The Sunday Magazine: Empire

There are many reasons I watch television. One of them is the opportunity to watch outsized characters do outsized things which make no sense. This is the epitome of mindless entertainment. When it is done right you just sit back and let it wash over you with the silliness of it all. This particular form of visual storytelling was perfected in the 1980’s with the two series, Dallas and Dynasty. The structure of both series was similar. There is a family business run by a patriarch for whom you alternately root for and against. The various members of the family and their interactions with that man as he approves or disapproves of their choices. Dallas left the air in 1991 and there really hasn’t been another one of these kind of shows since. Almost twenty-five years later the genre is back with a fantastic twist in the new Fox series Empire.

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The business in Empire is the music business and the central patriarch is Lucius Lyon, played by Terrence Howard. Lucius runs Empire Records and has been diagnosed with ALS and has been given three years to live. His ex-wife Cookie played by the fabulous Taraji P. Henson has just returned from a 17-year jail sentence for drug dealing. She confronts Lucius and reminds him it was the drug money which helped fund the early days of Empire Records and she wants her half of the business. Lucius has to decide which of his three sons will take over the business when he dies. Andre, the Wharton business graduate. Jamal, the gay middle son. Or Hakeem the young musically talented socially reckless son. Everyone is plotting their own path to eventually take over Empire Records.

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The Cast of Empire

All of this is set against the music business background and Empire is liberally using different music stars throughout. It allows for excess and conspicuous consumption to be displayed at will; another necessity for these kind of shows. Empire is produced by Lee Daniels and he has compiled an African-American cast of role players all chewing scenery with the best of them. Nobody is better at it than Mr. Howard and Ms. Henson. If there is any shortcoming to the show in these early episodes it is that the screen seems less bright when neither of them are on it. In the scenes they do together their complicated relationship is exactly what this kind of melodrama is made of. That both actors pull it off so believably is what makes Empire stand out.

I’m writing about this now because Empire has only run five episodes and it is starting to build buzz and momentum so it is easy to catch up. That way you can join me with my bowl of popcorn and cackling laugh when one character betrays the other. Empire has brought back the modern overheated retelling of King Lear with a hip-hop beat and I am loving it.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Super Bowl

Like many other Americans sometime in the late afternoon I will sit down in front of my television set and watch Super Bowl XLIX between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. I have been fortunate to attend every major professional team championship at least once. My one and only Super Bowl was in 1976.

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In 1976 I was finishing my junior year of high school and was working as a doorman in a condominium which catered to what were colloquially called snowbirds. These were a mostly older clientele who lived in the Northeast for most of the year but spent their winters in Florida. My job was to park cars and help them with packages and odd chores. The condo was close to one of the major resorts of South Florida called The Diplomat. It happened to be the official hotel of one of the teams in Super Bowl X, The Pittsburgh Steelers; who were playing the Dallas Cowboys. As I was sitting outside and saw some fans wearing Steeler jerseys walk by I yelled out, “Kick their ass!” They came up to talk with me and I gave them a little information about places around the Orange Bowl, the site of the game. They thanked me and headed off. About an hour later one of the men in the party walked up and asked me if I was off work in time for the game. I replied I should make it home just in time for kickoff. He smiled at me and asked me if I wanted to see it live. He held up a ticket and said if I can make it he’ll sell it to me. I said sure and I handed over the price of the ticket, $20. The “cheap seats” for this year’s version go for $500.

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Lynn Swann

I got off work and because I knew the side roads and places to park I rushed into the stadium and I got to my seat just as the Steelers kicked off to the Cowboys. That return would set the stage for a back and forth game as the Cowboys tried a bit of trickery with the return which set them up at midfield. In a tight game of back and forth I saw one of the most impressive big game performances by Steeler receiver Lynn Swann who made one of the great catches of a pass in a Super Bowl as he dove and tipped the ball back to himself twice before making the catch and hitting the ground. I was hugging and cheering with my new-found friends from Pittsburgh. They would go home happy as Pittsburgh would win 21-17.

