"Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" Is a Perfect Holiday Tragicomedy

On the first day of The Noisey Advent Calendar, let's all listen to Tom Waits's best and most broken ballad.

|
Dec 1 2018, 3:00pm

Photo: David Corio/Redferns
Logo: Dominick Rabrun

A rumor locked into internet message boards has it that Tom Waits lifted the lyrics to "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" from a Charles Bukowski poem. That poem is called "Charlie, I'm Pregnant" and, if you trust the commenters, it's right there in an early collection called The Roominghouse Madrigals.

This is an admirably barefaced brand of bullshit. The Roominghouse Madrigals exists, and it's really not that hard to track down a copy. There's no poem called "Charlie, I'm Pregnant" there or anywhere else. Waits loved beatnik barflies and Bukowski in particular, but "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" wasn't lifted from a dusty old paperback. Waits even has a made-up origin story of his own to prove it—something about wandering around Minneapolis in -200° weather, dressed in a bra and slip with a squirrel fur over his shoulders, caught up in the middle of a "pimp war" between two 13-year-old kids.

It's fitting that "Christmas Card…" should have two fictions behind it before the first blue piano chord lounges in though. The tragicomic centerpiece of Waits's 1978 LP Blue Valentine is more than half-fantasy itself, an unnamed sex worker brave-facing it through a life she's invented: "I stopped taking dope and quit drinking whiskey," "He says that he loves me even though it's not his baby," "Charlie, I think I'm happy…" It's shot through with little half-moments that we should probably believe—everyone she used to know is either dead or in prison (why else write to Charlie?); the "accident" sounds harrowing—but it all unravels at the very end. "Charlie, for chrissakes, if you want to know the truth of it…" She'll spend the holidays in jail, but there's a good chance she'll be out for Valentine's Day, and there's just enough hope there after all the heroin and alcohol to keep her alive and writing.

Here's something that's true, and you might as well believe me: Every year, over a few days in late November, I listen to this song a hundred or so times, often on a loop. If I'm home, I'll watch the video above of Waits sing-talking it solo some time in the late-70s. He bookends the performance with a tipsy "Silent Night" and drops into Little Anthony and The Imperials' modest 1964 R&B hit "Goin' Out of My Head" when the lyrics call for it. It's sweet and strange, and the awkward laughs from the crowd when the monologue breaks from misery add another uncomfortable layer to the gutter-melodrama.

Christmas is just miserable for a lot of people—empty chairs, ghosts (real and imagined), memories that would otherwise scab over with time that instead re-open for few set days every year. "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," with its brave face, its starry-eyed lies, and its tiny morsels of recovery, seems to fit the start of the season better than most department store holiday mixes.

***

I'm going to spend the next 25 days writing about Christmas music. I'll pick up a different song, album, or artist every morning, and, all things permitting, we'll have a fully-opened Noisey Advent Calendar by Christmas Day. My colleague Colin Joyce, the doomed soul who's agreed to look through these before they go out, described the task as "Sisyphean." He's right up to a point, but pushing a boulder up a hill is at least steady work, and apparently Sisyphus got to be King of Corinth for a while before Zeus decided to torture him. I've never been afforded such a luxury. So, while my task will take less than four weeks to complete, I think of this more as a festive response to the Year of Lil Wayne series that Kyle Kramer blessed us with last year. This task is Kramerian.

Why bother? For a start, I figure that Christmas music comes and goes too quickly for anyone to really dissect it. Most people know the words to the standards, and just about everyone has a personal record or two that they associate with the holidays. But nobody seems to remember the glut of holiday music that came out the previous December, the stuff that seemed fascinating for a few hours but then expired at 12:01 AM on December 26, the songs that FM radio didn't play because they had names like "Rudy The Big Booty Reindeer." Only the corniest Christmas music from the past ends up in syndication; the mainstream Christmas canon is dull, mostly milky-white, endlessly repetitive, and often just plain stupid. Apparently two billion people around the world consider this to be the most important holiday of the year. I refuse to believe that more than half of those people give a shit about Michael Bublé.

***

Who came up with the Roominghouse Madrigals rumor anyway? Sure, the card is addressed to Charlie, but as far as I remember Bukowski's thinly-veiled protagonist was usually called Henry. And besides, where's the grotesquerie, the vomit taste and the drunken horniness that makes Bukowski so enticing to dangerously under-repressed 19-year-old boys and so completely insufferable to millions of others?

The only lie that's really believable in (or about) "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" is the only lie we really need to believe—for those four-and-a-half minutes, Waits is someone else, someone desperate, someone who's already looking forward to mid-February because the holidays are going to be brutal and bitter. The lyrics are perfectly restrained, always probing at some past disaster without laying out its details. We learn about Charlie—greasy-haired, a (maybe not) recovering addict—without him ever speaking a word. Waits gives every line as much overblown drama as it asks for and pulls back into a fake-smiled whisper when he needs to tap into some sweetness. It's painful and empathetic, and it tries to find a laugh in the midst of a tragedy. That feels more real—more true—than anything else you can hear at the start of December.

Alex Robert Ross is feeling Christmassy on Twitter.