Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The 5 Most Disturbing Christmas Songs

It's no secret that Christmas has become primarily a marketing scheme used to push wares that vary from desirable to entirely useless. One need only reach out to the world via a trip to any retailer or just by turning on a television or radio for undeniable proof of this. But beyond the gaudy displays, frenzied shopping, and seasonal sweet aromas, there's an incredibly powerful marketing device employed at this time every year: Christmas music.

We hear it every year, whether Pagan, Christian, or Jew. Christmas songs are broadcast into our ears from Halloween until New Year's Day to help "get you in the spirit of the season" (which translates into "shopping"). Some people truly enjoy it. Some people hate it with extreme malice. One of the main problems is that there's not much variety; in fact, there's only something like 35 Christmas tunes that are played regularly, and not one of them was released recently.

A Christmas song generally fits into one of two categories: Carols (mostly written in the mid-19th century) and radio hits (mostly written in the mid-20th century). These carols are generally what you might consider to be a "traditional" song. Here's a selection of a few of them:

  • Away in a Manger: 1885
  • Deck the Halls: 1881
  • Good King Wenceslas: 1853
  • Silent Night: 1859
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas: 1780
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas: 17th century

These songs are generally focused on being merry, enjoying tradition, and actually recognizing that Jesus guy that the holiday is somehow related to. In the days before the Sears catalog, Christmas wasn't really about buying gifts with a panicked expression on your face, it was mostly a time to recognize the beginning of the harsh Winter months and enjoy the warmth of fires, food, and company.

The radio hits of the 1940s and 50s brought us a completely different spin on things. Tiring of the stuffy atmosphere provided by these traditional tunes, record producers sought to write new Christmas music to accompany shoppers as a new era of the holiday season began to emerge. The trend began in 1934 when "Winter Wonderland" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" simultaneously emerged, kicking off two decades of similar songwriting. By 1970, when "Feliz Navidad" hit the radio, the trend was over.

What we are left with is a curious mix of dusty old tunes left over from a pre-electricity world juxtaposed with upbeat tunes that feature a drumkit-driven backbeat. And the newer tunes, as "cool" as they were when they were released, attempted to jazz up the genre with occasionally ill-conceived subject matter.

Here, then, are the five most disturbing Christmas songs of every holiday season, imposed upon us for half a century of season's greetings.

Winter Wonderland — 1934

Okay, so it's not actually that disturbing to us in these times, but in the 30s this song was considered scandalous. It alludes to a romantic couple who intend to elope:

"In the meadow we can build a snowman, and pretend that he is Parson Brown"

"Parson Brown" is actually a made up character. A parson, at the time, was a protestant minister who would travel to towns performing wedding ceremonies:

"He'll say 'Are You Married?' We'll say 'No man, but you can do the job when you're in town!'"

Then the two intend to deceive their family, bringing shame to generations:

"Later on, we'll conspire as we dream by the fire,
To face unafraid the plans that we've made"

Yeah, I know. Not that disturbing. But consider that elementary school children sing this song every year!

Santa Claus is Coming to Town — 1934

I often unpopularly refer to Santa Claus as "Training God" because children, who have little concept of eternity, can be tricked into acting morally straight if they think Santa is all-knowing and might choose not to bring them workshop-built video game consoles. This is the song that cemented that view of the jolly gift-giver into our minds.

"He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake"

Thinking of God or Jesus watching over us at all times isn't disturbing, and can actually be comforting for many. But there's something about a guy who actually comes into your house watching you while you're sleeping that's just unsettling. Yep, this is when Santa started to become sinister.

"He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!"

Considering the fact that Santa appears to be a real guy you can meet and sit on the lap of at the mall, this is just weird. It's like he's following you around with binoculars, watching you from behind a tree while you shove other kids down a metal slide. As we'll see in the next few songs, Santa might be omniscient, but he's not necessarily omni-benevolent.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — 1939

This incredibly famous song of adolescent bullying originally appeared as a poem in a coloring book being distributed by retail giant Montgomery Ward as a Christmastime promotion. The song paints a morbid picture of psychological torture perpetrated upon the eponymous reindeer by his peers.

"All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names,
They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games."

Imagine poor Rudolph, discriminated against just for being different. We supposedly learn a lesson about acceptance as his unusual nose becomes the device that saves Christmas, leading the sleigh through especially foggy weather:

"Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say,
'Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?'
Then all the reindeer loved him."

Oh. OH. NOW you love him. If I was Rudolph, I sure as hell wouldn't be their friends. Dicks.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus — 1952

This holiday classic features a boy's perception of his mother's infidelity, and not just with some strange man. No, in fact, the child's entire moral foundation is shaken as he witnesses his own mother cheating on his dad, while simultaneously witnessing Santa, the gift-giving diety, cheat on his own wife, solidly placing him on the naughty list:

"I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night."

