Tag Archives: christmas


A Few Minutes with 120 Minutes, 1991

Recently rediscovered within the Vast and Dusty Scratchbomb VHS Archives: A nearly complete episode of 120 Minutes, MTV’s “alternative music” program. This aired December 15, 1991, and provides some insight into what exactly constituted alternative music (at least as far as MTV was concerned) during the waning days of the First Bush administration.

I’ve chopped this up into three pieces to ease playback and preserve some of the flow of the original. The first half hour of the show is missing from my tape, so we pick it up with host Dave Kendall introducing a clip from a live Cure pay-per-view special. I remember more than one friend ordering that special and borrowing the tape from them, then trying to figure out a way to copy it. Never cracked the code before I had to return it.

Though this apisode aired and was presumably taped after Nirvana “broke,” you’ll notice very little Seattle stuff here. Grunge would soon dominate the 120 Minutes playlist, but during this particular episode the videos leaned heavily toward industrial (Ministry, Nitzer Ebb), British shoegaze, and indie rock like Urge Overkill.

If you watched that first video, you heard Mr. Kendall tease a mini-documentary on The Clash, and here it is, narrated by Kurt Loder. There’s some amazing live footage here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, from the band’s early days, their 1982 concert at Shea Stadium, and lots of stuff in between. Also, some interesting testimonials from Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon.

And here’s the last half hour of the episode, which contains some curious Christmas music from Hoodoo Gurus and The Wedding Present. Stick around past the end credits to catch an episode of the weird animated omnibus Liquid Television. This show does not seem quite as mind blowing to me as it did back when I was in junior high, but then what does, really?

Finally, if you’re one of those weirdos like me who enjoys watching old commercials, here’s a playlist with ads that aired during this episode, plus a few spots from 1992 I found on the same tape. Highlights include:

  • Promo for MTV’s Best of 1991 programming featuring Cindy Crawford and background music of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is as much 1991 as is legally allowed by law.
  • In the same dated vein, a promo for an issue of People Magazine that promises the lowdown on all the dirt from the set of Hook.
  • Casio Rapmaster keyboard, which looks and sounds exactly like what you think it does.
  • An unsettling Christmas-themed commercial for Playboy.
  • The now-forgotten TurboGrafx 16 gaming console.
  • Weird wrap-around promo for the band The Ocean Blue, which starts with an ad asking you to stick around the real ad.
  • A Super Nintendo commercial featuring a fresh-faced Paul Rudd.
  • Strange ad for Introspect jeans; can’t decide if this is misogynistic or simply dumb.
  • Foot Locker spot featuring Karl Malone’s LA Gear Mailmans, which, yes, was a thing.

Musica para las Fiestas!

Just before Christmas, my wife borrowed some LPs from her grandmother so we could digitize them. These were albums her family listened to every December for decades. I was not familiar with any of them because these were albums of traditional Puerto Rican holiday music.

While digitizing these records, I was able to listen to them for the first time, enjoyed them immensely, and thought they would make excellent listening any time of year. This is in part because my knowledge of Spanish is limited, thus blunting the Christmas-ness of the lyrics for me. It’s also due to the unique qualities of Puerto Rican holiday music, which tends to be more about partying and patriotism than it is about things Americans think of as “traditional” Christmas song topics. (Lots more on that subject here.)

I couldn’t find out too much information on these albums online, at least not information I could understand (see above in re: Spanish, difficulties with). Nearly all of these albums were released on small specialty labels that are now defunct and, near as I can tell, have not been reissued by anyone. So I figured I might be the world’s last best hope to preserve these albums in all their glory, which show an interesting transition point between traditional musica jibara (“mountain music,” more or less) and the music that came out of New York starting the 1960s that came to be known as salsa.

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I experienced an awkward moment at a PTA meeting I attended recently. This was something above and beyond the normal awkwardness I feel in a room full of people I do not know and whose only connection to me is having children who attend the same school as my child, as I struggle to form some cruel parody of conversation. “So, I hear your kid likes Justin Bieber?”

