Okay. It’s Christmas. I have a Christmas gift for all of you. I have a story to tell you that I didn’t tell you before because… I don’t know. I wasn’t ready to tell it, I guess. But now, given everything that I’ve told you so far, and given what’s about to happen, I figure now’s a good time to fill you in on some stuff you sort of already know a little of but some you don’t.
I haven’t told you the whole story of how the song “Candlelight” was written.
Crank back the clock first of all to… 1984? Whatever year that was. Maybe the year doesn’t matter as much as the fact it was the last time I went to midnight mass with my family in New Jersey. I was in high school. Courtney was in middle school.
We were not a religious family. That was probably partly due to the fact that all my grandparents had been different denominations and by then only my mother’s parents were surviving. The result was we defaulted to being “Christmas and Easter” Catholics. We didn’t go to mass except on certain occasions, like the time my grandfather had been hit by a car and lived and made us all go to church to thank heaven for sparing him. This was the grandfather who owned the shoe store in town.
My grandfather was all right. He was a gruff, distant man who didn’t speak to us as children and expected children not to speak to him. You would think a gruff, distant man wouldn’t be a very good salesman, and he wasn’t, which was why him acquiring Digger as a son-in-law was a godsend. Digger could pretty much talk anyone into buying anything if he set his mind to it. More than once I saw a family go into the store with the intention of picking up one specific thing and walking out with every child carrying two boxes. Digger kept that place in business, even while most of main-street retail was moving to the shopping malls.
But anyway, my grandfather. He wasn’t actively negative toward me and in my world that counted as a plus. His idea of giving us kids gifts was to put a twenty dollar bill into each of our Christmas stockings. That suited me just fine. In the 1980s that bought two LPs or maybe three cassettes, if they were on sale at Sears or Sam Goody. So I suppose I didn’t resent too terribly going to a mass one time to say thanks for not taking him away just then, and it was probably those monetary gifts that got me thinking. More on that in a minute.
Midnight mass on the other hand I was not so keen on. By the time this story rolls around I was about as close to being on the verge of just flat out running away from home as you can get without actually doing it. Remo and the band had left for Los Angeles long since. It wasn’t unusual for me to go to a party or down the Shore as part of a group of kids and end up spending the night–or the weekend–on a couch somewhere. Those kids did a lot more drugs than I did and had a lot more sex than I did–remember I was deeply, deeply closeted at the time. I guess that made me the “rock and roll” part of the equation. Have guitar will travel. If I’d had a car I would have been playing gigs anywhere I could get them, but I didn’t, and I was too young to play in bars on my own anyway. Not having wheels pretty much meant I couldn’t get any kind of job except what I could walk to.
Which meant that I was typically hard up for money. My family didn’t go nuts giving gifts. We kids didn’t give them to each other and we weren’t expected to give them to our older relatives. Which was why I thought maybe getting something for Digger or for Claire might actually have a bit of an impact, you know? Christmas is a time for two things: sentimentality and hope. Right? I knew Digger needed a new watch because he had lost his in a poker game and he was too proud or stubborn or bitter about it go buy another one, and my mother…
God. My mother. I had overheard her on the phone talking to a friend when she thought no one was listening, going on about how she used to have a bracelet with a dove on it. The words I remember, “It was really special to me, you know?”
Maybe I shouldn’t tell you all this. It’s kind of painful to look back at how naive and uninformed and really kind of dumb I was at age 16-17. Whatever. Judge me if you want.
Anyway. I had the idea that it would mean something to her if I replaced it.
And there was one other person I was thinking I’d impress with a gift. A guy I liked. I know. I was so deep in the closet that I couldn’t tell if the dark was just that or if it was my head up my ass. His name was Ralph but he insisted everyone call him Raffy (or was that Rafi?) and he was the big star of the school drama club. They’d staged a musical that marking period–Godspell–and somehow I’d gotten talked into being in the pit band because they needed a guitar. This had meant sitting at the foot of the stage day after day looking up at him while he sang and danced his way right into my closeted little crush-prone heart.
It’s honestly hard to think about now. Looking back with hindsight I’m sure he was gay. But he was also super-popular, always had a girl waiting for him after rehearsal, always had a date for homecoming, prom, etc. (Me, I didn’t even go to homecoming or prom.) I have no idea whether he had any more consciousness than I did at the time about being gay. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.
