Thursday December 22, 2005
How an obscure 80s punk band created a Christmas classic
By JOHN PETRICK
Struggling post-punk band the Waitresses dragged themselves off the road and into a Manhattan studio to record - of all things - a Christmas song on a hot August day in 1981. Little did they know they were about to create a classic - a song that would well outlive the band, the 80s and, sadly, the frontwoman who sang it.
"I go back and I try to think of what the original inspiration was. I think it was just very much that for years I hated Christmas," says Hoboken resident Chris Butler, founder of the Waitresses and writer of the bittersweet, cool but sentimental Christmas Wrapping.
The song is as much about a harried lifestyle and trying to make connections as it is about Christmas. And that's a lifestyle Butler knew well as a musician and songwriter trying to break big in New York in the early 80s - a lifestyle that has mellowed in middle age. He may never have cracked the Top 40. But so what? He's made it to age 56, continues to make music, is a husband and the father of a 6-year-old son.
"Everybody I knew in New York was running around like a bunch of fiends," he says of Christmases back around the time he moved from his native Ohio to New York City and formed the Waitresses. "It wasn't about joy. It was something to cope with."
As talk-sung - almost rapped - by late lead singer Patty Donahue, Butler's song depicts a hard-working single girl who resolves to sit Christmas out one year. This, as she laments her repeated and unsuccessful attempts to reconnect with a guy she met by chance the previous winter. But just as in A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, a twist of fate and a little magical intervention restore our heroine's belief in the Christmas spirit, after all.
Everyone loves happy endings. And while they're the stuff of classic Christmas songs and movies, for the Waitresses they were a little harder to come by.
Their record label had asked each of its punk bands to write a Christmas song for a holiday album. "A Christmas album? On a hipster label? With a bunch of junkies on it? Eurotrash? Come on. Never happened," says Butler, giving the raspberry before sipping his coffee at Mola, a cafe on Washington Street in Hoboken. "OK, they were not all junkies and Eurotrash. But they were extreme individuals," he says of the label's roster.
The Waitresses were touring clubs and colleges to support their struggling single, I Know What Boys Like, written by Butler and sung by Donahue. "We were like the road hog band," he says. "It was fun. But to think it's not hard ... work is a lie. A myth."
Then again, the band itself was once a myth.
While Butler was a musician playing the Akron area with bands such as Tin Huey and the Numbers Band in the late 1970s, he wrote songs for a make-believe side group. "I came up with the name `the Waitresses' because it just sounded kind of New Wavey," he says. "It was all a big joke."
Donahue - the girlfriend of one of Butler's musician friends - sang a few Waitresses songs at Tin Huey shows. "As an encore gag, we would put on T-shirts that said, Waitresses Unite."
But when industry people in New York expressed serious interest in a tape of I Know What Boys Like, Butler quickly cobbled together a formal Waitresses lineup. Many of the musicians Butler recruited were Midwesterners who, like himself, gravitated to New York. Meanwhile, Donahue was still in Ohio.
A free spirit who was in and out of college when she wasn't working waitress jobs, she decided to come along for the ride. "I gave her my last 50 bucks, put her on the Greyhound bus, she kissed her boyfriend goodbye, and she decided to come to New York. What the hell?"
The Waitresses officially debuted as a real, fully organized band at Little Club 57 at 57 St. Mark's Place on Jan 3, 1981. Months of playing everywhere from there to the Peppermint Lounge on Times Square to colleges - and I Know What Boys Like still wasn't making much of a dent.
In they came from the road in August 1981, exhausted, discouraged and not exactly in the Christmas spirit. Butler wrote Christmas Wrapping in about a week, put together from what he calls his "riff pile" - cassettes with bits and pieces of songs he wrote, for a rainy day. Some of the lyrics were written in the cab, en route to the studio. He credits his fellow musicians with adding brilliant flourishes to his basic musical arrangement. And, of course, he credits Donahue - the least experienced band member with the highest visibility.