This is the biggest difference between being there and watching it on television. Tomorrow I will be amused at the commercials. I’ll have a better view than anyone at the game. My chair will be more comfortable. I would trade it all for a seat in the last row. To be at a championship event surrounded by the fans of the participants where it is winner take all is best appreciated live. The joy and the despair are amplified as every play is important. For all of the Seahawks and Patriots fans who will be spending a fraught day until a winner is named- enjoy it whether in your living room or from the last row in the stadium.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Wachowskis

There are moments when you sit in a movie theatre and you know what you are seeing will change things. I knew it before I ever sat down in the theatre to see The Matrix in 1999. In what was one of the most effective advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen they showed the clip of Keanu Reeves’ hero Neo dodging bullets on a rooftop by seemingly slowing down time. The movie could have been awful and I would have paid for a ticket to see that. The movie wasn’t awful of course and The Matrix was when we first learned about the filmmaking team known as The Wachowskis. Philip Strick of the British film magazine Sight & Sound had a quote in reference to The Matrix which I think has described much of what The Wachowskis have meant to movies, “If the Wachowskis claim no originality of message, they are startling innovators of method.”

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The Wachowskis

They invented the method called “bullet time” to create the action sequences in all of the Matrix films. That technique is now used everywhere and it has allowed all directors, after its creation, the opportunity to add truly unique visuals to their movies. The saturated color environment of 2008’s, extremely underrated, Speed Racer managed to cross the feel of a live-action animated character with the world of video games. I felt like I was immersed inside the races while they were taking place onscreen. The outside world also seemed a little less vivid after walking out of the theatre that day. In 2012 they tackled the nearly impossible task of adapting David Mitchell’s babushka doll-like novel Cloud Atlas. In a narrative which cuts across seven different times and locales The Wachowskis skill with visually cluing the audience in to where they were was critical for a story as intricate as Cloud Atlas.

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Race Scene from Speed Racer

The first movie I am most interested in seeing in 2015 is the new movie by The Wachowskis called Jupiter Ascending. Like the TV ads for The Matrix I have been teased with visuals which leave me wanting to see them on the biggest screen I can. This is also a return to The Wachowskis creating their own sci-fi world, as they did with The Matrix. With Jupiter Ascending I am expecting originality of both message and method. 2015 is shaping up to be a year of geek heaven for me and it will all start with whatever The Wachowskis have to show me on February 6, 2015.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The White Russian

Like the search for a signature scent many of us tend to settle on one alcoholic drink that we order when we are out to dinner or at a party. These drinks are the kind made up of ingredients found at any bar from the one on the corner to the Rainbow Room at the top of the Chrysler Building. Seven and seven, rum and coke, gin and tonic, scotch and soda, screwdriver, or martini; I would venture anyone who drinks that is reading this has had one or more of those. I would also go further that there is one of those which you ordered on multiple nights out. My signature drink has been The White Russian.

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The Dude as played by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski

I started drinking it during the disco nights of the late 1970’s; most of my contemporaries were drinking Tequila Sunrises but I found those too sweet because of the grenadine. Then one night a friend ordered a White Russian and I asked for a sip and that became my drink. It would fade from popularity at about the same time as disco died. Except I still ordered it. It would come back into favor after the release of the 1998 movie The Big Lebowski. The character The Dude played by Jeff Bridges drinks White Russians. The movie is a confirmed cult classic and now the White Russian is a cult classic too. Whenever I order it these days it almost always elicits a Big Lebowski comment of some kind.

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The White Russian was first introduced in an ad, seen above, in The Boston Globe on March 21, 1965. The makers of Southern Comfort had recently introduced a coffee liqueur called Coffee Southern. Like any good new product they wanted to entice customers to buy by giving out some drink recipes. The recipe is as simple as it gets 1 part vodka, 1 part coffee liqueur and one part cream. As with all simple drinks there are variations and as I’ve become more interested in the more complicated cocktails there have been times where I have experimented with some interesting off shoots. One of my favorites is to replace the cream with Bailey’s Irish Cream. Just be careful because that is three shots of liquor which goes down very easily. When I want to change it up and make it less potent I substitute the vodka with amaretto and you have a Toasted Almond. The new breed of vanilla infused vodkas is the perfect choice for a White Russian or any of the variations. After many years of drinking them I will share the current favorite formula.

