The Story of Christmas Wrapping — Interview with Chris Butler of The Waitresses
It’s August 1981, high summer and a zillion degrees. And my band The Waitresses are recording a Christmas song. There is so much wrong with this picture I’m not sure where to begin complaining. We are toast from too many months on the road, trying to turn “I Know What Boys Like” (our minor hit that would not break through, but also would never go away) into some kind of career with legs. I have no time to write material for a second album, let alone steal a few precious moments to cobble together something about a holiday that I absolutely loathed. I am Super Scrooge — when everyone is getting all misty watching “It’s A Wonderful Life”, I’m the guy screaming “Jump, George Bailey, jump!” at the TV screen.
This was all Michael Zilkha’s idea. We were signed to his Ze Records, and he had come up with the concept of everyone on his roster contributing an original song for a Christmas record. Only Ze was not the home of artists capable of warm, fuzzy holiday sentiments: Michael’s tastes ran to the coolly exotic and extremely experimental (like Suicide/Alan Vega, Lydia Lunch, Lizzie Mercier).
We had hoped that Michael would forget about the whole thing, but he stayed smitten with this idea, and the next thing I knew he had booked us into Electric Lady and I had three days to come up with something.
Make-it-a-story-about-a-working-girl-too-tired-to-celebrate-the-holiday-too-tired-to-get-”in the spirit”-but-the-spirit-happens-anyway-’cause-that’s-the-”magic-of-Christmas”-blah-blah-blah-make-it-non-religious-think-Dickens-add-a-love-theme-gotta-have-a-love-theme-this-is-pop-music-after-all- steal-some-music-from-another-half-finished-tune-it-will-have-to-do-think-Preston- Sturges-think-O. Henry’s “Gift Of The Magi”-gotta-have-a-title-Kurtis-Blow-had-a-song-”Christmas-Rapping”- mine-has-a-wrap-around-plot-that’s-tied-up-neat-as-a-ribbon-’round-a-Christmas-gift-call-it- Christmas-Wrapping-a-pun!-puns-are-good-fuck-just-get-it-done-just-get-it-DONE!
And record and mix it in two days. Finish the lyrics on the cab ride over to the studio. Play the band my crappy home demo. Grunt out an idea for a brass part. Call Dave Buck and pray that he’s free to add a trumpet. Try to keep my Vox teardrop guitar in tune. Nice Marshall amp. Gee, that Steinway sounds kinda great. Wow, Patty! Nice job! Two takes and she nails the vocal. Hey, this is actually working out okay.
We pulled it off.
And when it’s done, it’s promptly forgotten, because we immediately leave for another three months on the road. Michael Zilkha thinks it’s ‘nice’. That’s it…’nice’. Well, we were the token squares amongst his collection of misfits — ex-pat Midwesterners with a strong Protestant work ethic, so what did he expect? Who cares? We did what he asked, and never mind that he didn’t have the $500 for the van since August Darnell had spent $100,000 on Kid Creole & The Coconut’s record and live shows.
And then it’s November something-th, and we are in Rochester, NY, and I call home and my wife says, “You are all over the radio!” and I say “Great! I Know What Boys Like is finally getting some real play,” and she says, “No, it’s that Christmas song.”
~ Chris Butler
Lyrically, Christmas Wrapping almost plays out like a Nora Ephron movie. It’s about this woman who’s totally over Christmas and then bumps into a guy in the supermarket on Christmas Eve that she’s thought about all year. Can you talk about why you decided to approach a Christmas song from that angle?
That part is autobiographical. I was a super-Grinch. Lousy Christmases as a kid, too many last minute projects as a freelance writer that gobble up the holidays when everyone else is taking it easy. (“Let’s call Butler, he’ll do it”), obligated to spend money I don’t have on gifts for people Idon’t like or who have enough of everything already, the rank commercialization in America of the holiday, the fact that New York just stops dead on December 1st and you can’t get anything done, etc.
Like so many of my songs, it’s a gripe disguised (hopefully!) with some humor and snappy wordplay. I’ve never been really good at openly expressing my feelings in a song, but since i had the “every girl” Patty character to speak through, I could be more honest — does that make sense? And the ridiculous cornball ending also should hint to the listener that I approached the season with one great big harrumph. But — and this is for real — in New York anyway and probably everywhere else in the Christian world, there is a sense of some sort of mysterious “good thing”, of collective hope operating in the background during the Christmas season that’s gonna make things alright…that there’s a secular force working behind the scenes that is larger than one’s grumpy attitude. I thought the song gave me a chance to at least grudgingly acknowledge that.
