Friday, December 21, 2007

Poetry Friday- Tom Waits: Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis

Hope is more handy than belief. Hope is the friend that acknowledges times are tough, but helps you get your mind off them for just a little while. Belief is an expensive shrink.

A little while ago I wrote about a co-worker who lamented the loss of magic in adult Christmases. I agreed at the time, but in retrospect, maybe the loss is just in the lead-up. Come Christmas Day, everything still feels right. Maybe it's a residual feeling from the original Christmas story, but I'm always more hopeful on December 25th. For a day at least, all is calm, all is bright.

Lately I've noticed there's a lot of depressing Christmas songs out there (ever listen to Sarah McLaughlin's Wintersong cd?) Sure people are entitled to bemoan commercialism, express pain that's compounded when everyone else seems so dang cheerful, or just rant about phoniness. But to me, Christmas Day is about hope.

On the surface, Tom Waits' Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis is one of the depressing tunes. Opening with "Hey Charlie, I'm pregnant" surely sets many listeners on guard- a pregnant hooker isn't the most hopeful of images is it? But quickly the verse changes expectations...

Hey Charlie, I'm pregnant and living on 9th Street
Right above a dirty bookstore off Euclid Avenue
And I stopped takin' dope and I quit drinkin' whiskey
And my old man plays the trombone and works out at the track

I love how firmly Waits asserts the change. Doesn't get more clear than "stopped" or "quit" does it? Yet it's a realistic tale- no fairytale Pretty Woman scenarios here.

He says that he loves me, even though it's not his baby
He says that he'll raise him up like he would his own son
And he gave me a ring that was worn by his mother
And he takes me out dancin' every Saturday night

Now I'm not trying to offend a million Catholics (mostly because I won't get a million Catholics visiting this blog), but a pregnant woman, and a man sticking by her even though he's not the father, seems to allude to the virgin Mary. No, I'm not comparing Mary to a prostitute, but I think Waits subtly conjures up the same hope one feels upon first hearing the story of the first Christmas. But the parallels end there.

And hey Charlie, I think about you everytime I pass a fillin' station On account of all the grease you used to wear in your hair
And I still have that record of Little Anthony and the Imperials
But someone stole my record player, now how do you like that?

I know Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell get most of the credit as singer-poets, but Waits deserves as much credit. I love the imagery of "the grease" and "the fillin' station." Charlie gets so much more identity in just two short lines. And the latter two lines perfectly capture the injustice the prostitute feels in the loss of their relationship.

Hey Charlie, I almost went crazy after Mario got busted
I went back to Omaha to live with my folks
But everyone I used to know was either dead or in prison
So I came back to Minneapolis, this time I think I'm gonna stay

Hey Charlie, I think I'm happy for the first time since my accident
And I wish I had all the money we used to spend on dope
I'd buy me a used car lot and I wouldn't sell any of 'em
I'd just drive a different car every day dependin' on how I feel

I really appreciate the voice of this poem. She's so consistent with the vernacular (busted, dope, etc) that by the end of it, she has an identity that sticks with the reader. As a song, I really appreciate that it's able to be sung by both genders without the characters of Charlie and the prostitute being lost. When Tom Waits performs it, he's Charlie reading the letter. When Neko Case covers it, she's the writing prostitute. Both performances are brilliant and complement each other wonderfully.

Hey Charlie, for chrissakes, if you want to know the truth of it
I don't have a husband, he don't play the trombone
I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer, and Charlie, hey
I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's day

And so here we are, the truth is revealed; it's Boxing Day and we're all coming down. But for a moment we had hope that things were changing for the better. Maybe some of that hope will even linger. Yes, the last stanza might be depressing but no more than the last line of "I'll Be Home For Christmas."


Unknown said...

This is fabulous! Thanks for sharing!

tanita✿davis said...

Or, it's at least as good as the last stanza of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas -- and I mean the original last lines:

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the fates allow.
Until then we'll have to
Muddle through somehow...
So have yourself a
Merry little Christmas now.

Remi said...

For bittersweet Christmas, I always pull out Stan Rogers' First Christmas.

Of course, The Pogues' Fairytale of New York also goes well.

Anonymous said...

TadMack: love that analogy.
John: Hadn't heard/read the lyrics before; thanks for sharing them.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Thanks so much for this, John. I don't know this song at all, but I sure am going to look for it. Tom Waits is the king of down low songs, and I do love a few of them around Christmastime to offset all the sugar.

As Remi mentioned, Fairytale of New York fills this void nicely too, as does John Prine's Christmas in Prison.

Rob Hardy said...

Here's the song as sung by the fabulous Neko Case:

Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

Merry Christmas!

Sara said...

Barbara, I love John Prine's Christmas in Prison.

I think Christmas is about hope and wishes, too. But we need hope the most when things are the worst, so that's why (maybe) Christmas songs can be bittersweet.

Thanks for the slow walk through this song.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Thanks for sharing, Rob! Neko Case is one of the great ones.

John Mutford said...

Gina: I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Tadmack: I hadn't really paid attention to those lines before. Given what just came before, the last two lines certainly have a bitter, sarcastic edge don't they?

Remi: the Pogue one is destined to be a classic (if it's not already). I'm unfamiliar with the Stan Rogers tune though.

Kelly: Now you have to track down the tune!

Barbara: I only have a cover of the John Prine tune, by Emmy The Great.

Rob: Neko Case is great, isn't she?

Sara: There's certainly enough Christmas music out there to fit just about mood.

Remi said...

Unfamiliar with Stan Rogers?
Look him up. You're in for a treat.

As for First Christmas. It is one of the saddest, prettiest songs I know.

John Mutford said...

Remi: No, I'm definitely familiar with Stan Rogers (Northwest Passage is a favourite). I just don't know that particular tune you mentioned.

Mary Lee said...

I love your first paragraph.
And the poem.
And your commentary.

Bybee said...

In my mind, I hear Rickie Lee Jones singing this song.