The Colognoisseur White Russian

1 part vanilla infused vodka

1 part Kahlua Peppermint Mocha liqueur

1 part half and half

Pour all of the ingredients over ice and stir thoroughly.

See simplicity itself. If you’re still looking for your signature drink give The White Russian a try. At the very least you’ll learn a lot of about The Big Lebowski. “Careful, man, there's a beverage here!”

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: What Comes After?

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I have been having a hard time focusing on writing for the last 24 hours. When I got home from work on Friday night I checked into my Facebook news feed to find that my colleague in perfume writing Tama Blough had passed away earlier in the day. For those unaware Tama had been diagnosed a few months ago with a terminal case of cancer. Her friends who spanned a number of different communities, including perfume, all donated to a fund so she could live her last months on her own terms. That effort was successful as Tama passed away in her apartment surrounded by the things in her life that gave her joy. Most of us will never have the chance to make sure our final moments are as well lived as Tama’s were. I know this makes all who helped this come about feel better about her passing. But yet I am still sad and I know I shouldn’t be.

I only met Tama in person one time and it happened a little less than a year ago at Esxence in Milan. We had worked together as editors for the perfume blog CaFleureBon for a little over three years. She was a constant joy to work with as she always treated the work we did together on the blog as something worth doing. We connected over our mutual passion not only for perfume but our desire to talk about it and communicate about it. We both enjoyed giving early reviews to debut perfume lines we thought were good. She would happily relate when she would receive an e-mail from an independent perfumer thanking her for the piece she wrote. It was the kind of feedback a lot of writers don’t receive, they are more used to the less desirable kind. Tama never received any of the less desirable feedback because she was a genuine person. That is an extremely rare quality. Tama didn’t have ulterior motives or hidden agendas she lived her life pursuing her passions with a refreshing honesty and they were part of her. Think of how many people exist in your life for whom that description applies. I would suspect most can count that on one hand.

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Tama (l.) and Yosh Han

This is why I think Tama’s passing is bothering me because there is one less genuine person I know. Another person more well-known than Tama passed away due to cancer this week; ESPN SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott. Much like Tama he was able to co-ordinate his final days so he continued to work right up until the very end. Earlier in the year he gave a speech when he received an award in courage. His words apply to any who have lost people to cancer and there are three thoughts he observed that I am going to finish with.

“Our life’s journey is really about the people that touch us.” I don’t think Tama wasn’t aware of how much she was adored in her various communities. The outpouring of love from all corners of her life allowed her the opportunity to see that as she finished her life’s journey.

“Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight, then lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you” Those who came forward when Tama needed to lay down were instrumental in allowing her final days to be the best they could be. I want to thank the team behind the Give Forward effort: Nina Zolotow, Heidi Schroeder, Ruth Kaminski, Brooke Baird, and Elizabeth Dietrich; plus others who are not listed who stood up as Tama had to lay down. All of you should be proud of your efforts on her behalf.

“When you die it does not mean you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live…..Have a great rest of your life.” This is something I have always believed. Tama leaves behind a life lived well so she could indulge her passions and gather anyone she could into a fragrant hug. If she could have I am sure she would have wished all of us who have known her to have a great rest of your life. That s is how I will move beyond my morose feelings of the last day or so. I will strive to have a great rest of my life and the next time I smell an amazing tuberose perfume I will think to myself, “Tama would’ve loved this one.”

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Amazing Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge

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Since I am a scientist I am sure it will come as no surprise to any of you that I am also a skeptic when it comes to paranormal phenomenon. It is a consistent source of conversation here between Mrs. C and myself. I apply the scientific method when I analyze anything and most things paranormal fall apart pretty quickly. The hardest to debunk are the claims of psychic powers. Those who claim to have these abilities are amazing when you see them in person. They know things that they shouldn’t know. When one of these is on Mrs. C will often say, “How could he/she know that?” My response is it is a magic trick in the same way a magician reads minds but the magician fully admits it is a trick. My last line of defense has always been The Amazing Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge.

