The Eagles, 1978
I don’t know what it’s like to date models. I don’t know what it’s like to live in California in the 1970s and play in a rock band. In other words, I don’t know what a pain it is to be Don Henley. But now I get it. I GET IT because of the Eagles’ 1978 version of “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Henley’s husking, not-gonna-I-swear-I-won’t-in-public-break-down voice carries this as a ballad for every sad middle-aged executive everywhere. Whether you’re having sex with your secretary on the dashboard of your Volvo, querying literary agents with your Judas memoir instead of hitting up work parties, or wishing you had “her” back, when Henley sings, “I have no friends to wish me greeting once again,” you know exactly who is to blame: your never-can-get-enough-can-you ass. It’s Irish self-loathing at its finest. Drop another whiskey shot in my egg nog, Donny, and hold tight till March. Play me out, Joe.
James Brown, 1966
You get the sense James Brown had never even heard this song two seconds before someone handed him the sheet music. Like, they just started the backing track, and he screamed out the first lyric, “Bells will be ringing!” And the baffled sound engineer was thinking about saying, “Why don’t we hit an actual note, James,” but then was just like, “Fuck it, it’s gold.” In all seriousness, Brown’s interpretation of Charles Brown’s 1960 hit is inimitable. Rather than the inwardly brooding Henley, Brown knows exactly what’s up here: his girl done him wrong and she needs to see the light and make it back by Christmas Eve (or New Year’s Eve night). He changes the lyrics to impress upon listeners the fundamental dichotomy: this isn’t Christmas. The math doesn’t add up. James Brown is alone on the holidays. He needs his loved ones. He needs joy. He needs to be happy-happy once again. And you got to bring it to him, it’s the least you can do for the hardest working man in show business, and to show you how serious he is about this he spends the last, oh, 49 seconds of the track screaming, “NO MORE SORROW! NO MORE PAIN!” in between horn blasts, (likely) stage prostrations, and hi-fiving from the engineers in the booth.
Charles Brown, 1960
The original version was performed by the blues pianist Charles Brown, who sings in a lush baritone over a bright piano eighth-note pattern that reminds you of rain-splotched windows in Home Alone II. There is a levity, a constancy in this version. Brown seems to be just getting perhaps the half-finished text message from a lover. Like, a “Might not be able to…” and then end of transmission. And Brown is working through the initial stages of potential loss. He’s not sure his baby won’t make it home for Christmas—and he doesn’t want to scare her. So his voice is soft, reassuring; “Christmas and New Year’s will find you home.” Even the chording on the chorus seems a bit more clear and balanced. It’s not a blues song, not yet at least. His baby is gone. He doesn’t have any friends. But his family is sending “salutations.” It’s like he knows he needs to coax his baby, who is perhaps in her own funk. And Chuck sings this all with the deference of a good-hearted doorman or a shift worker, pleading against the milieu of holiday grief. His voice never cracks, even the guitar solo is lazily strummed, landing on a melancholy note of surrender. This is not the voice of a man who ever thinks he deserves better than a phone call at a bus-stop payphone, but this year at least he’s hoping, like the rest of us, I suppose, on Christmas Eve to be close to someone who loves us—or, at least, someone at the bar who knows our real name.
If you like any of the other versions, like that Bon Jovi version, it probably means you’re listening to the wrong Christmas song.