Pa-rumpah-pum-pummm (updated Wednesday)
I first heard The Little Drummer Boy on Christmas Eve of 1958. I was 9, riding along as my dad drove from our suburban St. Louis home to pick up his mother in the old city neighborhood.
I was hypnotized. It was so different from the pop Christmas standards of the ’30s and ’40s and from the holy card hymns we learned in Catholic school. Drummer Boy sounded so ancient, yet was in fact new.
The announcer was right. The craze for pop choirs, such as Harry Simeone’s, died off a few years later, but Little Drummer Boy lived on in countless covers (including, incredibly, a 1977 duet by David Bowie and Bing Crosby) and even animated features that became Christmas TV perennials.
As the years went by, the charm wore off for me. Dave Letterman, decades ago, did a bit about warning signs that ought to be posted but weren’t. One, for rock concerts, was: Danger! 20-minute Drum Solo Ahead! Each December since, I’ve thought of that fake warning every time I’ve heard the season’s opening pummm. It’s so monotonous and so long. And so treacly in its sentiments.
If the baby Jesus were so advanced in his thinking as the song suggests, he would have popped his sweet head up from the manger and cried: “Enough already with the drumming! Go roast some chestnuts on an open fire or something?”
The last time I heard The Little Drummer Boy was Monday night. I was driving from Whitefish Bay to the airport to pick up my 28-year-old son, who lives in New York.
I had the radio tuned to WMSE. A bass line started groaning out a pattern, over and over. A high beeping fell in against the bass at regular intervals. Maybe every fifth beep had a little grace-note break in it. Everything sounded antique electronic — Farfisa-like. I thought it might be early Philip Glass.
A snare beat layered on, and then more and more stuff, until the opening bass and early beeping began to blend in to an increasingly dense mix. This went on for maybe 10 minutes.
Then I heard it sneak in: Pummm, pa-rumpah. I’d been had! It was Little Drummer Boy! I laughed at the music’s punchline; about then my phone rang. My son’s flight had been delayed; I had at least 90 minutes to kill.
No sense turning around and going home. I pulled into Denny’s, listened for a few more minutes, until I felt sure that I’d heard all this piece had to offer. It was sounding more and more like, well, Little Drummer Boy. I turned it off, went inside and indulged in Denny’s hot fudge brownie ala mode. Chatted with the waitress, paid, went back to the car, cranked the ignition and THE SONG WAS STILL GOING ON!
I missed the parking structure ramp and had to spin around the airport for a second try, and THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY PLAYED ON! The drum pattern had morphed into the one from Ravel’s “Bolero.” Low, heavy, possibly synthesized male voices groaned out the melody; they sounded like the moaning chorus of the Wicked Witch’s guards in The Wizard of Oz.
I drove up the ramp to the third (Skywalk level) of the parking structure and pulled into a stall and THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY WAS STILL PLAYING! What the hell!?
The thing was taking on a Twilight Zone vibe. I was starting to think the song was after me. It showed no sign of ending, no cadences, no fading out. If I were to turn it off, would that be defeat or triumph? Would I be less a man for failing to see it through to the end, or if I did attempt to outlast it, would they find me there in the morning senselessly mumbling parumpapumpum over and over?
I turned off the radio and the car and went in to meet my son. On the way home, I left the radio off.
I have since Googled and Googled for the song. Little Drummer Boy/eletronica. Little Drummer Boy/Minimalism. Little Drummer Boy/WMSE. Little Drummer Boy/trance. Nothing. Not even close. (Turns out, I should have searched Little Drummer Boy/space-disco. See update, below.)
Was it only a dream? The ravings of a music-saturated, Christmas-cheered brain a half-century after first contact? I could call my friends at WMSE about it, but I wouldn’t put it past them to say, “No, man, we didn’t play anything like that, but you can do the job when you’re in town.”
[This just in Wednesday morning, courtesy of WMSE’s Ryan Schleicher. The link explains everything. Except, perhaps, the why of it.]
So maybe I’ll just let it lie, just accept the Infernal Drummer Boy as my own little Christmas mystery, shared with no one except my very closest ThirdCoast friends. A Merry Christmas to all of you who read all the way to the end.