James Randi is a stage magician who goes under the name The Amazing Randi. I first became aware of him in 1973. He was contacted by Johnny Carson just before he was to have psychic Uri Geller on the show. Mr. Randi advised the show on how to present the objects that Mr. Geller would perform upon. At this time Mr. Geller claimed he could bend spoons, stop watches, divine which container had water in it, and reproduce drawings that were in sealed envelopes drawn by someone else. All of these supposedly done with his mind. As you can see in the video above Mr. Geller failed spectacularly in front of a national audience.

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James Randi

In 1964, while on a radio show, Mr. Randi was challenged by the psychic on the air with him to “put his money where his mouth is”. At that time it was a $1,000. Over time it has grown to a million dollars. There is an application process through the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) for anyone who wants to take up the challenge. The challenge is simple; under controlled conditions with agreed upon protocols if anyone can show they have paranormal powers they will be awarded One Million Dollars.

Most years at the convention for skeptics called The Amazing Meeting someone takes a shot. This past year a psychic who claimed to be able to transmit heat or pressure was given the opportunity. If he could do it in eight out of nine subjects he would claim the prize. He failed on the first two subjects and the test was over. This is what normally happens.

According to the JREF website over 1,000 people have applied from 1964 until 2005. With no recent figures supplied it is safe to say there are at least a few hundred more applications in the last ten years. To date there have been no displays of true psychic powers and the scientist/skeptic in me says there never will be.

I am very happy that Mr. Randi affords me the opportunity whenever I am faced with the prospect of some real psychic phenomenon to respond that there is a concrete way to prove it and win a million bucks. That nobody has done it in over 40 years should tell you all you need to know.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: My Favorite Non-Perfume Things of 2014

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We have now arrived at the time of year when we all make lists of the Best of 2014. I will be spending the next three days expounding on the year in perfume. Just as I have for the rest of the year Sunday is for non-perfume things and I have some non-perfume things I’d like to mention which helped me enjoy this year.

Favorite Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy– Movie going is supposed to be fun. The most fun I had in a movie theatre this year was watching director James Gunn bring to life a group of Marvel Comics D-List characters and turn them into stars. Prior to its release if you had said “I am Groot.” You would have received a blank stare in return. Now you’ll get a knowing smile. This movie provided lots of those for me.

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Favorite Album: The War on Drugs “Lost in the Dream”- Now this probably should have been “Too Bright” by Perfume Genius; which also got a lot of play in my headphones. “Lost in the Dream” could have also been called Lost in the 80’s because it unabashedly co-opts many of that decade’s tropes and riffs. Adam Granduciel somehow makes them not seem dated. There were many flavors of the month throughout 2014 but I kept coming back to this after those faded away.

Favorite Single: “I Wanna Get Better” by Bleachers– The best singles lodge themselves in your head and refuse to leave. I spent a large part of the summer singing in the car at the top of my lungs, “Hey, I wanna get better!”

Favorite Television Show: The Good Wife– I am a sucker for lawyer shows. This particular lawyer show is elevating the genre. The pay cable shows with more buzz have a freedom of not being so tied to ratings that they can take many more risks. Co-writers Robert and Michelle King take all the same risks on a broadcast network offering. Almost every action these characters makes has consequences and when it is so easy to just hit a reset button and start over next week this show rarely does that.

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Favorite Book: The Witch with No Name by Kim Harrison– In the conclusion to her popular The Hollows urban fantasy series Ms. Harrison not only sticks the landing she scores a perfect 10 from the fans. All of the varied characters have endings which felt earned from all that had come previously. As many authors have found out finishing is not as easy as beginning. Ms. Harrison made it look easy

Favorite New Spirit: Barr Hill Honey Infused Gin– I found out about this early in the year and even now at the end of the year I am still finding new ways to take advantage of this completely unique take on gin.

