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Jim DeRogatis

Gonzo holiday music goes Hollywood

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Sound Opinions has benefited from the expertise of its friend and champion Christmas music expert Andy Cirzan for… well, pretty much for as long as there has been a Sound Opinions.

As usual, Andy delivered the goods in his inimitable way on last week’s episode, which you can stream or download here, as well as making this year’s collection—a set of wonderful holiday pop esoterica ideal for your spaceage bachelor/bachelorette pad—available for free download complete with artwork here. But Chicago’s Kris Kringle ain’t done yet.

The biggest news this season is that Andy features prominently in a new documentary by director Mitchell Kezin entitled Jingle Bell Rocks! With other appearances by the likes of Rev. Run from Run-D.M.C., Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, cult cinema hero John Waters, Dr. Demento, and, um, the hosts of the aforementioned Sound Opinions, the film digs deep into the weird underground community of hardcore collectors of tuneful Christmas strangeness. And, needless to say, the soundtrack is amazing.

Jingle Bell Rocks! will screen at View and Brew at the Vic Theatre (owned, incidentally, by Jam Productions, the local concert promoters who thoughtfully give Andy a day job to fuel his crate-digging habits) every evening starting Friday, Dec. 19, and running through Christmas. More info can be found here.

Andy and his pal and Jam cohort John Soss also will highlight some of their more XRT-oriented faves on that station tonight, and they’ll spin live at Logan Hardware from 9 to midnight tomorrow (where director Kezin also will be hanging and drinking eggnog). Then Andy will spotlight his holiday jazz favorites on WDCB 90.9-FM with Barry Winograd on Christmas Eve, while, Soss will be a guest on WGN-AM on the new show hosted by my old Sun-Times colleague Dave Hoekstra from 10 to midnight Saturday.

Finally, if you’re still curious about the roots of Andy’s quest from Christmas craziness, here is a piece I wrote for the Sun-Times back in 2000, which was still early in his obsession, if not in the history of holiday music.

There are people who enjoy Christmas music. There are people who love Christmas music. And then there are people who are insanely, obsessively, perhaps unhealthily devoted to Christmas music.

Chicagoan Andy Cirzan is definitely in the latter group.

There is music in Cirzan’s life that does not revolve around Christmas; his day job happens to be head talent buyer for local concert promoters Jam Productions. (He’s the guy who cuts a deal with Pearl Jam to perform at the United Center, then works with the band from start to finish to see that the show goes smoothly.)

But Christmas music is Cirzan’s true passion. For the last 13 years, he has spent 365 days a year scouring the dusty bins of used record stores to find the rarest holiday music ever recorded. He then compiles his finds on cassette, duplicating the resulting tape to send out in lieu of Christmas cards to a select group of friends.

Cirzan started the first year by dubbing five tapes at home. This year, he went to a professional duplicating house and made more than 300 copies of a compilation that he dubs “Christmas Conundrum 2000.”

I talked with Cirzan about his mania and this year’s Christmas discoveries.

Q. I know about a dozen music nuts who make Christmas tapes each year, but you’re the most ambitious. Do you trade tapes with a lot of other people who share your enthusiasm?

A. It’s weird, but I’m not involved in that little tape cabal thing. I trade with about five or six people. Most of the tapes that I hear aren’t what I consider to be interesting. I don’t want to hear David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing “Little Drummer Boy” again.

Q. Most Christmas collectors are amateurs, while you’re sort of the Billy Corgan of the genre.

A. Don’t dare say that! But now that this year’s tape is done, next year’s tape starts. It’s that serious. Now, all the old vinyl shops will start to put out the holiday releases, so I’ll go in there and pillage, but I can’t use that stuff for this year’s tape because it’s already too late. I have to collect 365 days a year, every opportunity I’ve got, and then usually around October or so I’ll sit down and start to really whittle down. I go through and listen to everything. Literally, if I buy a hundred 45s and three of them end up being usable, that’s about the ratio that it comes down to. And finding those hundred 45s is just obsessive behavior.

Q. So what did you come up with this year?

A. This year it’s 100 percent vinyl, nothing from CD. I have 19 new songs on the tape, and all but three are from 45s from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. One of the highlights is a song on a homemade 45. Hallmark or whoever used to let you send in a reel tape of a personal Christmas greeting and they’d slap it on a 45. Whenever I see those, I always buy them; every once in a while you just find one that’s from another planet. This one is called “My Santa Claus Has No Ho Ho Ho,” and it’s by a woman named Lynne Ostergren. It’s a freakout. It has to be early ‘70s, because there’s some really unbelievable cheesy synth accompaniment that sounds like maybe her brother or sister are in the band -- a budding Partridge Family-type thing -- and Mom and Dad got the reel-to-reel out and let them wail. It’s almost like a Daniel Johnston kind of thing -- outsider art -- right on that fine line between just awful and absolutely amazing.

I found this other tune called “Santa’s Magical Bag” by Charlotte Sanders, and it’s like a hippie-dippy song, a ‘60s thing with psychedelic overtones that’s all about what’s in Santa’s magical bag. I can’t identify specific drug references or anything, but it’s definitely that kind of “Spill the Wine” sort of thing with a breathy flute solo on it. How many Christmas tunes have Haight-Ashbury flute solos on them?

A few of the tracks on this year’s tape are from 78s. One is called “Yingle, Yingle Yumpin’ Beans,” and it’s by a guy named Ole Svenson. It’s about this concoction that Santa Claus makes and feeds to the reindeer -- it involves beans and various spices -- and it’s the fuel that makes the reindeer get into action. The next thing you know, Santa Claus is eating some of the stuff and he’s going crazy. The song is real wound up, like carnival organ stuff. I had to buy a 78 player just so I could hear it. I still can’t figure out how I rigged it up to my stereo, but I did it.

Q. You also have a “B tape” these days, right?

A. I started to do a B tape last year. The first side is a tribute to one artist -- last year it was Little Jimmy Osmond. This year the tape is called “The Christmas Artistry of Jimmy Boyd”; he was a kid when he did these recordings in the ‘40s, and he’s got a voice like a baby bullfrog. The B side of the tape is the Twilight Zone Christmas, stuff that is just too weird and disturbing to put on my main tape -- and that’s saying a lot. It’s the really, really outside-the-box Christmas stuff where it’s almost impossible to listen to more than once. You just sit back and marvel that this stuff ever got made.

That’s the beauty of Christmas music: One song can be a crazy, homemade, outsider pop thing like the Shaggs, another thing can be a totally smokin’ jazz tune, and another can be a hillbilly song

Q. Can you name some of the musicians who dig your tape? I’m asking you, so it can’t be construed as gratuitous name-dropping.

A. Most of the people who get the tape are friends, long-term people I’ve known in the business, like R.E.M., Robert Plant, the Smashing Pumpkins, Beck and Tom Waits. Phish puts the tape on the hold music on the telephones at their office; that’s something that makes me feel good. I got a note last year from Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament that he played it while he and his family were sitting down to Christmas dinner.

Basically, this is something that makes me feel good. I spend all this time making this thing—it’s obsessive behavior on my part, and what I go through is really disturbing in a lot of ways—but if around the holidays people are listening to my tape and they say something like, “Oh, man, I was driving around in my car the other day and I was just cracking up,” that’s all I need to hear. It’s my outlet and my way to say, “Isn’t music interesting?” If you think Christmas music is just “Jingle Bells,” wait till you hear “My Santa Claus Has No Ho Ho Ho.” You get a little view into a world that is way weirder than you can ever imagine.

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast Sound Opinions.

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