Wednesday, December 17, 2014

12/17: Kirk Wisland on those Ghosts of Christmas Past—Elvis & Ebeneezer

There were two icons who loomed larger than life in my childhood Christmases. Not Santa. Not Jesus.

Elvis and Ebeneezer. Presley and Scrooge.

The weekend after Thanksgiving heralded the return of the King. Specifically Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, one of my most cherished LPs, one that was dusted off and brought out of seasonal hibernation each year during the decorating of the Christmas tree. This record featured prominently—and probably annoyingly so for my far less Elvis-enthusiastic family—during the four weeks of Christmas buildup.

The album was thrown together after a two-day recording session in May of 1971, producing Elvis versions of traditional holiday songs like The First Noel and Silver Bells, augmented with some early seventies orchestral pop. The first side of the album was the tradition and religion side—O Come All Ye Faithful and Winter Wonderland. But I always started on the second side, drawn to that early 70s sound. Specifically I eyed the clear line that marked track four—Merry Christmas Baby—and carefully brought the needle down in that scratchy silent groove, a sonic astronaut meticulously setting down his landing pod on the moon.

As a kid I thought Merry Christmas Baby was the funniest damn thing I’d heard, the opening ultra-mellow blues riff bringing forth a wide smile. I said merry merry Christmas baby…you suuuuuuuuurrre diiiiiiiiid treat me nice. I knew there was something naughty and maybe even sacrilegious about a seven-minute slow funk-blues jam masquerading as Christmas music—a sound that was all sweaty smoky Memphis blues shack, peals of electric guitar and swampy harmonica howls backing the come-on vocals—Well I want to kiss you baaaayyy-be while you’re standing underneath your mistletoe…

Ironically, as I write this now I am suffused with an endless iTunes loop of Elvis holiday cheer, courtesy of the album If Every Day Was Like Christmas, a digital compilation of my favorite 70s Christmas Elvis mashed up with his earlier 50s Christmas album. And one song from those earlier Christmas sessions jumps out at me—Santa’s Back in Town—because lord help me it’s even dirtier than Merry Christmas Baby. Santa’s Back in Town features that standard early-Elvis slinky rock and roll piano stomp, that raw sexual energy percolating up from underneath. The song crescendos with Elvis howling Santa Claus is comin’ down your chiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmmmney tonight with a seasonally-inappropriate carnality that conjures up a future Robert Plant circa Whole Lotta Love. Each time I hear this song I can’t help thinking (and saying out loud) that this is really a Chippendales stripper song. Some guy out there at a December bachelorette party, or a risqué holiday fest, is ripping off his Velcro Santa suit to this song right now. Or should be.

My other favorite track off the 70s side of Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas was If I Get Home on Christmas Day, an elegant paean to a returning love. This is perfect early seventies orchestral pop—Elvis at his operatic best, a mellow hippie-infused funk rhythm section, gentle tremolo guitar, lush strings and horns, all building to a repeated soaring chorus featuring the ethereal Imperials Quartet as angelic backing choir. I’ll take you in my arms and beg a stay…if I get home on Chrisssssssst-mas Daaaaaaaayyy. The song is saturated with a hopeful yearning melancholy I couldn’t understand as a child, an adult sensibility inflected with the shadows of Presley’s dissolving marriage. But instinctually I knew that some day I would understand—If I Get Home operating as a kind of future imagining, a message in a bottle from a far-off adulthood, one that triggered strange tremors in my chest each time those angels joined in that soaring chorus.

Tucked away in the always-snowy pre-climate change Minnesota of my youth, I knew that I would in fact be home for Christmas Day, because I was tethered to my parents. Three decades later this song still resonates, still brings a momentary flutter in my chest, the adult understanding communing with and amplifying that childhood premonition. Particularly during this second Christmas of my married life, when my wife and I have to choose which direction to head from our temporary Ohio home—West to Minneapolis or Southwest to Houston. This year I will not be home on Christmas Day.


The other recurring Christmas tradition of my childhood was our jaunt to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to see their annual production of A Christmas Carol. I saw this play every year from early childhood through my teens. I knew these scenes, these ghosts—a benign jovial Past, an indifferent Present, and the outright terrifying Future, whose skeletal hand jutted from his dark robe as he rose up through the floor of the stage, announced by the crack and flash of a theatrical storm.

After an absence of nearly a decade, Dickens’ classic briefly recolonized my holiday season during my stint as bartender at the Guthrie Theater in the late 1990s. I half-heard the opening act of each performance, those familiar lines like seasonal memory-muzak as I set up my bar station before suffering through tip-desert matinees of school kids and elderly folks draining Cokes from my soda gun.

But by the time I saw A Christmas Carol last year, Ebeneezer and his visiting ghosts had been absent from my life for fifteen years, minus the occasional sighting of George C. Scott in his Scrooge nightshirt during holiday TV-surfing.

As the play unfolded in front of me I once again found myself communing with childhood premonitions. The time-worn scenes and sounds hit me with the force of adulthood, particularly Scrooge’s trip with Christmas Past. A boy of nine or fifteen has no concept yet of true regret. Even as a twenty-six year old Guthrie bartender I didn’t fully grasp the inherent melancholy of watching a younger self from the perch of the present—I was on the verge of a great regret but still too young and stupid to see it coming. But fifteen years later I understood, watching Scrooge plead impotently with his younger, stubborn self. By our fifth decade most of us have accumulated a significant regret or two, whether or not we have been living right.

As essayists and memoirists we carry memory with us like a cloud of dust, seeing the present and imagining the future through the hazy particles of the past. While an admirable attempt at being “in the moment,” this communing with history is an off-kilter version of that elusive Zen, in which the writer posthumously occupies the expired moment. Prying into the past always ripens us for a bout of melancholy, glimpses of those alternate lives unlived.

These thoughts lurked in my mind as I watched another pair of actors reprise the roles of Ebeneezer and his spirit guide. I merged with the rest of the audience, wishing in silent unison for a different outcome this one time, for that message from a future self to somehow breach the deaf certainties of stubborn youth. And the timeless truth of Dickens settled over me—we are the Ghost of Christmas Past. Or maybe the Ghost of Christmas Past is just the essayist’s alter-ego, leading the writer inevitably back to those younger selves.

The holiday season is for communing with family and homelands, those places and people of our past, present, and—we hope—future. A time to take stock of our travails—and a breather for those of us who toil in academia. So let us tip back some Egg Nog (whiskey optional), and sing along with seasonally-inappropriate Elvis funk-blues Christmas jams. Let us commiserate with the Ghost of Christmas Present while hoping for a benevolent Ghost of Christmas Future.

Kirk Wisland's wordsmith-ery can be found in other places, helpfully compiled here. He currently writes and teaches in the Creative Writing PhD program at Ohio University, in lovely Athens, Ohio.

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