Tom Waits’ voice has been likened by music critic Daniel Durcholz as sounding like ‘it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car’. Hardly a description that lends itself to the smooth crooning we expect from our Christmas hits, be they Bublé or some more classic Dean Martin or The Drifters. But in 1978, the man produced one of the most gut wrenching songs that’s still eligible for your Christmas playlist.
Featured on his sixth studio album Blue Valentine, ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’ is a reading of a fictional letter from a prostitute to a man in prison, named Charlie. The unnamed woman tells the story of how the year has played out, as we all do in our Christmas cards, though hers is a different sort of tale. She confesses to being pregnant, in a loving relationship with a good man, and talks about where she’s living and how she gets by. There are sweet, sad quips that are tiny flashing beacons of Waits’ songwriting wit, that explain why this song has come to be such a beloved track for fans despite coming off a comparatively obscure album; ‘I wish I had all the money that we used to spend on dope. I’d buy me a used car lot, and I wouldn’t sell any of ’em – I’d just drive a different car every day dependin’ on how I feel’.
The song has no rhyme scheme, and little rhytmn in the words though there’s a strong melancholy jazz melody in the single underlying piano. It’s off kilter and a little uncomfortable. It’s a sad song. Seasonally sad, the sort where you can imagine lonely people spending the season alone in a seedy, smoky bar listening to Waits tinkle the song out on a old piano.
During live shows in the late 1970s, Waits took to blending the song itself with a throaty rendition of carol ‘Silent Night’ – that version’s here, and it’s fairly stunning. I won’t spoil the ending of the song for anyone who has never heard it before, but – turn everything off, rid yourself of all distractions for five minutes, pop in some headphones and listen well to the most melancholy Christmas song you’ll hear this festive season.