Favorite New Bargain Wine Region: Chile’s Colchagua Valley– This region in Chile is becoming an incredibly reliable producer of Cabernet Sauvignons which are ready to drink right away. The 2011 vintage was one of the best in the region and these stunning red wines go for less than $20 and more often for right around $15.

Favorite New Flavor: Trader Joe’s BBQ Rub and Seasoning with Coffee and Garlic– I picked this up totally on a whim during a weekly shopping run. It turned into something which found its way onto many of the things that I cooked on the grill. According to the side of the can there are a dozen ingredients all of which were better balanced than 95% of the perfumes I tried this year. This made everything I put it on better. I think I put it on almost everything.

All of these things put a smile on my face for 2014.

Disclosure: I purchased all of the products mentioned

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine- Hallmark Channel Countdown to Christmas

One of the really wonderful things about this time of year is I think even the most Scrooge-y of us allow the opportunity for hope to catch a foothold. People smile more freely at each other. Because I wear a Santa hat from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas I might get a few more of those than others. One of the things that happens during the season that has stealthily found a foothold in my heart is something else which takes place from Thanksgiving through Christmas, the Hallmark Channel Countdown to Christmas.

Starting on the weekend after Thanksgiving the Hallmark Channel shows made-for-tv movies about Christmas 24/7. The movies are all sweet fables about the season with happy endings and I find myself shedding a tear or two more often that I’d readily admit. These are as schmaltzy as ugly Christmas sweater contests but they carry that unfashionable emotion so unapologetically it makes it cool.

There are many common themes which crop up in multiple movies. There are lots of department stores in trouble but because they understand the meaning of Christmas they persevere and thrive by the time the end credits roll. Santa is trying to pass on the family business to his son and his progeny has to leave the North Pole to find his happiness so he can take over for Dad. He does and Christmas is saved. Many city dwellers are thrust into rustic surroundings with equally charming Holiday traditions which make the fish out of water character flail about helplessly until one of the townspeople, of the opposite sex, shows them the magic of Christmas. Love is what Christmas is all about. The non-believer being made to believe. Besides Santa’s son a few elves make their way into the world to share North Pole wisdom. There are angels aplenty helping spread joy. There are at least two movies which represent each of those descriptions I listed above. Originality is not the goal; feeling good is; and familiarity helps make that happen a little easier.

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The movies cover a lot of time and they are fun because each one is a little time capsule. Just watching the evolution of cell phones over the course of watching the movies is a source of amusement. The hot young stars of the moment are the actors most often used. This leads to a game in our household where Mrs. C and I try and remember what show they were on when they were in the film. IMDB and Wikipedia are our arbiters on who remembered best.

Because this is Hallmark Channel they could be way more egregious in how they use their captive audience. So far this year I have only seen one clear cross-promotion. The little commercials about using a card to mark a special occasion with the tag line “Life is Special” are almost 60-second versions of the movies they are giving us a break from. I applaud Hallmark for getting that a viewer doesn’t need to be bombarded and keeping their merchandising low key.

Especially over the last two weeks leading up to Christmas I can say that Hallmark Channel is what we are watching if the television is on. It has become as much a part of my Holiday season as egg nog and mistletoe. When you need a break flip over to Hallmark Channel and take a two-hour break with an uplifting story about Christmas.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Vince Guaraldi

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If I asked you to do a quick word association game and I said Christmas Music there are a number of responses I would expect. Bing Crosby and White Christmas, Elvis Presley and Blue Christmas, Eartha Kitt and Santa Baby among many. Each of those songs are as known for the artist behind them as the song. Another response I would likely get is Charlie Brown Christmas. If I asked who was the musician I bet that not many could name the man behind music which has become so entwined with the Holiday season. It wasn’t until I was an adult at a friend’s house and he was playing a song called “Cast your Fate to the Wind” that I discovered the answer myself. Like the Peanuts music it immediately captured my attention. I asked my friend who the musician was and he replied, Y’know the Peanuts guy, Vince Guaraldi.” I didn’t know but I quickly learned.

