Every other week, almost without fail, I play poker with a bunch of mooks -- lovable mooks, but mooks nonetheless. Though you would never guess it if you just poked your head in for a night, they are actually a pretty accomplished bunch, which I often have to remind myself, but yeah, mooks. And I am proud to count myself among them. (I threw in the last bit because I know a few of them check in on this page.)
I came into this group about 3 years ago at the invitation of my friend, Bruce, whom I had only recently been introduced to by some other mutual friends. While the vetting process is not quite on the level of, say, La Cosa Nostra, getting invited into the game is a seriously considered call. Woe to the player who unilaterally invites someone new, especially if that invitee turns out to be a dud or worse. The right balance of personalities is essential (they must all be misanthropic). There is almost no turnover and the seven core players are highly reliable for showing up. We have some more recent guys who are semi-regular players, including a famous novelist (who actually used our game as inspiration for a fairly sad and despicable bunch of poker playing suburbanites in one of his books).
The level of poker playing at this bi-weekly gathering is fair-to-middling. The stakes match that level. We might end up paying more for wine, beer, Trader Joe's snacks, and other provisions than we win or lose in the game. I am particularly hapless in my skills/luck. I tend to press, calling when I shouldn’t, etc. I like to think of myself as overly optimistic. Others might view this approach recklessly aggressive. Still others might simply refer to it, as my fellow players do, as variously, “stupid” or, “f-in idiotic.” This is more or less the level of conversation that dominates most evenings. There is also a fairly generous amount of profane hypothetical and philosophical discussions that start off with the evergreen, “would you rather have (blank) done to you by (a blank) with a (blank), or (blank) a (blank) of your choice?” They are sort of obscene koans. It should go without saying that rarely do I feel like I have reached some Zen enlightenment after contemplation of these scenarios, but I do get a pretty good amount of laughs, especially if a certain chemical balance has been achieved and maintained.
But it also seems that the third object of “the game,” after trying to impress with the wine selection, stimulating conversation, and poker skills, is to see whose iPod will last the longest on the stereo, a unique rig consisting of someone's little sister's '90s Aiwa shelf system pumped though vintage wood-paneled 1970s BIC Venturi speakers perched atop a steel shelf in a pre-fab cement-and-metal contractor warehouse. One newbie candidate had a great house in which to play, arguably a pretty decent personality, excellent provisions, but an iPod heavy on 1960s/1970s English folk and folk-rock. I mean I love Nick Drake and all, but for a poker game one or two songs of his go a long way. Drake was not even on his list -- too upbeat I guess. But man, Steeleye Span and Pentangle have no place on anyone’s iPod, never mind featured on a playlist for a poker game. We’re not having any of it. And don’t get me started on deep-cut Jethro Tull. This stuff is meant to stay on musty vinyl in someone’s parents’ basement in central Jersey. Or Iowa, even better. Maybe South Dakota. North, even.
Nay, know your audience! We are a bunch of 40-something fathers. Gotta play a lot of dad rock. Now, that is no longer a pejorative term as far as I am concerned. It used to mean Moody Blues. Loggins and Messina, and post-Cream….zzzzzz……Clapton. Sure, some frickin' Knopfler has come on once or twice, which was controversial and instigated a whole conversation regarding dadrock. But many of the dads I know -- not just from all the bands I grew up with as peers -- but the dudes I meet at volunteer stuff at a suburban Boston elementary school, are downright hip. Yes, hip. These are guys in their middle age who grew up on now-senior-citizens Sonic Youth, gray-hairs (literally) like Dinosaur Jr., guys who tell me they first saw Buffalo Tom playing with My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, and Mercury Rev back in 1992. These are guys who still go out semi-regularly and check out newer music live, sending out emails to groups of other dudes to round up a posse to go see M. Ward, Deathship, the Broken West, the Hold Steady, Bon Iver, etc. OK, so maybe not some 20 year-olds out of RISD playing an all-xylophone-backed bit of confessional poetry at a Chinatown loft party, but come on, we have to leave something for the kids to think they are hipper than thou.
We introduce some new stuff we might have picked up. We have a little side chat about it. Dad rock to us means the Clash, Talking Heads, Eno, Replacements, Feelies, etc. But play a lot of old dusty dad rock as well: a particularly choice Stones bootleg, an Anthology version of a White album track, Allmans at Filmore East, some Stax stuff, tons of Stevie – you get the idea. Throw off this delicate balance by, for example, by playing three John Prine songs in a row (not aimed at anyone in particular) and it will not be long before someone is coming back from a bathroom break and supplanting your audio source. I don’t kill myself creating a playlist but I do cull one for each game, usually the stuff I have been listening to and enjoying in the intervening week. And I try to put it in a considered and compelling running order. But I don’t take offense when mine has been jettisoned for another’s iPod, unless it has only been on for 20 minutes (I rarely start off with “Whipping Post”) as I do look forward to hearing others’ choices.
This is my characteristically long-winded way of getting around to my main point, which is introducing this week’s Cover of the Week. Paul, one of my poker buddies who takes rightful and at times righteous pride in his music collection (as we all do), “challenged” me this past week to come up with a holiday playlist that would last more than 15 minutes. After parsing the definition of the concept (i.e. does it have to be all holiday songs? Even I wouldn’t want to listen to my own playlist of such songs) I set off to sprinkle an otherwise ‘60s-soul-heavy list with a healthy infusion of quality holiday choices. Ground zero for me is my favorite Christmas song, “Please Come Home for Christmas” by Charles Brown.
Now, I would love to be all cool and say I first learned of this song from the original Charles Brown version from 1960. But come on, I grew up on Long Island in the 1970s. There was no escape from the Eagles. And, though they have fallen out of my rotation, they are not as much of an evil to me as they seem to be for so many other, much cooler people than I am. They are not even a guilty pleasure; I think there I nothing to feel guilty about when listening to well-crafted MOR songs as benign as “New Kid in Town.” I think it is a very good pop song arranged and recorded extremely well. I never turn it off on the radio. Same goes for “Tequila Sunrise,” “Lying Eyes,” or “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
Wow, that feels good to get off my chest.
And it was the Eagles who introduced me to the great Charles Brown via their very good rendition of this song, a recording that I still love to hear come on the radio. But I still way more prefer the original. So I put it on the poker playlist of course. Paul turned to me and casually mentioned something like, “ah, another song that everyone does on their Christmas albums.” Really? I only know the Eagles and Brown versions, as far as I can remember. So I went onto the web and saw that I also recall the (gulp) Bon Jovi version. I was steeling myself for more. And yeah, there are a myriad other recordings, it turns out. But I know none of them. Not James Brown’s B.B. King’s, Willie Nelson’s, or Aaron Neville’s. Never mind Pat Benetar; a boy from Long Island is legally bound not to disparage MizzBenetaw, you heah me wizeass? She’ll have to put another notch in her lipstick case.
All good holiday tunes get done to death. It seems that one of the best has a modest recording history. Listen, I know I ain’t Mister Soul and God knows I don’t want to come off like Bruce Willis, thinking he is -- in all is Jersey Ray-Ban-wearing-bad-harmonica-playing generic-ocity -- Mr. Blues. But I love the song and damned if I was not going to cover it as my predictable holiday edition of Cover of the Week. Because when it comes down to it, what are the holidays if not thinking about yourself first?
Please note that this is a bonus cover this week. The other one is in the previous post today, above.
Please Come Home for Christmas MP3