Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sounds of December: Billy Squier, 'Christmas is the time to say 'I Love You'' and the best and worst of MTV

MTV giveth and MTV taketh away. That’s pretty much the Billy Squier story. And he contributed one classic Christmas song before things went south.

Squier’s 1980 album was a huge hit, with four songs getting a lot of airtime in the fledgling video channel.

He popped a Christmas song on a B-side of one of the 45s. “Christmas is the Time to Say ‘I Love You’” is a bouncy, happy singalong. There’s not a ton to it, just two verses and a repeated chorus:

“Christmas is the time to say "I love you"
Share the joys of laughter and good cheer
Christmas is the time to say "I love you"
And a feeling that will last all through the year.”

But it’s fun and light, and it was a Christmas song by a rocker.

My first Christmas mix tape was recorded off a radio special. I always had blank tapes ready to throw in the stereo and start recording when something cool came on. This first tape stayed with me for years, decorated with Christmas stickers and repaired several times. People surviving the cassette era know the struggle of gluing back together a prized tape after it was caught in a player. I still have the tape somewhere, saved for sentimental value.

What was cool about this radio special was that it introduced me to all kinds of rocking Christmas songs I didn’t know existed. Keith Richards’ “Run, Run, Rudolph,” Robert Gordon’s “Blue Christmas,” Joan Jett’s “Little Drummer Boy” – all of these were new to me.

“Christmas is the Time to say ‘I Love You’” was one of the songs discovered that day, and eventually I’d find a re-released 45 of the song for future mix tapes. “White Christmas” is on the B-side, and it’s not as good.

The song has a special place in MTV history, as Squier filmed a video with the MTV on-air talent and much of the staff that seemed like a rollicking good time.

The website Ultimate Classic Rock quotes a Yahoo! Music interview with original VJ Martha Quinn:

"If I had to go back in time and revisit one day, like if I could get into the DeLorean and go back to one moment, it probably be this. What you see in that video, it was recorded within months of our launch, and we were all so starry-eyed, such believers. We were rebels with a cause. Everyone you see in that video, they’re the technicians, the secretaries, the executives, the production assistants. We were all one big happy family, fighting for MTV. We believed so strongly in the power of rock ‘n’ roll. And you can really see it there."

So Billy was an early MTV hero. But things went bad in 1984 when it recorded an over-the-top video for the hit “Rock Me Tonite.” Take the goofiest parts of the 1980s, dial it up five or 10 notches, and you get this video of Billy oddly dancing around his apartment, eventually ripping off his shirt. It became a punchline, and pretty much destroyed his career.

But 35 years after the disastrous video, people are still playing “Christmas is the Time to Say ‘I Love You.’” It’s been covered by several artists and appears on a bunch of compilations. It's been a staple of every Christmas Favorites playlist I've made.

Hopefully Billy had the last laugh – or the last “ho, ho, ho!”

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Sounds of December: 'Perfect Light' is predictably unpredictable -- and brilliant!

Chris Tomlin and David Crowder are alike in that they are great at taking a traditional song we’ve all heard and enjoyed a million times, making a couple changes here and there and make it something fresh.

Several songs from Tomlin’s 2009 release “Glory in the Highest: Christmas Songs of Worship” are mix tape mainstays. None of Crowder’s songs are on mix tapes because his Christmas CD is so incredible that it demands its own playlist.

Seriously, immediately check out “Oh, For Joy.” We’ll get there in the blog soon enough.

I augment the “Oh, For Joy” playlist with other Crowder songs I found on other Christmas compilations. And it was building that playlist this year that I stumbled across this 2015 song with Tomlin and Crowder joining forces.

I don’t know how I’ve missed it these last few years. I knew Tomlin’s “Adore” was out there but had not had time to give it a quality listen, except for his version of “Hymn of Joy.” It’s awesome, though I still prefer Red Collective’s effort just a bit more.

“Adore” was recorded live with a singing audience. It’s a mixture of originals and rearranged classics, like “Perfect Light.”

The only predictable thing about Crowder is that he is entirely unpredictable. I had no idea what to expect when I saw he was collaborating with Tomlin. He moves effortlessly from rock to bluegrass to techno to everything else.

But never, I confess, did I think he’d start the song like a beat poet, reciting verse as the music swells behind him.

“Across the desert
Wrapped in scarves
One is brighter
In a chandelier of stars
Tired and lonely
Over miles of mountains and sand
The prophets tell of a Baby
He's born to save
Like graffiti on our hearts
The world will know His name
Heaven like a highway exit sign
Points to Bethlehem”

Isn’t “One is brighter in a chandelier of stars” brilliant? Then Tomlin and the audience burst into the chorus of “We Three Kings.” You know, “Star of Wonder, star of night.” It gets us to the song’s title. Then Crowder is back, with increasing urgency and emotion.

