Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Holidays 2010

Today I thought I would share with you some of my favourite Yuletide songs. The first one I just discovered this year. It's "All I Want for Christmas is You" by My Chemical Romance. I was never a big fan of the original version by Mariah Carey, but I really like this one.

Next up is "Don't Shoot Me, Santa" by The Killers. I never pictured Santta with a gun, but come to think of it, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn looks sort of like Santa. Well, if Santa had an eyepatch and a Peacemaker....

Next is one of the greatest songs, period. "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" by John Lennon.

Finally, here is what I consider the greatest rock 'n' roll Yuletide carol of them all: "Merry Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love.

Wishing everyone a happy Yuletide!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Ava Gardner!

Today in 1922 one of the most beautiful women ever to live was born. Ava Gardner was not simply any movie star. She was both a sex symbol and a talented actress. She looked as good as Marilyn Monroe (well, better, really) and could act as well as Bette Davis. What is more, she never forgot her roots. She was always a true Southern belle.

Here Ava is in seasonal garb, looking as fetching as ever. I rather think most men would prefer a visit from Ava on Yule Eve than Santa!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)

The holidays have always been a time for novelty songs. Songs such as "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and even the bizarre "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" were hits during the Christmas season. As many novelty songs have there have been in Yuletides past, there is only one that created a multi-million media franchise. That was the "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)."

"The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" and hence The Chipmunks (Alvin, Theodore, and Simon) were created by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. had a good deal of previous successes prior to his biggest hit. With his cousin, William Saroyan, he co-wrote "Come on-a My House," the first hit for Rosemary Clooney. He had also appeared in bit parts in movies, including Rear Window (1954) and Stalag 17 (1953). He recorded many records under his given name before scoring a minor hit with "The Trouble with Harry" under the stage name of David Seville in 1955. Several more singles would follow, but he would not have a huge hit until "Witch Doctor" in 1958.

"Witch Doctor" took advantage of a fact many children had long knew. If a record was played at a higher speed than it was meant to be, the voices on that record would become very high pitched. Record players weren't the only technology in the Fifties capable of this, as the effect could also be achieved with a V-M tape recorder. Mr. Bagdasarian (or Mr. Seville, if you prefer) used his V-M tape recorder to achieve the high pitched voice of the witch doctor in the song. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. would use the effect again in another novelty song, "The Bird in My Head," which did not even hit the top 40.

"Witch Doctor" only used the sped up voice in its chorus. "The Bird in My Head" only used it in parts of the song. David Seville's next novelty song would be a quantum leap forward where the effect of sped up voices was concerned. First, it would use three sped up voices (all done by Ross Bagdasarian) singing in unison. Second, the sped up voices comprised nearly all of the song.  That song was "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." For the record David created the characters of three chipmunks, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, named for Liberty recording executives Alvin Bennett and Simon Warnoker and recording engineer Theordore Keep. Each Chipmunk had his own personality. Simon was the intelligent, capable one. Theodore was the shy, sensitive, slightly none too bright one. Alvin was impulsive, anarchistic, anti-authoritarian one (in his original incarnation he was a lot like Bart Simpson). David Seville himself appeared as a character on the record, conducting The Chipmunks and keeping Alvin in line.

"The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late) proved to be a huge hit. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the last Christmas song to do so. It also hit number one on Billboard's special Christmas singles chart. For several years afterwards, until 1962, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" would re-enter the Top 100 each holiday season. Ultimately, it would sell 4.7 million copies.

Indeed, so successful was "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" that David Seville was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show with his singing rodents. This created a bit of a problem, as The Chipmunks did not actually exist. David Seville then went to legendary animator and puppeteer Bob Clampett (best known as the creator of Beany and Cecil), who created three puppets based on The Chipmunks as they appeared on record sleeves. Here it must be pointed out that  The Chipmunks in their original incarnation did not look as they do today. At that point The Chipmunks looked more realistic, more like actual Chipmunks. Regardless, David Seville and The Chipmunks did well enough on The Ed Sullivan Show that they appeared five more times. "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" would also win three Grammy Awards: Best Comedy Performance, Best Children's Recording, and Best Engineered Record (non-classical).

