I wrote a bit more about it here a few years back.
Christmas can be a jarring time: it is supposed to be about home, not just about physical home but also the feeling of being with someone you are meant to belong with.
The other double-edged thing about Christmas is it is poignant because you remember previous, happier Christmases with loved ones who aren’t around anymore.
Or who might be there this time but are under a cloud of some sort or other which throws into question whether they will be there next year.
That brings me to another great, non-seasonal Paul Kelly song – Deeper Water, a song following a young boy being taken swimming by his dad, to feeling out of his depth as he grows up and life’s experiences, both joyous and sorrowful, threaten to overwhelm him.
‘The clock moves around
The child is a joy
But death doesn’t care just who it destroys
The woman gets sick
Thins down to the bone
She says “where I’m going next,
I’m going alone….”‘
Like I say, it’s not a Christmas song in the least. But it cuts to the heart of the joys and sorrows of life in the same way Christmas can.
Setting the religion aside for those who want to take it literally, I think the great power of Christmas is, in fact, this double-edged nature.
It seems we humans need to mark these apparently incompatible things together, somehow: both joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, silly toy cartoon characters and disturbed real-life sociopaths, alcoholic abusive degradation and uplift and hope; and, yes, a figure who has come to give hope to all humans who is publicly humiliated and tortured to death.
It is a reminder that we are all these things and that all these things – at some metaphorical level anyway – are part of our lives.
That joy and suffering are at the core of human experience.
And that both lie at the heart of this strange thing we call love.
And as usual there is a heated discussion as to whether Morrissey is taking the piss. Personally: I think he must be.
‘Twas ever thus.
In 1984 it seemed as though, to borrow a phrase from 20 years earlier, groups of guitars were on the way out. Most of what was on the airwaves was synth-based or boppy keyboard stuff – Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wham, Madonna. Or Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.
True, there were some locally based renegades, producing some deliciously throwback-like stuff from Dunedin, but the likes of the Verlaines or the Chills had to be hunted out in the singles and EP bins of the rekkid stores.
You certainly didn’t hear ’em on the radio, and in those days – for any youngsters who have stumbled across this – you had to get your music from the radio, pretty much.
Oh, there was Radio With Pictures on the telly on Sunday nights. You got a sense of something different from that. And of course if you were fortunate enough to be living in a university town, there was student radio.
I wasn’t fortunate enough. Not at that point, anyway.
There was this band from the US with Byrd-like guitars, a silly name, and incomprehensible lyrics who had a recent, interesting song called Radio Free Europe.
‘Puunct-ured bicylce On a hillside, desolate…. Will nature make a man of me yet?’
The lyrics were…well, uncommonly lyrical for the time.
The singer was so camp he made Boy George look like Jimmy Barnes, but in the context of the time, that wasn’t unusual.
The blokier musical fan often had a problem with this about the Smiths. I know people – well, blokes – who will happily punch up the volume button for the B-52s or Queen but who find the Smiths a bit too gay.
I suspect its not so much the gay aspect, actually: its the emotional rawness of some of Morrissey’s lyrics, especially when combined with Johnny Marr’s guitar.
But then, one should not play down the obvious cause. It was, after all, hardly calculated to comfort your average, 20 year old, vaguely blokey music fan who had been hankering for a decent guitar-based band and who thought he’d found it, only to find it was accompanied by a singer prancing about the place with gladioli sticking out the top of his trou and singing about the sun shining out of his behind.
It was a bit like the Mountie chorus in Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song, when they suddenly realise what they’re singing.
But, beyond that rather obvious issue, there were others. Morrissey’s lyrics are bleakly, bluntly honest about the desolation of rejection and depression, often to the point of self-parody.
Or ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ – the long, melancholy, withdrawing roar towards the end, as Morrissey croons ‘I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives, and now it’s happening in mine….’ over Marr’s waves of rising, receding, sad guitars.
It is the sound of wandering home the morning after a lousy, unenjoyable party.
This is all conveyed even before Morrissey opens his mush to warble that great opening line
‘I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour…’.
The words fit together like well-sculpted brickwork. As Aussie singer Paul Kelly notes in his book (reviewed here, btw…) , almost every opening line of a Smiths song is a killer.
Marr’s guitars always grab the attention, signalling something deeper than the normal pop song. Combined with Morrissey’s literate, allusive, and often just plain sad lyrics, they pack a powerful emotional punch.
It can be uncomfortable to listen to.
There is a better musical analysis than I can manage here: parts of this documentary are a bit over-wrought and far too sociological for my tastes, but there’s a great piece with composer Charles Hazelwood at around 19 minutes where he talks about the way Marr used chords and and the effect they have.
Morrissey’s Autobiography caused a stir even before it was published: his demand that it be issued as a ‘Penguin Classic’ topped a career of fairly notorious primma donna-ish behaviour.
He got his way. It isn’t a classic: it is a fascinating book in bits and a real bore in other bits.
