Pretty Lights on the Tree, I’m Watching Them Shine

Sometimes you can hear a song a hundred times and on a random afternoon it will hit you in a new way. Whap, right upside the head. As a huge Bob Dylan fan, that happens to me frequently, where I’ll suddenly appreciate, say, Dylan’s piano technique on “Blind Willie McTell” — and need to hear that song every day for weeks.

That happened to me recently with “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector.

Specifically, these simple lines:

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me

Those lines have all the qualities of a successful haiku except for the syllable count — that attention to concrete detail, the lean clear prose (no purple or wasted words), and a darting movement from exterior, objective reality to an interior emotional state, where “outside” and “inside” become linked through juxtaposition.

I admire lines that can be as unadorned as, “Pretty lights on the tree/I’m watching them shine.” I love how that straight description conveys an inner depth (I’ve talked about that quality before, most recently here). I think it’s difficult to pull off, using simple words, yet evoking a depth of feeling that lies somewhere below language.

“You should be here with me.”

And, absolutely, it’s Darlene Love’s vocal performance that puts it over the top.

A lot of people have done this song, with mixed results: U2, Death Cab for Cutie, Mariah Carey, John Martyn, Hanson, Bruce Springsteen, etc. But nobody, but nobody, touches Darlene Love’s version, produced by Phil Spector on this 1963 LP: “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.”

On this essential disk, Spector lends his signature “Wall of Sound” treatment to a number of secular holiday tunes, enlisting the vocal talents of the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and Darlene Love. A few years back, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #142 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time — not bad for a holiday album.

Here’s Darlene Love on a 1995 visit to “Letterman” — just a stunning version, given the full arrangement it so richly deserves. Violins and cellos, nine backup singers, a horn section, random percussionists pounding on the kitchen sink, and . . . snow!

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The snow’s coming down
I’m watching it fall
Lots of people around
Baby please come home

The church bells in town
All singing in song
Full of happy sounds
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home

Here’s Bono and the gang giving it a go:

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In this recent cover by Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard eliminates the celebratory element that has crept into recent versions, to capture the sadness and longing that is at the song’s (true, I think) core.

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home.

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Come back on Monday for the first of a two-part interview with my old friend, author/editor Deborah Kovacs.

5 comments

  1. Kurtis says:

    A similar thing happened to me when I really paid attention this line from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

    Through the years we’ll always be together,
    If the fates allow.
    Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.

    That “If the fates allow” is a real kick in the pants, isn’t it? Delivered like an afterthought, like Hugh Martin just needed a rhyme for “bough,” but it adds a poignancy to the lyric about those little family traditions we take for granted like putting the star on the tree. It was Frank who brought that song home for me, but my wife likes Judy’s version best.

  2. Jimmy says:

    Nicely observed, Kurtis. I completely agree.

  3. Stefanie says:

    I just found this postand blog on a random search, but I thought I’d write regarding Kurtis’s comment that a similar thing happened to me when I heard the line “until thne we’ll have to muddle through somehow” in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. In some versions, it’s where the “hang a star…” line would be and as such, makes the song all the more bitter sweet.

    Secondly, while I had heard Mariah Carey’s version several times, the juxtaposition of the exuberance in the backing vocals and the sadness in the lead vocals and the main words didn’t really register as much until hearing Love sing it.

    A great entry. :) I think I may check and see what else is on the blog.

  4. Stefanie says:

    Oopss. I meant to write “post and” not run those two together. And I wrote that quote for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” wrong. It was supposed “Until then…”.

  5. jimmy says:

    Thanks, Stefanie. Nice of you to drop by . . . two years after I posted this. That’s one of the wonderful things about blogging, the archival aspect.

    Happy holidays.

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