The moment came at the beginning of the meeting, when the PTA president insisted we all rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Once I heard this, I was gripped by a childlike but very real panic. I hadn’t been asked to do this seriously* since high school, and for a terrifying split second I wasn’t sure what I should do with myself.

*I include the adverb seriously here because the live Pee-Wee Herman Show I saw with my daughter opened with Pee-Wee reciting the Pledge along with the audience, which I don’t think counts, really.

The reason I wasn’t sure what to do is because I spent a good chunk of my childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness. Witnesses refuse the say the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t do a lot of things, due to their selectively literal interpretation of the Bible (or their translation thereof; it’s a very long story, the more you hear of the less you truly know). Being a Witness is almost like keeping kosher, but instead of worrying about what you eat, you have to worry about everything else.

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Christmas Minus 10

At Christmastime 2001, I’d been out of work for over a year. When I was first laid off, I got a number of interviews. I even turned down a job offer for a position that sounded painfully uninteresting, foolishly thinking it wouldn’t be my last opportunity for full time work. But it was, for a very, very long time. To this point, I didn’t conceive of the idea that times could get tough for me, because apparently I’d blocked out my entire childhood.

Belt tightening followed. I gave my car to my dad because the insurance was killing me, even though I loved that car and knew giving it my dad was tantamount to a vehicular death sentence. I was forced to pay utilities only; student loans and credit card bills would have to wait. Except that student loan and credit card people didn’t see it that way, and so began the relentless, harassing calls and a mailbox stuffed with envelopes that screamed FINAL NOTICE.

Unemployment insurance helped keep my head above water while I scrounged for what I could. I worked temp jobs here and there, mostly proofreading for ad agencies. I conducted airline surveys at JFK and LaGuardia. On the creative side, I was doing some commentaries for NPR2, an embryonic satellite radio version of NPR, fun and easy work that, of course, dried up before long. I channeled most of my energy into online writing, pitching anything and anyone I could think of, and working on a novel, in the hopes that any one of these things would rescue me from predicament. They didn’t.

I did three full interviews with a financial publishing company, then was given a two-week “tryout,” copy editing, writing headlines, and doing light layout work in Quark. I got paid for my time, with the promise that if they liked my work the position would become full time. After the “tryout,” I never heard from them again, and later suspected this was really just a roundabout way of wresting temporary work out of someone without having to deal with an agency. Their offices were a few short blocks from what would soon be known as Ground Zero.

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Ethnic Envy and the Case of the Misidentified Holiday Decoration

This weekend, my daughter presented me with two questions I wasn’t sure how to answer. The first came during a trip to a diner, after I insisted we wrap up the uneaten portion of her meal to bring home. “My nanny* always said, ‘Wasting food is a sin’,” I told her.

“What’s a sin?” she asked. That was a puzzler.

* Our family word for grandma. Don’t judge.

The second unanswerable question came during a trip into the city to do New York-y holiday things, like visit the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and get pressed against strangers’ Starter jackets. (At Manhattan’s biggest tourist attractions, it is always 1993.) This being a weekend, our trip necessitated lots of transfers and waiting for trains to arrive, because Bloomberg needs the money that could go toward a functioning mass transit system to enforce anti-smoking laws and beat up hippies.

While biding our time on a subway platform, my daughter spontaneously sang a cute little song about Hannukkah, to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It made reference to dreidels and menorahs and latkes and, like most songs sung by a five year old, was adorable. (Later I found out it’s a seasonal staple that, to this point, has escaped my notice.)

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Christmas Carol Commentary Tracks: It’s a Marshmallow World

Did you know you know that record labels used to release special commentary tracks to play along with 45s, much like the ones available on your modern DVDs? It’s true! This holiday season, Scratchbomb has transcribed some Yuletide examples of this bygone format and presents them to you now for your reading pleasure. Today, the commentary track for “It’s a Marshmallow World.”

CARL SIGMAN, LYRICIST: I worked with some great composers over the years. Duke Ellington was probably the greatest, in terms of being a true artist and generous collaborator. But even he was very close-minded when it came to my desire to write about food. I composed these gorgeous lyrics about a glazed ham, but Duke just couldn’t wrap his head around them, and decided to title the song “Mood Indigo” instead.

