Christmastime is Here

The temperature has dropped, the halls are decked and the Christmas programming on television begins. Must be October. Just kidding, sort of. Most people who know me know that I love Halloween. What they might not know is that I love Christmas even more. I’m not one for Christmas creep or Black Friday (which seems to start on Thanksgiving Thursday these days), but I do love the trappings of the Yuletide season. From the music (which I’ve written about previously) to the decorations, Christmas is one of my favorite things in life.

I have such fond memories of Christmas past. I spent a good part of my early childhood poor, although my parents did a wonderful job of hiding this from me. I always had a good birthday, a plentiful Easter and best of all, wonderful Christmases. Now that I am older and understand how little we could afford, I am ashamed of myself for being the selfish sot that I was as a little boy.

Santa Claus was always so good to me. I’ll tell you more about that some other time.

One of the things I do so enjoy about this time of year is the Christmas specials and movies. Since the countdown of my 100 favorite horror movies, and my Top 15 Christmas songs were met with such glee, I thought I would count down my Top 10 favorite Christmas specials/movies.

  1. Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 8.17.48 PMA Charlie Brown Christmas – 1965

This is usually the first Christmas special I watch each year and I’ll watch it multiple times from the DVR recording before Dec. 25. This year, a 50th Anniversary Special accompanied the annual airing. I’m not one for the Thanksgiving or Halloween specials. The Great Pumpkin doesn’t do much for me and Peppermint Patty’s presumptuous nature and bad attitude kill the Thanksgiving show for me. However, I adore the Christmas special. From the skating scene to Linus’ monologue and Charlie Brown’s tree purchase – there is so much to like.

[Check out the IMDB entry]

I remember trying to catch snowflakes on my tongue as a kid. Snowball fights. Sliding around in the snow and on the ice. Playing with my friends in the snow. So many of the activities Charlie Brown and his friends engage in remind me of my own childhood.

The one thing that stands out to me about this show is the music. Vince Guaraldi’s score has become iconic and the songs have become Christmas classics on the radio, SiriusXM and online streaming like Pandora.

Director Bill Melendez truly captures the spirit of Charles M. Schulz’s iconic comic strip characters in this production. It has a sweetness, innocence and charm that, for me, is the perfect way to kick off the season.

It’s not particularly well-animated and the editing is a bit uneven. But it’s sweet and not heavy-handed and I enjoy it.

B Boy on the Road: My Denver Beatnik Adventure

Enjoying my Cutthroat Porter at My Brother's Bar.
Enjoying a Cutthroat Porter at My Brother’s Bar, channeling my inner Jack Kerouac.

I visit Denver for work once a year and I absolutely hate the fucking place. Cowboy culture makes me ill. When I take that 45-minute ride from the Denver airport to downtown, all I can think of are Marshal Dillon riding with his posse across the expanse and tumbleweeds. Look, I love a good cowboy movie but the dimestore cowboy culture and the country music that goes with it can go extinct any time now. I have other reasons for not liking Denver, but none that are worth exploring now.

My first few times in Denver I noticed a large homeless population, which struck me as odd. More on that in a bit.

I finally got around to reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road this summer and it affected me. I had that kind of wanderlust in my younger years. When I joined the Navy at 18, I couldn’t sit still for five minutes. My pals and I were constantly hopping in the car for road trips. Funny how it was always my fucking car. Most of the time we were heading home for a long weekend and dropping cats along the way and picking them up on the way back. A 15-hour drive from Memphis to Rochester, N.Y., is lonely and expensive. It was always good to have travel companions to help share the time and chip in gas and snack money.

What struck me about On the Road was that Denver was basically the birthplace of the Beat Generation. Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady et al ran the streets of Denver and caroused and drank and listened to the birth of jazz and gathered the experiences that led to some of the best of 20th century American literature. Who the hell knew Denver was a hopping spot in the late 1940s? I sure as hell didn’t.