But I had hatched this idea that I was going to give him something. As a token of my esteem? I don’t know. When you have a crush you are motivated to do things that maybe don’t make logical sense. What did I think was going to happen? Was I going to find out he secretly felt the same about me? I don’t think I even thought that far ahead.
No, all my thinking went into planning how I was going to get the money to buy him the gift I wanted, and the ones for my parents, too. I was very invested in this idea–I guess from seeing all the TV commercials all those years that pushed concept–that giving a meaningful gift could somehow change things, could somehow change a relationship, maybe even magically transform it into what it was always supposed to be. Right? Give her the perfect diamond and rekindle your passion, et cetera. You know the ads I mean. I hate the thought that I was that gullible but maybe it’s not a bad thing that maybe deep down it meant I was a romantic. And maybe an optimist.
So what I ended up doing was borrowing the money from my grandfather, and then being pretty well terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to pay him back. I’d done all the odd jobs possible. But by December there was no more leaf-raking to do for neighbors, and there wasn’t yet snow to shovel, and I had lasted exactly one day at the fast food fish and chips place when the other clueless teenager working with me that day got sent to the emergency room with a second-degree burn.
I can’t even remember her name now. Shelley, maybe? She was pretty in a pretty girl sort of way.
As it got closer to Christmas I finally hit upon a scheme that I thought was brilliant, though. The Saturday before Christmas I took my guitar and snuck out of the house and caught the bus to a better neighborhood than ours, and I walked around looking for houses that looked like they were having holiday parties or at least dinner. And I played Christmas carols on their doorsteps–and sometimes their living rooms if they were really into it–and asked for a donation at the end. Only once did someone ask what the donation was for, as if I were caroling for a charity other than myself, and I told him flat out I was doing it to get the money to pay back a loan to my grandfather…. I think I probably got more from that guy for telling the truth than I would have if I’d made up a story about doing it for orphans or muscular dystrophy or something.
Talk about a pretty easy gig. I played an average of three songs at each house, meaning at some I played one song and they handed me five bucks and shut the door, while at a few I went in and did four or five. But carols are pretty quick, people sing along with them, ultimately not a difficult gig. By the end of the night I had gotten half of what I needed.
That meant I needed to do it again to make back the rest. My plan, of course, was to do it on Christmas Eve, when there would be the most parties and where if I hit a couple of really big ones I could pass the hat and get a bunch of people in one place. Right?
It would have been perfect. Everything would have worked out. I could have paid back my grandfather on Christmas morning, and Digger and Claire would open their gifts, and damn what a good son I was turning out to be now that I was growing up, eh?
Fuck. Give me a second. This is hard.
I’m not good at talking about this stuff. Which is why I don’t do it often. Maybe the only reason I can do it now is because I know it’s in the past. I didn’t stay in New Jersey. I didn’t stay in the closet. I moved on from trying to get the approval of people whose approval was meaningless. Eventually.
But back then I was in the thick of it. That was my reality. It was Christmas eve. I was getting ready to go out. I think I made it as far as the door, complete with a red furry santa hat on my head and guitar case in hand, before I got stopped. You know how it sounds when your mother says, “Where do you think you’re going?” And you know the answer is “nowhere.” Absolutely nowhere.
I hadn’t taken into account that my mother had decided that Christmas eve she was hosting a party, and not just a party, a kind of neighborhood open house. Apparently regular customers of the store would be there, and all the prominent businesspeople from downtown, and all our neighbors. My mother had this thing about showing off our family. Despite the fact she attacked how I looked, dressed, talked and acted every minute of the day when we were in private, when we were in public she was very much all about how perfect we looked. My older sisters were in college then and I think a lot of this was about showing the two of them off. For Digger and my grandfather it was about appearances for their business contacts and customers, too.
Honestly. No one would have missed me. The argument went about like this:
“Mom, I’ve got a gig.” It wasn’t even really a lie, was it? “I’m playing carols at a Christmas party.”
She was already fully dressed in her party best, her face completely made up and a giant gold bow in her hair. I think she had gold fingernail polish on, too. She crossed her arms. “If you want to play carols at a party, you’ll play for our party, young man.”
Trapped. Remember this was the mother who wouldn’t let me play the guitar in the house. I blinked in disbelief. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I most certainly am not. You’ll stand by the tree.” She pointed as if she had it all planned out. “Your sisters know ‘God Rest Ye Merrye Gentlemen.’ Do it last so they can join you.”