So when I got the chance to write a Christmas song for Bing Crosby, I leaped at the chance. When I was a kid, I’d always imagined that the “white” in “White Christmas” was actually frosting, either on a donut or some kind of star-shaped cookie. I was not deterred by the fact that every single person I ever mentioned this to told me I was dead wrong.

I brought Bing some special holiday lyrics I’d been sitting on for quite some time, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to unveil them. The song was about how the new-fallen snow looks like marshmallows laying on the trees and bushes, and the sun looks a little like pumpkin, and sometimes other people walking in the street look like drumsticks with feet to me. In the final draft, I left that last bit out.

Things did not go as planned. In fact, after Bing read through the first verse, he chased me around the studio while whipping me with his belt. I was so devastated, I went home and thought about giving up the songwriting game altogether. Eventually, I poured my pain and frustration into a set of heart-rending verses about muffins.

As luck would have it, Bing was contractually obligated to release another single before the end of the year, and he had no choice but to record my song. He told me, “If this platter flops, there’s a double belt whipping in your future, pally.”

My faith in food paid off when “Marshmallow World” became a huge hit. It even inspired a few knockoffs, like “Macaroon Planet” and “Pfeffernuss Nation.” I took this as a compliment, in part because the idea of a macaroon planet sounds intriguingly delicious.

So Bing did not double belt-whip me for failing to produce a hit. He did do so years later for completely different reasons, and he also tried to cave my head in with a putter, but that’s another story.

Sadly, despite this success, I’ve never been able to sell any more food-based lyrics. Although for years, I’ve been working on an operetta about a pot roast who learns to love.

Christmas Carol Commentary Tracks: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Did you know you know that record labels used to release special commentary tracks to play along with 45s, much like the ones available on your modern DVDs? It’s true! This holiday season, Scratchbomb has transcribed some Yuletide examples of this bygone format and presents them to you now for your reading pleasure. Today, the commentary track for “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

EDWARD POLA, LYRICIST: This was a really fun song to write. We were tapped to come up with a few songs for the first Andy Williams Christmas album, and they wanted something really rollicking, a song that captured the fun aspects of all the hustle and bustle of the season. Funny story: the label was not a huge fan of the song and tried to promote Andy’s version of “White Christmas” as the big single. But before long, “Wonderful Time” took on a life on its own, in a way that was really flattering.

GEORGE WYLE, COMPOSER: Ed read off his lyrics to me, and they sounded pretty great, exactly what we were looking for, until he says something about “scary ghost stories.” I said to him, “Ed, this is supposed to be a Christmas song.” And he says, “Yeah, that’s why I put in the line about the scary ghost stories.” I stared at him for a while and said, “You know what holiday Christmas is, right?”

POLA: My family comes from a somewhat obscure Eastern Orthodox sect that believes Christmas should be a combination of joyful gift-giving and terror. It used to be so hard for me to go to sleep on Christmas eve because I was so excited about Santa coming, and because my father would rap on my window and shriek demonically through this strange metal horn of his own design. Sounded like a goat being whipped. The next morning, we would all run to the tree and see who got what they wanted and who received the box full of mousetraps and snakes. Mother would make us hot cocoa and lovingly read to us from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu tales. And of course, there was the traditional Yuletide bloodening.

WYLE: I told Ed we couldn’t put that line in the song; it would just confuse and disturb people. Everything else is great, just take the line about your childhood of horror.

POLA: I can be pretty stubborn when I want to be, especially when it comes to lyrics. I know what fits the meter perfectly when I see it, and I saw it with “scary ghost stories.” It’s not like I went into graphic detail about our yearly Barn Dance Macabre, or talked about the purification rituals.

WYLE: Ed wouldn’t budge. It got so bad I went to the record label and asked them to do something about it, but it turned out Ed had gone behind my back and talked to Andy Williams first. Andy was behind the idea 100 percent.

ANDY WILLIAMS, SINGER: Ed’s lyrics really took me back to my own childlike wonder and terror. My old man used to wake us up on Christmas morning with pitchforks!