Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Christmas with The Waitresses
The following interview, conducted by Keith Lyle, originally appeared in issue #2 of FESTIVE!, way back in 1997.
Christmas Wrapping with Chris Butler: A Tribute to Patty Donahue and the Waitresses
By Keith Lyle
"Do you know how this whole thing started?" So says Chris Butler, former guitarist and songwriter of the Waitresses, as he watches the brightly-lit faces of tourists streaming towards the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. It's December in New York City, sixteen years since the Waitresses first hit the radio with their unexpected holiday ditty, "Christmas Wrapping."
It's a weird December for Chris. He's just set the Guinness Book's record for "World's Longest Pop Song" with his "The Devil's Glitch" recording. He's working harder than ever, delving full-on into a wide array of musical projects, from a newly released solo album on his own Hoboken-based Future Fossil label, to a forthcoming collection of new songs recorded using rare, antique equipment. For the self-described "workaholic," it's pure pleasure. But it's also been just about a year since Patty Donahue, lead singer with the Waitresses, succumbed to cancer at age 40.
The din rises within the Au Croissant as shoppers on parade stop in for a moment of java-induced warmth. Paper shopping bags rustle and snap when colliding with legs and chairs. The scene isn't too far removed from the visions of holiday madness that Chris imagined—and Patty sang of—in "Christmas Wrapping."
And what is it about that song? Charlie Frick, who wrote the liner notes for the band's recently released King Biscuit live album, refers to the track as "a rock version of It's A Wonderful Life." More than anything else, "Christmas Wrapping" is a story. Patty sings in the role of a young woman who's all on her own this year. Still, the song's narrator cheerfully faces up to the pressures of the holiday, as she proclaims her intention to celebrate Christmas within the true Peace-on-Earth of solitude.
As much as the music of "Christmas Wrapping" still rings across the airwaves every year, it's the theme that truly resonates. And while Butler is a man who prefers to keep his eyes on the horizon, "Christmas Wrapping" continues to make him smile every time he hears it. And this year, he even performed the track at the venerable club Maxwell's with the 1997 incarnation of Hoboken's holiday tribute band, Tipsy McStagger (which also included members of Jersey's Gefkens and Whatnots).
More than play the song live, Chris in pleased by the opportunity to talk: about the band, Patty, and Christmas in general. The stories flow with ease, complement by some theatric recreations and the palm-on-the-forehead exclaim that accompanies the sudden opening of deeply-filed memories.
In a December issue of Entertainment Weekly, "Christmas Wrapping" is placed at #10 in a ranking of the top 50 Christmas songs of all-time. The Waitresses even beat out Nat King Cole and "The Christmas Song." Not bad for the new wave band of Ohio natives that recorded the theme to Square Pegs. But how did it all happen? "If I may be so bold…" continues Butler, who takes one more swig of coffee before beginning his tale.
Chris Butler: It's August 1981 and we're on the road. We're on a label called ZE Records. ZE Records has a very strange roster: Kid Creole and the Coconuts, August Darnell, Alan Vega from Suicide, a lot of these very strange French people doing kind of heroin-laced songs… very bent, twisted. Anyway, out of this bunch, ZE gets it in their head that they want to make a Christmas record. So everyone rolls their eyes. And our band, we're touring like crazy just trying to get over. We didn't have time for this shit. I had some licks lying around and about three minutes to write this thing. We went into Electric Lady and recorded it, humored [label boss] Michael Zilkha, went back out on the road and forgot about it… until November, when I called my wife and she said, "Man, you're all over the radio. It's that Christmas song!"
FESTIVE! So the song first appeared on that ZE holiday compilation album?
Chris Butler: And then it came out again on an EP [I Could Rule the World If Only I Could Get the Parts] the next year, when we had been bounced over to Polygram. And since then it has been comp-ed to death. I have a list of mechanical licenses at home that must be… it's on Virgin's Christmas compilation, and Polygram's, too. It's been all over. When I get my BMI sheet, I get plays in Uruguay and countries in Africa and the Far East. If anything, it's overexposed.
FESTIVE! What's your reaction when you hear the song in December?
Chris Butler: I have a T-shirt that says "Jump! George Bailey, Jump!" You know, in It's A Wonderful Life, when [George] is gonna commit suicide and he doesn't? My sentiment has always been jump… so I don't have to watch this movie again. Bah-humbug! I'm usually in a sour mood and the song, I swear, blindsides me. I'll be out slopping around with bags and trying to do an urban Christmas and generally being in a very foul mood. And the song pops up and I just have to stop. A lot of people seem to be affected by it the same way. The song plays to that frantic thing and then resolves in a kind of cornball but sweet way. I'm absolutely convinced that I subconsciously wrote it to guarantee that I would have a kind of Christmas spirit… in order to be able to face the relatives every year.