Had he been caught spying on them, they might have used the mystical plant hanging over their heads as justification. After all, if two opposite-gendered people notice they are standing underneath it, they have to kiss, right? But that doesn't explain this next part, wherein mommy gets frisky:

"Then, I saw mommy tickle Santa Claus underneath his beard so snowy white."

Presumably, this is where the kid gets the hint and leaves town for a life on the rails with a scabby old dog, eating out of garbage cans and telling everyone he meets the story of how his mother is a whore. But no, the child chooses a more healthy defense mechanism: Laughter.

"Oh, what a laugh it would have been if daddy had only seen mommy kissing Santa Claus."

What a laugh indeed, if by "laugh" you mean "bloodbath."

Santa Baby — 1953

As if these portrayals of Santa as a creepy stalker, irresponsible caretaker, and adulterer weren't bad enough, this song makes him the target of a sultry temptress who intends to arouse him into giving her unreasonable gifts. After all, she's been an "awful good girl," right?

"Think of all the fun I've missed, think of all the fellas I haven't kissed."

That's right, she's well aware that no one, not even Santa, wants to get involved with a girl that gets around. In many later versions (Madonna, Taylor Swift) the vocal tone is replaced by lifeless interpretations relevant to the popular music of the time (New Wave and Pop Country), but in the original Eartha Kitt recording, her clear intent is to seduce Santa. And I don't know about you, but I certainly don't want to think about what's going on in Santa's giant fluffy red pants.

"Santa cutie, and fill my stocking with a duplex and checks."

Now to fully understand why this is the most disturbing Christmas song of all time, picture this for a moment: Santa is standing there in her living room after breaking into her house. She's wearing a sparkly cleavage-exposing cocktail dress with a giant slit up one leg, singing this line to him. His cheeks become rosy as usual, but more because he's a little embarrassed. Is there anything more disturbing than a man in a Santa suit chuckling awkwardly as his giant belly bounces around while a woman performs a sexy routine for him? Maybe if she was also tickling him under his white beard.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day Trip: Longswamp Valley

Georgia, like many other places, has seven natural wonders. Or rather, someone compiled a list of “Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders,” the seven most compelling natural formations in the state. Georgia is big for an eastern state, so unfortunately, the wonders are widespread and few are close to Atlanta. Stone Mountain is the exception, but everyone in this city has been there a thousand times.

However, I noticed that the list has changed over the past century. When the first list was compiled by librarian Ella May Thornton in 1926, it included two items that were replaced. One was Jekyll Island’s forest (and anyone that knows me well knows I go apeshit for Jekyll) and the other was “The marble vein in Longswamp Valley in Pickens County.”

At the time, Jekyll Island was an exclusive retreat for the world’s richest white folk, only accessible by ferry and special invitation. This major publicity as a playground for Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies probably earned it its place on the list. Today, it’s been developed with bulldozed dunes, beachfront hotels, and golf courses, and the maritime forests are still attractive and mosquito-filled, but it has been booted from the modern list.

But enough about Jekyll. I’ve been there more than twenty times. I was more intrigued by this marble vein in Pickens county—a mere two counties north of my house. This meant that an Atlanta resident could take a day trip to see it. I just had to figure out where Longswamp Valley was.

Sometimes Google is no help. A search for “longswamp valley” consistently returned the 1926 natural wonders list and nothing else. I suspect that this article will now be in the top ten results because of this. Maps didn’t clarify anything. I resolved to drive through the area and find a non-violent local for further guidance.

I figured my best bet would be to head toward the community of Marble Hill, a relatively short drive down a two-lane highway at the end of interstate 575. After all, if there’s a marble hill, there’s likely a marble valley nearby, right?

So I took I-575 north to its end point, where it begins its life as a regular ol' highway and turned right at the first light, heading eastbound toward Tate. This town has a history of marble excavation, so I presumed that someone in the area would know what I was looking for.

Georgia Marble Company, ca. 1930s
Pickens County’s history is based entirely around the marble industry. Laying pretty far east of the rail line that birthed Kennesaw, Marietta, and even Atlanta itself, very few had ventured into its endless woods in the early 19th century except for the Native Americans that had lived there for ages. For more than a thousand years, these natives were aware of the curiously pure rock that jutted out of the earth in a stretch nearly five to seven miles long, and word eventually got around to pioneering entrepreneur Henry Fitzsimmons who intended to work the marble in the 1830s. His early efforts were crude and unfruitful but paved the way for the establishment of the railway into Tate and the successors to the marble industry fortune, including Col. Sam Tate who became the president of the Georgia Marble Company in 1905.