So successful was "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" that it created a media franchise. In 1959 David Seville would have two more hits with his singing rodents ("Alvin's Harmonica" and "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," as well as a full length album (Let's All Sing With The Chipmunks). The Chipmunks would also appear in a comic book, in Dell's Four Color Comics #1042, December 1959. The success of The Chipmunks would not only lead to more records, but to a prime time television series. The Alvin Show aired on CBS in the 1961-1962 season. The original designs for The Chipmunks were rejected for the television show, and entirely new designs were provided for The Chipmunks. In other words, The Chipmunks' modern appearance was created for the TV series. Afterwards, The Chipmunks' earlier records would be re-issued with the new design from the TV show. Although lasting only one season, it would appear in  network Saturday morning line ups for years and would be a huge success in syndication.

Throughout the Sixties The Chipmunks continued to release records, even tackling The Beatles' early hits and a few rock songs. Their last album in their original incarnation was The Chipmunks Go to the Movies, released in 1969. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. died in 1972 from a heart attack, putting an end to any more Chipmunks records. It was in 1980 that Ross Bagdasarian Jr. revived The Chipmunks with the album Chipmunk Punk. This would lead to more records and in 1983 a new animated series, Alvin and The Chipmunks. The new cartoon differed considerably from the original incarnation of The Chipmunks to a degree, particularly in that Alvin was no longer quite the anti-authoritarian, anarchistic reprobate he had been. Since then there have been two live action movies.

By 1961 The Chipmunks had already become a million dollar business. They not only sold records, but appeared on television and in comic books (a Dell comic spun off from The Alvin Show ran from 1962 to 1973). It had all began with a single record, a Christmas novelty song, which became an enormous hit. While there have been holiday novelty songs since "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," it is the only one that can truly claim to have created a media franchise.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Five Most Romantic Holiday Movies

While many think of the Yuletide as a time for families, there can be no doubt that there has always been a certain amount of romance linked to the holidays. After all, it is the one time of the year when it is wholly acceptable to kiss in public, even if it is only under the mistletoe. It should be no surprise, then, that there have been holiday movies with a good deal of romance in them. Here are what I consider the five most romantic movies of all time.

1. The Apartment (1960): C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a man with a very special problem. He often cannot go straight home to his apartment after work because he is constantly lending it to his superiors at a large insurance company for their illicit affairs. Baxter's problem is complicated by the fact that he is in love with one of the company's elevator girls, the charming Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Worse yet, Miss Kubelik had an affair with the insurance company's head honcho, the smarmy Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Baxter is then faced with one of the greatest conundrums any cinematic hero has faced--he can only truly win the girl of his dreams by losing his job. It is this central conflict and the electricity between Baxter and Miss Kubelik that makes this one of the most romantic movies of all time. Indeed, I consider it the second most romantic film ever, second only to Casablanca (1942). It is also a wonderful combination of comedy and drama, balancing the two in the way director Billy Wilder could only have done.

2. Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is the Martha Stewart of her day. She is famous for her column in a monthly housekeeping magazine, writing about cooking recipes and other bits of domesticity. Indeed, he even lives on a farm with her husband and baby. Unfortunately, none of it is true. Elizabeth cannot cook. She is not a great housekeeper. She does not have a husband and baby. She does not even live on a farm. Unfortunately, her publisher invites a war hero, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) to spend Christmas on her non-existent farm. Elizabeth must then swiftly find a farm and have her boyfriend pose as her "husband," all the while relying on friend and chef Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall) to make up for her non-existent cooking skills. Unfortunately, keeping up this facade proves harder than Elizabeth expected, especially when she and Jones fall in love at first sight. Christmas in Connecticut is a hilarious screwball comedy set during the holidays, but it is also a very romantic film. Barbara Stanwyck never looked more appealing, and she has a definite chemistry with Dennis Morgan. Few movies are quite as funny or romantic as this film.

3. Holiday Affair (1949): Robert Mitchum is rarely thought of as a romantic lead, and yet he is very effective in this film. In Holiday Affair Janet Leigh plays war widow Connie Ennis, who lives alone with her son Tommy in a small apartment and has been dating lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey). Connie's life is upset after she gets Steve Mason (played by Mitchum) from his job in a department store. Tommy grows to think of Steve as a friend, while Connie must resist her attraction to him. It is the relationships that make Holiday Affair. Indeed, what is wonderful about the film is that there are no bad guys. Carl Davis is a genuinely nice guy, not some cardboard villain as in many romantic films. And the sparks between Mr. Mitchum and Miss Leigh are powerful indeed. What is more, Holiday Affair is genuinely funny. Indeed, it has one of the funniest scenes I have ever seen on film, with Harry Morgan as a befuddled police captain brought face to face with the complex relationships of the lead characters.