You sent me a video of a girl covering the song and struggling with the lyrics, because it’s sung so fast! In fact, the way Patty Donahue performs it on the record is almost akin to rap, and reminds me of Rapture by Blondie. Was that style influenced by the rap/hip-hop that was around at the time?
Rap was only one of the “new” New York sounds. Patty was certainly not a belter — rhythmic talking was her forte, the story fell kinda naturally into a “di-di-DAH, di-di-DAH” sort of rhythm, and there was the pun on Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping” which could not go unused!
We were never as hip as Blondie, and Patty and I were certainly white folks, but yeah…along with Latin, the CBGB scene, the ska bands coming over from London and up from Jamaica, the loft jazz movement, etc., rap was certainly drifting down from the Bronx and inspiring/informing my writing.
The Guardian once called it a Christmas song “for Brooklyn hipsters” and I think it is one of those songs that’s acceptable to like even if you’re allergic to Christmas music. Was it your intention to appeal to that sect of Christmas cynics?
Funny, the song pre-dates the “Brooklyn hipsters” tribe by a few decades! But I guess as an alternative to “ah-rum-pah-pum-pum” ickysticky-ness for the jaded, yeah. Why shouldn’t the Scrooges have an anthem, too? Maybe the O. Henry/It’s A Wonderful Life/Miracle on 34th Street plot twist at the end can thaw a few cold hearts? In that way the song is a public service.
It’s always said that Christmas songs are where it’s at when it comes to royalties and making money. Without getting into specifics, have you found this to be true? Have you ever declined to let it be used in film/TV/commercials or are you pretty game for that?
Every year I see an article about the mounds of pounds Noddy Holder gets for his Christmas song and I just have to laugh. Christmas Wrapping does generate a modest amount of revenue, yes, but hardly enough for me to live a decadent rock star life. And so far, I have not had any sort of moral crisis about it being used by some venal corporation, so I haven’t turned anything down.
What I have turned down is a slew of really bad sitcom-y screenplays for dire holiday movies. I think the song would make a great, smart film and would love to see this happen — hello, Working Title? Are you reading this? — but so far, I haven’t had to make any difficult choices. Knock on wood.
It’s one of those enduring pop songs that appears on TV/at parties every year. How do you feel when you hear it now? Can you separate yourself from it?
I have often said — and this is truly true — that the song blindsides me in a shopping mall or on my car’s radio just when I am in the foulest of moods, so I’ve often wondered if I wrote it to get me out of my Seasonal Depressive Disorder? I am far enough away from it to listen just as any other person would. And man, does it ever sound good over a car radio with all that broadcast EQ and compression!
And it works on me, by the way. Every time.
Do you have a favourite Christmas song?
Not really. The Pogues one is even more cynical than mine (big like!), and Chrissie Hynde’s is pretty magical, I think.
Finally, you’ve led a really interesting life, but an interesting tidbit is that you bought a house in Akron, Ohio that once belonged to Jeffrey Dahmer and was the site of one of the murders. Can you briefly explain how you came to be in possession of this? (Did you know it belonged to Jeffrey Dahmer at the time of purchase? I know it’s for sale now — have you encountered difficulty trying to sell it?)
In 2004, I was looking for a place back in Northeastern Ohio, where I’m from. The band I was in in the 1970s there (Tin Huey) had reformed, my mother was still alive and I was done with New York. I stumbled on this cool, mid-century modern pad and thought, “Why not?”
The mortgage was less than what I was paying for a small workspace/studio in the New York area. I did know it had a grisly history, but only after the real estate agent let me fall in love with it first! I have to laugh — Jimmy Page has Aleister Crowley’s castle and Trent Reznor rent the Tate-La Bianca mansion. Then Chris Butler? The Waitresses? Jeffery Dahmer’s childhood home?
And yes, it is still unsold, though I am something like the 4th or so owner since the Dahmer family, so there must be someone out there who will take it for its coolness versus its stigma. I’ll just have to see. In the meantime, it is a wonderful place to write and relax. Great for Halloween parties, too!