Harping on the Past: A Christmas Tale

For many years, the greatest joy of Christmas was to wake up my parents with the worst Christmas music we could find. My brother and I would have a whispered powwow over the LP collection. We might choose Placido Domingo, for sheer tenor shamelessness, or maybe the organ-backed bombast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The most deliciously despised choice was Barbara Streisand’s multi-metric, coke-addled version of Jingle Bells. “Oh God not that again,” we’d hear my mother moan from the bedroom, “Joe put on some coffee goddammit!”

But finally, an album arrived in the house that outdid all the others. My father worked for the Community Concerts series in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and one year the series featured a harpist named DeWayne Fulton. An album entitled “Season’s Greetings from DeWayne Fulton” mysteriously appeared in the record pile the next Christmas, the bio on the jacket was irresistible:

DeWayne is currently being featured at THE WAREHOUSE RESTAURANT in Marina Del Rey, California (near the Los Angeles International Airport).

… and that was all. My brother and I ripped off the cellophane, put the album on at full volume, and got exactly the reaction we wanted. When my father emerged he wryly resurrected one of his most beloved expressions, one we hadn’t heard for many years: “Fountains of toilet water.”

Yes, Christmas Day was an occasion for gift-giving, for family togetherness, and mocking schlock. DeWayne became the perennial choice, the only choice, the absolute gold standard of cheese. Oh how we laughed, year after year, over DeWayne’s bio, and all his plucked passion, while we unwrapped our fleeces from Lands End!

Fast forward to the present. This year I decided the holiday would be a nice, peaceful time not to travel anywhere and just to practice Ligeti Etudes and Bach. There is nothing more peaceful than playing Ligeti six hours a day, let me tell you; as a form of mental self-flagellation it is unequalled. Although I bought a small Christmas tree, plopped it atop the piano, decorated it with lights–well, somehow I had trouble summoning the Christmas spirit. Over Ligeti’s enormous dissonant chords and clusters, quadruple forte, I started screaming holiday messages, like “Happy New Year!,” “Best Wishes of the Season To You!,” partly to scare the neighbors.

In this dire state, searching for holiday cheer, I found myself (what else) googling DeWayne Fulton. And wouldn’t you know it, someone had uploaded the entire Seasons Greetings album! … I pressed download, and …

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

.. I got a lot more Christmas spirit than I bargained for. From the very first strum, I was transported to a Christmas in the mid to late 80’s, between semesters at college. Sitting in my pajamas, sheltered by the tree and surrounded by presents, everything around me suggested I was still a child; meanwhile at college I’d been eagerly after adulthood, freeing myself (so I thought) from childlike vulnerabilities … The gap between child me and college me had been widening, imperceptibly, a crack in myself, and I felt suddenly dropped into it, this identity abyss. Who was I kidding, pretending to be a well-adjusted adult? Perhaps the suicidal melancholy of Christmas is partly this: a sudden strange perspective thrown around all your “normal,” day-to-day life, a sudden lack of shelter. Just like when your relatives ask “You’re kidding me, do you honestly make a living tickling those damn ivories?” and after telling them to screw off you realize how precarious the whole house of cards is. You tell them about your recording of Ives and they say “oh, I love Burl Ives.”

In other words, these cheesy carols–much as I might laugh at them–were taking me down, down, down into a morass of unwanted emotion. I was turning into an Oprah segment. To distract myself, I clicked the back button on my browser, back to the original search results. There I found:

Los Angeles Times
July 12, 1996

Harpist DeWayne Fulton once graced the rosters of the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics but had his longest tenure in the lounge of the Warehouse Restaurant in Marina del Rey.

… Ouch. I couldn’t help but laugh at the zing of this opening salvo, but felt something flinch in my heart. The writer continued:

In a recital Thursday night at Cal State Long Beach, he combined the technique of a symphonic virtuoso with the artistic inclinations of a Lawrence Welk.

Agh. Before I knew it, I was suddenly totally overcome with sadness, at DeWayne’s life story, at the concise cruelty of the opening of this review, at the cruelty of all humanity to humanity, the cruelty even of concision itself (meanwhile the carols were still rippling on, heartlessly), and I was so deeply ashamed of all the years I had laughed at DeWayne, all the terrible times I had used him for my own amusement, a harpist of considerable gifts who had played under Karajan in the Berlin Phil and somehow found himself for twenty years doing lounge harp in the environs of LAX. Further googling revealed that DeWayne died in 1997, mere months after this most terrible of all possible reviews. I imagined him reading this review with sadness, in his final moments. A great faucet of maudlin melancholy had been left open, and I guzzled from it.

