Mannheim Steamroller Christmas: A Night Like No Other
by Chip Davis
I had the goofiest idea the other morning.
Well, technically it was far from morning, and come to think of it I'd been up for a while. More accurately, it came during one of those first stabs at thought you take on a day whose noon ablutions consist of peeling your eyelids up over your contact lenses and scraping a fellow reveler off your floor so you can argue over which restaurants have coffee and a smoking room. The night before, I'd fallen off the wagon after a monthlong ride, so I was horribly hungover, and it took that cup of mud, solid sustenance, half a pack of cigarettes, a walk, and a solitary sit with a second cup of coffee and a Red Streak cover story headlined "Burning Bush" to get the gears grinding.
The squeal they produced ran thus: "Jesus...do you suppose Dubya isn't trying to make us all die horrible deaths for no good reason?"
Kind of a corker, I know, but you have to admit: there is a possibility, however slight, that the man really does mean well and is merely bumbling in spectacular fashion. And that somebody that stupid, however wealthy, could amble through the top tier of the edumacational system of the current 800-pound gorilla among nations. And that all the presidential handlers and advisers are simply as stupid as, if not more stupid than, their charge. And that the voting public is boneheaded enough to root for the whole lot of 'em. Sure, it could happen! Of course, I'd never have dreamed such slop--nay, wouldn't have gotten drunk in the first place--if it hadn't been for Mannheim Steamroller.
Yes, Mannheim Steamroller, aka Louis "Chip" Davis Jr., the man who kick-started both the New Age music industry and the 70s trucker craze--and, if you ask me, an evil semigenius who plots tirelessly to destroy Christmas from his 100-acre rural stronghold in Nebraska.
Let me explain: When I was growing up my parents lived within 60 miles of both grandparental homes, so we spent every Christmas Eve driving in deep rural Wisconsin darkness, seeing only stars, the floodlights of farmyards, and an occasional radio tower, blinking red as it beamed yuletide standards into our drafty car. I'd tap my feet on the rubber floor mats to the croons of Crosby and Parton and Elvis, not just 'cause, bundled as I was, my feet kept going numb, but because the sparkly, scratchy, and--fine!--dopey cuts made the miserable windswept expanses of snow seem sort of romantic.
But then came 1984--the year Mannheim Steamroller released its first Christmas record. Suddenly, instead of cheesecake vocalists flirting with Santa we got "18th-century rock 'n' roll," as Davis likes to call it. Uh...dude! His revamped "Deck the Halls," the album's big hit, is enough to make any self-respecting music fan yak up her turkey: that insistent pastoralism, the antique strings and woodwinds slammed into a driving, flat, robot's-ear version of a rockin' rhythm, the steely whine of the synth timbres Davis favors, and worst of all, no singing.
It was so bland that my parents were surprised by my constant complaining: Relax, Ann, they call that elevator music. It'll be gone by January. Yeah, and so will Christmas! But I swear that for a couple years after the horns 'n' Casio contingent busted open the market, you could drive all the way from Marshfield to Colby without hearing a single holiday song that had vocals. My mother even brought home one of those fucking tapes, which now strikes me as completely bizarre because my parents ordinarily have great taste--I've never shoved anything down their throats they didn't eventually thank me for. But there she was, cooing for us to open our presents to the tune of the Steamroller's torture tones. Brainwashed, I felt sure.
Then again, everything was crap in the 80s. And though Davis has, by his own reckoning, sold about 24 million Christmas albums over the course of his career, Mannheim Steamroller has pretty well dropped off the cultural radar, leaving yule radio to the mid-20th-century classics and, er, Britney Spears and Mariah Carey--but hey, cheese is the soul of Christmas music, and the new stuff marks a return to sexy, unpretentious fun. In the meantime, I'd grown complacent. Or grown up, if you must.
So last month I nearly peed my drawers when I found, in the Reader reviewables bin, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas: A Night Like No Other. A goddamn Mannheim Steamroller novel, nearly 200 pages, compleat with a sixteen-minute companion CD (four and a half minutes of which is a turgid dentist's office version of "Jingle Bells"). Davis's name is on the cover, but the text is by someone named Jill Stern, who gets no other Google hits. I find it suspicious that we didn't hear about Stern's subsequent suicide. I mean, she has to have jumped out a window.
The narrative begins in the present, with a man trying to get his kids to accompany him on a traditional forced tree-hunting march through merciless December. The kids balk. So dad sits them down, and we flash back to a story about his childhood: he's grumbling about his own dad's silly Christmas traditions when he gets caught in a blizzard, hits his head, and wakes up inside a snow globe. He soon finds it's a dystopian snow globe, whose denizens are herded SS-style into a mall every year at yuletide. Forced to buy, buy, buy all holiday long, the people learn to like it. They soon forget what Christmas is really about--not the birth of Christ and all that jazz but rather being with family and sharing anachronistic materialist pleasures like mistletoe and wassail. The hero saves the town, of course, in time to return to his own family's trad celebration with a deep understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. Ba-doomp.
Well, I...I sort of agree with the book's clumsy moralizing. But I was so horrified that a man who bought a private jet with profits earned by crappifying Christmas actually had the cojones to write a book complaining about the crappification of Christmas that I had to call him up and ask him about it.