Marble coming from Pickens’ quarries was quite popular, being used to build the Lincoln Memorial, New York Stock Exchange, and countless other prestigious public and private spaces. By the 1930s, marble demand began to slow down, but the Georgia Marble Company continued to hold the market on high quality marble production.

As I began my trek off the beaten path and into the rural heartland of the Appalachian foothills, dotted by collapsing long-abandoned houses, rusting automobiles, and dogs chasing my car down the street, I pondered the list in my mind. Why did Providence Canyon—a 150 foot deep chasm in southwest Georgia created by erosion due to irresponsible farming techniques in the 1800s—replace Jekyll’s forests as a wonder? Why did Radium Springs, also in southwest Georgia, bump this amazing marble vein from the list?

Entering Tate, I crossed train tracks partially overgrown with weeds and stopped at an ancient train depot. It looked like something that might host a Postal Service hook for mail delivery in the 1800s. Consistent with almost every other structure for miles, it needed a new roof and its wood siding was beginning to rot. Preservation efforts were clearly considered, due to a sign posted next to the road:



The Tate House
Like nearly everything else in marble country, even its preservation had been forgotten. I pressed on in search of the former wonder, and began looking out for my next landmark: The Tate House, a pink marble mansion open for weddings and bar mitzvahs. As the road began to drop in altitude for the first time in miles, I spied it through the trees on the right and pulled onto a short but paved road leading to a rear parking lot. The road forked to the left toward a marble processing plant and passed to the right behind seven small wooden cabins. Sitting in my car in an empty parking lot, I stared at the convention center attached to the back of the mansion, admiring the smooth marble walls. Had it not been 7:30 AM on a Sunday, they might have been open for tours. I got back on the road heading east.

Literally a few hundred yards back on the road, I crossed a bridge labelled “Longswamp Creek” and the road began to immediately ascend. The creek was at the bottom of a small valley! I had found it without having to consult a scary local! My mind snapped back to the marble processing plant I had just seen, and I pulled a stupid and dangerous three-point turn on a double blind curve to rush back to it. These words were emblazoned in huge, bold letters on the front of the building:


I had found it! The plant’s gates were closed, but a sign on the razor wire fence declared that visitors could report to the main office, which I could have done if it wasn’t 7:35 AM on a Sunday. My marble vein lay just beyond that slicy barrier, and I wasn’t going to see it.

When I got home, I consulted Google Earth to see a massive white streak in the belly of the valley. As I zoomed in, I began to be horrified. The front of the plant that I could see was only the beginning of an incomprehensibly large marble mining operation that stretched nearly an entire mile. Every conceivable speck of what could possibly be considered part of the wondrous marble vein had been worked and split up into chunks. This wonder could no longer appear on the list because it hardly continued to exist—at least not in the form it had in the 1920s.

I’d still like to visit it, but I’d bet that 85 years of increasingly efficient excavation techniques have killed the magic a little bit. But for anyone else searching for the great marble vein of Longswamp Valley, here’s how you get there from Atlanta:

  • Take I-75 north from downtown Atlanta, past I-285
  • Veer to the right onto I-575 North and follow it until it ends, becoming Highway 5/515
  • Turn right at the first traffic light onto Old Waleska Road, Highway 108/53
  • Cross the train tracks in Tate and look for the historic train depot
  • Continue east about 1.25 miles until the road begins to go downhill
  • Turn right onto Georgia Marble Road (also the access road to the Tate house)

200 Georgia Marble Ln.
Tate, GA 30177

Monday, December 5, 2011

Paused for Sixteen Years: Teenager of the Year

I pulled the unfolding stairs down from the attic by a decaying, dangling rope as my brother gently rested its feet to the ground. I followed him up into the nostalgia dungeon in search of something long forgotten in the archives of my parents’ attic. We had a mission, but became immediately distracted by the relics of an earlier age: The Atari 2600, a wood-paneled game console; the creepy, cobweb-covered rocking horse eyeing us dangerously from the periphery. But it was in a shoebox containing a dozen or so random items where I made an unprecedented discovery.

It was a transparent and unlabeled cassette, through which I could see words hand-written on the case insert. I would have disregarded the tape were it not for two distinct words poking through in exactly the right spot:

Olé Mulholland

I traced back through my memories to determine the source of this phrase which caught my eye. Suddenly, my brain returned an answer.

“Oh my god, do you know what this is?” I asked my brother. He looked at it, but continued digging through another box of useless-to-anyone-else contents. I flipped the case open and yanked the tape out, confirming my excited suspicions. “This is Teenager of the Year by Frank Black!”

My brother looked at the tape, but couldn’t recall the source, and couldn’t understand the reasoning behind my excitement over one old bootlegged album on archaic magnetic media. I imagine few could, but I understood exactly why this find was so special—and the gift that I would get to reveal the next time I placed it into a tape deck to spin its reels once again.