4. It's a Wonderful Life (1946): While it is often called a fantasy, it is rare that It's a Wonderful Life is called a romance, and there is no reason it should not be. At the heart of the film is the relationship between George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife Mary (Donna Reed). We see their relationship develop from childhood, when Mary already had a crush on George, to their life as a married couple. Mary is the ideal wife, devoted to George and supportive of him. And George is genuinely in love with her, the sparks between them still there after years of marriage. Indeed, It's a Wonderful Life features one of the single most romantic scenes on film, in which George and Mary  must share a phone. Perhaps even more so than Scarlett O'Hara and Rhet Butler, George and Mary Bailey are one of the most romantic couples on screen.

5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Like It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street is rarely termed a romance, even though it should be. While the plot centres on the fate of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), the relationship between lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) and Macy's executive, divorcee Doris Walker, is an important part of the movie. Indeed, much of what makes the movie so effective is watching their relationship develop. And the relationship between Mr. Gailey and Miss Walker is a realistic one, in which the two do not always see eye to eye and even argue. It is the fact that Doris Walker is an intelligent, independent, strong willed woman that makes the relationship so effective and makes her feelings for Fred Gailey seem all the more realistic. Although Miracle on 34th Street is not strictly speaking a romantic comedy, it is much more romantic than many so-called romantic comedies.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christmas Gift for You From Philles Records

Today A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records is regarded as one of the greatest holiday albums of all time, if not the greatest. As hard as it is to believe, however, it was hardly a success upon its first release. Indeed, it would take many years before it would come to be considered a classic.

Phillies Records was founded in 1961 by Phil Spector and Lester Sill. It was only a few years into its existence that the label was producing hits in the form of "Da Doo Ron Ron" by The Crystals and "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes. Most of the label's singles were produced by Phil Spector himself, using his Wall of Sound technique (which utilised layered, dense sound achieved by a number of musicians playing the same thing in unison). For the most part Philles Records was focused on the success of singles, but in August 1963 he called his performers together for the first and only album into which Philles Records would pour a good deal of energy. That album was A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records.

Over the next few weeks A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records would be recorded. Phil Spector would book the studio for nearly twenty four hours a day, and it was not unusual for Spector to work until dawn. Indeed, unlike many albums of the day, every song the album was treated as if it was a potential single. The gruelling pace would take a toll on legendary engineer Larry Levine, who was at odds with Spector after working on the album for some time. In fact, towards the end of the six weeks Mr. Levine was so exhausted and aggravated that he no longer wanted to work with Phil Spector. The album itself would include nearly every possible sound linked to the holidays: sleigh bells, chimes, bells, and so on.

For the most part, A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records consisted of secular, holiday standards treated to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound technique. Darlene Love performed "White Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland." The Crystals performed "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The Ronettes performed "Sleigh Ride"and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." An exception to the various Christmas song covers was the single original song on the album. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)." The song was written by Elle Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector, and it was originally intended to be sung by Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. Ronnie Spector was not able to give the song the emotional impact it needed, however, so Darlene Love would sing "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" instead.

Sadly, in the short run it would seem as if all of producer Phil Spector and engineer Larry Levine's work would be to no avail. A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records was released on November 22, 1963, which was unfortunately the date that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. With the country in mourning and in little mood for holiday celebrations, A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records would prove to be a disappointment. The album itself would only peak at number 13 on the Billboard Christmas albums chart issued in December 1963. The album's only single release, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" would do even worse. It did not even hit the Billboard singles chart.

Despite the failure of A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records in 1963, over the years it would come to be regarded as a holiday classic. Over time songs from the album, would receive more and  more radio airplay during the Yuletide. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" would not only become one of Darlene Love's signature tunes, but a Christmas standard. The album was reissued by Apple Records in 1972 with the title Phil Spector's Christmas Album. That reissue hist #6 on Billboard's Christmas album chart for that year. Since then it has been reissued many times, and it is not unusual for radio stations to play the entire album during the holiday season.

