Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Atheist Who Stole Christmas

by Nicole Audrey Spector

How a guy who once pulled over the car upon espying a black glitter rosary on my neck (I was 12 and the rosary was from Claire's Accessories) was ever impelled to give the world a self-declared “Christmas Gift” is ironic. Yet my dad, in making A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector was hardly a grinch won over. I don't exaggerate when I say that he'd rather have a tick burrowed in his ear than a sentimental Christian on his back. Or a sentimental Jew for that matter (though one may elicit from him a gentle smirk, a boyhood memory). My dad is so outrightly disgusted with religion that when something bad doesn't happen he says “Thank Darwin!”, a phrase I taught him when he told me he'd give me $500 if I read all of On The Origin Of Species. That's roughly a dollar per page. Add the exhaustive intro and afterthoughts I was also required to read and you have about half that. Not to mention I'd have to provide written notes. Still, not a bad deal for a kid, right? Well, I was 23 and unable to finish it. Point is, my Pops' Christmas music has nothing to do with Christian folklore – it indeed dispossess Christ from Christ-mas, and is concerned only with a mirth and merriment that is wholly secular.

When I visited my dad last Sunday and imparted the news of Christopher Hitchen's death, he gazed at my Einstein T-shirt and frowned. “Einstein should have been more outspoken about the non-existence of God,” he said. A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector may as well be called The Atheist Who Stole Christmas or, if you want to get silly, It's My Birthday, Too; So What? – for my father was born on Christmas Day. Around this time of year a lot of people tell me, “You know, it doesn't feel like Christmastime until I listen to your Dad's Christmas album.” The key word is feel. Christmastime, in again the secular sense, has a distinct essence and texture. It's busy, buttery, effulgent, and loud – pairing well with the lavish mania that distinguishes The Wall Of Sound. Nearly 50 years after its incipient release, A Christmas Gift For You is emblematic of an era long gone, but it's not the 1963 time stamp on the work that induces nostalgia. Songs like “Winter Wonderland”, “Frosty The Snowman”, and “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers” (my childhood favorite) feel to have been born nostalgic, dreamed up in a reverie of how good it feels to be a child at Christmastime. The one original song on the album, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” pines for a Christmas past with Darlene Love belting, “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.”

Perhaps my dad had a bit of the Christmas blues himself growing up. He and his older sister, Shirley, were brought up sparingly in a strict but struggling Jewish household. Christmas was of course not observed and though Hanukkah was I can't imagine it was a hugely happy affair. My paternal grandfather Ben suffered from acute diabetes and ended his life when my father was nine, leaving my Grandma Bertha (after whom my dad's record label Mother Bertha Music is coined) to raise the two kids on her own. She moved the family to L.A, where my dad snuck into jazz clubs and at 14, met his hero: jazz guitarist Barney Kessel. It wasn't long under Kessel's wing before my Dad decided that he would never be as good a guitarist as the remarkably under-recognized genius – “not even a close second”, he says, and so, he turned his ambitions toward record making. In my father's few shared memories of growing up, seldom do I get the sense that he was ever doing much of anything aside from growing up – working as hard as he could to assume responsibility for his family. Even the move to L.A from NY, when he couldn't have been more than 12, he remembers as a vehicle for equipping him with the tools he needed to become a young success – to make it big fast.

As far as the family my dad co-created with my mother, Janis, much later in life (he was 42 when my twin brother Phillip. Jr. and I were born) goes, we were raised on Christmas. Hanukkah was there, but off to the side, a corner piece of piety we were unsure how to regard. Phillip and I took turns lighting the menorah (Grandma Bertha probably had one for every light socket in her home), but we didn't quite know what to do with a holiday that, next to Christmas, was so complicated and sombre, so...holy. When Grandma Bertha gave us a dreidel to play with, Phillip and I just stared at it and exchanged worried glances, hoping Grandma would walk away so we could play with real toys.

Jewish as Grandma Bertha was (she took great care in teaching my Mexican Catholic mother how to be a good Jewish wife, mentoring her in the making of many a matzoh ball soup and potato latke), she indulged us our Christmas. Every year she dug the same plastic tree out of a closet, along with other customary Christmas junk – light up Santas and reindeer, boxes of candy canes. Always a sucker for kitsch, my dad would create his own mega marshmallow world in our foyer – replete with fake box presents under a dazzling Rockefeller tree. But the true Christmas fanatic, on either side of my family, was my dad's older sister, Shirley. A virtual Mrs. Claus, Aunt Shirley stormed into rooms with literal bells on, singing the Christmas hits. My father couldn't stand her. She seemed to physically make his skin crawl. Twenty minutes into her company and he was on the brink of a genuine eczema outbreak. To me she was the most wonderful person in the world. She was a brilliant woman, I later learned, but disturbed. She'd go missing for months and eventually years at a time, abducted by some secret darkness in her mind. I only ever saw her as ebullient, glowing. She was a guaranteed presence on Christmas day. She arrived at our house in the late afternoon (the earliest my father would let her in) with her annual trunk load of presents for me and Phillip, singing all the way up our driveway.

