Friday, December 4, 2015

Various Artists - Dr. Demento Presents: The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD Of All Time

I got back home fairly late last Friday night; I spent all of Black Friday with my children running up and down Manhattan, an annual tradition with us. I know that to many of you, it may sound like madness to willingly subject myself and my family to the inherent craziness of a major city on the biggest, most frenzied shopping day of the year . . . but I - we - LOVE New York during the holiday season.

There's nothing like Christmas in that city - the crowds on Fifth Avenue filling the sidewalks, everyone carrying boxes and bags from the high-end stores located up and down the street; the streets and buildings decorated with wreaths, trees, bells and bunting; the display windows of Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman transformed into amazing Christmas fantasies; the ringing of the bells near the Salvation Army donation kettles situated on every block; St. Patrick's Cathedral filled with visitors sitting in the pews or mingling amongst the votive candles; the pungent burnt smell wafting from the carts selling roast chestnuts and sugared peanuts and cashews; the steam rising in curls from the manhole covers (not so much this year - the day was unseasonably mild and pleasant) . . . just everything about New York on that day all but screams "The holidays are here!". I rarely if ever do any actual Christmas shopping while I'm there - frankly, there ain't that many deals to be had in the city's shops on that day. I go to New York on Black Friday mainly to eat, have fun, get myself psyched for the holiday season, and to carefully watch my kids as they gleefully go through places like the Times Square Toys 'R' Us and the old F.A.O. Schwarz (it is very weird not having that venerable toy shop around this year) to gather gift ideas for them for the coming holiday.

The kids enjoy the town as much as I do. I never spent any serious time in NYC myself until I was in my mid-20s; it was then that I realized how much I'd missed out by not experiencing all that the city had to offer until then. Since that realization, I've made sure that my kids got familiar with the city at an early age; I didn't want them to miss out for so long as I did. So since they were toddlers, I have taken them to New York quite often, usually a couple of times a year; there are a ridiculous number of things to do and see there, especially for kids - the stores, the parks and playgrounds, the museums and sights of the City That Never Sleeps. And over the years, my crew have developed their own distinct preferences and favorites in the city. They now know where the best playgrounds are in the city (specifically, the Union Square playground and the Billy Johnson playground in Central Park, with its long hillside granite slide).
They think that the Carnegie Deli is vastly better than its cross-street rival, the Benash Delicatessen, and they used to charm and impress the Carnegie waitresses by ordering their own chocolate egg creams like native New Yorkers (I hope that deli sorts out the ongoing mess with their utilities and opens its doors again sometime soon - the city isn't the same with them closed for the past six months now, and their permanent loss would be a terrific blow to what makes New York what it is). They'd rather spend an afternoon at MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum or the Strand bookstore than anywhere else. And they know what subway stop to take to get to the Soho Dean & Deluca, their preferred location of that city's gourmet grocery, where they purchase their favorites, landjaeger and colorful sugar cookies.

My Black Friday New York visits used to be all about the esoteric, commercial aspects of the city and the holiday season - that is, up until last year.

Our time in the city on Black Friday 2014 was fairly typical. We hit F.A.O. first, where my son undertook a lengthy inspection of the store's Lego inventory (he had his eye on the new Tumbler Batmobile - guess what he got under the tree that year?), followed by visits to the Apple Store, Little Miss Matched, the Hershey Candy boutique and Toys 'R' Us, with other stops in between. By late afternoon, I could tell that they were starting to wind down from their long day in the city, so we stopped for a long, leisurely dinner at one of their favorite places, the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal.

My gang got their second wind after dinner, and expressed a desire to head down to Soho to patronize the Dean & Deluca there before we left the city for home. So we took the 4 train (Lexington Avenue Express) out of Grand Central down to Union Square, then changed over to the R (Broadway Local), since it stopped at Prince Street, right across the street from our destination. We all found seats in a half-empty car, and settled in for the short ride (Prince was the second stop after 8th Street-NYU).

The stop at 8th Street-NYU was uneventful, but as the train pulled away, I noticed a young woman who had apparently just boarded, dressed in what appeared to be some sort of red and green gown, a Christmas-y outfit, standing at the far end of our car. Whoop, I thought - here we go. I've been on enough NYC subway rides to smell a performance/donation shakedown coming, and sure enough, as the train picked up speed, without any preliminaries or introduction, she began to sing.

But her song wasn't just an ordinary Christmas carol; it was "Ave Maria", in a strong, clear, obviously classically-trained soprano voice. And her rendition of it was . . . well . . .

Do you recall that scene in The Shawshank Redemption, when Andy commandeered the prison loudspeakers and played "Canzonetta sull'aria" from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro for the inmates? If you don't, let me remind you of it again:

For a moment, as the girl's clear, strong "Ave Maria" filled that subway car, it was sort of like that scene in the film - just . . . goosebumps. To be in the presence of something so perfect and beautiful in the most drab and mundane of surroundings was a special event. It was difficult to resist the urge to lose yourself in the beauty of that moment . . .