This should be the point in the parable where, having reached a great crisis of doubt, I delve a bit further to find the True Meaning of Christmas.

Instead I found myself thinking about Corniness … a more fatal diagnosis, perhaps, than death itself. DeWayne had found himself on the wrong side of the corny/not corny divide; all his technique could not save him from his propensity for medleys and ripples, which led him unerringly from Berlin to Marina Del Rey, and earned him the cruelest review ever.

Now Christmas, too, seems to me a moment when corniness (partly a kind of naivete? a kind of artistic innocence? a complete disregard for restraint, taste?) raises its head and wages war for the soul of humanity. Christmas is a time of cheer, when we are all supposed to be cheerful: and cheer lends itself to corniness far more than gloom. Corniness is often a joy that has sat out too long, like a congealed skin on top of a soup. Congealed is the word: whatever elements keep the emotion fresh and moving are missing. Joy goes stale so quickly.

What’s so terrifying about the corniness of Christmas is its all-pervasive nature, its inescapability. It oozes into all the most inappropriate, humdrum, places. I went to the bank to get a new ATM card, and there it was, deafening, the cheeriest corniest music imaginable. I said to the man in the cubicle, “this music must drive you crazy,” and he said “we’ve been listening to it all month,” and I said, “that would make me want to kill myself,” and he said “that would be bad because I’m a young man with my whole life ahead of me” (which seemed to me a strange response). I must’ve struck a nerve; the guy in the next cubicle popped his head over the divider, and he said — get this — yeah basically we sort of want to kill ourselves, but can I interest you in some investments?

On the way back from the bank I picked up a chicken to roast. That should cure any melancholy those corny carols had roused! Yes, I thought, a good solid meal, potatoes and onions, and meanwhile I can get back to work, work, work, practicing Ligeti … Luckily, Ligeti is the least corny music imaginable. Severe, often savage, violent, excessive, sometimes beautiful–but never sentimental, mawkish. Ligeti was anti-Christmas, the perfect antidote to DeWayne.

I put the chicken in, 450 F, got to work. In moments the apartment was filling up with smoke. I couldn’t open the window, outside was a howling blizzard. I was trapped, blazing oven inside and icy wind without. The music on the piano was “The Devil’s Staircase.” I added a couple fingerings, but the air was getting ever heavier, it was hot as hell in there, the smoke alarm beeped peevishly, fog was clouding the room, my brain, stifling …

At this moment, coughing through the fumes, I had a kind of weird, sudden Christmas vision. Snowflakes gave way to blurry blue lights, clouds upon clouds, and then I saw it, I saw it, DeWayne was in Heaven–which oddly resembled the Warehouse Restaurant–playing his harp. DeWayne was smiling down at me. I thought: DeWayne is happy, he forgives me for laughing at him all those years, for being such a cruel snobbish classical music bastard. I breathed a great sigh of relief. My heart swelled. But, in a moment, the vision expanded … I noticed God was sitting there next to DeWayne, and they weren’t just smiling, they were both actually laughing, laughing hysterically. DeWayne was saying “Look at that poor sap, working like a dog down there, all alone, on that hideous music” and yes even God was laughing at me, he was wiping the tears out of his eyes, saying “what an idiot. Play me O Holy Night again, DeWayne. And–waiter–I’d like the Surf’n’Turf, medium rare.”

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  1. Posted December 29, 2010 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    /wipes tear

    It’s been a long time coming but here we have the perfect interlude (?) to months of Ligeti on repeat and it was worth it….

    Happy holidays Jeremy and best wishes for the New Year!

  2. Posted December 29, 2010 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    ps. I’ve bought your Ives for my own personal Christmas present to myself- thanks

  3. Adam
    Posted December 29, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    “The gap between child me and college me had been widening, imperceptibly, a crack in myself, and I felt suddenly dropped into it, this identity abyss.”

    As a college kid (Young Adult?) studying piano & home for Christmas, I completely identify. Thanks for the perspective. And the brilliant Ives recording.

