When something good becomes bad, it can always become good again. Christmas has inspired some of the greatest short, moving music in the world. But laziness, routine, inattention, imitation, vulgarity, knockoffs, cashing in-all the byproducts of the industrialization of art that is the gift of the Magi of commerce, science and democracy-have, for a century and a half, done their worst. The result is the Christmas tape, endlessly looped through stores and restaurants. Fake folk songs, slumming pop stars, novelty items-“Jingle Bell Rock,” Nat King Cole’s spackle voice-we have suffered through them all, dazed and hungry, staggering through aisles or huddled at random inhospitable tables. Our consolation is surprise, the moments when, unawares, we find ourselves listening because someone has been speaking.
I don’t know of any critics who have written about surprise as an aesthetic category. It is fleeting and circumstantial; you can experience it only once. Plucking out Lear’s eyes can shock over and over, but never again, after the first performance or read-through, can it surprise. Christmas music is fertile territory for surprises, because so much of it is so deadly.
My first Christmas surprise occurred many years ago-so long ago that small transistor radios were not common. I had one, of which I was fond. I also had a cold, and lay on the sun porch of my grandmother’s house in Johnstown, N.Y., trying to pick up the nearest rock station, which was far away. I caught the beginning of a new song by Simon and Garfunkel. Simon and Garfunkel-so seductive, so meretricious. They were the Chinese meal of folk-rock: Half a decade later, you realized there had been nothing there. The dangling conversation, the poor boxer, the bus trip through America-portentous, suggestive and empty. Yet conversations do dangle, boxers are unfortunate, and yearning is real. So maybe Simon and Garfunkel are not entirely to be rejected.
Back in Johnstown, I fiddled with the dial. This particular song was a rendition of “Silent Night,” but there was a lot of interference bouncing off the Adirondacks: the aural snow of static, plus some other station-a news broadcast. Irritated fiddling; the news broadcast was coming in stronger. Then I realized that song and news were part of the same song. I was hearing “Silent Night/Seven O’Clock News,” a montage of the carol plus a phony broadcast, all about war and other things Simon and Garfunkel disapproved of. The song is a trick, fit for a high-school literary magazine. But the horrors of war are horrible, even though pompous musicians dislike them. I had heard it under the best possible circumstances.
Years later, I had moved to New York and went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Handel is a great genius, but he had the flashy arts of a pop star, which he also was. Because I had recently moved to New York, my seat was on a steep slope, close to the ceiling. Like most amateur singers, I had performed many bits of Messiah myself; after the longueurs of the “Passion” section, we were in the home stretch of the “Easter” section, where the hits just keep on coming. The last is “Worthy Is the Lamb That Was Slain.” The grand manner is one of Handel’s natural manners; he could write that kind of thing if you woke him up at 3 o’clock in the morning. Then came the final “Amen,” and the surprise. I had always heard and sung the “Amen” in a rousing up-tempo, but this afternoon it began slowly and softly. Who was singing it now, the blessed? After three minutes of steady layering and counterpoint, the roof above my head seemed to have risen off. Yet when I bought the Messiah recording that very group had done, the effect had vanished. I remember its passage, though.
Years later, I sat in a favorite restaurant, made welcoming by its staff, doubly welcoming in December because of its fireplace. Through some anergy of scheduling, however, I was alone; having waited till the last minute, I had been trying-and failing-to buy a Christmas present for my wife by myself. On the Christmas tape of this restaurant appeared Frank Sinatra singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I knew the title and the tune, but had never listened to it before; the lateness of the hour, the sparseness of the crowd and Sinatra’s enunciation made it easy:
I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe,
And presents on the tree.
The mobbed-up cocksman sang it with the passion and tact of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau. If you know the song, you know the surprise that awaited me: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams …. ” In other words, he won’t be home for Christmas. He wouldn’t be home because the hypothetical narrator was fighting World War II. The wars, like the hits, just keep on coming.
My last surprise was last week, in another restaurant with another Christmas tape. This one yielded a rock group singing “O Holy Night.” I lost touch with performers and styles shortly after the heyday of Simon and Garfunkel, so I can only describe: The vocalist had a small, thin voice; the band was slow and heavy, with a lot of electronic fuzz.
Now, “O Holy Night” aspires to be an art song. That means it needs a rather traditional, and good, artist to sing it-no adenoids, no double tracking, no gospel confetti. These rockers, mindful of their abilities, went in the other direction. They changed the harmony to produce a simple, repetitive bass line. Instead of being boring or nerve-wracking, it was insistent. At “Fall on your knees,” that strange imperative, the accompaniment dropped away and the singer took it himself. At “angel voices” (or maybe “night divine”), there was an overtone, high up, high as snow, cirrus clouds, stars. Then they brought the ending home.
Nobody tell me what I heard. I wouldn’t want to hear it again, and be disappointed.