American Gramaphone, the label Davis started in 1974 to release his pseudoclassical gas when no one else would, now also sells bath products, steak salt, several coffee blends, and--ho, looky here--wassail mix, but it turns out he never planned to expand into books. Simon & Schuster called him. He'd been working with a passel of scriptwriters to turn his hell-mall idea, which is ten years old, into a movie. "They'd been getting requests from distributors for a book with Mannheim Steamroller--people were asking for it," he explained. "So they asked, Do you have anything? And I had this story, from a film script, and it was made into a book by the person they'd chosen." Interestingly, Stern changed the plot: In Davis's original and darker version, the snow globe people were trapped in the mall year-round. Stern decided they'd be allowed to go about their lives in a quaint village and get rounded up just for the holidays.
Who ever really knows what consequences one's actions will have? Davis never had any intention of making country music, either. As a jingle writer in the 70s, he was asked to come up with a country tune for a bread company. His training was classical, but he agreed to give it a shot. The series of commercials that resulted--known as the "Old Home Filler-up an' Keep on a-Truckin'" ads--were so beloved that people would call radio stations and request the themes as though they were pop tunes. Davis and his cowriter, Bill Fries, who performed them as C.W. McCall, got a record deal out of it. And people--you fucking loved it. The Country Music Association named the crossover hit "Convoy"--which sounds to me like a mean-spirited parody of country music and Americans in general--single of the year in 1976, and it inspired the 1978 Peckinpah flick of the same name. But ruining country music was just Davis's day job. He used the cash to fund American Gramaphone, which started out marketing Mannheim Steamroller to stereo salesmen as a tool for demonstrating their wares.
The new book, Davis told me, is a way to convey his disappointment with the modern Christian world, its disconnection from the old carols and the ancient customs their lyrics celebrate--and to describe and promote those old traditions so people will seek them out again. No shit, I thought, having trudged all the way through the end of the book ("Evan's mom came in with steaming mugs of cinnamon hot chocolate topped with towers of whipped cream. Evan sipped his. 'Mmm, good,' he said. 'But you know, we should have wassail sometime'"). It was odd to hear an author brag that his plot was a mere mule for his idee fixe. Such a project should be doomed to fail. But perhaps his fans are lovestruck enough to read the whole thing, and perhaps some of them really are unaware of everything before "Jingle Bell Rock," and maybe in fact this will help the masses better understand history, or the history of the European winter solstice anyway.
Davis doth protest that his private jet makes it easier to be home with his family when he's not working, and that ersatz-traditional music, especially the mutilated-Christmas-carol subgenre, is truly the nearest and dearest thing to his heart. He likes to hear Christmas music by today's stars ("It's nice to hear different singers at different times," he said, whatever that means) but finds a lot of these records to be "hollow." Christmas, he lamented, is a "mantle" that artists don to impress her highness the dollar. "I don't know if they're doing it for the heart."
But get this--it's his fault. Before American Gramaphone, Davis said, "Christmas music used to be looked down on." Not by most listeners, of course, but by industry types, who told Davis they liked his music but Christmas records weren't moneymakers. They were what artists lacking inspiration did to fill out record contracts or prop up careers, and they usually sold for around two bucks. So Davis put out that first Christmas record, priced at $18.98--in 1984, mind you--and, unbelievably, it's moved six million units since. The third year after that, Davis continued, everybody and his brother had a Christmas album out, a trend that continues to this day. "The only thing I feel bad about," he said, "is that now I have to fight for shelf space."
Contradictions and all, the guy was kind of charming. When he started going on about his annual Halloween shindig, where 300 or 400 people get invited to his farm and go on hayrides and zoom around on horses with pumpkins on their heads, I thought, Wow--now that's a party I'd like to be invited to. He was up front about playing the industry--after all, "we've all got to do our work!" Maybe he really is just making the best crap he can. Maybe his albums sell because the good folks out there vote for Mannheim Steamroller with their dollars--voluntarily, enthusiastically, because that's what they like and not because they've been brainwashed. Oh, God! Maybe people really are that deeply gullible, tasteless, self-destructive, and/or unable to ponder the possibility that to "save" something using more piety than reason may very well be to destroy it. The thought is a hell of a lot less comforting than any of my conspiracy theories.
So let's say Davis really is what he sells. That would mean George Bush might be too. And that maybe Ani DiFranco isn't actually trying to get bisexuality declared illegal...and come on now, that's just too much to ask a thinking person to believe.
Just because we couldn't prove Deep Throat existed didn't mean we threw the Nixon dossier into the landfill. Perhaps the Mannheim Steamroller, dopey, square, and forced though it seems on the surface, is in truth far too cunning for my conscious mind to parse. Perhaps I'm missing untold levels--levels where putting jingle-bell hats on Yorkies, forcing your offspring to walk through a blizzard, and sprinkling cluster bombs like snow globe snowflakes on the heads of civilians in order to end terrorism all dance around the Yule log with the elves of perfect sense.
Just for kicks, I asked Davis if he thought President Bush meant well.
"Yeah, I think so," he said. "How can you tell? You never know for absolute sure unless you are that person. No matter what you set out to do, you can get derailed....But I sure liked playing at the White House for him!"
That cinches it--they're in cahoots! Quick, to the bar!
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Vario Jr..