Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Americanization Of "Fairytale Of New York"

Bill Murray's new Netflix holiday special, A Very Murray Christmas, has gotten largely mixed reviews & it's easy to see why. As a concept, it looms large like a clever, inside joke--the quintessential postmodern comedic actor thrown into the quintessential old-school schmaltz-fest--but as a 56-minute execution, it's far from perfect. Murray teams up with pianist Paul Schaffer (a nod to the Nick The Bartender sketch on SNL that was Murray's breakthrough piece) & mugs his way through a loose story-line of a holiday special being ruined by a snowstorm in New York, surrounded by his famous friends, some playing parts, some playing themselves. & like an old-school holiday special, there's singing throughout, with Murray making his way through the songs, in some cases gamely, in others, laconically.

But the whole execution is worth it for one magical scene in which everything comes together beautifully. Murray's disaster of a holiday special has ended & he is in the hotel bar with Schaffer, singing with the staff & hanger-ons. David Johansen, former lead singer of The New York Dolls & former Buster "Hot Hot Hot" Poindexter, is a bartender who looks so weird & chiseled I thought at first he was Benicio Del Toro in a long shot, & Jenny Lewis, former child actress (see The Wizard & Troop Beverly Hills) & former Rilo Kiley leader (an L.A. indie band that was made up of former child actors), is the waitress with a voice of gold. Off-camera waits Maya Rudolf, former SNL star & daughter of the late-great Minnie Riperton, playing the lounge singer, Rashida Jones, former star of Parks & Recreation (in which Bill Murray had a surprise cameo appearance in the finale as the previously-never-mentioned mayor of Pawnee) & daughter of the legendary producer Quincy Jones, as a down-on-her-luck bride whose wedding is ruined by the snowstorm, & Jason Schwartzman, former child actor in Wes Anderson's classic Rushmore (which marked Bill Murray's breakthrough as a postmodern genius) & a strong contender for the coolest resume of any working actor today (I Heart Huckabees, Shop Girl, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, the Wet Hot American Summer reboot, a half-dozen Wes Anderson films), as the bridegroom. & behind the camera is Sophia Coppola, who directed Bill Murray's finest performance to date, his shoulda-won-the-Oscar performance in Lost In Translation. & the finest moment of that film was also a seemingly impromptu musical performance by Murray--Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, & Understanding" at a Japanese karaoke bar. (& Sophia herself is no stranger to a good postmodern soundtrack--just check out the music in her punk rock take on Marie Antoinette, which features another fascinating Schartzman performance, but I digress). Suffice to say, we are in good company.

Paul Schaffer begins playing his piano somberly, winding into a simple introduction as Murray hands out a last round of drinks. It is unmistakably The Pogues' classic "Fairytale Of New York." Released in 1987, the song was a duet between chief Pogue Shane MacGowan & Kirsty MacColl, telling of a couple's romantic rise & tumultuous fall over a Christmas in New York. He is all remorse & bitterness, she is all spite & broken dreams. Over the course of the song, they fall in & out of love, portrayed over two singing dialogues that feel like musical theater. In the first, they sing together about dancing on the street as the drunks swing, in the second, he calls her an old slut on junk & she calls him a cheap lousy faggot (to rhyme with "You scumbag, you maggot"). The romance is there but the pain cuts deeper. I once had an English teacher who said that you can only truly hate someone that you once loved, & vice-versa. Yeah, it's kinda like that.

In A Very Murray Christmas, there is no faggot. It skips the second singing dialog entirely, radically reframing the song. In doing so, it takes out the most British part of the song & cleans it up, so that all that's left is the fairytale. In other words, it's the brooding English thriller re-cut for American audiences so that it has a happy ending.

For the song itself is full of cinematic sweeps, both in terms of the song itself as well as in the people who are performing it.

"Inside The Drunk Tank"

When David Johansen starts singing "Fairytale Of New York," he sounds remarkably like Pepe, the Hispanic-accented shrimp in the Muppets. The rubber-faced former frontman of The New York Dolls used to look like a poor man's Mick Jagger, now, as time has deepened the lines in his face & a hipster beard & ridiculous pompadour frame it, he looks like a version of what Mick Jagger could have become if he hadn't insisted upon singing "Satisfaction" into his 70s.