Do I have to explain why that completely floored me? Up until then my mother had demonstrated zero interest in music other than forcing us to take piano lessons as children. Remember that back then I had no idea she had been an aspiring singer. That was all well buried in her and Digger’s past. Now all of a sudden she was stage-managing me. What else could I do but acquiesce?
Maybe I had the idea I’d sing a couple of songs and then sneak out and do the rest of the neighborhood. But of course at first it was too early, there weren’t enough people there, and it became clear to me that she was waiting until the party peaked to have me play. My mother had an impeccable sense for drama.
In the end I didn’t stand by the tree. I stood in front of the fireplace, which meant my ass was burning hot the whole time, while the flames cracked and popped behind me. Somewhere there’s probably a photograph of this. I’m in a suit that’s a little too small for me, no tie, with a Santa hat on my head and a Yamaha classical guitar with a folk strap–held on with a suction cup hook since the classical has no pin end.
The gig went fine. My sisters somehow managed to decline joining in, so my mother did it herself. Now that I think about it, my mother had a very beautiful singing voice.
My favorite Christmas carol, for the record, is “Adeste Fideles.”
The next thing I knew, it was 11:15pm and we were all bundling up to go over to midnight mass and any hope I had of sneaking away was gone. In fact, one of the lay people from the church who was at the party made the suggestion to Digger that I should play and sing a song during the service that night. Oh jeez. Nothing like getting added to a bill at the last minute, right? So off we went to the church, me with the guitar case stuck between my legs, crammed in the back seat of the car with Janine and Lilibeth while my mother drove and Digger held Courtney on his lap. It’s a Christmas miracle we didn’t have a wreck. (Digger was already drunk which was why he wasn’t driving.)
The best part was that because I had been added to the list of performers, I didn’t have to sit with my family out in the pews. I was tucked in a ready room behind the altar with a couple of other people, under the choir loft. There was a pitcher of hot coffee and a pitcher of ice water on a side table. I hadn’t realized it but the choir that night was all teenagers from the C.Y.O. Including my crush. I didn’t know he was up there at the time. They were already upstairs by the time we got there.
The church we went to was not exactly a cathedral. It wasn’t quite that big or important. But it was pretty big, and relatively fancy as churches in the suburbs go, with high vaulted ceilings, stained glass, and alcoves for saints with prayer candles. When mass wasn’t going on, it was okay to go in, put some money in the metal box on the candle rack and light a candle and pray to that saint for whatever it was you needed guidance about. Being casual Catholics like we were, I didn’t know which saints were for which problems, but it meant that lots of candles in little red and white glass cups were flickering all the time. There was the scent of wax in the air and that echo whenever someone in the congregation would cough in a quiet moment.
And there I was in the back, nervous as hell, partly to be playing in front of my family who I still apparently had a lot of emotion invested in, and partly because I was obsessing over how all my plans were unraveling. The jeweler in town I’d gotten the gifts from, I felt pretty sure since he was a crony of Digger’s that if I had to I could convince him to take back what I’d bought and give me a refund. But the question was which? I had the money for either the dove bracelet, which had a diamond in it, or for both the watch and the thing I had gotten for Raffy.. I had to decide which to give so I knew what to hold back to return. I was in a complete bind. I couldn’t imagine giving Digger something and not something to Claire: that would be really obviously a dis. It’d be better to give neither than that.
Are we hard-wired to seek our parents’ approval? Is it just something that happens biologically? Why is it so hard to let go of?
Anyway. I was sitting back there and I had reached such a state of anxiety that I zoned out. I’d hit a limit, I guess. I was staring into space, peeking out at the congregation from this ready room through a louver, and…
And the song lyrics started to hit me. I got thinking about how incense and intense are almost the same word, but it led to the whole concept, built on how a big church sounds, the way the sounds echo, sort of the same way the light flickers… It’s hard to explain. It kind of came to me all at once. And the stupid thing was I didn’t have a notebook or composition book in my guitar case.
So here’s my confession. There were copies of the missal–the prayer and song book used by the congregation–sitting back there. I looked for a page that had a lot of blank space on it. I scribbled out a bunch of lyrics on the onionskin page and then tore it out and hid it in the guitar case mere seconds before an altar boy came to tell me it was my turn to perform.
I didn’t sing. I played two finger-style arrangements of carols that I had made myself when I’d come up with the whole caroling plan in the first place, and I even remembered to bow before I left the altar.
That still sounds weird to say altar instead of stage. But that’s what it is, isn’t it? I suppose strictly speaking the altar isn’t the part you stand on, it’s the part you stand in front of, but everyone just says “the altar.”
And then I went back into the ready room. I think people were clapping. I don’t actually remember. I’m pretty sure they didn’t just sit there in stunned silence, but I don’t remember. I do remember going back there and putting the guitar into the case and then looking up and seeing Raffy, who had hopped down from the choir loft to grab a drink of water.
I find it likely I had a deer in the headlights look when I saw him. I was kneeling down in front of the guitar case and I hadn’t been expecting to see him so I was caught off guard. I also had zero ability to handle my performance high in those days. So I think I probably just stared up at him, open-mouthed and starry-eyed.
Remember when I said I had a thing for singers? It goes way back. Before Ziggy. Before Roger, even.
Raffy was smooth, though. “Hey, didn’t expect to see you here. Was that you playing just now?”
“Yeah.” I couldn’t even stand up because my knees had gone weak. He was in a deep red-colored blazer with a wisp of a gold scarf around his neck. His hair was chic-wavy, upswept, with blond highlights.
“You’re really good.”
I was utterly unprepared to receive actual direct attention from my crush, much less compliments. “Um. Thanks.”
“Come on upstairs. We’ve still got like three more songs to sing, I think?” He glanced at the watch on his wrist. “This mass is only half over.”
“Sure.” I was being invited up into the choir loft by my own personal angel. I managed to force my legs to work and climbed up there with him.
There were about twenty kids up there, most of whom I didn’t know because they went to the Catholic high school associated with the church instead of the public school where me and Raffy went. Raffy whispered my name to some of the girls and mimed playing the guitar and one of them immediately sat down closer to me. She was otherwise quite shy and she smelled nice, like a scented candle, so I didn’t mind.
For the sake of fitting in I even sang the last couple of carols with them. Silent Night. We Three Kings. Adeste Fideles. I shared a book with Raffy since supposedly we were both singing the same part–tenor–but who reads the music on Christmas carols? No one does. You either know the tune or you don’t. And you know the tune. That’s the whole point of a carol.
And then mass was over and it was time to go. I hung back hoping. For what? I don’t know. For one more sliver of Raffy’s attention? Or to say something brilliant to him? Yes, this was the perfect opportunity to say hey, why don’t you come over to my house tomorrow afternoon after all the hoopla about stockings has died down? Except I was still in a dither about whether I was going to give him the gift or not.
I haven’t told you what it was yet, I know. You have to promise you’re not going to laugh. My ego has taken enough of a beating just telling you all this.
It was a garnet stick pin that looked like a little star or a sun. I think I had an elaborate rationale for how that related to his part in the musical? Maybe there was a song…? I don’t even remember. Maybe it was just that he was a star. Maybe it really was that stupid.
I can’t, I thought. I can’t do it. I can’t afford it and him looking at me and saying a couple of kind words practically made me die anyway and so what the hell was I thinking?
Plus, what was this sudden maybe kind of thawing of relations between me and my mother? Because I had done what she asked and played at her party and she liked it? She even told me, in the car on the way home from the church that she was proud of me.
Hang on a sec. I need to get myself together before I can go on.
I wasn’t intending this to be quite so painful. This is supposed to be a Christmas gift, right? I hope it’s more painful for me than it is for you. Maybe the theme of the story is I suck at gifts.
Because here’s what happened in the morning. I decided I was going to return the pin and the watch, but I was going to give my mother the dove bracelet. I waited until we’d gone through all the stockings, and we’d opened everything under the tree. Digger had given her a new coffee maker. As I recall, Digger was more the coffee drinker than she was, but maybe I’m misremembering because I’m not feeling all that charitable toward him. Whatever. She smiled politely and said thank you to him and then set the Mr. Coffee down on the floor next to her armchair.
And I stood up and said, “Um, by the way, I got you something, too.”
“Oh, did you?” She looked at me curiously, a kind of up-and-down look.
I was holding the box behind my back. It was small, you know, one of those cardboard jewelry boxes where the lid fits over the bottom, tied with a bow. I whipped it out and handed it to her.
Her painted eyebrows rose in surprise, and she picked delightedly at the ribbon until it came open. She lifted the lid. And stared at what was inside.
I felt the need to stammer an explanation at that point. “I-it-s a dove–”
“I see that,” she said, sharp and short like a window slamming shut. But she cleared her throat and went on in a mincing voice. “What gave you the idea that I might like a bracelet?”