  4. Posted December 30, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Well, the reviewer seemed to like his Smetana and Joplin anyway. And in defense of the Warehouse, Jesse White ate there! Original “Harvey” cast member, no less.

    Speaking for myself, I like the truly corny Christmas stuff. Not soulful singers massaging the hell out of “O Come All Ye Faithful” or the 20th cover of “Santa Baby,” but Gene Autry songs, “Nuttin’ For Christmas” (as long as George Rock isn’t singing), “Jingle Bell Rock,” or most anything else from the 40s and 50s. It’s what was playing in Staples when I went in for a Sharpie, and it wiped the floor with just about any other store sound track I’d been subjected to. I still feel sorry for the employees, and wonder just how long the loop is.

    I keep trying to download DeWayne, and it keeps hanging up. The first time, it froze everything on the computer a short way in. Now it’s been saying “A few seconds remaining” for the last five minutes. This better be worth it! As I say, I like real corn.

  5. Buddy's Mom
    Posted January 1, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Always a gift to hear from you. Sounds like it’s time to clean your oven.

  6. Posted January 2, 2011 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Bravo Jeremy! You had me laughing and crying at the same time by the end. Have a great 2011, can’t wait for Ligeti/Bach at Zankel, followed Steve Smith’s advice and have ticket in hand.

  7. Posted January 5, 2011 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    I loved your story about Christmas. Don’t worry I think DeWayne Fulton forgives you lol. It was some preety god awful music though.

    Music Marketing

  8. Joe Denk
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Am currently listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ variations on Dives and Lazarus as done by the New Queens Orchestra(?). It all begins with a harp (without fountains) that harkins to your closing scene in the Hell of a smoke-filled kitchen looking across the gap to the supernatural and the laughing poor Lazurus in the arms of the harp-loving divinity. Throughout the variations, the harp continues to cry for pity on the suffering man of plenty and his piano in the fiery lake of Legeti and company. Poignant!

  9. Joe Denk
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Marilyn Drane quoted from this most enjoyable entry, emphasizing the combination of humor, and pathos. This beautiful combination, adding justice to the combination, has its roots in Luke’s Dive and Lazarus and you have captured it magnificently.

  10. Masako Dougherty
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    It was a nice New Year’s gift to read your latest as I look forward to your writing with much anticipation. As “Buddy’s Mom” wrote, it is a gift to an amature music lover and I might add, as a recently retired person, I’ll be happy to come and clean you overn anytime free. Honestly.

  11. Posted January 6, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Here it is, Twelfth Night, and that O Holy Night has me all nostalgic. Then again, I am a sucker for Christmas music.

  12. Danny Figueredo
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    This was really a wonderful post.

  13. Posted January 7, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Around here it’s not Christmas without Stan Boreson

  14. Obiegal
    Posted January 11, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Best Christmas blog post I’ve read! Thanks for a wonderful holiday read (even though I read it well post-holiday). How did the chicken turn out?

  15. Sheri Mouw
    Posted January 13, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Though hardly a divine vision, I suddenly remember Christmas With The Brady Bunch, circa 1970. Googling now. Thanks.

  16. Patrick
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Roasting a chicken at 450 F ?? That’s asking for trouble.

    Reading this post from the safe distance (from Christmas) of 18 Jan 2011, I wonder if all that working up of emotion amounts to much… But I’ll succumb next year, I’m sure. Wouldn’t it be awful to never have a strong emotion?

  17. Erica
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    As a small side note, I’ve been waiting for your Ives recording for years, ever since I heard you play it live, but I’m kind of embarrassed to say I had to wikipedia Burl Ives. Am even more grateful the Ives is digital, too, because I’m stuck in Seoul at the moment, where they refuse to perform anything composed after 1900. Rawr.

  18. morty schnee
    Posted January 27, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for the amazing performance in Boston on Sunday(we’re the guys who accosted you at intermission,purely by accident). To hear Ligeti live,after years of listening at home was revelatory. And the GVs were so beautiful.

    By the way, Mr. Eichler agreed in the globe- First time I’ve seen him have no quibble(which is his job.)

    Hear you soon,we hope, Judy and Morty Schnee

  19. Posted January 27, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    wonderful as usual 🙂 🙂

  20. Posted January 31, 2011 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    Thoroughly entertaining post. Keep up the good work!