A fragment of one such Christmas afternoon exists on VHS, when Phillip and I were about 6 years old. Before the Record button was hit Aunt Shirley somehow guilted my father into getting out his electric guitar. She starts to sing a pitchy falsetto “Silent Night” and my dad strums obediently along, each chord appearing to hurt his face. “All is caaallllm,” Aunt Shirley sings, with proud bravado, “All is brighhhht.” He doesn't let her get very far, abruptly transitioning into “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. Aunt Shirley wavers but catches on – used to him changing things up without prior consult. Two verses into that song and my dad ditches Christmas altogether, digressing into an improv jazz bit none of us understand. Aunt Shirley, jilted, but ever-joyous, takes the camera from my mother and interviews her niece and nephew, truly her favorite people in the world, about their Christmas day. “Such a beautiful family,” she says. The camera shuts off.

That video is the only evidence of my mother, father, brother, and me together. There are no family photos. It's the only recording of Aunt Shirley, as far as I know, that exists. She's at least 50 years old there, and as fragile and beautiful as I imagine she was as a girl, that remarkably bright girl whose mind shattered when her father left. It's one of the only videos of Phillip, Jr. A few years later, when we were nine he succumbed to a complicated illness. He died just a few days before Christmas. I don't remember our last Christmas together, but this one on tape looks like it was pretty good, and it's the one that makes every Christmas since feel not like Christmas at all.


"Sleigh Ride" mp3
by the Ronettes, 1963.
available on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

"Parade of the Wooden Ships" mp3
by the Crystals, 1963.
available on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" mp3
by Darlene Love, 1963.
available on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

"White Christmas" mp3
by Darlene Love, 1963.
available on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector


Phylis Stein said...

Nicole, what a great writer you are. I can just imagine, from your own words, the Christmas holidays at the Spector's. This Christmas album of your Dad's is the best one ever recorded. I love it. xo Phyllis

Holly said...

This is beautiful. Thank you, Nicole.

Louis Spector said...

Very touching of Nicole to write. Sad to hear that life with Dad was no different and that family photo albums just as scarce for her as they were for me as I had always thought and wished otherwise. I’m glad Shirley was just as lively with her as I remember her to be and a determined force in keeping the Spector family together. Always keep that VHS tape with you as it’s a priceless treasure.

el Mussol said...

Download links seem busted. Thanks for everything this year.

Anonymous said...

This painted a real picture in my mind.
Thank you Nicole.

Paula said...


I am so glad to hear some good times about your father. Like Louis said, treasure that tape.

Loved reading this, it is brilliant.



Anonymous said...

A copy of Christmas Gift I obtained not until 1972 ( re-issue on Apple) as the 63 was never re'd here ( Europe) Now I cherish my orig Philles copy ( from internet buy) for long. Please care for your father over there, my thought s are with all of them.... in his...
bye, amsterdamman

Ted Barron said...

Links are fixed and working...

Anonymous said...

Nicole, thank you for giving us a glimpse into your life with Phil. I must admit after seeing the Agony documentary in which your father spoke ever so slightly about the Bible, or towards the end of the documentary, the ladies in church or his feeling on comfort, I couldn't help but think that there was something, even in the tinest seed that stirs within him concerning faith. Whatever the reason for his making of this album all those years ago, it only perpetuates in it's own way to the masses the feeling of happiness, memories of Christmas with those we loved, our childhoods. This which in turn becomes joy and fills us with good will towards others, an extra dollar in the red kettle, just one more extra toy for the toys for tots, kindness, caring and giving during Christmas, this that the birth of Christ brings. So irony, paradox, the mysterious ways of God, whatever...he did a good thing in making it. Something you and your brothers together as family can always be proud of :).

Do you think it would make him chuckle to hear he can thank Christ for the profits from the CD not Chuck LOL ;)

Respectfully, Shari

Anonymous said...

You should have called him the murderer who stole Christmas.

peterrocker said...

Thank you so much for the article Nicole. You certainly have a talent with words.
It will never be Christmas for my family & I without your father's LP.
It was so hard to buy it here in Australia when it was first released but I still have it as well as a cd re-issue.
Hope your Dad is doing well.

Anonymous said...

The Atheist Who Stole Christmas! How could this possibly benefit Phil Spector? Publishing a story on Christmas day announcing he is "anti Christ" or religion while mentioning his Christmas LP! That should help future CD sales.

Ted Barron said...

Isn't it interesting that all the biggest assholes just happened to be named "Anonymous?"

Anonymous said...

Nicole, thank you for sharing your memories. Your father's music and Christmas abum brought happiness to the world. I hope that during this time he can find comfort in knowing that not only in his families thoughts and hearts, but so many of his fans too. I hope he knows it. We have not forgotten him or his music. So I look forward to your future writings...I have seen pictures of your Aunt Shirley, she looks like she was a beautiful woman. It is obvious that the talent in your family is not limited to your father only..Thank you again....Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

Like anything as good as being young and opening Christmas presents is, I did not want this writing to end. I am surprised and touched by how personally open you are here. I would never have expected it and wonder how you felt afterwards. - someone you know