“A new CD on the Unicorn label shows singer/songwriter Carole Parker travelling into uncharted territory. Miss Parker’s previous albums have won her cult status (especially among college students and young professionals) for their political and social acumen as well as their melodic grace. Her new album, Blue Christmas, takes us into the world of the lonely, the bereft, even the suicidal, around the holiday season.
“Coal in My Stocking” turns an ordinary Christmas morning into an existential parable, as a pregnant welfare mother ponders her life and finds no presents anywhere. “Burnt Cookies” tells of a teenage boy finding his mother slumped over an empty bottle of vodka as Christmas cookies burn in the oven.
“Help me, Santa!” is the heartrending refrain of a song that portrays a young woman about to overdose on sleeping pills as she drinks her Christmas eggnog.
“Jingle, Jingle, I’m still Single,” is the closest thing to an upbeat number here. Its calypso style refrain cleverly combines the melody of “Jingle Bells” with Bach’s D Minor Fugue for Organ.
In “It’s Just Rain, Dears,” a mother with 3 young children whose husband has just walked out on her, looks sadly out at rain on Christmas Eve, while her children eagerly search the skies for signs of Santa.
“Santa’s Little Helpers” is another drug-addiction song, sung as a vocal tribute to the late, great Billy Holiday, a singer whom Miss Parker credits as her inspiration for the album.
The title song, “Blue Christmas,” is a plea for compassion for all those who suffer during the holidays. As a children’s chorus joins Miss Parker’s voice, an uplifting melody brings this album to a close—almost—before a final dissonant chord reminds us once again of the helpless depression, trapped lives and self-destructive compulsions so eloquently expressed in the previous songs.
Miss Parker’s CD belongs in the collection of anyone who thinks that Christmas is more than just fun and games.”
–Edna Poultney in “Whole Earth News ,”
December 12, 2004
The French Quarter in New Orleans becomes faux romantic at night. Glitz pretends to be gold. The strip joints on Bourbon Street light up. Women with big breasts and ample hips simulate sex for tourists to the sound of heavy-metal music or the twang of top 40. They share street space with tee-shirt boutiques and bars that sell mint juleps and overpriced beer.
In those days, I took in the scene, which is the same today as it was back then. In those days, I worked long hours at a job that didn’t pay much money or provide much satisfaction. Brushing by expensive call girls who paid visits to five star hotels, I felt expensive myself, not in a suitcase-full-of-money fashion but in my nerves. I felt far away from the backstreets of the Quarter where I lived, where the homegirls would come from the projects on the lake side of Ramparts Street and twitch their booties to attract tourists down on their luck.
I’d sip a drink and daydream, though about what I couldn’t tell you. Sometimes I’d meet friends for a salad or sandwich at one of the Quarter’s many cafes. My straight friends and I would eat fat po-boys, talk football and ogle the beautiful women, sometimes buy them drinks on payday. I had a girlfriend, but she lived across the country and I had no idea if we would ever get together. If I went out with my gay friends, colleagues from work, we’d order chef salads because those guys were always watching their weight. Then we’d go to a gay bar where I was safe because I didn’t have the right haircut or the right clothes. My friends would dance and sometimes leave with a date. If they did, I’d leave alone, the vodka from screwdrivers revving up my blood, and then I’d walk among the tourists.
“I love you more than a fat kid loves cake.”
50 Cent, great philosopher of the 21st century,
understands his baked goods. For his own sake,
I hope he knows as much about love. Myself,
I was a fat kid once. I loved my cake
and ate it, too. In its absence, I dreamt about icing,
shoving my hands wrist deep into its sugary lake,
pulling out layers by the handfuls, crumb bling.
In its presence, I cut slices heart-big.
I forked in chunks to overfill my mouth. I licked
my fingertips, the fork, plate, and table, erasing
riffs of butter cream I understood no better than hieroglyphs.
The grainy video survives in
the scratchy simulacrum of history
where Sun Ra will always be seated
behind a state of the art keyboard,
costume of silver, his heavy fingers
of obscure genius pressing keys
like combinations to an ancient code,
unlocking the precision of a universe
he could explain, he could explain,
he could explain.
Follow him to 1978, the latest
incarnation of his Arkestra,
thirty musicians, cramming
the small stage in Studio 8H,
four minutes and fourteen seconds
of “Space Is The Place.”
Follow the rows of musicians, percussion
and brass taking direction precise,
caped dancers twirling with light feet
of interpretation, unable to spread out
among the mike stands and horn players.
Follow him to Europe, to the Great Pyramids,
follow him to decades of performance dates,
follow him to a monastic row house in North Philly,
follow him to jail for conscientious objection,
follow him out of the racist Deep South of Birmingham.