Below are three songs from the album, including what I consider the greatest rock 'n' roll, Yuletide song of all time, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love

Sleigh Ride by The Ronettes

Parade of the Wooden Soldiers The Crystals

Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) by Darlene Love

Monday, December 20, 2010


Today when many in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and other English speaking countries think of Christmas, holly, mistletoe, evergreens, and bright lights are apt to come in mind. Indeed, the imagery of Christmas is intimately joined to the imagery of winter in Northern Europe and Great Britain: snow, sleighs, and cold weather. None of this has a thing to do with the birth of Jesus, who was more likely born in spring, summer, or autumn given biblical accounts (the shepherds are said to be out with their flocks). Indeed, European holly and mistletoe are not to be found in Israel. For that matter, even in winter, snow is very rare in Israel and almost never substantial. Why then is Christmas in the mind of English speakers so tied to holly, snow, bright lights, evergreens and snow? The reason is simply that these are survivals of a festival celebrated in late December among the various Germanic peoples (including the English, the Danes, the Swedes, the Germans, and so on) known by cognates of our modern word Yule (OE Geól), a word synonymous even today with Christmas.

The etymological origins of our modern word Yule remain unknown, although it appears in nearly every Germanic language, from Old English Geól to Old Norse Jól to Frisiian Giel to modern Danish Jul to modern English Yule. Indeed, our earliest attestation of a cognate to Yule is to be found in in a portion of the Codex Ambrosianus dating to the 4th Century CE in a fragment of a Gothic calendar. In the fragment Fruma Jiuleis ("Before Yule") is given as the native, Gothic name for November. This reflects native month names among the Angles and Saxons which will be discussed below). Indeed, given the Anglo-Saxon calendar, it seems likely the author was mistaken and Fruma Jiuleis actually  corresponded roughly to December. Sadly, there is little else in the Gothic language about Yule.

Fortunately, we have a few more sources about Yule to be found among the Angles and Saxons of early England. In his De Temporum Ratione Bede gives Giuli (a cognate of Geól) as the native, ancient, Angle and Saxon name of December. He states that ancient English peoples began the year on 25 December, the day now observed as Christmas, and its very night they called Módraniht ("Mothers' Night"), he suspected on account of ceremonies they observed that night. The Martyrology, written in Old English rather than Bede's Latin, gives two other, native month names that reference Geól. It gives Ærra Geóla "Before Yule" for December and Æftera Geóla "After Yule" for January, the former month name recalling the Gothic Fruma Jiuleis. The month name for December, Ærra Geóla, is also referenced in the Menologium. Elsewhere in Old English the word Geól is used as the word for the holiday Christians now call "Christmas" in English. Here it must be noted, that for the Angles and Saxons of Dark Ages England, Christmas was indeed twelve days long,  from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night or Epiphany.

Sadly, we know little of how the ancient English peoples might have celebrated Yule. From Bede's reference to Módraniht, we can guess that it might have involved some form of ancestor worship. Indeed, Bede suspected what is now called Christmas Eve was called Módraniht because of ceremonies performed on that night. It seems possible that the mummer's plays, pantomimes, and Morris dancing performed even today in England could go back to the Angles and Saxons of the Dark Ages. St. Augustine himself preached against those who dressed as a stag or a horse. In the sixth century the Council of Auxerre would not only condemn masquerading as a stag or a bull, but would give a date when such a thing was done: New Year's. While Auxerre is located in France, it seems that if pagan Franks dressed as animals at New Year's (which for Germanic peoples was Yule), then so too did the Angles and Saxons. Indeed, around 700 CE (a time when there were still heathen in England), Theodore Archbishop of Canterbury would prescribe a punishment of three years penance for anyone who dressed as a stag or old woman, dressed in the skins of animals, about the Calends of January--in other words, Yule. Although Morris dancing is mentioned no earlier than the 16th century, mummer's plays the 18th century, and pantomimes the 17th century, it seems possible that they had origins in customs that go back to before the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain in the 5th century, customs linked to Yule.

Just as Old English and Anglo-Saxon sources are richer in information on Yule than Gothic sources, so too are Old Norse and Icelandic sources richer than Old English sources. Indeed, in the poetry of the skalds (the poets of the Old Norse speakers), Jólnir is given as one of the names of Óðinn, god of wisdom, poetry, magic, aristocrats, and many other things. Writing in the 10th Century, the skald Eyvindr skáldaspillir uses a plural of Jólnir, Jólnar, of all the gods. Another name for Óðinn was Jólföðr, literally "Yule Father." It seems possible Óðinn, called among the Angles and Saxons  Wóden, was the original Father Christmas.