You see, this is a wholly immense album, released in an incredible moment in music history. The year was 1994—one of the best years for music of my lifetime—and Frank Black had just disbanded the Pixies, a group ten years ahead of its time. That four-piece had almost single-handedly birthed the “alternative” music scene that was so prolific in that same year. Black had reinvented himself, becoming less a teacher and more of a peer. It was his second of many solo albums, and widely considered to be his greatest effort ever.

The single-disc album features an insane 22 tracks and never loses momentum. And these weren’t leftover Pixies songs either; those were released on his self-titled debut the previous year. Yes, Frank Black had written twenty-two non-filler tracks for this album within a year, without having to use any recycled material.

And he did so with the best possible musicians as well. Joey Santiago from the Pixies followed him to play on five of the album’s tracks, with nearly all other non-Black guitars handled by the inventive and talented Lyle Workman, a man who would go on to great success as a session musician and soundtrack composer. Captain Beefheart keyboardist Eric Feldman handled both the bass and synthesizers. It didn’t hurt that Nick Vincent was the perfect drummer for the songs, either.

Someone had given this tape to my brother before he moved out of my parents’ house in 1995, judging by the context of the shoebox’s other contents. This meant that this tape had been sitting dormant, waiting patiently for at least 16 years, paused during a time when the album was still brand new. It was like finding an unopened Surge soda, and there was only one way to find out if the contents had degraded. Each spool held a more-or-less equal roll of tape—the album had been stopped mid-song.

I still have a tape deck in my car, but my CD player died. As a result, I use a tape adapter to my MP3 player, but its battery dies often, leaving me to the choices of silence or, even worse, the radio. I desperately needed a Car Album to keep in the glove box for emergencies, and I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate record to hold that honorable title.

With an average song length of two minutes, fifty-one seconds, the album plays like an old Beatles record, switching songs before the listener can get bored with the current melody. It opens with “Whatever Happened to Pong?”, a spastic, nostalgic tribute to simpler times. Lyrical content is strong and well-founded, featuring political commentary (“Thalassocracy”), the magic of the Great American Road Trip (“Calistan”), and a literal-yet-not-obvious tribute to the Three Stooges (“Two Reelers”). Black proves his worth as a science fiction buff with inventive tales of Mars, the space race, and terraformation (“The Vanishing Spies”, “Big Red”), a direct reference to sci-fi tome A Wrinkle in Time in the album’s lead-off single, “Headache”, a tale of alien abduction in “Fazer Eyes”, and even the paranoid ramblings of a conspiracy theorist who believes satellites are controlling his mind (“White Noise Maker”).

A particular gem lost in the middle of the album includes the retrospective critique of the practices of circus magnate P.T. Barnum in “Superabound” in which Black “bought a ticket to the freaks” only to become Barnum’s proverbial “sucker born every minute.” It’s tough to place the song into a specific category due to its catchy, snappy guitar leads and jolly organs, but it’s a perfect example of the kind of magic that can happen when you put Black in charge of such a varied and talented cast of musicians.

Beyond “Calistan”, the story of Black’s migration from his native Boston to Los Angeles, the album is clearly influenced by the Golden State. The aforementioned “Olé Mulholland” gives a transplant’s perspective of life in L.A., including the recollection of famed architect William Mulholland who built the aqueducts that made life in the desert possible. “Space is Gonna Do Me Good” is a futuristic tale about his projected eviction from the city to “the islands of Phoenix in 2016” when southern California is fabled to be completely underwater.

The album has its low moments, too, but even those are not so bad. “Speedy Marie” is an earned self-indulgent ode to romance in which the first letter of each line in the coda spells out the full name of Black’s girlfriend at the time. “Sir Rockaby” is an ironically not-rocking ballad. But when you put “Headache” between them, somehow it works out.

The only time Black really falls into the character of his own legacy is during “Freedom Rock,” in which snarky employees of a record store try to tell the songwriter of the Pixies what albums he should be listening to. The fallout from this is severe, as indicated by the sampled gasps of horror heard in the background when Black relates this part of the story. Beyond this brief moment, he’s happy to focus on cranking out incredible music and thought-provoking storytelling. The album ends on a high note with the upbeat, feel-good sun-worshipping song “Pie in the Sky”.

As I cranked up my car to leave my parents’ house, I held the cassette in my hand. Who made this for my brother? Did he listen to it? Why did someone eject the album mid-song? I put the tape down, deciding to never solve any of these questions. After all, it would be a shame and a waste to open an ancient can of Surge, too.

Then, at the last moment, I stuffed it into the tape deck. “Speedy Marie” was playing, and I wasn’t surprised.