I was determined to look at this city through new eyes.

No, I didn’t go all Minority Report and get an eye transplant. But in the days leading up to this weekend business trip, I visited www.denver.org and found what to do as far as Denver’s Beat history is concerned. Did I do all that I planned? Hardly. I couldn’t find any hep cats to pal around with. That’s okay, I didn’t mind exploring alone.

My more than friendly and knowledgeable barkeeps at My Brother's Bar in Denver.
My more than friendly and knowledgeable barkeeps at My Brother’s Bar in Denver.
My porter needed a whisky chaser.
My porter needed a whiskey chaser.

The first stop on the list was My Brother’s Bar on the corner of 15th and Platte. This was supposedly the spot where Kerouac, Ginsberg and Cassady drank and plotted and schemed and launched many a night of bar-hopping. I enjoyed a glass of Cutthroat Porter. I have developed a taste for this variety of beer. It looks like a stout but it drinks much lighter and smoother. I asked the barkeep what my beer was missing and he replied, “a side of whisky?” Tullamore DEW Irish Whisky, neat, was my chaser of choice. Both served well to wash down the bacon cheeseburger and fries that disappeared far too easily. My Brother’s Bar will give you, free of charge, copies of some Cassady/Beat memorabilia, including a letter Cassady wrote while incarcerated. My Brother’s Bar claims to be the oldest bar in Denver. Now, you might want to argue that the Buckhorn Saloon qualifies. The Buckhorn boasts the oldest liquor license in Colorado. That’s a whole different animal, as evidenced by the taxidermy on the walls of the Buckhorn.

Me outside My Brother's Bar in Denver.
Me outside My Brother’s Bar in Denver.

I find it fascinating that Cassady was born into Denver’s homeless community and that the homeless population in Denver is generational, systemic. I saw several people standing outside the Denver Rescue Mission as I was riding into downtown tonight.

As much as San Francisco seems to be the place known for Beat goings on, I felt very much in touch with the original beatniks in the place of their origin. I must have looked silly with the idiot grin on my face as I asked the My Brother Bar’s bartenders question after question about the history of the place and what Kerouac and his contemporaries were like.

I’ve said it and I have written it. I am too successful and not disaffected enough to fancy myself “beaten down” as the Beat Generation did. But I have grown disillusioned enough with the “system” and my place in the universe that I certainly identify and relate. My blog style is reminiscent of Kerouac’s autobiographical narrative. I am no Kerouac. But neither was he when he started. And at 46, I have no intention of popping off at 47 as Kerouac did.

Me at The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver.
Me at The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver.

The next stop on my adventure was The Tattered Cover bookstore. Mother’s milk. God, I love a bookstore. According to www.denver.org, The Tattered Cover boasted quite the collection of Beat literature. The clerk I asked didn’t deny this, however, there wasn’t exactly a section a la City Lights in San Francisco. I did find a Kerouac volume worthy of my money, as well as a horror novel. I came upon a trio of young people discussing warped tales. A young lady who was trying in vain to hide a half drunk bottle of Wild Turkey, and two young men who were either confused or trying to get the young lady into bed or both, were talking about Lolita and American Psycho. I found the subject matter fascinating and jumped into the conversation. The young woman was surprised that I knew anything about Humbert Humbert and his pedophiliac proclivities or the concept of the unreliable narrator of American Psycho. Was he really a serial killer or was it all in his head? I left the youngsters to their own devices and headed for the little café at the front of the store.

I ordered a mocha from the café attendant, Tom, who was kind enough to throw a few bookmarks in with my purchase (and a Lindor truffle), along with a pen that resembles a pencil. A fan of the Beat himself, Tom mentioned My Brother’s Bar and we high-fived after I told him I had already dug the joint.

Confluence Park
Confluence Park on 15th Street in Denver.
Denver is decorated for the holidays.
Denver is decorated for the holidays.