Johansen's voice is razor-edged, with the grit of a thousand New York early-morning hangovers. One thinks of The Dolls' legendary set on January 1, 1973 (with The Modern Lovers opening), where they played for a crowd of key taste-makers, among them Truman Capote & a young Richard Hell; Johansen was dressed in all white--blouse, tight pants, & platform shoes--& swigged from a bottle of Miller beer as he tore into "Trash." "Ah, how do you call your loverboy?" he screams midway through, referencing Mickey & Silvia's "Love Is Strange," which will be memorably mimed in Dirty Dancing a thousand years later in 1987, the same year that Johnansen reinvented himself as Buster Poindexter singing "Hot Hot Hot," evoking the glib yuppie '80s as well as he had dug into the weird artsy 1970s with "Trash." & a year after that, he would appear with Bill Murray in Scrooged as The Ghost Of Christmas Past--in the form of a deranged New York taxicab driver. Scrooged came out on November 23, 1988--a year to the day that "Fairytale Of New York" was released by The Pogues.

At any rate, Johansen sings the opening lines weirdly, cryptically, beautifully.

It was Christmas Eve, babe
Inside the drunk tank
An old man said to me,
Won't see another one

& then he sang a song
"The Rare Old Mountain Dew"
I turned my face away
& dreamed about you

It is a lilting tune, comprised of oddly-paced lines that seem as though they will be too short to cover the music, but land perfectly anyway.

It doesn't hurt that the song opens with the most daring couplet ever ventured in a modern-day Christmas song. Given its almost panoramic pop feel, I wondered at first if it was a Randy Newman song that had slipped my knowledge; if anyone could write a beautiful, honest portrait of New York that sounds like it could be sung under the lights of Broadway or in a second-rate movie house 3 blocks away, it was Randy Newman.

Besides, when Bill Murray begins the second part of the verse, he sounds like Randy Newman.

Got on a lucky one
Came in 18-to-1
I've got a feeling
This year's for me & you

So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

This is Bill Murray's holiday special. He gives himself the most broad, the most simple, the most epic lines of the song--"So Happy Christmas/I love you baby"--7 words that would sound trite in any modern Christmas song, but here beat softly as the song's heart. Murray seems to sing with a slight Irish inflection--always a comedian, perhaps he listened to MacGowan's vocal so many times it got stamped in his mind as an impression.

I was never much of a fan of the old "Nick The Lounge-Singer" sketch, but more than anything else, it's Murray's vocal that I come back to. Pushing 65, his voice has that lovely grit that one can hear in a singer like Randy Newman--that natural scrape that comes when reaching for a note; wanna-be Dylans smoke too many cigarettes & drink too much whiskey to try to age their voice to do the same, but once you've reached Murray's age, you do so without any effort. Murray was never much of a singer (which I guess was the joke of "Nick The Lounge-Singer"), but here he becomes one, putting his lines out there with thought & charisma--a blank, almost flat delivery that, like Lou Reed, can pass you by the first time but impossibly increase with depth upon every new listen. Murray has the time & space to do so, because, after all, it is his holiday special.

Back a thousand years earlier in 1986--a year before "Fairytale Of New York" was released (although a year after MacGowan had begun writing it)--Bill Murray appeared in a very different TV special, Rodney Dangerfield's It's Not Easy Being Me. Given how old-fashioned it feels, I was shocked to learn it was only 30 years old; it reeked of the stuff they were doing on television throughout the previous decade. It was largely comprised of sketches that illustrated Dangerfield's one-note jokes ("When I was born, the doctor slapped my mother!") & ended with an extended monologue of Dangerfield that was so dated he gets huge laughs in the middle by slipping into an eye-rolling, racist "darkie" dialect for a moment. It's all the more surreal to watch it today, as Bill Murray played second-banana to Dangerfield, & the musical guest was none other than The Queen Of Soul, Aretha Franklin (unfortunately in her '80s "Who's Zooming Who" period). The star of the proceedings, Dangerfield, is eclipsed by arguably the greatest postmodern comedic actor (Murray) & the greatest rock singer EVER (Franklin), even when they are both far from their finest work. Seen in scratchy YouTube clips today, Dangerfield truly doesn't get any respect--even in his own TV special.