And yet, resist I did. Cynic that I am, I simply regarded it as just another New York hassle - I ride the subway to get from Point A to Point B, not to be frickin' serenaded! I hunkered down in my seat, frowning to myself as the singing woman began slowly moving up the car, holding out a hat for donations from riders.

My children, however, were charmed and mesmerized by the woman's performance. My two oldest, both girls, are aspiring singers, and both participate in their school choruses and drama clubs. So I could tell they were pretty well blown away. They both began to reach into their wallets and pockets for their money, made up of weekly allowances I provide to them (plus a little extra that I gave them especially for our trip to the Big Apple) to spend on things that they pleased - little toys, candy and the like. They didn't have much, but enough to enjoy themselves with. I pursed my lips and grimaced slightly as my oldest daughter pulled out two or three dollars, but I didn't say anything - seemed like a little much in my estimation, but oh well. She was blocking my view of my younger daughter, so I couldn't see how much money she took out.

My oldest sat back to close her purse, and I looked over just in time to see my little girl handing the singer . . . a twenty-dollar bill.

As my body stiffened and my mouth flew open in shock and consternation, the young singer took the donation, smiled sweetly at my girl and paused her song to thank her profusely. I guess in some ways it was pretty heartwarming, and later on I recalled a couple of other subway riders seated nearby who were smiling on the scene . . . but all I could think of at the time was "Holy shit! She just gave that chick $20!", a goodly portion of the funds she had in her possession, her spending money for the Dean & Deluca delicacies she talked of purchasing. Fortunately, a few seconds later we arrived at the Prince Street station, and I quickly hustled my charges past the woman and off of the car.

I got the kids through the station turnstiles, then stopped and faced my little girl. I was pretty displeased, but with effort, I tried to keep any emotion out of my voice as I asked her "Why did you give that singer so much?" Without any hesitation, my daughter looked up at me and replied with a smile, "She was so pretty! And sang so well! I wanted to give her something to thank her - did you see how happy she was?"

I looked down at her, and saw the joy on her face from that moment on the train, an experience that was worth far more to her than money or merchandise. It was then that I 'got' it . . . and I stopped being mad. I smiled back at my daughter, and she took my hand as we climbed the station stairs up to the street. She and the other kids talked about that singer the entire time we were in the gourmet shop, where I bought them whatever they wanted and let them keep what remained of their funds.

My little girl taught me a lesson that day. Despite all of the in-store displays, newspaper ads, mailbox flyers and TV commercials urging you to "Buy, BUY, BUY!", and the hucksterism and crass consumerism that has become an integral part of the holiday season, Christmas is about giving back to the people who have made you happy during the year or for any portion thereof - a month, a week, a day . . . or perhaps even just for a moment. In some cases, the best Christmas gifts you receive aren't the ones purchased for you . . . and the gifts you offer are sometimes worth more to someone than the dollar amount you paid.

As noted in its title, this disc contains several major Christmas novelty songs, including one of my all-time favorites (the famous "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late))". It also includes many of my most reviled holiday tunes, including "Nuttin' For Christmas" (which, with every play, dredges up bad memories of horrible school pageants from when I was in 4th grade . . . no need to elaborate upon that here!) and what is in my opinion the worst Christmas song ever produced, Elmo & Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer". But all in all, there's some good stuff here that should bring back some fond holiday memories and make you and yours smile this month. Here's the full lineup:
1. The Chipmunk Song - The Chipmunks
2. All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth - Spike Jones & His City Slickers
3. Jingle Bells - The Singing Dogs
4. Twelve Gifts of Christmas, The - Allan Sherman
5. I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas - Gayla Peevey
6. Nuttin' For Christmas - Stan Freberg
7. A Christmas Carol - Tom Lehrer
8. Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
9. I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas - Yogi Yorgesson
10. Twelve Days of Christmas, The - Bob and Doug McKenzie
11. Green Christmas - Stan Freberg
12. I'm A Christmas Tree - Wild Man Fischer
13. I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus - Kip Addotta
14. Santa Claus And His Old Lady - Cheech & Chong
15. Christmas At Ground Zero - Weird Al Yankovic
16. Christmas Dragnet - Stan Freberg & Daws Butler
I hope that you accept this Christmas music in the spirit in which it is offered, and in some small way, it makes your holiday that much merrier.

For your listening pleasure, here's my first selection for this year's season, Dr. Demento Presents: The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD Of All Time, released by Rhino Records on July 31st, 1989. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.  

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1 comment:

  1. great page, love your dedication ! commercial album (1980) the residents on repeat rn :)