#866: The Xylophone Solo

December 22nd, 2017

Across the bowling alley: cheers, groans, the thick whomps of thrown balls landing to skitter down the boards, the clinking of pitchers, the cry of “Tamale! Tamale!”

Above the bowling alley: xylophone.

It was media league night at the bowling alley. We were losing again, Chicago Magazine was having more fun than anyone else again, The Onion was bullying the jukebox again. As it was the last bowling night before Christmas, the playlist had been rife with Christmas tunes. As they were The Onion, the Christmas tunes had to be cool.

Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” — any of the more-recent-than-a-Boomer’s-childhood stabs at a Christmas classic the radio stations play once before saying screw it and launching into “Frosty” for the umpteenth time.

The tinkling xylophone above simulated the fall of snow and the jingle of sleigh bells. Lightly, softly, delicate and precise before Dave Davies crashes in with a punk-infused electric guitar. Mick Avory pumps the blood into the tune in pulsing drum. And Dave’s brother Ray launches into that stoking, whining, sung-just-a-half-note-sharp but absolutely perfect rock vocal screaming that he always knew Santa was his dad.

“Didn’t they play this before?” I said to the air.

“I think the last one was a cover,” the captain of the Rivet Radio team replied.

It was The Kinks’ 1977 “Father Christmas,” which is simply put the greatest Christmas song ever made. Not just better than “Christmas Wrapping” or any of the other modern songs that meet the Chicago media bowling league’s fine, hip standards, but the greatest Christmas song that exists.

My Christmas present to myself this year (beyond titling a story with an X to finally complete the A-Z story index after an infuriating half-decade — please don’t let me know if it’s actually a glockenspiel) is using this Chicago afternoon to explain why.

All Christmas music falls in one of only a few categories:

  • Religious music but about baby Jesus instead of adult one
  • Hook from a 1960s TV special
  • Songs about having too many birds (this one admittedly is a small category)
  • This is sad
  • I’m drunk
  • Shut up, child, or Santa will bring you nothing
  • Here’s what Christmas is like in this very specific location (Hawaii, a 1950s urban area where the bells are silver, an 1850s rural area where the bells jingle)
  • Hooking up, but in winter

Each category contains multitudes. The hooking up category can include “Winter Wonderland,” “Last Christmas,” “Christmas Wrapping,” and “Let it Snow.” I’m drunk is everything from Big & Rich’s “Drunk on Christmas” to “The Boar’s Head Carol” and “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” And we have of course “Blue Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and that nuclear weapon of depression “The Christmas Shoes” for the sadness category.

(Seriously, take a moment to listen to “The Christmas Shoes.” It’s a testament to how Christ wants you to spend your last possible moments with dying loved ones shopping instead.)

And of course, a song can be any combination: sad and religious (“The Christmas Shoes”), drunk and religious (“Good King Wenceslas”), a hookup threat to a child (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”) or a sad, drunken winter hookup in a very specific location (“Fairytale of New York”).

But then there is “Father Christmas,” which is better than all of them, although “Fairytale” is a close second. Not only does FC rock, take a read at these lyrics:

When I was small I believed in Santa Claus
Though I knew it was my dad
And I would hang up my stocking at Christmas
Open my presents and I’d be glad

But the last time I played Father Christmas
I stood outside a department store
A gang of kids came over and mugged me
And knocked my reindeer to the floor

They said
Father Christmas, give us some money
Don’t mess around with those silly toys
We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over
We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys

Brilliant.

Now this isn’t being contrarian. This isn’t me thinking it’s somehow clever or subversive if bad things happen at a good time — i.e., children beating up Santa. That’s simple laziness, the “Family Guy” of creativity. What’s brilliant about this song is the message: Charity needs to be for the world we have, not the one we want.

The narrator is instantly set up from a stable family that’s well-off enough to have a present-laden Christmas. As an adult, he plays Santa for children repeatedly (theĀ lastĀ time he played Father Christmas). He’s a good, likable person, spreading joy and material possessions just like he’s been told since birth are the twin meanings of Christmas.

Then he meets a gang of street kids who don’t care about any of that. Christmas joy like reindeer and Santa are knocked to the floor, and presents are for “the little rich boys.”

But give my daddy a job ’cause he needs one
He’s got lots of mouths to feed
But if you’ve got one I’ll have a machine gun
So I can scare all the kids on the street

OK, these children are not the “Christmas Shoes” kid. They are frickin’ sociopaths. Sociopaths in need, but sociopaths. And an introduction to the second dad of the story. Also a caretaker like the narrator’s father, but without the resources to stuff the house with presents and with a wink and a smile pretend a magic elf did the deed. They don’t need toys from Santa any more than I need My True Love to fork over 184 birds.

When the song seems veering into tragedy, it becomes simply beautiful.

Have yourself a merry merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin’
While you’re drinkin’ down your wine

After being the victim of a violent crime, his concern is the social inequality that brought his assailants to that point. Jesus — baby or adult — teaches about loving sinners and hating sins, but the Kinks’ narrator transcends that. He doesn’t see his assault as a matter of sin and souls, but about the unjust distribution of resources that brought him to a wine-infused holiday party and them to rolling Santas in an alley.

He has no illusions about the people his stolen money ended up helping, didn’t pretend they’re sweet-eyed little saints who just want to buy their dying momma some footwear (seriously listen to “Christmas Shoes” — it’s awful). Decades before “privilege” became the topic of every third tweet, the Davies brothers recognized theirs and gave a toast to the kids who have nothing, even the ones who beat up a department store Santa Claus.

With that, I give you the world’s greatest Christmas song, one worth playing twice at media league bowling.

Listen to some Chicago street musicians’ Christmas song

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