I would venture to guess that when future generations watch A Very Murray Christmas, no one will doubt who the star is. The fact that Murray took something that he's not particularly good at--singing--& built the special around it only adds to its bizarre comedic happenstance. This is all the more bizarre given an interview this spring with Emma Stone in The Wall Street Journal Magazine of all places:
Next week Stone goes to Cannes for the premiere of Irrational Man, then to London for a few days with her mom. Then it’s back to L.A. to start work on La La Land, a contemporary musical about an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist, directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) & co-starring her frequent on-screen partner Ryan Gosling (Gangster Squad; Crazy, Stupid, Love). Stone will sing and dance in it; she’s already rehearsing the dance numbers. But she’s also trying to follow the advice of her good friend Bill Murray, who counseled her to keep some things—like singing—for herself.

“He told me to keep some things I love just for me,” Stone says. “The idea is to have some things that you don’t feel like you need to share with the world. To have some things that are only yours.” She smiles. “Of course, now I’m doing a musical. I’m working on it.”

Bill Murray, consider your love shared.

"They've Got Rivers Of Gold"

On September 19, 1987, a few weeks after The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl recorded the original version of "Fairytale Of New York," NBC's The Golden Girls had its third season debut episode. The main part dealt with Sophia (Estelle Getty) learning about Alzheimer's Disease through a friend who shows signs of it, but today the episode is better remembered for its B-plot, in which Blanche (Rue McClanahan) accidentally gives away a cherished stuffed bear belonging to Rose (Betty White). They track down the bear to a young Sunshine Cadet named Daisy, who in turn demands a ransom for the bear. Rose finds it in her heart to let Daisy keep the bear. The episode would earn the series two Emmys.

Playing the part of the precocious Daisy was an 11-year-old Jenny Lewis, who was then working as a child actress. She had made her debut in the previous year's Life With Lucy--Lucille Ball's final TV project (Jenny Lewis played her granddaughter) which ABC ran opposite The Golden Girls. It was cancelled after 8 episodes. Thus, within a year, Lewis had made it from being crushed by The Golden Girls to appearing on its Season 3 debut. Not a bad start in show-biz. She would go onto star in MTV Generation cult faves like 1989's Troop Beverly Hills (she had a trampoline in her room!) & The Wizard (she got the biggest line in Nintendo's remake of Rainman: "That man touched my boob!").

A thousand years & one creative transition from acting to music later, Jenny Lewis was back on TV as part of A Very Murray Christmas. By now, she was much better known as a musician, first for leading the indie darling band Rilo Kiley (with fellow former child actor Blake Sennett) & then going onto a critically-acclaimed solo in 2006. Unlike so many other indie singers who have some sort of gimmick with their style, Jenny Lewis is notable for ability to sing simply, almost plainly, letting her pure voice sing for itself. One can hear it in Rilo Kiley's "With Arms Outstretched" or her solo "One Of The Guys," statements of deceptively simple that speak plainly & clearly to anyone listening.

But when it comes to sing MacColl's part in "Fairytale Of New York," she finds a quiet sadness in the song that has eluded others who have sung it:

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It's no place for the old

When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me Broadway
Was waiting for me

The temptation might be to sing the song in a kind of mystic wonder, an immigrant or pilgrim arriving in New York City for the first time. They've got rivers of gold. "Streets paved with gold" is the more familiar cliche, but rivers of gold is what we have here. It's a lovely, wondrous image, as one imagines a gold sea flowing down the avenues & back alleys of New York City. But there is no love or wonder in Lewis's singing, only a sense of wistfulness. She is not the new wide-eyed immigrant, she is the immigrant a few generations later. She is old, her wonder replaced by jaded reality--& as her song tells us, it's no place for the old.

Lewis snaps out of her sad delivery towards the end, lighting up on the word Broadway, as though it cannot be sung without an exclamation point following it & ending with a gruff "You were handsome," in preparation for Johansen's louder, more edgy singing about to answer.