The holiday of Yule itself is mentioned in a prose portion of the "Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar" in the Poetic Edda, a poem dated by some to the 11th Century. It describes how on Yule Eve men laid their hands on the sacrificial boar and swore oaths upon him. It also makes mention of the king's toast. A more detailed account of Yule is to be found in "The Saga of Hakon the God," the fourth book of Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson. There it told how King Hakon the Good of Norway rescheduled the celebration of Yule to coincide with the Christian celebration. As to the heathen celebration of Yule, according to "The Saga of Hakon the Good," at Yuletide the farmers would come to the temple and bring all the good they would need for the length of the feast. At the feast there would be a good deal of drinking of alcohol. Livestock would be slaughtered as sacrifices to the gods. Their blood would be sprinkled upon the congregates there as a blessing upon them, while their flesh would be cooked served at the feast. It was the chieftain who made the feast, blessed the alcohol, and blessed the sacrificial meat. Toasts would then be drunk. First would be a toast to Óðinn for victory and power to the king. Second would be to the gods  Njörðr and Freyr for peace and good harvests. Third would be a toast to dead ancestors and kinsmen.

Further sagas tell a bit more about Yule among the Old Norse speakers and Icelanders. Indeed, Grettirs Saga had quite a bit more to say about Yule. It told how the mistress of the house decorated it and readied for the Yuletide. It also told how  it is also at Yule when ghosts are most powerful. Set not long after the Icelanders had converted Christianity, Grettirs Saga equates Yule with Christmas, much as the Angles and Saxons had. In Svarfdæla saga a berserk postpones a duel until three days after Yule has ended in order not to disturb the sanctity of the holiday. In The Grœnlendinga Saga there is even a reference to gift giving at Yule. Thorfinnur Karlsefni gave Eirikur Raudi malt with which to make ale at Yule.Among the Icelanders, at least, Yule apparently lasted thirteen days. Epiphany, Twelfth Night in English, was called Þrettándi in Old Icelandic, "the Thirteenth.

Looking at Yule (or Jól as they would have called it) celebrated among the Old Norse speakers and assuming the Angles and Saxons would have celebrated it similarly, one can see customs which have survived to this day in the celebration of Christmas. Feasting remains a part of Christmas to this day. Even today drinking is common place at Christmas, and the oaths and toasts made at the heathen Yule reflect the toasts and resolutions made today at New Year's. Even the sacrificial boar seems to have survived as a custom at Christmas, ham being a traditional holiday meal. As to giving gifts, it is still very much a part of Christmas.

Of course, the sad fact is that none of the sources describing Yule among the pagan Germanic peoples go into detail about how the holiday was celebrated beyond dressing as animals, feasting, drinking, oaths, toasts, and sacrifices. Certainly, the custom of wassailing--of drinking to the health of trees in order that they might live longer--could be a survival of heathen Yule as well. Indeed, the word wassail dates back to an Old English greeting "Wæs þú hal"--"May you be whole (as in healthy)." 

Sadly, we cannot be certain of other customs, although it is quite possible that they date back to pagan Yule. This could be particularly true of holly, often used in Christmas decoration whether in making wreaths from it or decking the halls with boughs of it. Both holly and ivy have been used in Christmas decorations since at least the 15th and 16th centuries, and the carol "The Holly and the Ivy" maybe nearly as old. While holly and ivy have a fairly long history as holiday decorations, mistletoe, much less the custom of kissing beneath it, is rarely mentioned prior to the 18th century. Still, it seems likely that it was a pagan survival  given the significance of mistletoe in myths and legends. Indeed, in the Prose Edda Snorri Sturluson states that it was with mistletoe that the god Baldr was slain. It was also a popular plant to use in herbal remedies.The Christmas tree also seems to be a recent tradition. Indeed, it is first referenced in 1510 in Riga, Latvia. In 1521 the German Princess Helene of Mecklembourg brought a Christmas tree to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. Afterwards, it is often referred to as a German custom.

While many of these Christmas decorations, such holly and Christmas trees, are referenced no earlier than the 15th or 16th century, and mistletoe even later, it does seem possible that they are heathen survivals. In Grettirs Saga we are told the lady of the house decorated it for Yule. In other holidays which survived from paganism, such as Midsummer, it was traditional to decorate the house with flowers. Flowers being unknown in December, at Yule the Germanic peoples may have used evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, as decorations instead. Indeed, they may have had a special significance. Yule was the beginning of the year, while evergreens were always green--they did not lose their foliage as other plants did. Evergreens could then be a symbol of birth and rebirth, as in the birth and rebirth of the year.