And follow him through woofer and tweeter,
where dedication to innovation
is an eccentricity that turns out
than all the answers to why.
and lights a joint, breathes deep, taking in the weight
of all that has come to pass the last five years.
The sudden responsibility of being spokesman
for the underdog, the downtrodden, the Sandinistas,
has taken a toll on him. He looks older, but he does
not feel any wiser. It’s like he’s still
the dumb kid squatting in houses, buying guitars
with blood money, throwing bricks at bobbies.
The light headed feeling comes slower these days,
his escapes less frequent, less lasting.
He wants a joint between every fuckin’
song. After a few more hits, he licks his fingers,
dampens the roach, to save the last little bit for later,
and turns back, walking down the streets
of Kingston, towards the studio, the sad, low bark
of a dog in the distance chasing after him.
July bore down like the Devil’s thumb,
growling thunderheads crouched
on Clinch Mountain,
queen of the meadow and ironweed
danced in dusty ditches and fencerows,
heat shimmers swam with swallowtails,
and tiny white butterflies fanned at near-dry puddles
on the rutted wagon road where black-eyed susans
gave sly winks to A.P.’s folly. He packed
a borrowed car with his wife, Baby Joe,
Little Gladys, cousin Maybelle, and a borrowed
guitar to seek fame in song. They fled
Poor Valley for Jett Gap to ford the Holston River
before rain trapped them in grease slick mud,
then twenty-six miles of gravel road hell,
the car tires in summer molt, shed twice
along the way. The desperate pilgrims
arrived jolted and rattled at sister Vergie’s door,
a soggy squalling baby, his milk-wet mother,
cranky sister, a pregnant guitar player,
and a dreamer ready to score
the soundtrack for a nation.
I met Elvis for the first time in the deli across the street from the elevated line on White Plains Road and Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. Elvis was the only customer besides me. He was sitting at the next table. I could tell it was him right away, even though he was dressed up as a Hasidic Jew. He was wearing a yarmulke on top of his head, and a lopsided, shiny black wig with long peyes on the sides that drooped past his chin, a fake-looking beard to his collarbone, and a shapeless black coat, which didn’t hide his paunch, even sitting down. His skin was as white as flour, and his eyes looked glazed, as though he spent far too much time indoors.
“I’ll have that soup there, with the round balls floatin’ in it,” he said to the elderly waiter. He pointed at a large vat of matzoh ball soup. Elvis’ Yiddish accent was so bad he might as well have held up a sign saying, “Hey, it’s me, Elvis Presley, the Hillbilly Hassid, and I ain’t dead at all!” But the waiter, who was wearing a huge hearing aid, just nodded, not appearing to notice anything unusual about his customer.
Sipping my coffee, I stared surreptitiously at Elvis, amazed that he was alive and pretending to be a Hasidic Jew on Pelham Parkway. Unlike all those Elvis-obsessed women who made annual pilgrimages to Graceland and who’d voted on the Elvis Postage Stamp, I’d never particularly had a thing for Elvis. Elvis just wasn’t my type. He was too goody-goody for me. Even back when I was a little girl and I’d watched him swiveling his hips on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” I could tell that, underneath, he was just an All American Kid.
With a little hip
wiggle, a shimmy
’cross the dance floor
by a long-legged girl,
short skirt riding up
across the bar, eyes
beckoning a sullen man
out for a…
through the pressing
and grinding rhythm
of a stand-up bass
and the brass
of a saxophone;
a pouty, red-lipped excuse
to tilt dimpled chin,
gaze into eyes,
toss dark hair
over bare shoulders;
through liquor, dirty brown,
flowing strong and stiff,
haze from cigarettes;
under the faint call
of what’s your name
drowned by the last
swig of bourbon
and the long moan
of the band;
the breathless release
of first names only,
lips glazed with saliva.
a stroke of crushed velvet, smooth
dusk sky, layered by dark indigo
and last light
chocolate covered cherries, thick
syrup and mellow dark mingling
rich espresso roast brewing,
summer morning air and earthy brew
slow dancing table side, smoky
lighting and low whispers
woman and man pressing,
sweat shimmering off flesh
touching in dark midnight,
deep color of belly to belly.
You were swiggin’ Jack,
growlin’ Blues burns
in my belly; I knew then you
were a man I’d dance with.
A man who’d put Tom on the juke
and grind into me through the gravel
of his voice.
You rolled up your sleeves,
showed me tats and scars
from fights with loved ones.
I leaned into you, pressed hip
bones into groin, told you I’d make
no promises, but the dancing
would feel good.
You hesitated, said my hips
felt like another needle
engraving your center.
Your heart sounded like a motorcycle
gunning. My blood warmed
to the whiskey.
We were mixed drinks, making blues
on the dance floor.
I pressed harder when you whispered,
Baby, me and you were never strangers,
Baby, me and you were never strangers.