I had walked from My Brother’s Bar to The Tattered Cover. I walked the 16th Street Mall back to my hotel. I marveled at the Christmas decorations and the number of people out experiencing Denver’s nightlife despite the snow and the sub-freezing temperatures. I wondered if Jack Kerouac had wandered the same streets. I imagined him and Neal Cassady walking briskly with their bare hands thrust into their pockets and collars turned up against the cold as they hustled to the next jazz spot in the Five Points Neighborhood. I walked past Confluence Park and I thought about Neal Cassady walking along the banks of the Platte River and contemplating his next grand theft auto.

Me and my latest Kerouac acquisition.
I had to buy something written by Jack Kerouac at the Tattered Cover.

I went back to my hotel room to finish my coffee and drop my purchases. Had I planned better I would have purchased tickets to a jazz concert and found myself in a smoky corner somewhere grooving. But I made my way to the bar at the Palm Restaurant. I bumped into a friend and enjoyed a cognac. After my pal retired for the evening, I spied the Tullamore DEW Special Reserve on the shelf. There wasn’t enough for a pour so the barkeep “comped” me what was left.

In On the Road, I seem to recall Kerouac writing about wasting money on Scotch while trying in vain to pick up a girl.

Another bartender and I discussed the death of the cowboy culture in Denver and the re-birth of the Beatniks and emergence of hipsters. Apparently this phenomenon has something to do with the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. “Yee-haw” has been replaced with “dude.” Fine by me.

Denver is pretty decked out for Christmas.
Denver is pretty decked out for Christmas.

Perhaps someday I will write my own novel. I have some ideas. I have started one. I haven’t touched it in four years. But at least I started it.

My days of wanderlust are long gone. I do not wish to traipse across the country from New York to San Francisco with stops between. However, I sure didn’t mind some solo exploration of the birthplace of a literary movement and I certainly enjoyed walking in the footsteps of one of my literary heroes.

Maybe one day folks will want to frequent my old haunts and walk in my footsteps.

I listen to Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs tell Jack Kerouac’s story through Hey Jack Kerouac as I write this and I’ll leave you with it, for now.

‘Tis the Season

As much as I enjoy Halloween and horror movies, I must say, I enjoy Christmas even more. I have such fond childhood memories of this time of year. My Thanksgiving blog got me thinking and feeling about those times with my parents and of Christmas past.

I am a traditionalist when it comes to the holidays. Meaning that you must celebrate one before you can even think about celebrating the next. Christmas creep is one phenomenon I’d like to see go away. Stores decorated for Christmas and advertising holiday sales before Halloween is obnoxious.

So, I have a bit of a rule, a tradition if you will. I will not start listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Now, I must admit, I broke my own rule this year. I did start with a little bit in the car on SiriusXM with their Holiday Traditions channel, and on Pandora with my Johnny Mathis holiday station. A few minutes here, a few minutes there – more for the style of music as it goes with the time of year, rather than diving headlong into Christmas.

I usually start with the Christmas music the Monday after Thanksgiving. So, this could go from four to five weeks depending on when Thanksgiving hits. This year, it’ll be about four weeks and to be honest, I don’t get tired of hearing the same tunes throughout the month of December. Since some of my readers enjoy the countdown of my 100 favorite horror films each year, I thought I’d present my 15 favorite Christmas songs. As I mentioned, I am a traditionalist. I only like what I consider to be the “definitive” version. I don’t care for recent or modern remakes (with very few exceptions) and I really don’t care for attempts at new Christmas compositions, with one exception.

So, without further ado, here are my 15 Favorite Christmas songs and why.

15. Jingle Bells. There is a version out there with Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. It is a rehearsal for an Armed Forces Radio broadcast and there is a very funny blooper as Crosby blows a line near the end of the song. It’s one of those rare recordings that I would’ve never heard if not for Pandora. Jingle Bells isn’t so much a Christmas song as it is a winter song. But with the use of sleigh bells, it has become associated with Christmas.

14. Baby, It’s Cold OutsideDean Martin and Marilyn Maxwell. Ah, the “roofie” Christmas song. This is one of those songs that are rare these days with two singers basically having a conversation. I am not musically inclined so I don’t know what this technique is called. There is a line in the song that suggests the lady is swigging a spiked drink as the host tries to convince her not to go out in inclement weather. I’ve always thought the host in the song engaged in innocent cajoling. Unfortunately, this song has been vilified in recent years despite new versions.

13. Rudolph the Red Nosed ReindeerGene Autry. The singing cowboy did the original and probably best version of the song, although Burl Ives gives him a run for his money in the iconic Rankin and Bass supermarionation Christmas TV special. Autry spins the tale of a misfit reindeer, who is bullied and discriminated against until he finally gets his bloody revenge. Oh wait, flashed back to Halloween for a second. Rudolph saves Christmas and goes down in…oh hell, you know the story.

12. Let it SnowMichael Buble. There have been many versions of this song and I do like Michael Buble’s Christmas efforts. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and countless others have recorded versions of this great tune that, like Jingle Bells, is more seasonal than holiday, but has become a Christmas standard.

11. Holly Jolly ChristmasBurl Ives. Probably my favorite song from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Ives, as Sam the talking snowman/narrator, sings this fun, festive, upbeat tune.

10. Rockin’ Around the Christmas TreeBrenda Lee. I think I danced to this song in a 4th grade production or somesuch. This is a different kind of Christmas song that incorporates the rock-a-billy style of the 1950s and the imagery of the holiday season. Her version of Jingle Bell Rock is a lot of fun too.

9. I’ll be Home for ChristmasFrank Sinatra. Bing Crosby did this originally as a bit of a tribute to the troops stationed overseas during World War II. As a former U.S. Navy sailor, I can certainly relate. I spent a few Christmases away from home. A bit melancholy, the song tells a bit of story and has a slight twist.

8. Santa BabyEartha Kitt. Only Eartha Kitt could make blatant materialism soft and sexy. The ultimate wish list, Santa gets serenaded and seduced in this wonderful Christmas favorite. Buble tried to spin it from the male perspective and I thought it flopped. Only a girl can sing this, and Kitt’s rendition is the best ever.

7. Carol of the BellsTrans Siberian Orchestra. This is the only traditional carol I really care for, it’s haunting and rousing at the same time. It is used ad nauseum for the computerized synchronized home light show and for good reason.

6. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the YearAndy Williams. The king of Christmas in Branson, Missouri, Andy Williams delivered the best rendition of this oft-covered classic. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

5. MistletoeColbie Caillat. As I mentioned, I don’t like new Christmas compositions but I make an exception for this one. Caillat really tugs at the heart strings with this beautiful song.

4. The Christmas SongNat King Cole. Mel Torme, the “Velvet Fog,” co-wrote this wonderful ode to all things Christmas, but Nat King Cole’s version is so silky smooth and just oozes Yuletide. What I want to know though is what the hell Chet did to deserve having his nuts roasted every December?

3. Winter WonderlandJohnny Mathis. If Bing Crosby is the father of Christmas music, Johnny Mathis is its uncle. Winter Wonderland may be a seasonal tune, but is has become a Christmas classic recorded by many. But Mathis’ version resonates.

2. White ChristmasBing Crosby. The best selling single of all-time speaks to me because I grew up in Western New York and know first hand what a White Christmas is. I was stationed in Iceland for three years and really got to know it. I miss it living in California. My job doesn’t allow me to get away during the holiday season so I have to do what Bing says, dream of white Christmases like I used to know.

1. Sleigh RideJohnny Mathis. I officially begin my Christmas music listening with Johnny Mathis’ rendition of Sleigh Ride. Recorded by many over the years, there are some excellent versions, but Mathis’ is the best and my favorite Christmas song of all, even though it is more of a seasonal tune.