FESTIVE! So after the success of the song in 1981…
Chris Butler: Polygram asked us if we had anything in the can [before Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?] and I said, in all honesty, "No." That's how much I dismissed this Christmas song. I wasn't trying to con them or anything. We completely forgot about it. Then Polygram was getting ready to release our first album and they give me a dirty look: "You've got a successful song that we don't even own." Needless to say, Polygram and Zilkha had to work something out so they could get the rights to do it. And from that time onward, "Christmas Wrapping" just kept cropping up every year. There's a line in there where [Patty] goes, "most of '81 passed along those lines...." If I had known it would be repeated, I would have written, "most of this year…." Who knew? I thought it was a one-shot.
FESTIVE! Was there ever a picture-sleeve 7-inch of "Christmas Wrapping?"
Chris Butler: They did an all-white single. The original 12-inch is on white vinyl, which is really pretty. I've got one or two, but they only made like a hundred or two hundred, strictly for radio stations.
FESTIVE! Writing for the Waitresses in general, it's interesting how you put yourself into this female character and could successfully relate stories from that point-of-view. Was that a big challenge?
Chris Butler: No. There are certain situations that are gender specific, but usually you try to talk about universals. It's not an impossible task and I'm not the first guy in the world to try and figure out women. It was a kind of interesting opportunity to ask a lot of questions and be more an observer under the guise of research. A lot of women were much more revealing about their personal thoughts because I was trying to do this stuff, than if I had been some bloke on the street. In a normal conversation in a social situation, there's a certain layer of distance that people like to keep. But because I was genuinely digging a little and they knew I wasn't hitting on them, women were a lot more open and genuine than in a normal guy-girl situation. I feel real privileged about that. And if I was able to turn that into some kind of song… great.
FESTIVE! What kind of woman were you imagining, as you wrote these songs?
Chris Butler: I wanted to come up with a female character… the coolest older sister that you maybe never had. Someone who would give you all the good stuff. I thought that it would be utterly irresistible to have a new type, someone who—for the time—told it like it is. I would have loved to cuss as much as Liz Phair and all these women today. I think Patty's character was a forerunner. I could have been blunter, if the times would have permitted and also, frankly, if Patty wasn't a nice Catholic girl. But when I hear Fiona Apple, I think "this is great." I see a thread going back to what we were trying to do. Maybe that's pretentious on my part.
FESTIVE! Not necessarily. Think back to a song like "I Know What Boys Like."
Chris Butler: Have you heard the new Jay-Z version? It's Jay-Z with, are you ready… I've got Lil' Kim saying "fuck" on "I Know What Boys Like." It is so raw, I cannot play it for my folks. That is so cool.
FESTIVE! What's the writing credit look like?
Chris Butler: Eighty-five people plus me. But it's Lil' Kim and let's just say, she's not advocating chastity. I think she's smart as hell.
FESTIVE! Didn't Shampoo cover that song as well?
Chris Butler: Yes, which I thought was going to be my retirement fund, but it stiffed so hard. In the history of British stiffs, [it was] a thud heard 'round the world. It wasn't a bad version, but it just died.
FESTIVE! And while we're talking about recent releases, there was also the King Biscuit live Waitresses album.
Chris Butler: I gotta say, that live version of "Christmas Wrapping" ain't bad. For a lower-to-middle level band that never got a chance to do what it was supposed to do… that song has pretty good staying power. It was just in an episode of Clueless.
FESTIVE! What is it that gets you into a sour mood at Christmastime?
Chris Butler: Where do I begin? I do a lot of work. The whole world shuts down… "Ah, get back to me after the first of the year," that's all they start saying the day after Thanksgiving. Nothing gets done. And that's usually the time when I'm most keyed-up and working really hard. I have a huge extended family. They're relatively well off. You can't get by on ironic New York gifts: a $10.00 deluxe edition video of Plan 9 From Outer Space would not do it for my in-laws. So it's the expense. It's the whole being-suckered-by-Christmas kind of thing. I always had lousy Christmases when I was little. We weren't a very wealthy family. It's not that I got charcoal or burnt toast, but it was quite obvious that I better be happy with underwear when everyone else in our neighborhood was getting mopeds or their second car.
FESTIVE! But there's something about the holidays you're able to get in touch with…
Chris Butler: Even in my old fart-itude, yeah.