….So, okay, its a bit like a lot of ‘classics’, I suppose.
At its best, it is a work of a musical fan, and a very thoughtful one. There is a lot here if you like the New York Dolls (I don’t), there are other more obvious influences.
Here is Morrissey on Patti Smith and her ‘Horses’ album:
“singing and looking and saying absolutely everything that would be thought to go against the listener’s sympathy. But the reverse happened .. however heavy hearted and impossible you might feel about yourself, you can still bestow love through recorded song. …the fact you do not look like a pop star in-waiting should not dishearten you because your oddness could become the decisive wind of change for theirs.
There is nothing obvious about Patti Smith….the female voice in rock music had rattled with fathomless depths of insincerity,whereas Patti Smith spoke with a boy’s bluntness, and she looked for squabbles wherever she went.”
Projection? Whatever. Morrissey writes of Patti Smith as though she’d written his own, personal, artistic manifesto.
For all that, he recalls that when he and Marr decide to form a band, “I suggest to Johnny that we call ourselves The Smiths, and he agrees. Neither of us can come up with anything else.”
Going back further, there is a touch of Misery Memoir about his schooldays….later mined in the opening track of the Smiths second album.
When of the more granite faced, wounded and wounding of his teachers spies a particular piece of music on Morrissey’s desk, the wintry face splits into a hitherto unseen smile and the teacher fetches a record player so they all can listen to it.
“Music, you see, is the key.” Morrissey muses.
It is a rare snatch of warmth. Much of the Autobiography is a settling of scores: with record company staff some of the big targets “Rough Trade personnel in the early 1980s need never have feared sexual assault” Morrissey says, and he has fun with kind of self defeating mindset, overlaid with political justifications, which hung in the air.
Everything was question of personal identity and Rough Trade set out to assert autonomy whilst at the same time challenging the established order.
They did this largely by pressing records that no one wanted to buy….
Although the existing Rough Trade catalogue was known to be anti everything it was also anti listenability. It would take the Smiths to bring a level of success …and suddenly he smell of money replaced the smell of overcooked rice in the Rough Trade cloisters.”
That shows – contra the evidence of his recent novel – how well Morrissey can write. Not only is it funny, the use of ‘cloisters’ at the end of that sentence is deftly deployed.
And of course the former bandmates, with whom he had a lengthy court case in the mid ’90s, cop it in the neck, not only in the odd bitchy aside, but in several lengthy chapters. I ended up feeling sorry for them – especially as I feel the rhythm section’s contribution to the band has been underrated (again, check out the drum and bass work on ‘Cemetry Gates’).
Better, much better, is the first half of the book, where even where Morrissey is being waspish he is also being very funny, often at his own expense. In his late teens he had some keen ideas about how Coronation Street should be revamped to meet the post-punk generation, and sent in a script which ended with Ena Sharples snorting ‘Do I really look like a fan of X Ray Spex?’
The link up with Marr is described in still-baffled but appreciative terms: the two might be, in the title of a biography of the two by writer Johnny Rogan, ‘a severed alliance’ but Morrissey is uncharacteristically generous about his former partner.
He reflects on Marr’s obvious, huge talent and asks why Marr has teamed up with him and not ‘with others less scarred….It seemed to me that Johnny had enough spark and determination to push his way in amongst Manchester headhunters – yet here he was, with someone whose natural bearing discouraged openness.’
That shows an honesty, a self awareness and a generosity of spirit not always on display.
“That’s the great thing about Christmas. I comes around very year so you get another shot,’ Paul Kelly writes in his recent autobiography.
Kelly wrote what to me is one of the great Christmas songs…one of the great lump-in-the-throat songs about anything, in fact.
I’ve seen him stop a hall dead with a live performance of ‘How to Make Gravy’. It’s a real wrencher of a number.
Kelly’s recent autobiography tells the tale of how he was invited to take part in a Christmas compilation and plumped for ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’ by the Band, but it turned out some other singer had dubbed that, so he told the person compiling the album he’d have a crack at writing his own.
This was the result.
“There’s something about ‘White Christmas’that rings down the ages – a longing for home, for childhood, warm safety and the sway things used to be…Irving intensifies the feeling of Christmas by writing about not being there.
‘There’s clue,’ I thought.”
Kelly relates how he invited the compiler– a bloke called Lindsay – to come around and listen to the song, only warning him that the tune didn’t have a chorus, and it was also set in prison.
‘The next day he sat in my small back shed while I played it to him, my head down, partly from nerves but also to read the freshly scratched lyrics in my notebook on the floor. When I looked up at the end he was holding his hanky.
“It’s supposed to be a comedy”, I said.
“I know”, he replied, wiping his eyes.’
Christmas, in my experience, intensifies and brings to the surface feelings that are already there. If you’re away from home – or, emotionally, away from where you want to be – it can be a lurching time, on the inside.
So for everyone who isn’t where they want to be in whatever way, this year: here’s to you, and here’s to next year.