The Yule log could also be a survival of the pagan celebration.  Although not mentioned in Old English or Old Norse sources, the Yule log is burned in England, in Germany, and in France. While it is first mentioned in England only in the 17th century, in its first reference it already seems to be a well established custom among rural folk. The significance in the Yule log may be in providing light and warmth during the longest night of the year, Yule originally falling on the winter solstice (December 25 according to the Julian calendar).

Sadly, we can never be certain that these customs survived from the pagan Yule celebration or merely developed over time. It does seem that they have very little to do with the birth of Jesus or anything to be found in the Christian Bible. Given this, it seems likely that they are pagan in origin rather than Christian, and owe more to the pagan celebration of Yule than the Christian celebration of Christmas. What we do know for certain of the heathen Yule, however, points to the fact that much of it survived to this day. People still drink. People still make toasts. People still make resolutions. People even still eat ham and give gifts. Although many Christians would insist that it isn't Christmas without many of these things, the fact is that they are survivals of a festival celebrated long before Christianity came to Northern Europe, the festival of Yule.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Captain Beefheart Passes On

Legendary rock musician Captain Beefheart passed on December 17, 2010. The cause was complications from multiple sclerosis.

Captain Beefheart was born Don Vliet in Glendale, California on January 15, 1941. While young he exhibited a gift for sculpture, so much so that he was offered several scholarships. Unfortunately, his parents were not particularly supportive of his artistic talents and turned down every scholarship offer. It was when he was thirteen that his family moved from Glendale to the town of Lancaster, California. There he met a classmate with similar tastes as he had by the name of Frank Zappa. He began to play with local bands, including The Omens and The Blackouts (the latter group featuring Mr. Zappa on drums). It would be at Mr. Zappa's suggestion that Don Vliet would become Don Van Vliet. Frank Zappa and Don Vliet would work on an unfinished rock opera, I Was a Teenage Maltshop. They also built sets and wrote part of a script entitled Captain Beefheart Vs. The Grunt People.

In 1965 Don Vliet changed his name to Don Van Vliet. It was also in 1965 that Don Van Vliet became Captain Beefheart, forming the quintet Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. The name would soon be changed to Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. By late 1965 the band was signed by A&M Records to record two singles. It was in 1967 that Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band released their first album, Safe as Milk. While very blues oriented, Safe as Milk featured the surreal lyrics and jerkiness that would become part and parcel of Captain Beefheart's style. Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band would fully plunge themselves into experimental music with their critically acclaimed 1969 album Trout Mask Replica, which blended blues, jazz, and many other genres. It would later influence both post punk and alternative rock.

Their 1970 album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, would go deeper into experimentation. Indeed, much of the album was created through improvisation. To promote Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Captain Beefheart created a television commercial and promotional film with surreal, non sequitur imagery. The suggestiveness of the album's title and the surreality of the commercial's imagery kept if off the air, but it would eventually find its way into the Museum of Modern Art. It has since been remembered as an important milestone in music video.

Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band would drift away from experimentation and by their 1973 album Clear Spot they were performing fairly straight forward blues. With the 1974 album Unconditionally Guaranteed, raked over the coal by critics, the whole band would quit. Captain Beefheart recorded the 1975 album Bongo Fury with Frank Zappa. He also formed a new Magic Band, which would record four more albums. With the 1978 album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) Captain Beefheart returned to experimentation. His last two albums, Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow also contained a good deal of experimentation. Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band would even shoot a video for the song "Ice Cream for Crow," which was rejected by MTV as being "too weird."

Don Van Vliet then retired from music to concentrate on his painting. He would establish a long association with the Michael Werner Gallery. Like his music, Mr. Van Vliet's art was a mixture of different genres, from modernism to abstract expressionism to primitivism.

While I did not like every single piece of music Captain Beefheart recorded, I must confess that I always admired him. In an era when many music artists were satisfied with producing commercially acceptable music, Captain Beefheart showed a willingness to experiment. His ground breaking work on his first four albums would prove a lasting influence on a diverse range of artists, including Tom Waits, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Devo, and The White Stripes. Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band proved a lasting impact on both post punk and alternative rock. Captain Beefheart was very much a pioneer who sacrificed monetary success for breaking new ground in rock 'n' roll.