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Back in 1965 when the producer of the Charlie Brown animated specials, Lee Mendelson, heard the same song he called Mr. Guaraldi to score “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. The Vince Guaraldi Trio with Mr. Guaraldi on piano, Fred Marshall on bass, and Jerry Granelli on drums would record the soundtrack. In a vacuum without seeing them accompanying the antics of the Peanuts gang as they discover the meaning of Christmas these are beautiful jazz compositions that more than stand on their own. Combine them with one of the most beloved cartoons of all time and it transcends itself. The song which plays in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when all of the gang is dancing is called “Linus and Lucy”. It has no obvious Christmas tone except for the visual which goes along with it but there is nobody who doesn’t immediately think Christmas when they hear it.

Vince Guaraldi

Vince Guaraldi

The music of Mr. Guaraldi is probably some of the most widely heard jazz music ever. Think about that. Mr. Guaraldi has very likely been heard by more people than those that are easily seen as jazz greats. I think Mr. Guaraldi is extremely underrated when it comes to discussions about those jazz greats. He didn’t sell out to do this music he stayed true to his jazz roots. Listen to his later compositions for the less well-known Peanuts specials and they all have his indelible style but if you didn’t know they were the score for a cartoon you would just appreciate them for the music on its own terms.

Another reason for Mr. Guaraldi not receiving the accolades I believe are due him is he passed away at the age of 47 in 1976. Coincidentally he had just finished his score for “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown” in the afternoon. That evening he would be struck by a heart attack and die.

As you listen to your Holiday music this year when the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas plays give a thought to the man who made that music. He deserves to be as well-known as Bing, Elvis, or Eartha.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl

One of the more interesting features of iTunes is the counter of how many times you have listened to a song. The single song that I have listened to the most over the last 11+ years is also a seasonal classic. From the very first moment I heard it in 1987 it has been a staple of my Holiday playlist. I am far from alone in this affection it has been named the Number One Christmas song of all time in many polls; most recently in 2012 in a British ranking. The song is not a happy song. The song is not performed by the most famous of singers. The song took almost two years to go from conception to release. The song is Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.

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One of the early reasons for the song being written was an urban myth. The Pogues producer in 1985 was Elvis Costello and he supposedly bet the band they could not write a hit Christmas single. That has turned out to not be true and it came out of the more mundane reason of, “Hey why don’t we release a Christmas single.”  The lead singer of The Pogues is Shane MacGowan and soon after they wanted to do this he came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized. During his hospitalization he wrote most of the lyrics saying in an interview, “you get a lot of delirium and stuff, so I got quite a few good images out of that.”

The lyrics tell a tale of Irish immigrants reminiscing on their life in New York covering their hopeful early days through days of addiction and finally to resigned acceptance. It is a tragedy in three verses of call and response between the couple. While the band was working out the tune they needed to find a female lead singer to play the part. All of this ended up taking two years and by 1987 all of the elements were in place. The lyrics by Mr. MacGowan, the band had crafted a melody, and singer Kirsty MacColl would provide the female vocals.

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Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan from the video of the song

Ms. MacColl was meant to be a placeholder as she was the wife of new producer Steve Lillywhite. She laid down a track of the female part for her husband to use while guiding the band through laying down the other tracks. Except it was perfect and the band got so used to her they couldn’t consider releasing the song without her contribution. It is interesting that she never did the song with the band at all. It almost makes the song seem like separate reveries to me whenever I hear it because of this. Ms. MacColl does a tremendous job of supplying the right emotion to each section. It is her voice which cues the listener to each phase. When she finishes her first verse with “You promised me Broadway was waiting for me” it is imbued with hope. By the second verse it ends with a bitterly delivered, “Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.” As it has all fallen apart. The final line delivered by Ms. MacColl she says, “You took my dreams from me when I first found you.” With Mr. MacGowan’s equally emotionally delivered lyrics it is a magical pairing, without ever meeting.

I like the optimistic happy Christmas songs which have happy endings but Fairytale of New York captures something else which also appeals during this season. The final verse shows me two survivors who are still standing and have found some place from which to look back with acceptance. It is probably that which makes the song so enduring for at year’s end it is natural to look back and when we are still standing it is something worth singing about.

Mark Behnke