Some Christmas tunes. Really!
making Mx. Justin Vivian Bond an annual holiday tradition
# of Tracks: 50ish
Length: 3 hours
Themes: a sorta indie Xmas ~ a very Brassland Xmas ~ an observance of the solstice ~ built around selections from Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s House of (Holiday) Whimsy
In theory, I do not like Christmas music. While I’ll bend over backwards to expound upon the universality of Thanksgiving,1 I do not particularly enjoy the Christmas season. I respect the dark power and bright moons of the solstice but who exactly is a fan of sunset at 4:30pm? At best I find Christmas Day itself to be socially awkward and, more frequently, outright depressing. And yet…
One of my most treasured memories in my history of gig-going unites my romance with New York City and the kind of art it fosters with—of all things!—comedic Christmas music.
It was the late late late late 1990s. The venue was the not-particularly-lamented Fez,2 an under 150 capacity club on the nicer edge of the East Village. I was just out of college. I brought my then-girlfriend, the midwestern daughter of a corporate insurance CEO. The show was by Justin Vivian Bond in her now-legendary3 downtown NYC cabaret duo Kiki & Herb. Bond played Kiki DuRane, an aging alcoholic lounge singer with an unhinged and hilarious mean streak; her accompanist on piano was Kenny Mellman, portraying the mononymous Herb—a “gay Jew tard” in one of Kiki’s more colorful descriptions.
Aged with sloppily drawn wrinkle lines in the tradition of poorly executed summer stock, Kiki & Herb fearlessly attacked and expanded the American songbook, ripping through ‘80s hits like “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” underground touchstones like The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,”4 holiday favorites like “Frosty the Snowman” and, you know, Nirvana and Suicidal Tendencies—as if these musics existed in a single aesthetic universe. Which, at the time, they most certainly did not. (My how things have changed.5)
I believe the title of the show was Jesus Wept.6 Let’s just say that Kiki & Herb were not favorably inclined toward the titular hero, or toward anything in mainstream society.7 My girlfriend—try as she might to be a lapsed-Catholic—was horrified. I was thrilled, my mind was blown, and I laughed my ass off. It was the template for an interpersonal dynamic I’d recreate numerous times with a series of posher-than-me romantic partners. She tried to keep the lid on a lifetime of enforced propriety; I felt an untrammeled sense of liberation with no reservations. Like extreme forms of San Diego hardcore,8 like artists Marcel Duchamp and William Eggleston who had colonized my brain, these were people making up their own rules as they went along. They were all part of the unlock code revealing the cosmopolitan, shameless, fearless, and funny New York City of my imagination. I might have been and probably still am the straightest of #whytppl, but I knew right away any city that could support this kind of madness was a place where I’d find my version of a chosen family.
Fast forward to the mid-2010s. My label Brassland found itself in the unexpected position of commissioning artists in our constellation to make holiday-themed recordings for Amazon Music. It’s an understatement to say I was deeply honored when the now-iconic Mx. Justin Vivian Bond agreed to record a short EP for us.9 V also agreed to curate a short playlist, which is the spiritual backbone of the mix I’m posting to you now.10
And so, while it’s fair to say I have mixed feelings about Christmas and its music, being bombarded by it at the end of each year is a peculiar gift we’ve been given. If you need a refresher on holiday etiquette, when you receive a gift, you must always show your appreciation, regardless of whether or not you like it. So here’s me, smiling and saying thank you for Christmas music. I’d encourage you to do the same.
The playlist includes songs such as…
^ The Pogues “Fairytale of New York” (feat. Kirsty MacColl)
^ Carla Thomas “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas”
^ Dan Fogelberg “Same Old Lang Syne”
^ Bob Dylan “Winterlude”
• Michael Hill’s winter mix: If I’m getting my music industry lore correct, Michael, who these days works primarily as a music supervisor, had a pretty big role in getting the Replacements signed to a major label as an A&R executive. I’m intrigued by that even if I’ve never really gotten much deeper into that band’s discography than the very excellent “Alex Chilton.” A good chunk of the songs on his playlist would “go great with picture” as they say in the film trade (if I didn’t just make that up): beautiful, emotional, melodic, yet non-disruptive. There are also dramatic exceptions to that rule — e.g. Thumpasaurus’s “Struttin’” which reminds me of some absurd mash-up of the Butthole Surfers and the Rednex.11 There are also recent deep-cut obscurities by artists like Ydegirl who shows up with a heartbreaking recording called “ways of saying things direct” that has under 4,000 streams on Spotify. I was sorely tempted to add the new Saint Etienne song he included, “Her Winter Coat,”12 to my holiday mix. Anyway, I’m there for all of it. Music supes have their jobs for a reason.
• Earthsong by Briars of North America’s Greg Chudzik: A literally endless ambient drone composition intended to be run in a web-browser based on various pools of data about geographic position and the seasons.
Now that sounds like Christmas!
Ok, not really.
But if you have any interest in computer music, long drones, and new ways of creating things with algorithms, I’d encourage you to click on this ambient solstice music “drop” by Greg, a member of the Brassland group Briars of North America.
• Funky Christmas: This has been a very #whytppl edition of my mixtape blog. As usual, my apologies. Here’s a more-than-mildly funky alternative playlist to check out if you need some diversity.
Anyway a happy holiday to you all.
I actually thought it was the even less-lamented Under Acme, another small room located in the same neighborhood, under a French/Italian restaurant just north of Houston Street. But Google tells me Fez is where Kiki & Herb had a residency and I’ll accept that.
…and even kind of then legendary.
I found a clip! “Heroin” starts around about the 7:20 second mark.
That link was to a New York Times article previewing the Kiki & Herb revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this month. In its first life, the duo’s show climaxed with a number of performances at Carnegie Hall. They’re now elders of sorts, with mostly separate careers. Mellman has performed as part of the Julie Ruin band alongside Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna; the higher-profile Bond published a book, shows visual art, and performers regularly to sold out downtown (and occasionally uptown and international) crowds, especially when there isn’t a pandemic going on.
As her Wikipedia entry puts it “Bond moved to New York City in 1994 in the midst of crackdown on queer clubs by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani.” In New York City! Would you have trusted anyone in charge of anything?
I’ll never not take an excuse to share this particular Clikatat Ikatowi clip:
More precisely: the first dozen tracks are mostly holiday songs Brassland commissioned. Most of the tracks in the 20s, 30s, and 40s were songs suggested by Mx. Bond. How would I describe Viv’s selections? Heartfelt holiday treacle that flashes fierce fingernails in the most unexpected ways and places. I’d point to “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt, the wounded roar of Benjamin Smoke’s Opal Foxx Quartet, and even the former lovers drinking a six-pack in a parked car as depicted in soft rock icon Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.”
I’ve put in a few of my own picks before those and then at the end of the mix. I’ve included a pair of under-appreciated recordings by my old comrade Holcombe Waller because, to me, they are solstice adjacent. And then there’s lots of Bond’s own music scattered throughout.
I’ll decline to provide links to those projects because I can’t be responsible for what you think of ‘em.
Here is that Saint Etienne song: