“Why does Christmas have to be a celebration of the shittiest music? I don’t get it. I ask a song to move me, to inspire me, to transmit something, be it a social or political commentary, or even a personal story. That it has substance, depth and that it’s sincere. That’s what I search for in music, always, all year round. So why does it have to be different during Christmas? Why during the festive season, do people – at least in America – chuck their personal criteria out the window and listen to the same songs each year, many of which are horrible, ad nauseam, as if it were inevitable. I hate it.”
Canadian director and actor Mitchell Kezin speaks with the conviction of someone that knows his mission in life. I’m knocking back a couple of beers with him a few hours after he lands in Barcelona, with his documentary Jingle Bell Rocks!tucked under his arm and several copies of the “Merrymixes” that he’s been making for a quarter of a century. He gives me his mixtape from 2012 (on whose track list I immediately recognize Morphine, Yo La Tengo and Lee “Scratch” Perry). I was looking forward to meeting him, because after watching his moving film, and feeling compelled to get up and dance to the fuzz guitar and tremendous wind section on Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa”, I wanted to know more about some of the songs that appear in the documentary, and I got a delightful little gift to boot.
In Jingle Bell Rocks! Kezin introduces us to the obsessive subculture of Yuletide music through his personal story (too many Christmases with an absent father) and by making house calls on a surprising caboodle of artists and collectors: people, for example, like the rapper Reverend Run (Run DMC), filmmaker John Waters, ex-executive of the hip-hop label Def Jam and die-hard collector Bill Adler, an especially mystical Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips) or El Vez, also known as “The Mexican Elvis” and ex-guitarist of Chicano punk band The Zeros. And at the hand of all of them, the film rummage through countless record bins and unfolds in various forms: a hymn to the magic and redeeming power of music; an ode to familiarity, ritual and tradition; and a defender of all those peculiar, ironic, special songs... You gotta see it.
Before we start searching for vids, we order another beer and I take the opportunity to ask him which Christmas songs annoyed him most, for whatever reason: “Ufff, lots. Note that in the 60's and 70's, the only artists that made Christmas records were those that had already made it. Record labels asking you to make a Christmas record was a real honor. Ella Fitzgerald y Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, James Brown… all of them put out a Christmas record. Now it’s different. It’s all about making a quick, easy buck, the majors don’t give a damn about the quality and serve up horrible Christmas songs like hotcakes. The words one that comes into my head right now is an Olivia Newton-John record, Christmas Wish. So empty, so insincere and fake... Terrible. Embarrassing. Ugh.”
Well, let’s not talk about unpleasant things… it’s Christmas. Let the party begin:
Blue Xmas (For Whom It May Concern) – Bob Dorough & Miles Davis Sextet, 1962
“This is the song that changed it all for me and ignited my passion for Christmas songs. I remember perfectly, back in 1985, when I bought the compilation in which this song appeared - Jingle Bell Jazz (Columbia). I grabbed it in a Salvation Army thrift store, I took the bus home, and I spun it... The structure of the song, the solos, Bob Dorough’s voice… I liked all of it. But what really impressed me is the criticism, irony and irreverence that Dorough, a bebop legend shows towards Christmas and ‘all the waste, all the sham, all the haste and plain old bad taste'."
Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby – Jessie Mae Hemphill, 1984.
“I love this song, it has soul. My friend David Wisdom, legendary Canadian radio host and one of the collectors that participated in the film, led me to discover this 45”. Jessie Mae Hemphill was a “one-woman orchestra”, a great blues guitarist from North Mississippi who, sadly, isn’t as well known as she should be. In fact, I ‘m really intrigued to know more about her life and I’m considering making a documentary about her.”
Winter Man – Clarence Reid, 1974
“Another of my favorites. First rate Soul. Although what happened to Clarence Reid... it’s really sad: he was a legend on the Florida soul scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but then he put on his superhero suit and mutated into Blowfly. Under that name, he has spent more than three decades putting out –really bad– funk records with racy covers and songs that talk about getting pussy, eating pussy or licking pussy. They made adocumentaryabout him; it’s hard to believe it’s the same guy. I saw him in Vancouver a few months back and he was still wearing a cape, being a dirty old man, being crude and making the young girls feel uncomfortable. It’s his choice as an artist, obviously, but it seems pathetic to me.”
Close Your Mouth (It’s Christmas) – The Free Design, 1968
“Their story is really bizarre. The Free Design was a baroque pop group at the end of the ‘60s in New York, formed by the Dedrick brothers, who recorded this and another song, “Shepherds and Wiseman”, for a recruitment LP sponsored by the United States Air Force. Chris Dedrick, the main composer, had decided to front the Air Force band to avoid being sent to Vietnam. Although the group didn’t have much success while it was active, in the ‘90s they were resurrected [NB: by people like Stereolab, Super Furry Animals, Beck and Belle and Sebastian]. And the Light In The Attic label re-released their records.”
Santa Claus Is A Black Man – Akim & The Teddy Vann Production Company, 1973
"A cult classic. For a long time, one of the hardest records to find. There must be around 12 copies in the world. I have one, which took me five years to find and another that I gave to John Waters. It’s the perfect example of the type of material that interests me. Look at the cover: Teddy Vann, legend and too forgotten soul man of Brooklyn, with his daughter Akim when she was just 5 years old, doing the Black Power salute. Teddy Vann’s intention was to offer an alternative to the white, Eurocentric image of Christmas into something with which black kids could feel connected. Now his family is doing a project, to make a new version of the record with the voices of the new generation, the grandchildren today."
Christmas In Hollis – Run DMC, 1987
“Run DMC we asked to participate in the first installment of A Very Special Christmas, a series of albums inspired by Christmas, in support of the Special Olympics. Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Sting and many others also took part. They all did versions of traditional songs. But Run DMC were the only ones that took it seriously and composed an original song, adding their own vision about Christmas and basing it on life in their neighborhood, Hollis (Queens, NY). Reverend Run loved the idea of my documentary so much that he gave me the video for free. And if you watch the film you’ll understand why he believes in Santa Claus."
I Want A (Rock And Roll Guitar) – Johnny Preston, 1960.
"The historic label Rhino Records, founded at the end of the ‘60s in Santa Monica, LA, was the best at rescuing old forgotten songs; they made incredible compilations of all genres. One day, James Austin, who is in the film, suggested making a Christmas compilation, and that ended up being a record series with almost three-dozen installments over the course of a decade. One of the gems they recovered is this song by Johnny Preston, from Texas, a rockabilly legend. Johnny was a super nice guy. I talked a lot with him, because I desperately wanted this song in the film. But when I was ready to interview him, he was already in very advanced stages of cancer… and it wasn’t to be. Five people that I wanted to interview for the film died just before I could meet with them. One of them was Johnny Preston. Another was James Brown. What a shame."