  21. Anyssa
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Oh Jeremy Denk, this is one of your finest. It’s nearly two months after Christmas, 16 February to be exact, and I’m sitting at a rather lonely kitchen table in freezing Montreal. You’ve rescued me, at least momentarily, from wanting to kill myself out of sheer congealed frustration with these Quebecois–after all, I’m young and have, one hopes, many more of your blog posts to read in the future. At least between Bach practices.

  22. Posted February 28, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I would have been haunted by this story for months. Fortunately, I googled, and read, with relief,
    Burt Hixson, owner of the world-famous Warehouse Restaurant in Marina Del Rey, California, heard De Wayne and built a lounge especially for him and his electronically amplified harp.


  23. Nimble
    Posted March 4, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if you would agree with my husband that the Kingston Trio Christmas album “The Last Month of the Year” is most laughably lugubrious. I can’t help liking it, I grew up with it. It is mostly minor and so very very white despite the gospel and folk songs.

  24. Posted March 4, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    hi jeremy. i found you through ethan iverson.
    i would like to send u my xmas record. i think u
    will find it campy, kitschy and entertaining.
    the kind of record people who hate xmas records
    can tolerate and even enjoy.

    i will keep reading. ethan steered me to u because
    i’ve been writing about my glamoous life as a
    musician for years. back when they just called it

    if u want to email me and send me an addy
    u can receive mail from i will send you, dred xmas.

    best, dred scott

  25. Gary Schenk
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Interesting blog. I liked the Ligeti/Mozart entry. I stumbled upon this looking for info. I have tickets to see Martha Argerich and the LA Phil Friday night. It’s too bad you won’t be playing Ligeti, the Phil does Ligeti quite well.

    Looking forward to your performance.

  26. Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    I came here because you just played in L.A. (I’m in San Francisco’s eastbay but a friend loved what you did Saturday and I recommended she come read you.

    Some of the most beautiful tunes I’ve heard were written for Christmas (though I realize this is not a popular sentement in our classical-music world & I enjoyed your column about all this). “What Child is This?” “I Wonder as I Wander.” “O Holy Night,” but most of all what always brings me up is hearing the Fred Waring recording of “I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their Old Familiar Carols Play” — with orchestra & his usual chorus.

    I first heard it while shopping downtown in San Francisco, near the old Emporium. The sounds were coming out of a little shop on Market, something probably not heard as much these days, but I remember how beautiful I found it… Then there are the words (and I risk sounding “too religious” but I am not a churchgoer but the words are apt in this world of ours, whatever your God-thing)

    “Till ringing, singing on its way
    The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
    Of peace on earth, good will to men.

    And in despair I bowed my head
    “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
    “For hate is strong and mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

    [ Especially on Internet ‘forums’ ]

    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
    With peace on earth, good will to men.”

    [ Whatever our God may be ]

  27. Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I was so taken by your playing on Thursday 3/17/11 at the Disney, I was moved to read your blog. Is is very rare for me to even look up any performer once the show is done.
    Well your Xmas story did it…You are really “a live wire” which is what I felt just listening to you…I am particularly happy to see your sense of humor… You and Dudamel were so marvelously matched that night that you have to do more performances together…. Stay growing and thriving. Thanks MTL

  28. Posted March 24, 2011 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    I loved your story about Christmas. Don’t worry I think DeWayne Fulton forgives you lol. It was some preety god awful music though.

  29. BLK
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Do you think Lawrence Welk would even recognize—or care—that his name was a condemnation? I’d like to think DeWayne was laughing at himself a bit (especially around 1:16, where the fountain reaches epic heights) and maybe even enjoyed playing at The Warehouse, because it was steady income, because the people were nice, and because the steak was good. And don’t forget the free drinks. Your supposition that he cared about that final bad review is interesting—was he playing for good reviews, or for his own enjoyment? If the latter, then the joy has not congealed. It is as light as a feather.

    Speaking of light as a feather, beautiful concert yesterday. DUN DUN DUN DUUUNNNN!

  30. BLK
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Do you think Lawrence Welk would even recognize—or care—that his name was a condemnation? I’d like to think DeWayne was laughing at himself a bit (especially around 1:16, where the fountain reaches epic heights) and maybe even enjoyed playing at The Warehouse, because it was steady income, because the people were nice, and because the steak was good. And don’t forget the free drinks. Your supposition that he cared about that final bad review is interesting—was he playing for good reviews, or for his own enjoyment? If the latter, then the joy has not congealed. It is as light as a feather.