“When they saw the Child
They dropped to their knees
The answer to a million prayers
In a Newborn heartbeat
And the words He would say
Would be written in red
And the gifts they've carried
They lay at His feet
In the eyes of Mary
A tear runs down her cheek
Jesus, the Messiah
In a lowly manger bed.”

Then Tomlin and the audience are back with the chorus, some new lyrics and someone’s drummer boy pounding away with everything he’s got. I hear a banjo in there somewhere, and that has got to be Crowder because the instrument is a staple on his albums.

They hit the chorus again and collapse into cheers. It’s wonderful.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Sounds of December: Davitt Sigerson's 'Big Country' stands apart from a kind of scary album.

I picked up the “A Christmas Record” back when I was in college because it was the only album at the time that had The Waitresses “Christmas Wrapping.”

I didn’t recognize any of the other songs, and I kind of knew some of the artists. It was worth a chance, since I really liked “Christmas Wrapping.” Plus, the cover was cool.

It turned out the artists were all from the same label. ZE Records had a pretty eclectic collection of performers. It should have been a clue that with bands like Suicide and songs like “Christmas with Satan” that this might be my cup of tea.

Working my way through the cuts I concluded that the album was kind of like a Christmas album for people who hate Christmas. It was an album for people who hate everything.

I trudged through to the last cut. It was by Davitt Sigerson. I was unfamiliar with his work. But his song, “It’s a Big Country,” was different than the others. It was happy. A bouncy tune with acoustic guitars and pianos, it was like one of those Christmas year-in-review letters, only set to music, shouting out to relatives spread out across the country.

“Got a niece down in Virginia
Hard to picture how she’s grown
It’s your uncle calling, Angel!
Can you put your mama on the phone?”

And the chorus:

“It’s a big country
Merry Christmas, everybody
Just a word from me and Ann
To say we’re fine.”

I love it. And I was imagining Davitt sitting with the other artists at the ZE Records staff meetings, sitting off by himself, very afraid.

Turns out Davitt is a journalist, record company executive and songwriter with a couple CDs out there. Get this: One of his songwriting credits is with Gene Simmons of Kiss. Davitt co-wrote “Good Girl Gone Bad” on the album “Crazy Nights.” I just learned this part today, but it helps explain why I love “It’s a Big Country.”

Naturally the song was a mix tape favorite. But the record went out of print when the world moved from vinyl to compact disk and ZE Record shuttered in 1984.

By this time, “Christmas Wrapping” was a hit and was appearing on a bunch of compilations. But I was really missing having “Big Country” as part of our holiday soundtrack.

I did find a record store that advertised it would convert out-of-print vinyl to CD. It was a little pricey. And I really only wanted it for one song. Goodness knows I was never going to play “Christmas with Satan” a second time.

Of course I went for it. I love "It's a Big Country."

And, of course, a couple years later the label was resurrected and reissued “A Christmas Record” on CD. And this year I was very excited to see it was on Spotify – where you can select just one song from the collection.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Sounds of December: Rend Collective adds two lines, and "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee" is a great Christmas song

Sometimes all it takes to turn a beautiful song into a beautiful Christmas song is two lines of lyric and melody. Two lines.

I learned this when I found my all-time favorite hymn on a 2014 album from an Irish Christian band called Rend Collective.

Usually it’s called “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” after the first line. Technically it’s named “The Hymn of Joy,” written by Henry van Dyke in 1907 and set to the “Ode to Joy” melody of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

I love this hymn. I confess there are moments in church, often during a hymn I don’t enjoy as much, when I flip to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and mentally head to a hymn happy place.

“Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
hearts unfold like flowers before thee,
opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
drive the dark of doubt away.
Giver of immortal gladness,
fill us with the light of day!”

Isn't that a sweet pick-me-up? And the tune? Well, that Beethoven guy was really good.

So the Rend Collective took this amazing song and tweaked it just a bit. It added a chorus, with the lyrics “Rejoice, rejoice our God is here with us, Emmanuel, our God is still with us” to the tune from “O Come Emmanuel.”

It’s perfect. And now it counts as a Christmas song. Check it out:

As you can guess from the title, “Campfire Christmas, Vol. 1” the CD is an acoustic, stripped down affair with many traditional songs with a twist. It’s a fantastic collection.

