Have Yourself a Cooke-ian Little Christmas
Is there a greater Christmas gift than art? I don’t think so. For me, Christmas itself is an art in which decency and benevolence are on display in a special wing of life’s museum. The wing is accessible all the year ‘round, but it attracts the most visitors during the season of Yule. There’s a soundtrack that doesn’t feature at the rest of the year—unless you fire up A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector and The Nutcracker in April, as I do—and everything just feels different. Good different.
You can learn to find that feeling in all of the other months, and make Christmas mobile, which suits Christmas just fine. Christmas loves to be stretched and revisited. But the gift of art! That’s the Christmas stuff. We all have memories of gifts we cherished, whether that’s along the lines of the doll that wets itself from Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” or the Red Ryder BB gun—don’t shoot your eye out—of A Christmas Story. But for me, it’s always been art at Christmas. The receiving of art, and the giving of art.
The reason art is so amazing as a Christmas gift is because it never stops being a gift. Eventually the Star Wars figures are resigned to their box, that badass Huffy is replaced with a more adult bike, and it’s the frisson of the initial memory of receiving that remains. The joy that mom and dad—or, let’s be real, Santa—knew what would make our heart flutter, and they delivered. Best Christmas ever.
My mother would always wait for me to say those words to her, and I don’t think I ever let her down. But I meant it. What is the gift that keeps giving? Well, I think it can be a number of things. Decency. Doing the right thing. Being a person who tries to help others. And art. Which is and does all of that. My gifts had a large art component, and the ones I received at sixteen are still the ones I delight in on a daily basis. Or they can be. You get a record, a book, a copy of a film, and it’s always in your life, impacting your life, if it has those capabilities and you’re open to them.
Anytime I finish a making a work of art of my own, that moves me much, which I think can move other people—and I did this when I finished my 33 1/3 Sam Cooke book, after reading over the last page—I listen to the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain.” The song has the wisest words of any you’ll find, which encapsulate the real—the best—reason why any of us are here:
“What do you want me to do/To do for you/To see you through?”
That’s pure Christmas. That’s pure art.
You write, or create, to reach people, and to do something for them. To help them through, as best you can. Whether that’s by entertaining them, giving them something to relate to, inspiring them, teaching them, a combo. That’s what all art is about more than anything. I think that’s what Sam Cooke’s art was about, and definitely Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, which I received as a Christmas present when I was a teenager. This would have been in 1991, and I was this music monster, devouring all that I could. Rubber Soul, Exile on Main Street, Blonde on Blonde, London Calling—stack those CD piles high, Santa! My Christmas gift pile was a beautiful rectangle. I pulled the wrapping away, and I saw the pink of that cover and the glow of Cooke himself—some angel perched overhead at a mounting of Handel’s Messiah—and I could have brought the CD to my breast. I think I did.
You know how there are energy bonds between people? That is, you meet someone—and this maybe happens one, twice, three times in your life—and right away, you feel that energy bond. You haven’t even done anything with them, gone through anything yet. But you feel this connective energy. That was how I felt when I received that wondrous gift. And obviously it would play a part in my life, as you know, if you read the book—which you should if you haven’t!—in keeping me alive, in teaching me so many things, in becoming a part of the art I made. The fabric of my changing soul.
My book was all about that album, and one gets the nuts and bolts, the factoids, the musical analysis, the cultural analysis, the racial context and continued relevance, but it was also about other things, in ideas and, I hope, truths, that make a book such that it can stand up as its own thing. I think you want to make art about art. I wrote the book in my forties, but it goes back to a Christmas present received when the Gulf War was happening, and I was a high school hockey player in Ridgefield, CT with an insatiable love of music.
Which moves me to a kind of Christmas wish I’ve always had, and will always have. And that’s for a Sam Cooke Christmas album. An outright Christmas album. Because you have to figure he’d be better at one of those than anyone, right?
What is Christmas music? It’s often sacred in nature, but with secular intentions and relevance. And when it’s outright secular music, it feels like sacred music, because it’s commonly in a minor key, but still uplifting. A neat Christmas trick.
Cooke, as the book discusses, was the master of both sacred and secular forms. He did what he did with the Soul Stirrers, culminating in that fantastic gig at the Shrine Auditorium in LA in 1955, and on the other side of the spectrum—but also, paradoxically, the same side in a way—we have the gig in Miami in January 1963.
Cooke was King Wenceslas, only in Florida. In the Christmas carol, Wenceslas and his page were out in the elements trying to help someone, and the latter is struggling to keep going. Wenceslas tells the page to step where he has stepped in the snow, in his warming footprints. Is this not Cooke at the Harlem Square Club in the last winter of his life?
“Sire, the night is dark now
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps good, my page,
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage,
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod,
Which the saint had printed.
I am not suggesting that Sam Cooke was a saint. But that is Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, right there.