    Speaking of light as a feather, beautiful concert yesterday. DUN DUN DUN DUUUNN!

  31. A fan in Watertown
    Posted April 1, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    This reminded me of one of those memories that make you cringe. I gave Heather and Josh a CD of Yanni…. Don’t know what got into me. They were new. We didn’t know them well. But still. I think they refused to accept it. But maybe there was some redemption in that event????? Somewhere??????? Or maybe not. 🙂

  32. A fan in Watertown
    Posted April 1, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    As Janet observed, on March 31, we have only this Christmas blog post (tech term???) to use to send you our thoughts. OK. So be it.

    Last night I was driving home from a movie and listening to some of Chopin’s etudes. Fast, complex music (not Ligetti, of course), by my main thought, over and over was “Oh, I’m missing that wonderful reaction I get when I listen to Jeremy play a really fast passage… ‘Wow!!!! I can hear EVERY NOTE!!!!’ “. I guess it’s not fair to compare a car radio to a concert hall… but still. I really would LOVE to hear your rendition of those same etudes.

    We saw the great review in the NYT about your performance in Carnegie Hall and a reference to your appearance with Dudamel in LA. Steps closer, I thought, to the time when Jeremy will be a BIG hot shot like Dudamel…. One of the 3 or 4 GREAT pianists of his generation. I think you already are, but I’m waiting for some publicist to figure out how to alert the rest of the world!!!

  33. Clark
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Damn your ascendant career and profound recordings!!! You should be spending more time hunched over a laptop eating cheetos! Don’t they have have wi-fi in greenrooms???

  34. Keenan Reimer-Watts
    Posted April 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    That harp…I can’t say I could ever laugh at that. Maybe it’s what he wanted?
    My parents put on so many christmas songs at christmas time it drives me nuts…I wonder if I’ll do that someday. I hope my future kids destroy all my christmas CD’s

  35. brent
    Posted April 24, 2011 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    in time of daffodils(who know
    the goal of living is to grow)
    forgetting why,remember how
    in time of lilacs who proclaim
    the aim of waking is to dream,
    remember so(forgetting seem)

    in time of roses(who amaze
    our now and here with paradise)
    forgetting if,remember yes

    in time of all sweet things beyond
    whatever mind may comprehend,
    remember seek(forgetting find)

    and in a mystery to be
    (when time from time shall set us free)
    forgetting me,remember me

    -e. e. cummings

  36. Janet
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Oh well, if you’re going to put the blog on hiatus, I suppose directly channeling the word of God is a good way to leave off.

  37. Genevieve Jones
    Posted May 6, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Toilet water — as my grandmother used to call “eau de toilette” — is less available now at your local department store fragrances counter. They seem to prefer the stronger, more expensive “eau de parfum,” which, frankly, is sometimes too much, even in the smallest doses. Somewhere, out there … ?

  38. Janiece
    Posted May 23, 2011 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy…

    It is all very simple to me:

    You are a great entertainer and musician 😀

    I am a very literal and deeply feeling kind of person… It is my brief moment to now give you a belated Christmas gift…As friends should! I am writing to you and so you are now a friend to me…If only in ‘Spirit’.

    Beyond the Christmas ribbon and self-revealing, though, humerous story: My unprofessional opinion is that you long for a life with REAL MEANING and Depth.

    It is really very, very simple although many look beyond the mark. Quit looking beyond the mark, my friend. . . A family of your own, God and Spiritual Progression….

    On your very next Christmas morning: Please try playing, “What Child is This” by Crystal Gayle, several times until the Spiritual Truth sinks deep into your bones. Then get on your knees and see what you can do to make God smile!

    Also, I am sorry for the appearance of a ‘Joyous Christmas’ so many years ago… But the real joy was killed the moment you drove away the Holy Spirit. Land’s End is a sad note to stand on for any child… No matter the age!

    A Loving Friend

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    […] I’m just allergic to the eternal electronic happy-face. At times, I’ve overcompensated with meditations on misery–which is taking the other easy way out. But, I suppose I have a rationale: first drain the […]

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