"This is what she brought to the party: She was very smart. She was very funny. She was a very good actress. Great sense of humor, great timing. This was not the world's greatest vocalist, but she could get inside these lines and act them out, with a cigarette, and be my kind of favourite 1930s tough broad in all those Depression-era movies. Like those great, great characters - Veronica Lake, Myrna Loy, Lauren Bacall. She could do that kind of tough, tough, been-there, done-that, you-can't-fool-me kind of woman."
From the sounds of things, Donahue herself played as hard as she worked. "She was kind of a party girl," he says. "She liked to have a good time. ... There's a Black Irish, west side of Cleveland, working-class mindset that she was very much a part of. ... She lived hard. She was a rough, tough girl."
Two days of recording, and Christmas Wrapping was in the can. Back out on the road they went, forgetting all about it - until it started getting radio play come Christmas season. It was a weird way to have a hit.
"We had to play the song up until, like, June. And we had to capitalize on it - `Hi, this is our new album. We're the people who did that song back at Christmas,'" he says. "I am an official one-hit wonder. Except I have two half-hits: The Christmas song, and I Know What Boys Like, which never quite broke through but never quite went away."
Though they were seemingly gaining momentum, what happens next isn't quite the magical happy ending of Christmas tales.
"We ran out of gas," he says about working on their next album. "We had a huge deadline. Huge pressure. And she (Donahue) said, `The hell with it'. That's show business. ... Complicated girl. Utterly infuriating. Utterly disappointing. Utterly depressing. I have no idea why it crumbled. But it always seems to crumble. You take a bunch of real cranky, eccentric people, you put them in a van, you deprive them of sleep, you give them bad food, you work their asses off, and sometimes - sometimes - you interject a white powder that makes them even more irritated. And then you wonder why things explode?" he says.
They parted ways. Through the 80s and 90s, Donahue worked for a division of ABC News for a while before working in A&R for a record label, according to Butler. "A person who hated the music business ended up in music publishing?" he says, exasperated.
Then in the mid-90s, this Christmas tale comes to an even less happy ending.
"I found out she was sick, through a friend. I immediately called her. We kind of kissed and made up. I asked if there was anything I could do. We had a couple of phone conversations. We joked about maybe doing a reunion Christmas show, thinking maybe if she had something to look forward to, it might be an incentive psychologically for her to get better," he says. "But she didn't make it."
Donahue died of lung cancer on Dec. 9, 1996, at age 40.
Through all these years, Butler has remained very much a working musician. And his work with the Waitresses is the gift that keeps on giving. He receives royalties for air play of Christmas Wrapping and for sales of the band's greatest-hits album. In 1998, the Spice Girls covered the song.
"I winced," he says, when he found out they wanted to do it. "At the time, I was working in experimental music with Television's Richard Lloyd, and the most commercial band of the day covers this 290-year-old song? Talk about a mind (expletive). Is it any good? Probably not. But who cares? They did it, I'm grateful, and it's going to buy my kid the greatest associate's degree money can buy."
Butler has produced for such artists as Joan Osborne and Freedie Johnston. His Hoboken-based record label, Future Fossil Music, has produced such experimental offerings as The Devil Glitch, Butler's 69-minute single that made the 1998 Guinness Book of World Records as World's Longest Pop Song, and The Museum of Me, a collection of new songs recorded on wax cylinders, wire recorders and antique tape machines.
"I seem to find that if I just keep throwing things out there, I may not get a big splash but I get enough return to feel like a real smart person gets it. Or two really smart people get it. And that's enough. I'm not a rich and wealthy person. But I'm OK," he says.
And as for Christmas? Like the music business, he has a bit of a different perspective on it, now. Especially when he's rushing around doing errands and suddenly hears his song on the radio, after all these years.
"Who'd have thunk it? Yeah. Holy cow," he says of its longevity. "Miracles do happen. It's MY Christmas miracle. And it slaps me around and says, `Lighten up. It's Christmas'."
- Copyright (C) 2005 KRT News Service