Tom Waits introduced this song once by telling this story:
“I was in Minneapolis – it was 200 degrees below zero – I know – you think I’m bullshitting, no, I swear to God, I was wearing just a bra and a slip and a kind of dead squirrel around my neck – he was colder than I was. The police cars would go by and they’d wave… Merry Xmas, Merry Xmas, Merry Xmas – anyway – I got caught in the middle of a pimp war between 2 kids in Chinchilla coats, they couldn’t have been more than 13 years old- they’re throwing knives and forks and spoons out into the street – it was deep – so I grabbed a ladle – and Dinah Washington was singing “Our Day Will Come” and I knew that was it.”
Which I’ll just leave without comment, other than that it kind of blows me away.
As sung by Tom Waits, “Christmas Card” is a watershed song. Tom is at his most indulgent and his most a-melodic (at least until Rain Dogs). This song forces you to listen to what he’s saying, and to listen to how the tension in the timing, in his delivery, and in the song’s dissonance effect and are affected by the lyrics. It’s a song that separates the casual Tom Waits fan from the die-hard.
Neko Case brings an entirely new perspective to this song. Her voice is powerful even when she whispers – she’s got the sort of pure, commanding alto that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. She brings an urgency to the lyrics, something plaintive, that Tom’s rasp did not. Her choice of arrangement, with church organ, makes the protagonist seem less rabid, more innocent. I feel more sympathetic towards her and the tragedies that she’s faced – she seem less disingenuous than Tom – her apologies are more sincere.
However, it lacks that tension, that grimy element that exists in the original. The mood has changed. It’s a different song, for another occasion. Find it on New Coat of Paint: Songs of Tom Waits, from 2000.
She’s eligible for parole tomorrow, remember.