Saturday, December 17, 2011

His Christmas chestnuts can be found on CDs

Bob Mercer, a longtime figure on the Vancouver publishing scene, is known for his spectacular Christmas compilation CDs. Rafel Gerszak photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 14, 2011

’Tis the season for Christmas tunes, which have only been in rotation for four weeks now (with at least two more weeks to go).

Three of Billboard’s top 10 albums in Canada this week are holiday themed with Jackie Evancho’s Heavenly Christmas and Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe trailing million-selling Christmas by Michael BublĂ©. The Burnaby-born crooner’s album also tops the jazz, seasonal and digital charts. This season, he stands atop the music world like Santa at the North Pole.

For some, the high rotation of canned carols and merry Muzak is enough to bring on madness. Santa Baby being sung in a Betty Boop voice by Madonna or Britney Spears? Bah, humbug.

For others, Christmas songs offer a nostalgic journey through happy memories of frolic, family, and friendship.

Bob Mercer is one of those who digs Christmas tunes. A longtime figure on the Vancouver magazine scene, he is known for producing for his friends an annual compilation of rarities and oddities. He doesn’t roast chestnuts on an open fire, he burns them onto a CD.

At this time of year, he always has CDs on hand.

“I walk around with a pocketful of them in case I bump into people,” he said, “part of my swashbuckling persona.”
Bob Mercer by Jonathan Cruz 

He considers the annual compilation to be his Christmas baking.

Mr. Mercer teaches publishing at Simon Fraser University after a long career in newspapers and magazines. He has been editor of Vancouver and the Georgia Straight, as well as other publications. When not in the lecture hall, he fronts The Masses, a blues-based rock ’n’ roll band. As a lead singer and harmonica player, Mr. Mercer is heavily influenced by Keith Relf of the Yardbirds.

For years, he has haunted yard sales and thrift shops in search of discarded vinyl gems. Christmas records are both a popular seasonal purchase and a popular seasonal donation. He’d drop $1 on a K-tel collection, or a Time-Life box set. One of his favourite finds was a copy of Christmas Album by Boney M., the West German-based group featuring singers from the Caribbean. They had a monster hit in Britain with a cover of Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child.

Mr. Mercer’s interest in seasonal music was rekindled by the release of Do They Know It’s Christmas? in 1984. The song, co-written by Bob Geldof, who had also worked at the Straight in the 1970s, was released as a charity single to raise money to relieve a famine in Ethiopia. He found in it a spirit to answer “the greedy ’80s of Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney and all those other Scrooges.”

He has found Christmas songs in just about every music genre imaginable, though the contributions from death metal bands is limited. The Vancouver punk scene’s pop chapter produced one killer yuletide song in the Payola$ Christmas is Coming.

“Been down to the U.I., lined up in the queues, been down to the welfare, with holes in my shoes,” Paul Hyde sings. “The kitchen’s still leaking, with floods on the floor, the landlord won’t fix it, he only wants more.”

For years, Mr. Mercer made a master tape by dubbing from vinyl to a master cassette tape from which he then made tapes to hand out. He later moved to CDs and now can find even the most obscure tracks online.

In his selections, he seeks a balance between the religious and those songs more attuned to the holiday’s pagan origins.

“It if was all sacred, it would be unbearable,” he said. “And if it was all profane that would be tiresome, too.”

When he was a boy, his family listened to records like Robert Shaw Chorale’s Christmas Hymns and Carols on the family record player. His father was a prominent United Church minister on the Prairies. Mr. Mercer was dragooned into a boy’s choir in Winnipeg. At church on the Sunday before Christmas, he’d hear the choir singing selections from Handel’s Messiah. “They’d tear the roof off the place,” he said.

This year, his holiday playlist includes a rare cut called, How Will You Spend Christmas? by Rev. A.W. Nix.

“You can’t hardly find a job no place,” the reverend says in a rollicking sermon recorded live with sing-song preaching and a call and response from the congregation. “Your wife is mad, your chillins crying, how will you spend your Christmas?” Not surprisingly, the reverend calls for a sobering up on Christmas Day, the better to praise God.

(Rev. Nix was a fire-breathing preacher and singer who cut 50 sermons from the 1920s until about 1931. His popular records often included a holiday theme, such as Death May Be Your Christmas Present. Talk about your Grinches.)

On Tuesday night, Mr. Mercer was to perform in Vancouver with his band. They planned on ending their set with Run, Rudolph, Run, a hit for Chuck Berry.

He hoped the rocking number might make someone’s Christmas.

“Everyone has a Frank Capra moment every Christmas,” he said, “even if it’s just 15 minutes at midnight on Christmas Eve when it’s quiet and you think, ‘This is Christmas for me.’ ”

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