"Sinatra Was Swinging"

When Shane MacGowan first conceived of "Fairytale Of New York," he saw it as a dialogue between two lovers, charting the course from love to loss, from success to failure, from hope to despair. In the original version, Kirsty MacColl sings the first line, MacGowan sings the next two, & then they sing the rest of the stanza as a duet.

In a Very Murray Christmas, the situation is altered by the presence of a third person--Bill Murray--which adds a new layer to Jenny Lewis' & David Johansen's proceedings:

[Lewis:] You were handsome
[Johansen:] You were pretty/Queen of New York City
[Murray:] When the band finished playing/They howled out for more
[Johansen:] Sinatra was swinging/All the drunks they were singing
[Lewis:] We kissed on the corner/Then danced through the night.

In this recasting of the lyrics, Lewis & Johansen initially only sing the parts sung by MacGowen & MacColl, respectively, with Murray picking up the line that begins the original version's duet. In singing about the band & the mysterious "They" (Is that the crowd? Or were the band howling for more of themselves?), Murray seems to be a narrator-like figure who oversees the song--after all, this is his special. (I also think it's interesting how Murray twists the words "the Band" so that they sound like classic Bob Dylan--is that another NYC joke? Am I looking too far into it to point out that "The Band" was the group that backed Dylan on his electric tour? & like immigrants, they fled the city for the peace of upstate?) Johansen then sings how a man might remember it--that hep cat Sinatra, those singing drunks--while Lewis sings how a woman might remember it--the kiss, the dancing; it is almost like a Christmas version of Grease's "Summer Lovin'."

Sinatra was swinging. What year is supposed to be again? At first I envisioned it being modern day--after all, the Pogues' video was clearly set in late '80s New York City & Sinatra was still performing into his late 80s in New York City. But others cite the image of a swinging Sinatra & the earlier line about the cars as big as bars as evidence that this is an older New York City, around the 1930s & 1940s. If we are to take MacGowan's original concept of an Irish immigrant arriving to the big city, this too would create a tighter picture.

This is all just to say that with time already at question in the song, its placement in A Very Murray Christmas only adds to the ambiguity. TV Christmas specials were the last stand of vaudeville ("You remember vaudville?" went a classic Bob Hope zinger in the 1950s about TV, "Now they've put it in a box!"), which itself peaked in the first half of the 20th century. What we have here is Bill Murray hosting a 2015 Christmas TV special ("You remember TV? Now they stream it on Netflix!") that harks back to the classic TV specials of 1960s, which themselves were a revival of the older vaudeville. (& it wasn't just Christmas specials--Rodney Dangerfield's It's Not Easy Being Me was a similar skit-&-song filled extravaganza). Thus, we have a song from the '80s about the '40s sung in the 2010s in the spirit of an American show business tradition that reaches back a century earlier.

& you thought it was just another Christmas song.

"The Boys Of The NYPD Choir"

There is no NYPD Choir. They exist only as a fabrication in Shane MacGowan's head, an assumption that turned out to be completely unfounded. When The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl shot the video for "Fairytale Of New York," the band had to make do with The Pipes & Drums Of The NYPD's Emerald Society, & even at that, they did not know "Galway Bay." So they sang the only song they all knew, the theme to "The Mickey Mouse Club." That's right, the "M-I-C (See you real soon!) K-E-Y (Why? Because we..." get the picture) song. That's why they're slowed down in the video (not that the actual song "Gallway Bay" is heard in the song anyway). But there they are, New York's Finest, drunk at a black & white video shoot, singing "The Mickey Mouse Club" theme. You can't make this stuff up.

In A Very Murray Christmas, David Johansen, Jenny Lewis, & Bill Murray all begin to sing the refrain, soon joined by Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, & a cast of several:

& the boys of the NYPD Choir
Were singing "Galway Bay"
& the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day

It is the song's moment of triumph, & the cast nail it beautifully, almost off-handedly, combining briefly into one epic refrain.

"I Coulda Been Someone"

When the American Film Institute counted down the 100 Greatest Movie Quotes in American film, one of the longest quotes on the list ranked the highest. Coming after the far catchier "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" from Gone With The Wind & "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse" from The Godfather, was this nugget from On The Waterfront:

You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.

Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy says this to his brother after being betrayed by him. It is the emotional highlight of a cinematic masterpiece.

A thousand years later, Robert DeNiro's Jake LaMotta recites the same quote in Raging Bull, to an equally powerful, if opposite, effect. By this point in the film, LaMotta has gone from a fit champion boxer to a bloated disgrace, doing bizarre stand-up routines in sleazy joints to make money. He has alienated himself from everyone around him & looks like shit. As he says the most famous lines ever said by a boxer in film, they sound dead, the sound of a man who is struggling to learn the words as he recites them like a middle school kid cramming for an English exam.

Whether intended or not (my guess is it was), Shane MacGowan paraphrased a key part of this line in "Fairytale Of New York": I could have been someone. But instead of letting the phrase wallow in its own self-pity like it does on the screen ("instead of a bum, which is what I am"), he instead has audacity to answer it, giving Kirsty MacColl the best line in the whole song: Well, so could anyone. She then laments him taking her dreams, to which he replies that he kept them with him, he can't make it alone, because he's built his dreams around her. As dialogue in a rock song, it's only real rival is Joni Mitchell's barroom chat at the beginning of "A Case Of You."

As with everything else, A Very Murray Christmas takes this already complicated situation & further complicates it by fascinatingly reassigning the dialogue between David Johansen, Bill Murray, & a chorus of girls (Jenny Lewis, Maya Rudolph, & Rashida Jones).

[Johansen:] I coulda been someone
[Girls:] Well, so could anyone
[Murray:] You took my dreams from me
[Girls:] When I first found you
[Johansen:] I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own
[Murray:] Can't make it all alone
[All:] I've built my dreams around you

What began as a conversation between one man & one woman has become an abstracted conversation with oneself; Johansen plays the guy part--mostly--but is answered by the three girls like a Greek chorus expressing a societal ideal. It also sounds a bit like The Jaynettes' classic (& weird) girl group hit, "Sally Go 'Round The Roses," where the singer interacts with an echoed chorus of female voices who are roses that won't share her secret; the result in either case is a depth that is near bottomless, still water that holds so much while only serving to reflect your own image.

I coulda been someone. Well, so could anyone. New York City is a place for dreamers--after all, when Sinatra is swinging he says stuff like "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere"--immigrants who come as far away as Ireland (like Shane MacGowan) or as close as Staten Island (like David Johansen) to reinvent themselves as stars sailing down a river of gold. Among the many other things it does, "Fairytale Of New York" presents both the myths & consequences of this situation, a land where success & failure can be as close bedfellows as love & hate.

Bill Murray gives himself the two most powerful lines (once again, it's his special)--"You took my dreams from me" & "Can't make it all alone"--& gives them all he's got, singing each one powerfully & seriously, but in a manner that can almost be mistaken for sarcasm, Nick The Lounge singer singing the Star Wars theme.

Only it isn't. Murray takes these 2 phrases, these 11 words, & forces you to hear them as they are, alone. You took my dreams from me. Can't make it all alone. They are lonely words & their delivery in this regard only makes them seem lonelier.

By the time everyone sings the concluding "I built my dreams around you," it is no longer a trap but a celebration--of love, of loss, of New York City, of Christmas. Because even if all else has failed, at least you can get a beautiful song out of it.

"For Christmas Day"

The song ends where it should, back with the boys of the mythical NYPD choir, as Christmas Eve turns into Christmas Day, the bells ringing out in an image that is both literal & metaphorical, trite & touching, an illusion of resolution in a song where everything is left open & implied. As for the scene in the hotel bar, everyone is singing & swaying like the drunks did to Sinatra, applauding themselves when the song has ended, as though they themselves have become both the stars of the special & the audience. (After all, it is based around the idea of a Christmas special that no one can get to.) They wish each other Merry Christmas as Murray sits in the foreground, drinking.

He then mouths some words & falls over, signalling the supposed finale piece of A Very Murray Christmas: The extravagant dream-sequence with Miley Cyrus & George Clooney in the heavens.

But you can turn off the television at this point because the real finale has already happened. It was actually "Fairytale Of New York," a song written as an immigrant's romance, reclaimed by the land & city that had inspired it.

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