Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vs. He-Man. My Little Pony vs. Strawberry Shortcake. Barbie vs. Justice League. A tea party with Abraham Lincoln and Cinderella.
These are a few of my favorite things.
These “what if?” scenarios are culled from the imagination of children. Because children have no precautions about creating impossible scenarios, they combine disparate objects and people to actualize their visions. Adults are typically terrible at this. But sometimes, just sometimes, they turn the impossible into reality.
In 1977, at the request of absolutely no one, an impossible dream came true.
Fresh off a debilitating drug addiction and accusations of Nazi sympathizing, David Bowie was ready to capitalize on the non-chart success of his latest record, Low, by appearing on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas. On paper it made sense to no one. But when these two icons met to record a television segment, it made even less sense. It must have been quite chilly on that mocked English castle set; warmer performances occur at Apple board meetings.
The story of their arrangement has been reported to excess and most reports use words such as “surreal,”1 “weird,” and “defying musical logic" to describe it. This seemed like the worst pairing since peanut butter and mayonnaise.
Clearly written to highlight a generation gap, the segment makes the most of an awkward encounter. First, Bowie mistakes Bing for the new butler (because everyone who lives on Bowie’s street must have a butler), and then asks Bing if he is the “poor relation” from America. Nevermind that Bowie can’t be bothered to make a normal introduction, he’s just popping by his neighbor’s house (Percival) to bang out a few scales on the piano.
But the conversation turns to music and Bowie asks Bing if he “like(s) modern music.” Bowie reminisces about “John Lennon and… ah, Harry Nilsson” with a boyish grin, and the implication is clear: You’re welcome, old man. Bing responds in mock-surprise: “Oh? You go back that far, huh?” Subtitle: Kiss the ring, youngster. You’re lucky I let you in the door. It’s like watching a wrestling match of wits; each one trading barbs hoping to draw blood. But behold, the encounter is quelled by the glad tidings of a suggested Christmas duet.
Together they perform the 1941 Christmas tune, “The Little Drummer Boy,” with some alterations: Bowie sings a new counterpoint, “Peace On Earth,” written by the show’s script and music writers, Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman, and Alan Kohan. Bowie balked at singing a song he did not like, a tradition he still maintains today by refusing to sing “China Girl” or “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” in concert. Obviously, the only possible solution to this quandary is to write an ENTIRELY NEW SONG FOR BOWIE.
I suppose the producers, Bowie’s mom (an admitted fan of Bing), and Bing’s kids (admitted fans of Bowie) really wanted this merrie Christmas scene to take flight. Bing Crosby reserves the right to toss anyone off set if he deems it necessary. This is a man who allegedly weighed his chubby son every week, only to whip him with a studded belt if he didn’t like the results. You don’t just walk onto Bing’s set and say you care for the song you’re about to duet on with him.
Apparently, David Bowie does.
Christmas specials were routine to Bing Crosby. At 74, Crosby was pretty much on autopilot. But he doesn’t look like a man who will be dead a month later. He’s got a swagger about him and his baritone voice is still near top form. But he looks tired, unwilling to tussle to reassert his alpha status. I imagine a resigned Bing letting the writers placate Bowie with several options for song choices while he steps out to get a few practice golf swings in. Let the writers deal with this kid, I’m going to the driving range.
The performance was a hit, though Bowie all but disowned it. Even though it was widely bootlegged, an official single was released in 1982, a move that angered Bowie further. For Bing, it was the last Christmas special, his last recorded television segment; he died of a heart attack October 14, 1977 following a round of golf.
Bing doesn’t stay dead for long, though. We dust him off every year at Christmas and resurrect his work all month long. Sometimes we even enjoy it.
The ghost of Bing was resurrected once again five years ago on Christmas day. This time in the form Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly reenacting a line-for-line parody of the Bing and Bowie segment. With Ferrell as a pudgier Bowie and Reilly as a disheveled Bing, the two work the scene as if they were reciting dialogue from Samuel Beckett.
YouTube commenters found much to revel in. User "Ron Morris” (if that is his real name) says, "Way funny! Frame for frame remake! AHAHAHHaha Almost shared this with my whole family though. Glad I didn’t.” (Maybe his family is easily offended by terrible makeup jobs?) While commenter "butts poop” (almost definitely his real name) boldly declares, "This is the best video I’ve ever seen in my life.” Among the trolls, however, are a few quips of sincerity. Some commenters remember watching the original when it aired and have fond memories of seeing it for the first time. Others talk about how their parents loved Bing Crosby and watched all of his Christmas specials from the beginning. A few acknowledge the sadness of Bing Crosby’s death. The thread is surprisingly tame and almost readable, a minor Christmas miracle in a medium usually reserved for snark and derision. Some quality of the original must have tapped into some goodwill to keep the unpleasantness of commenters in check. Nostalgia, it seems, runs deep at Christmas time — even when we’re making fun of it.
Most people, myself included, seem to be split on the true nature of the video. Is it homage? Is it irony? Is it genuine? A Christmas gift? If so, for whom? And why this moment? There are plenty of terrible Christmas moments to satirize and I don’t believe that Bing and Bowie intentionally played the scene for irony. Their duet sounds sincere, even compassionate. If there is any antagonism apparent, it doesn’t happen onscreen. And if it does, we should ask ourselves, “Did we impose it?”
Because why not cast a hairy eyeball at the original meeting? It’s easier than enjoying it and it evokes the same dichotomy that divides Christmas music; sincere Christmas music stirs an emotional response, insincere Christmas music is an easy target for cynicism. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to acknowledge that there might be some bit of nostalgia that puts us in a place where we have to reconcile our attitude towards Christmas. The natural defense is to deride it, pushing it out of the realm of the sincere and into the realm of the hypocritical. Bowie and Bing embody such a notion; what seems laughable can often be sincere and what seems perfunctory can serve a greater purpose.
Just like A Charlie Brown Christmas, this scene, this song, is a cultural staple of Christmas, a building block for our collective Christmas memories; one more of those shared nostalgic experiences. But the subsequent death of Bing imbues this scene with a stark significance. His death marked a soft end to Baby Boomer Christmas nostalgia. As the calendar flipped from the ’70s to the ’80s, no living artist held up the foundation vacated by Bing. No one picked up where his legacy of Christmas left off. And I doubt anyone ever can.
1 David Buckley (1999) Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story, pp.327-328.