John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“I Was Born In Bethlehem”

Nick Lowe, the “Jesus of Cool,” creates a great Christmas song without a drop of his usual irony.

By - Dec 19th, 2014 12:19 pm
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Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe

It’s not easy to write a good Christmas song. The first hurdle for hacks and artists alike has to be trying to not think about money. Did Irving Berlin have visions of sugarplum fairies or dollar signs when he wrote White Christmas? He didn’t need to visualize the latter when his song became the biggest selling ever and held that position for most of his lifetime. The pay for songwriters, figured at an hourly rate, is low and ever declining. Everybody’s giving their music away today and giants like Spotify are as bloated as the old cigar chomping music biz types. Meet the new boss.

So who would blame a writer for casting a glance at those figures and trying to write a little something that keeps them from shopping at Family Dollar this time of year? The treasure trove of Christmas songs is as deep and wide as any in music. It’s also full of truly lovely songs. Some capture the joy of the season while others focus on more ambiguous feelings like the slight melancholy that is just out of sight this time of year. When it comes to Christmas songs, including carols, it’s easy to fill a playlist with great music that is funny, sad, serious, rocking, soothing, religious and secular. In a way, songwriters have created the greatest present ever put under our tree and they deserve our thanks. Especially Nick Lowe, the first artist I’ve written about twice in this column.

Last year he released a recording titled Quality Street,  which actually brings quality back to this seasonal genre in a big way. Now I can’t say I’ve listened to every Christmas project by modern artists — due diligence might drive me to the same bridge Jimmy Stewart was about to jump off in It’s A Wonderful Life. So of course I can’t declare this the best Christmas record anyone has heard in a long time, it’s simply the best I’ve heard.

It includes a brilliant modern lament called Christmas At The Airport, that blends the panic and boredom of holiday travel into a lighthearted tale of woe-ho-ho. The rest of the recording is equally entertaining. Lowe has been having a late career run unlike any in memory. He has surpassed everyone he ever produced as an artist of taste and intention. He is so conscious of all the rules of writing great pop songs and so adept at breaking them in fascinating ways that make every release a master class in writing, producing and performing. His voice, which by most measures of natural gifts, should be a liability, is one of the most subtly expressive you’ll hear. He is quietly audacious and never more so than on our song of the day, I Was Born In Bethlehem.

Lowe, a man of many monikers, was once called “The Jesus Of Cool.” Brilliant marketing ploy, that — the kind of thing that is designed to tweak the right people and amuse the terminally hip. So what to make of this narrative straight out of Nazareth where he assumes the identity of his name sake, the one and only son of God? He has had other songs like this, sort of. One called “Indian Queens” is a rambling epic that follows the narrator through life’s travails and brings to mind Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue.” But never before has he wandered this far from his usual turf. You would expect a tongue-in-cheek approach from the guy who wrote “Marie Provost,” about a “winner who became a doggie’s dinner.” But he hasn’t been that glib dispenser of pop irony in some time.

Check the words and see if you don’t agree… this song is very straightforward and respectful:

I was born in Bethlehem
2,000 years have passed since then
And I’ve done what I can
To be there when a man can’t find a friend
On the streets of Bethlehem.

As the story always said
We were trying to find a bed
It was cold, I was late
And we stood outside the locked gate of the inn
Until the kindness of strangers let us in
To a stable ’round the back
Little more than a shack
Where my sweet mother, meek and mild
And herself only a child
Gave her best, then took her rest
Do do do do do do do…

At the door then came a knock
Shepherds who had quit their flock
With their eyes round with fear
Daddy jumped up and cried,
“Get out of here!”
But Mother stilled him and bid them draw near
I was there but couldn’t see
The unfolding mystery
Kings with their presents
Of gold, myrrh and frankincense
Who set them
Before the Lamb
‘Neath the star of Bethlehem.

I was born in Bethlehem
It’s been 2,000 years since then
But I’ve done what I can
To be there when a man can’t find a friend
I was born in Bethlehem.

© 2013 Nick Lowe

It’s hard to imagine either $ or £ signs floating before Mr. Lowe’s heavily hooded orbs as he wrote this. In fact it’s hard to imagine what goes through the head of anyone who comes up with such an unusual and moving tale. I’m not religious and I’m not anti-religious. I must be spiritual, though, because music elevates me to higher place. And from there I can almost see the wings of the Archangel Nick floating above me. I hope your holidays, wherever and whatever they are, are happy and 2015 is filled with beautiful music.

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “I Was Born In Bethlehem””

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m happy to add an enthusiastic ‘Amen’ to John’s insights into Nick’s ‘I Was Born In Bethlehem’

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