“Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” by Tom Waits
Marchelle Bradanini aka Pony Boy
Only Tom Waits could tackle the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché and not only deliver a heart aching tale filled with depth and soul, but also create one of the best damn holiday songs ever written.
To briefly digress, my personal love affair with Tom Waits goes back to my late teens, though I feel like he’s always been skulking about my bones and the boulevards of the Los Angeles I called home. Perhaps it was through that other famed gutter poet, Bukowski, or hearing the folklore of his open mics at Doug Weston’s Troubadour? Truth is, I can’t remember my initial entry into Waits’ sordid world of Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, but I can’t imagine a world without him. He is a million characters and totally unknowable at the same time. I would describe his music as Doris Day with a handgun and Howlin’ Wolf with an afternoon gambling problem all mixed into one. I know there is much discussion of Tom Waits the persona and Tom Waits the father, husband/collaborator, and sober elder statesmen, but for today’s purposes I’ll focus on one of my favorite all-time songs, the eloquent and devastating “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis.”
From the tawdry opening couplet, “Hey Charlie I’m pregnant and living on 9th Street /Right above a dirty bookstore off Euclid Avenue,” it is viscerally apparent we aren’t in for the typical holiday schmaltz. The song continues – chronicling a new found life that’s been hard-won. The lyrical descriptions and specificity are dazzling- from the Little Anthony & The Imperials record she still possesses, despite having her record player stolen, to the ring belonging to the mother of her new love who plays the trombone and takes her out dancing every Saturday night. We can’t help rooting for this mysterious woman and all her bruised charms. Even her dream of buying a used car lot where she “wouldn’t sell any of ’em,” seems equal parts absurd and completely attainable.
All this crashes down in the final stanza where it is revealed that, in fact, everything previously detailed is untrue. She’s just writing to ask for money to pay for her lawyer. Closing with the final killer of a line that, “she’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.”
I think one of the many genius aspects of this song, apart from the humanist element, is the device of the unreliable narrator. Is Tom Waits singing in the voice of Charlie reading the Christmas card or this unnamed hooker herself? We leave with so many more questions than answers. I love how specific Tom Waits can be, but he is also a master in what he leaves out. The negative space of the song is just as powerful as any written phrase. Who the hell is Charlie anyway? What accident is she referring to? And why would she go through the trouble of writing a Christmas card filled with so many elaborate falsities only to reveal her true intentions so late in the story? There are a million ways to interpret this song, but what is evident is the blood and guts of a complex woman far beyond cheap lipstick and torn fishnets.
As with many Tom Waits songs, there’s no saccharine self-pity or morose seriousness. Similar to Dylan and Leonard Cohen, his use of humor can sneak up on you where the song prima facie can appear a bit silly or even trite and then hit you like a 10,000-pound pile of used bricks.
This dichotomy of heavy and light is clearly on display in Waits’ iconic 1978 Austin City Limits performance, which is notable on several levels. First off, there is some serious meta shit happening from Waits opening and closing with a medley of “Silent Night” that’s a playful nod the revered canon of holiday music he’s about to insert himself into. He then riffs on an actual line from Little Anthony & the Imperials, which is name-checked in the tune. All this is met with nervous laughter as the audience proceeds on uneven ground – they don’t know whether it’s more appropriate to bust their pants laughing or double over and weep in Shakespearean despair.
And for me, therein lies the true brilliance of the song and Tom Waits. Some of our darkest moments are often accompanied by the ridiculous. Waits finds meaning in the mundane and empathy for people we might easily disregard. It’s made me feel less alone in lonely times and gives something to strive for beyond the artifice of calculated songwriting or formula.
In a cynical world where music is mostly used for shilling plastic headphones and laundry detergent, “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” operates on the level of the truly profound. With a knowing and wounded wink, the song brings dignity to the undignified and connects to the humanity in all of us. And that is all that matters in the end.
[ed note: Keeping in the spirit of Christmas, here’s a split holiday EP by Pony Boy/Justin & The Cosmics featuring The Georgettes)