Peace on Earth

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

David Bowie and Bing Crosby, Bing Crosby's "Merrie Olde Christmas" TV special, 1977

Bing Crosby died a month before Merrie Olde Christmas aired on national television. The holiday special included one of the most unexpected and fortuitous duets of the crooner’s career: a pairing with David Bowie, then fresh off of Station to Station. Bowie and Bing, over forty years apart in age, performed a combination of The Little Drummer Boy and Peace on Earth, the latter of which didn’t really even exist prior to September 1977. Apparently, the two songs were mixed together in a last ditch effort to keep Bowie on the show. According to the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, the elfin glam star had agreed to appear with Crosby but refused to sing The Little Drummer Boy as planned, claiming he hated the song (not a huge surprise—it’s hard to imagine the man behind “They were just crass. . . with God-given ass” embracing “Come, they told me”). Writers tried to salvage what producers hoped would be a cross-generational show-stealer, overlaying that dogged “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum” with lines reminiscent of Longfellow’s melancholic I Heard the Bells… The result was spot-on.

On the final recording, Bowie sounds as clear-voiced and virtuosic as Nat King Cole; Bing is charismatic as ever. But what Bowie’s actually saying is borderline subversive. Over the grade-school beat of Drummer Boy, a song about unquestioning faithfulness, Bowie asks: “Peace on earth, can it be?” Will we ever “see the day when men of good will live in peace, live in peace again?” The duet turns redemption from a given into a question.

Another fairly dated remix that undercuts itself was among the best pieces of artwork I saw this year. Sexy Sad I (1987), Pipolitti Rist’s lanky, spinning riff on John Lennon’s Maharishi-inspired Sexy Sadie, appeared at Michael Benevento gallery this summer.

The Beatles with the Maharishi, 1968

As the story goes, Lennon wrote Sexy Sadie after The Beatles’ ill-fated trip to India (though Charles Manson notoriously claimed one of his followers inspired the song). The Indian guru the band had gone to visit proved himself less than saintly, hitting on girls and just being an all-around cad, and Lennon left more vehement than disillusioned.

The Beatles’ song is pretty lucid and lyrical, despite its passive aggression. Rist’s interpretation, however,  is rough, blurred and broken up, though it still starts with that tongue-in-cheek bounce.  Lennon’s voice sings “Sexy Sadie, what have you done” first, then a gravely, goofy voice repeats the phrase. All through the vid, a gangling man with long, nude limbs follows the camera around, threatening it falteringly, never catching it. When the song reaches, “Sexy Sadie, you’ll get yours yet, however big you think you are,” the image of the naked man has just flipped upside down, then right side up again, and is retreating from view after throwing a few missed punches.

Pipilotti Rist, "Sexy Sad I," 1987

They’re both on my Christmas playlist–Bowie’s and Bing’s The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth and an mp3 of Rist’s piece. They’re both about playing it safe, about defiance, and about a measured kind of hopefulness. For Bowie and Bing, “can it be?” becomes a way of saying “we’re smart enough to know what we don’t know, but human enough to hope” and, for Rist, the saucy aggression of Sexy Sadie becomes something more muddled, but also more sincere and less guarded than the original  Beatles song. Paired with that swinging and lunging body, the words “The world was waiting just for you” and “You made a fool of everyone,” suggest the sort of dejection that only someone who really wants to believe in enlightenment could feel. I can imagine the protagonist of Sexy Sad I, like Bowie and Bing, saying he wants to “give all the love that he can,” and “live in peace, live in peace again”–but first, he’s got to get all that undirected anger out of his system.