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Music

The Story Behind the Song: Tom Waits stirring seasonal tale ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’

@TomTaylorFO

Tom Waits is so entrenched in the demimonde of society that even his Christmas tales forgo jingle bells and Rudolf and venture into the world of hookers and estranged dope fiends. However, he does this with such auteur devotion to the sort of absurd poetic realism that the darker side of civility offers up that he nevertheless captures Christmas from someone’s point of view.

When it comes to his 1978 record Blue Valentine, his stripped-back tales seem to slur and stagger their way through the speaker, and it is a credit to Bones Howe’s wistful minimal production that the songs seem to be recorded a million miles away from a studio despite the crisp sound. Of all these dive bar anthems, ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ is one of the best songs Waits has ever written. It is a track that displays his true singularity as a songwriter in a tale that harks back to the bluesmen of the past, ran through a filter of kaleidoscopic postmodernism.

Thus, it seems befitting when it comes to the absurdity Waits was trying to capture that he would explain the story behind ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ as follows: “I was in Minneapolis – it was 200 degrees below zero,” he told a disbelieving New York crowd. “I know, you think I’m bullshitting, no, I swear to God, I was wearing just a bra and a slip and a kind of dead squirrel around my neck – he was colder than I was. The police cars would go by and they’d wave… merry Xmas, merry Xmas, merry Xmas…”

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Continuing to regale the crowd with his whimsical William S. Burroughs-esque spiel: “Anyway, I got caught in the middle of a pimp war between two kids in Chinchilla coats, they couldn’t have been more than 13 years old. They’re throwing knives and forks and spoons out into the street – it was deep – so I grabbed a ladle, and Dinah Washington was singing ‘Our Day Will Come’ and I knew that was it.”

Then with the twinkling of piano keys, he would simply start playing his beauteous song. Whether or not it was a cutlery based juvenile gang war amid the coldest temperatures recorded on planet Earth that spawned it, both the result and the sui generis introduction are a reflection of the way that Waits approaches his work as a songwriter. Lord knows it isn’t easy to write a song, but it’s a lot harder if you’re trying to pair it with novelistic techniques, Waits make it so easy that simple ABABCB form seems kitsch and dated. 

While the story behind Waits’ Christmas classic might be obfuscated by his own wild imagination, the tale it contains therein is far easier to follow. In the song, Waits narrates a first-person letter from a prostitute to an ex. She writes of how she has fallen pregnant, cleaned herself up and is safe in a loving relationship. Then slowly details of how she still misses Charlie and thinks of him every time she drives by a gas station because of all the grease that slicked back his hair, reveals that all is not as it meets the eye. 

And by the final verse, the story is revealed to be a fallacy as the prostitute from Minneapolis confesses that her story was a mere fable and that she is, in fact, incarcerated and in need of help. She signs her letter, “I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day,” in perhaps the weirdest sexual proposition in music. It is a measure of Waits’ mastery that amid this grisly tale of the sadly disenfranchised, there is something inexplicably festive that soars on the message that Christmas might not always be merry, but it offers up a sweet moment of reflection nevertheless, even if you’re in jail or a fork-flinging fur-coated delinquent.