How The Waitresses's "Christmas Wrapping" got 'writ'.|
"I can’t force songwriting...otherwise the results sound dishonest or contrived. I wait for inspiration. I find that when I’m in a harmonious state, the ideas flow freely. I need to have everything organized. A clean workspace. My favorite pen. One doesn’t “write”...one can only make oneself receptive, and the ideas will then flow into your consciousness naturally. The songs write themselves...the ‘work’ is getting yourself out of the way so they can do their thing.”
“...so The Stones were in Studio C...mixing I guess...been locked in there for days. We had just finished our all-night session and the sun was coming up. Nice morning, so I thought I’d walk home. Passed a dumpster near 5th Ave., and on top of the garbage was Keith Richard...zonked out on an old mattress. I shook him awake. ‘Hey Keith,’ I asked, ‘are you okay? Want me to call a taxi to take you home?’ ‘I am home’, he growled...and passed out again.”
Mike Frondelli is holding court in Studio B at Electric Lady Studios in New York’s Greenwich Village. That’s Hendrix’s old playpen, and Mike is one of their top engineers. People go through their whole musical careers without ever getting to work in such a fantastic environment.
And if it had been under different circumstances, I might’ve actually enjoyed being there.
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)...a Halloween record, maybe?...or one commemorating that Mexican holiday where they honor the dead? I’d heard his girlfriend Christina’s cut—a touching story of two junkies trimming a cactus with their works and some stolen diamond earrings. But I guess that was Michael’s vision...it was the Ironic Age, after all.
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-religeous-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, ‘cause 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 (and perhaps a slight aroma of...what is that?...ah yes...cow manure?), 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! “Boys Like” is finally getting some real play” and she says “no...it’s that Christmas song.”
I love the music business.
—Chris Butler/July, 2003