There has been a steady flow since the beginning of December, but this week the TV networks are increasing the concentration of holiday “classics” for us to enjoy. All the favourites will be there: Alistair Sim as Scrooge; A Charlie Brown Christmas; Frosty the Snowman; and, of course, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, narrated by that lovable snowman Burl Ives. Rudolph has already brought his reindeer games our way this season, but you’ll have at least 19 more opportunities to catch him between now and Dec. 25. That’s nearly two dozen visits with Mr. Ives, a man forever to be remembered as Sam the Snowman.
The actor and singer is less well-remembered, however, for his equally powerful role as a friendly witness during the McCarthy hearings. In March of 1952 Ives volunteered to sit down in front of the House un-American Activities Committee and fess-up to his socialist/liberal/pinko past, while ratting-out a handful of peers. Ives later admitted to giving unwelcome shout-outs to four colleagues — among them, fellow folk-music troubadour Pete Seeger. Other sources, including the influential leftist publication Sing Out!, placed the number of names named at well over 100. “I believe,” Ives told the committee as he concluded his career-killing laundry-list, “that in no Communist country would such a hearing be possible at all.” The man with the funny way of laughing soon saw his then-dormant career begin to flourish. Seeger, meanwhile, joined dozens of artists unable to find much in the way of work. Ives’ friend Richard Dyer Bennet, a key figure in the folk-music revival, saw his career effectively end in the wake of Sam the Snowman’s name-dropping.
All of which is to say I will likely not watch Rudolph this year. Or next. A classic? Absolutely. And certainly no one can call Rudolph a Communist. (Blitzen, maybe. Sounds kinda Russian, no?) I wish I could, but in the words of Young Fresh Fellows: “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” True, even Seeger publicly forgave Ives, after having cynically excused his colleague for being “not quite intelligent enough to be honorable.” The pair ultimately were reunited onstage, and Seeger would explain his position as, “Sometimes, you just have to forgive and move on with your life.”
Forgiveness. Why must that concept intrude on our good cheer each year at this time? Don’t make me go and regret giving away my Burl Ives records! Not that I ever listened to even one of them. But I prefer to believe my decision to rid my collection of all Ives content was the correct one. I had done the same with Gary Glitter ages ago. Just don’t talk to me about Spade Cooley, Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis. After all, if I were to apply a morality code to artists in my collection, well, it wouldn’t be a collection, would it? I suppose BTO might make the cut. And Mahalia Jackson. Beyond that, it’s iffy.
And, again, sometimes it’s better not to know. To know too much can take all the enjoyment out of a great record. When I listen to Pat Hare’s maniacal I’m Gonna Murder My Baby, do I think about the fact that the bluesman later murdered his girlfriend? OK, bad example. How ’bout these, instead?
The bruddas’ first four albums are essential listening for anyone interested in why rock and roll matters. The Ramones also, by all accounts, loathed each other. Johnny delighted in tormenting Joey, from mocking the singer’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, to confronting his Jewish bandmate with anti-Semitic slurs and expressions of admiration for Hitler, to taking Joey’s girlfriend, to… well, you get the idea. Dee Dee, meanwhile, was a hopeless junkie. And original drummer Tommy was driven out of the band out of fear for his personal safety. Kinda makes it hard to laugh at Beat on the Brat, no? But we must try. Really, we must. I mean, it’s The Ramones! One-two-three-four! And so forth.
All three of The Band’s great vocalists are silent now. But we’ll always have The Last Waltz, right? We will. Unfortunately, since the day that landmark documentary set the bar impossibly high for all subsequent concert films, we have learned too much about that fateful concert. It turns out, for all the nostalgic talk in the film, perhaps only one of the five members of The Band wished for that Thanksgiving to be a farewell to live performances. (You’ll recognize him in the film: he’s in nearly every shot.) Certainly, Levon Helm, who seemingly never forgave Robbie Robertson for what he considered a premature burial of an active group, wanted no part of it. He and Robertson never shared a stage again; though, Helm revived The Band alongside Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel soon after The Last Waltz left theatres. The film is still a joy to watch, so long as one doesn’t watch too closely.
Or, more to the point, Diana Ross and the Supremes. Florence Ballard learned early on that to Berry Gordy only one Supreme mattered. Decades later, when Ross staged a Supremes “reunion” tour without inviting Mary Wilson (or, for that matter, Ballard’s replacement Cindy Birdsong), that point was driven home once more. Ballard’s sad story taints the early Supremes records, but a greater challenge is presented by the sentimental Someday We’ll Be Together, a ballad released amid much fanfare as the trio’s farewell single with Ross at the helm. Alas, as with previous hits Love Child and I’m Livin’ in Shame, no one bothered to invite the remaining Supremes to the session. Kinda makes it sound a little, oh I don’t know, insincere. Or is it just me?
The man, the legend, recently revealed he did not sing on any of his early records. Again, that’s not Plastic Bertrand singing. It’s still a great record, though, eh? And maybe that’s enough. Maybe. So Yoko sings backing vocals on Birthday. So Kurt Cobain did indeed have a gun. So the Everly Brothers haven’t spoken to each other since the 1960s. So bands like Blondie and New Order neglected to invite certain members to their reunion shows. This is rock and roll, people. We must make allowances. I mean, think of the collection!