I hadn’t anticipated this. I should have. I should have cooked up a plausible story. Or plausible deniability, at the very least, that standard of suburban survival. But I was caught unprepared. I did the only reasonable thing to do, which was try shift the blame to Digger. “Digger said you used to have a bracelet that you really liked–”
“Did he.” She gave him a poisonous glance. Digger gave a shake of his head.
And I’m too honest. “I heard you telling a friend you wanted one with a dove on it.” I even made a last ditch attempt to wave a white flag of surrender: “A peace dove,” I begged.
She was livid. “You eavesdropped on my private conversations? You little sneak. You no good sneak.”
I will spare you the rest of the tirade and the pain of the rest of the afternoon which was pretty much the definition of living hell. My mother didn’t have to raise a hand to me: her violence was all verbal. What I will tell you was what I didn’t know at the time, which was that there was a hell of a lot more going on with that bracelet than I could have guessed. Given what I know now about her affair with Remo, I think it had to have been a gift from him. No wonder she was so touchy about it.
Honestly, thinking back on it, I kinda can’t blame her. I know how twisted and painful life can be when you’re keeping secrets and you’re trapped in a life you feel isn’t the one you should be living.
But this song–I mean, this story–has a happy ending. I returned the other stuff, paid back my grandfather, and, now that I think about it, was that gig at the church the time when I got noticed by the RIMCon scholarship people? I bet it was. And that’s what led directly to my escape from New Jersey.
Fast forward a couple of years to Boston, to me and Ziggy hunched over a scrap of paper I’d carried with me all those years, working out a song. We’d been arguing, pretty intensely, while working out new songs. One of those arguments that had been so intense that Bart and Christian stayed out of it. And the upshot of the argument had led to us deciding we really needed a ballad, but a kind of mid-tempo power ballad, and me expressing my disdain and absolute nausea over power ballad formulas and how a love song was going to make me puke at that point. And Ziggy suddenly agreeing with me, like, bonding with me about that, and saying we needed a song that was emotional and deep and moving and flat out beautiful but that wasn’t a quote-love-song-unquote.
And I pulled the lyrics to “Candlelight” out and played them what I had worked out, and Ziggy took the lyrics I had and polished them up a little and added the two lines in the bridge and made the chorus work. And if I wasn’t in love with him already before that, well…
Yeah. It’s hard to remember that was before we had slept together. It’s actually hard for me to remember sometimes what songs we wrote when. I know the song is on the Prone to Relapse album, so it was before we went on the road on that tour where it happened. Where Ziggy and I happened.
That song. That’s the song that was the first big hit, and it was the song that crossed over into soft rock and adult contemporary, and it was the song that had the Christmassy video, and it was the highlight of the 1989 tour–the number where Ziggy had the sunbeams come out of his ass, remember?–and it was the limited-edition collector’s single that Carynne sold and kept us in the black when money was tight, and it was the song that was so popular, and still is, that BMI and ASCAP performance royalties are still coming in years later.
So if there’s a moral or a lesson of this story it’s this: you never know when you’re going to experience a moment of grace. A song like that is a gift. Whether you believe in god or luck or the universe having meaning, to create a piece of art that beautiful, to have that moment of my creative spirit ignite and touch as many people as I’ve touched? It’s a blessing. No matter how you count it, it’s a blessing.
Merry Christmas, everyone. And Happy Chanukah and joyous Yule and Happy New Year. The winter is long but sometimes all it takes is one candle in the darkness to light the way.
P.S. My crappy, tiny handwriting’s pretty hard to read but on the missal page it says:
sound of stone
a thousand candles all around
Hear the sound of stone
Echo of being alone
Cathedral in downtown
The flames flicker down
Knees bend palms touch
I pray it won’t hurt so much
I burn for an angel to come down
A thousand candles all around
And here’s the actual lyrics after Zig and I worked on them:
I hear the sound of stone
the echo of being alone
incense is all around
the flame flickering down
Hear the hiss and the scratch
Of a flame start to catch
My knee bends, my palms touch
I pray it won’t hurt so much
Smoke rises to arch of stone
How can I go on alone
I burn for an angel to come down
A thousand prayers shine all around
Candlelight, shines all around
Candlelight, flickering down
My knee bends, my palms touch
I pray it won’t hurt so much
I burn for an angel to come down
A thousand candles all around
Candlelight, shines all around
Candlelight, flickering down
AUDIO VERSION (ctan reading):
VIDEO VERSION (ctan reading):