FESTIVE! Thinking about Patty [Donahue], were you able to talk to her before she died?
Chris Butler: Yeah. We had bumped into each other off and on. I went back to Ohio and was going to a friend's wedding, a friend from Kent State. And he says to me, "Hey, Patty's really sick. Did you know that?" No, I didn't. She didn't let on. She was working for MCA music publishing, I think… which is ironic as hell, because she hated the whole music business with a passion. And we became phone buddies. I had been out of touch with all the band members for a long time. We all got together and tried to do something for her, but she was really sick. She had cancer of just about everything.
FESTIVE! So you were on good terms.
Chris Butler: I think so, yeah.
FESTIVE! What was it that made her such a special person and performer?
Chris Butler: She had a lot of spunk. I had written a lot of songs and was looking around for someone to sing them. I had been playing in this other band doing blues and R&B and experimental stuff, but I had these pop songs. I asked a number of people if they would be willing to do it, but she said yeah, thereby endearing her to me forever. Then I was in the group Tin Huey, and we got signed to Warner Bros. [and "stiffed majestically"]. That lasted a couple of years. In '79, I move to New York. I had some of the songs that she'd sung on and I spread them around to a bunch of DJs, who took them to A&R people. Then I called her and said, "Do you want to come to New York and be in a band?" She said yes, so I wired her my last fifty bucks; she got on a Greyhound bus, and we got to work. Patty was really good at this. She had a great sense of humor and sang a lot better than anybody gave her credit for. She was a natural. I think she fit that coolest big sister idea. I thought she was great.
There's a tape of us in England. We did Old Grey Whistle Test. A friend, who was one of the first people in England with a VCR, sent me this video. And we're at the end of the reel. There's everything from Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, and Teardrop Explodes. It's a cross-section of British rock at the time. And each one is better and prettier than the next. And I dreaded it. "Oh God, we're gonna look so provincial and American." And we come to our slot, and Patty looks like Diana Rigg from The Avengers. She's just so cool. And it was okay. I dragged that out the day after Patty died.
She was a handful, I gotta tell you. But she could really do this. I wish she had done more because I think if she had wanted to have a showbiz career, acting or whatever, she would have done it. I miss her. She was a good buddy. I will not say we were the best of friends. We were really different in personality. I wish I had more of a goof-odd nature. Maybe that's what I learned from her… fuck-off more. The down side? She had no experience being in bands, no experience in music, and was not a terribly hard worker. She was a party girl and didn't know the pitfalls. Yes, there are evil people in the world: "Hey baby, sign this." Music business scum. It was the era when they were semi-ascended in New York. She didn't have the antenna, the bullshit detector, because she was totally green about the music business. So we—our attorney, sometimes members of the band, myself—did a lot of shielding, which she sometimes rebelled against. She was street, but she wasn't streetwise.
FESTIVE! How did you end up leaving the band?
Chris Butler: It was a big fight, a big mess. This is, of course, my side. We went to England to record and it was really hard and took a lot time. There was a lot of pressure and she didn't like it, so she split. And then we kind of got back together and she had a couple of really bad people in tow, which kind of ruined it for everybody. I threw up my hands. I walked away.
FESTIVE! Didn't you have Holly Beth Vincent from Holly and the Italians join?
Chris Butler: For like four or five shows. And then one day we did a show at NYU, and she didn't show. And I just said, "That's it. Fuck that." It broke my heart. It took a long time to recover from that.
FESTIVE! You all went through a lot together.
Chris Butler: And who knows… if we had stuck together, I think we could have become a better-than-middle-level band. Comparing "Christmas Wrapping" to the way a lot of songs from that era [sound], it's interesting that it doesn't sound dated. There's no synth drums going bing-bing-bing. None of the production stuff is dated. It's a regular drum set, real brass, real bass, acoustic piano, and guitar. Also, it just sounds great on the radio. It just kicks. I got something right… maybe.
FESTIVE! Do you think the fact that the song is telling a story that a lot of people can relate to, and that's it's about a time of the year when everyone has a lot of intense personal things going on, is what gives it a timeless quality?
Chris Butler: Even if you're not a Christian, you feel it. Maybe that's a new universal [sentiment], the dread of Christmas. And Christmas is a time when people focus in on what's going on in their lives. "Can I go home for Christmas? Have I made peace with Mom and Pop?" Or whatever. The song has achieved, not a fame, but a usefulness. And listen to the way Patty tells the story of "Christmas Wrapping." I believe her. That's it. Now, thinking about Patty, when you hear "Christmas Wrapping" this time each year, it has that much more poignancy.