There’s another song on the disc that I like just as much, “Shining Light.” It’s a cover of a hit from Ash, another Irish band. It’s probably not technically a Christmas song. But you can make a case for it if you read into the lyrics. We approach Christmas inclusively.

Here’s “Shining Light,” because it’s just too good to not share.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Sounds of December: The Killers' 'Boots' lead us to reflect, regret and recover

Reflection. Regret. Recovery.

They’re the themes of today’s entry in our musical advent calendar. “Boots” by The Killers gets me choked up every time I hear it. Every time.

The song starts with a clip from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where George Bailey is at the end of his rope and asking for help before Clarence arrives to set him straight.

Our subject in "Boots" knows he’s made mistakes. We don’t know what he’s done. But he knows he needs to change and is comforted by thoughts of Christmases of his childhood.

“I close my eyes,
Think about the path I took.
Just when I think these times,
Have gotten the best of me.
I can see my mother in the kitchen.
My father on the floor,
Watching television.
It's a wonderful life.
Cinnamon candles burning.
Snowball fights outside.
Smile below each nose and above each chin.
Stomp my boots before I go back in.”

Then, like George Bailey, he asks for help.

“I wasted my wishes,
On Saturday nights.
Boy, what I would give,
For just one more.
I’d soften my heart, shock the world”

Then Christmas bells kick in, and singer Brandon Flowers pleads.

“Do you hear my voice?
Do you know my name?
Light my way,
Lift my head.
Light my way.”

That’s when I get choked up. I just got choked up typing it. Because we did get the lighted pathway. We’re celebrating his birth this month. He hears our voice and knows our name. His love is unconditional, his arms always open. He welcomes broken people.

It's not an uncommon theme for Christmas. From Ebeneezer Scrooge to Ed Asner's character in "The Gathering," we see broken people asking for help and getting it at Christmas. "The Gathering," by the way, is pretty much the best Christmas movie ever and I get choked up watching that, too. 

The "Boots" video is very moving. It was directed by Jared Hess, who directed “Napoleon Dynamite” and stars Brad Prowly, a New York street performed who goes by “Super Bad Brad.”

Prowly is homeless in the video, weeping as he looks at a crumpled photo of his estranged family. He appears in a church, looking for that lighted way. He sings on the street to raise money to get back home. While his children are decorating the Christmas tree, his wife opens the door, looking both hesitant and relieved before embracing him.

The Killers released a Christmas song annually as part of the (PRODUCT)RED campaign, with all proceeds going to charities fighting AIDS and supporting people inflicted with the disease. The others are good. "Boots" is by far my favorite.

It’s a beautiful song for a good cause.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Sounds of December: Martha's Trouble and stumbling on treasure

I’m always on the hunt for new songs about Christmas in New York.

I hit the iTunes search bar with "Christmas" plus "New York," "Manhattan" or any number of terms that could lead to something new.

I found this gem in a search. But giving a listen I discovered it’s about Christmas in Toronto. But that’s OK. Toronto’s a nice city, too!

I was hooked. "Christmas in the City" is one of my favorites, earning a “first five” placement in the Christmas Favorites playlist – the new version of the Christmas mix tape.

Martha’s Trouble is a husband-and-wife team of singer Jennifer and guitarist Rob Slocomb who split time between native Ontario and Alabama. 

The duo issued a six-song Christmas EP in 2002 and a slightly longer release called "This Christmas" in 2008. Both are solid.

They have sort of a Sixpence None the Richer vibe, with bouncy guitars. It’s a perfect blending of pop and country.

“We have spent many of winters in Toronto, making some of the season memories,” Jennifer told the site Bandcamp. “We love being in the city during the holidays, there is a romantic energy in the air like no other time of the year.”

The chorus will pull you in, and it will remain in bouncing around your head at least for as long as the tree has needles. Maybe longer.

“It’s Christmas in the City
And I’m with the one I love
All the storefronts look pretty
Everyone is in a rush
For that perfect gift to give -- but you’re enough”

The best part is that I stumbled across the song looking for something else. It’s like when you are searching for a perfect gift and find something even more special!

Monday, December 02, 2019

Sounds of December: Yoko Ono and 'Listen the Snow is Falling'

There are three kinds of Christmas songs.

There are carols celebrating the birth of Christ, such as “O Holy Night.”

There are songs celebrating the Christmas season, including “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”

Then there are winter songs that have nothing to do with Christmas, but you wouldn’t dare play after New Year’s Day. “Sleigh Ride” and “Winter Wonderland” are on the good end of this spectrum, and you also get stuff like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling” is in the third category. While I can’t say I’m a fan of much of Yoko’s work, I do love this song. And I found it by playing a b-side, something I didn't usually do.

"Listen" was released on Dec. 1, 1971 as the flip side of the classic “Happy X-Mas (War is Over)” -- on green vinyl! I'm not sure what possessed me to play it. I might have just been curious what Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band sounded like. 

Yoko often makes abstract music the way some artists make abstract paintings. Sometimes the paintings connect with a viewer, sometimes you kind of shake your head and move to the next one. "Revolution 9" on the White Album is an example of abstract music. I've played it a couple times, because everyone should. Then I moved to the next song.

I didn't know what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised. "Listen" is a great song.

I’m not aware snow makes a sound when its falling. We would have heard it for sure this weekend when we woke up to about four inches. And there’s not a ton of depth in the lyrics, though Yoko gets points for mentioning New York landmarks.

"Listen, the snow is falling o'er town
Listen, the snow is falling ev'rywhere
Between Empire State Building
And between Trafalgar Square
Listen, the snow is falling o'er town"

It’s more of a mood thing. The music is light and moves slowly, with distant bells and horns that could be a Salvation Army band and kettle a block away. That might give it more of a Christmas feel. Phil Spector produced and show much restraint. It ends with wind and sounds of someone walking through the slush.

For a long time, I was pretty sure I was the only one who liked the song. But I’ve started to see cover versions popping up. Galaxie 500’s might be the best known. It has an extended instrumental part and is about 8 minutes long.

Given the general lack of appreciation for Yoko’s music in general, it’s a surprise that her version remains the best of the bunch after 48 years.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Sounds of December: 'Christmas Must Be Tonight' and a holiday mystery

Thank goodness for Spotify.

After picking up the streaming service this year, I’ve been making lots and lots of playlists. This means I’ve needed to make playlists of Christmas music to be ready for the holiday season.

That also means I had a legitimate excuse to start listening to Christmas music starting in October. Possibly in September. Maybe one or two in August. All this transpired under the guise of doing research.

It will shock no one to hear I love listening to Christmas music. And discussing Christmas music is almost as fun.

Let’s create a musical advent calendar of sorts, spending some time each day looking more closely at a favorite Christmas song.

There are lots of Christmas songs covered by lots of artists. You’ll find no shortage of “White Christmas” versions, all in different styles.

But here’s an instance of a song being rerecorded and changed significantly by the original artist. There are three versions, and they all are wonderful.

I remember coming across the cassette of the “Scrooged” soundtrack in a cutout bin and pouncing because I love the movie, and there were songs by artists I liked.

Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” jumped out as an early favorite. I’d never heard the song and wasn’t familiar with his work with The Band beyond the classic rock radio hits.

Here's the "Scrooged" version. It’s a slice of glorious 1980s synth pop with the Christmas story told from the perspective of the shepherds.

“How a little baby boy
Could bring the people so much joy
Son of a carpenter. Mary carried the light
This must be Christmas, must be tonight”

It’s a favorite and quickly became one of the first three songs on any of my Christmas mix tapes.

A few years later I came across a compilation CD called “Winter, Fire & Snow: Songs for the Holiday Season” and saw it had “Christmas Must Be Tonight” and was excited because I wanted to upgrade from cassette to CD.

But I popped it in and discovered an entirely different version. It was still Robbie Robertson, but a slower, quieter version. It’s different, but still really, really, good. The video photo shows the "Scrooged" cover, but the music is  the "Winter" version.

We did finally find a CD version of the “Scrooged” soundtrack, and now could include both versions on our mix tapes. The song is that good!

A few years later we were introduced to iTunes and discovered Robertson’s original version. Recorded by The Band, this one is acoustic, and Rick Danko takes the lead vocals. It was released as part of an odds and ends album called “Islands” in the 1970s.

Why did Robertson record three very different versions? It’s a Christmas mystery.

There are folks who think “Christmas Must Be Tonight” is anoverlooked classic. But I’ve noticed it’s starting to get covered a little, from artists including Hall and Oates, Train, Darlene Love, My Morning Jacket and Joan Osborne.

My favorite is still the first one I found, the 1980s synth-pop that’s on the "Scrooged" soundtrack, though I’ve never been able to find it in the movie itself – another Christmas mystery.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Every signature tells a story: President Gerald R. Ford and a Christmas miracle

An amazing discovery at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum today, and a wonderful Christmas gift from Julie.

We checked out the museum gift shop after touring the “Louder Than Words” exhibit because, without fail, there is something cool in the Ford Museum store.

There are often presidential history books signed by authors who recently spoke at the museum, and I’ve obtained several them on sale over the years.

This time we saw a small sign indicating there were Christmas cards signed by President Ford – and for a very reasonable price.

Now, it’s important to remember that we’ve been without President Ford for 11 years now. While he was alive, there were often signed photos and books in the gift store, and I’ve lamented never purchasing a photo.

A museum staffer told me once that the President would visit the museum several times a year, and he’d be sure to sign a stack of 8x10s for the store.

There are still some copies of his book, but those are well out of my price range.

I held up one of the cards to the friendly clerk behind the register.

“Were these signed by an Autopen?” I asked, having worked in politics now and knowing how some things are signed with a machine -- a really cool machine -- when many signatures are needed.

“No, the President signed them by hand,” she said. “Someone working in the archives found a box of them. They kept some for the museum, but said we could sell the rest in the store.”

This was a Christmas miracle.

In the often sketchy world of autographs, a scenario like this would be cause for some concern. Will and I used to see tables at baseball card shows with stacks of photos signed by Mickey Mantle and wonder if the ink was dry. But I trust the Ford Museum.

I looked at a couple of the cards, and noted that the signatures were all slightly different, clearly not the identical markings that would come from the machine.

At Julie’s urging, we looked through several of the cards to select one that had the clearest signature, which was easy, as President Ford had nice handwriting.

Later, after discussing how to display this new treasure, we went back and purchased an unsigned version of a card, so we could frame them and display both the signature and the painting of the White House on the cover.

We stopped to buy a frame on the way home, and the cards are now proudly displayed on the mantle.

This marks the third presidential signature in the collection.

I was in attendance when President George W. Bush visited the museum for a discussion about his book “Decision Points” and signed copies for the store to sell.

And Julie was able to obtain a copy of President Jimmy Carter’s book “A Call to Action” a few years back when he visited Grand Rapids Community College as part of the school’s centennial. 

The signature is on a sticker with the college’s logo, making it extra special!

President Ford is, of course, remembered very fondly here in Grand Rapids. I never had a chance to meet him, but I did get to see him up close several times, including a community celebration for his 90th birthday. Andrew is in a group photo with the President.

And later, I had the honor of being on the team of reporters covering the President’s funeral. I was the only reporter inside the museum for a solemn arrival ceremony before he would lie in state, the first event in a very moving local tribute for a national hero.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Every signature tells a story: Adam West and patient second-grade teachers

When I heard about the passing of Adam West today, my thoughts raced back to second grade and poor Mrs. Kellogg.

West, of course, was the Batman by which all other Batmans -- Batmen? -- are measured. 

You have to understand that at age 8, I was all about "Batman," Reruns ran everyday after school and, remember, this was before VCRs and DVRs. 

I had the toys and the Halloween costumes. My Cub Scout Pinewood Derby car was carved into the shape of the Batmobile. And every day at 5 p.m. I was glued to Channel 11 to watch the Dymanic Duo battle the Riddler, Catwoman and, on a good day, the Joker.
One day, Mrs. Kellogg announced she had an assignment for us. There was a new show called "The Electric Company" that was like "Sesame Street," but for bigger kids, like us. It was on early in the afternoon while we were still in school, but again at 5 p.m. And our assignment was to watch it every day.
I remember calmly raising my hand and stating that I would only be able to watch this show when I am home sick because 5 o'clock is the same time "Batman" is on.
It's not like I was the only one thinking it. I fully expected Mrs. Kellogg to apologize for this obvious oversight. And I would have forgiven her, too.
Instead, I clearly remember moments of stunned silence, followed by, "This show will help with reading and all kinds of things. What will 'Batman' teach you?"
"Crime fighting," I replied.

It was now painfully obvious that if some colorful arch-criminal would suddenly appear in the door of Room 12, only one of us was going to have a clue what to do, and it wasn't my teacher. She was lucky to have me there.
This was followed by a look that could only have said, "I don't get paid enough to deal with this nonsense." Truthfully, it was a look I would come to know well over the years.
I learned several things that day. Among them, that sometimes it best to remain silent and keep the truth to ourselves.

Naturally, Bat-fandom has carried on through the years, even as the parade of lesser, darker, growling actors wore the Bat-suit and drove greatly inferior Batmobiles.

I had a chance to meet Mr. West once. He was appearing at a video store around the time of the first Michael Keaton movie. 

He was very gracious and friendly with star-struck fans, and signed a copy of my Bat book. I did ask one important question:

Why was your favorite villain

"Catwoman!" he replied, quickly and with a smile.

Of course!